Irony of American Inventions

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Read the Solnit essay and Blood, ink and pain essay first. (The essay's quoting usage should be very similar to that of these, also the structure can be similar to these too)

The essay should give the reader a sense of the problem or question that you believe is essential to understanding the collection of texts(In this case it's Eula Biss' works) you've been working with. Your essay should also provide a sense of what you have learned from Eula Biss. You should seize the reader’s attention and set up a problem or question that you’re interested in exploring over the course of the essay. Your middle should take the readers through your exploration, guiding us through the twists and turns of your thinking, including one or more moments of “yes, but…” reckoning and drawing connections between the texts. Your ending should be a culminating point where you reach a new understanding. You do not merely want to restate the journey you took; instead, show us the result of that journey, your deeper understanding of the problem, your realization of what’s at stake and why we should care. How has Eula Biss changed or added to your perspective?

Using A LOT OF quoting and analysis to (1) build a claim about the writer's essential argument, (2) provide contexts for understanding the author and her or his work

And an ending that makes a claim about the author's vision & values. What has this writer made you think more about?

The essay must be written for someone who is not familiar with your writer.

A successful performance will provide a good sense of your chosen author’s project, plus context to help the reader understand how the author’s project connects to the “real world” outside the author’s work, and your own claim (one that others reading the same book might disagree with) about the significance of the author’s essays—why the author’s work matters.

Seek outside sources other than Biss' works that will help you provide context for your author's work. This source might be a blog post by a different writer about a similar topic; a book review of the book you are reading; a critical or theoretical article about a subject your author cares about; a source that provides historical context; or any piece of evidence that helps you think about what your author teaches us about the wider world. will help you place your chosen author in context and deepen your understanding of the author's work.

IMPORTANT: Should include at least 4 texts by Eula Biss, and at least 3 outside texts that help you establish a context. USE MLA FORMATTING. There are already 3 work by biss in the attached files. Can find more Eula Biss' work on

approximately 8 pages (probably 10-15 paragraphs).

The problem that I think Biss implies is how Americans promote inventions while some of its inventions create really bad influences but Americans refuse to admit that they are wrong.

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The Iowa Review Volume 38 Issue 1 Spring 2008 Time and Distance Overcome Eula Biss Follow this and additional works at: Part of the Creative Writing Commons Recommended Citation Biss, Eula. "Time and Distance Overcome." The Iowa Review 38.1 (2008): 83-89. Web. Available at: This Contents is brought to you for free and open access by Iowa Research Online. It has been accepted for inclusion in The Iowa Review by an authorized administrator of Iowa Research Online. For more information, please contact Article 36 EULA BISS Time and Distance Overcome "Of what use is such an invention?" The New YorkWorld Graham Bell first demonstrated ly after Alexander was not waiting The for the telephone. world 1876. Bell's financial anymore on which backers asked him not to work on his new short in invention an investment. too dubious it seemed because asked his telephone The idea idea that every home in the the telephone depended?the a vast of wires suspended with network be connected could country feet apart?seemed far from poles set an average of one hundred more unlikely than the idea that the human ted through a wire. Even it is an impossible now idea, voice that we could be transmit are all connected, all of us. a perfect network of gas pipes and wrote to his business Bell large cities," pipes throughout "We main in of idea. have defense his partners, pipes laid under the streets communicating by side pipes with the various dwellings_ In a similar manner it is conceivable that cables of telephone wires "At the present time we could have our water be laid under ing by branch wires etc., manufactories, ground, or suspended with private dwellings, uniting them through overhead, counting the main communicat houses, shops, cable...." that could imagine this. That could see us all Imagine the mind cable. The mind of a man who connected through one branching a machine to invent, more that would than the telephone, wanted allow the deaf to hear. than a novelty. For time, the telephone was little more see cents in it demonstrated could you by Bell himself, twenty-five some singing and recitations a church, along with local talent. by From a mile away, Bell would receive a call from "the invisible Mr. For a short Watson." Then the telephone became a plaything of the rich. A 83 University of Iowa is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve, and extend access to The Iowa Review ® banker paid for a private line between his office and his home so that he could let his family know exactly when he would be home for dinner. Boston but he wasn't among the first to own a telephone, it. "The carries taken with human voice entirely too far completely as it is," he remarked. Mark Twain was a "War on Telephone reporting telephone companies were erecting poles, hom owners were sawing them down, or defend eowners and business ing their sidewalks with rifles. By 1889, The New Poles." Wherever In Red Bank, New the workers feather a group company man who guilty York Times was Jersey property owners to tar and threatened One putting up telephone poles. judge granted an injunction to prevent of homeowners the telephone from erecting any new poles. Another judge found that a a pole because mischief. had cut down of malicious it was "obnoxious" was not were an urban editorials poles, newspaper Telephone complained, a for wire each hun blight. The poles carried telephone?sometimes dreds of wires. And in some places there were also telegraph wires, power lines, and trolley cables. The sky was filled with wires. on Telephone in part, by that terribly Poles was fueled, concern for private property and a reluctance to surrender American it to a shared utility. And then there was a fierce sense of aesthetics, an obsession with purity, a dislike for the way the poles and wires The War a landscape that those other new inventions, skyscrap ers and barbed wire, were just beginning to complicate. And then as it had always been there was also a fear that distance, perhaps was collapsing. known and measured, marred The in Sioux Falls, South Dakota ordered policemen city council to cut down all the telephone in town. And the Mayor of poles ordered the police chief and the fire depart Oshkosh, Wisconsin to chop down the telephone poles there. Only down before the climbed telephone men chopped ment 84 one pole was all the poles any more chopping. Soon, Bell Telephone a man at the top of each pole as soon Company began stationing as it had been set, until enough poles had been set to string a wire the line, preventing along to interfere them, at which point it became a misdemeanor cut down two poles holding the poles. Even so, a constable sawed down a recently wired forty or fifty wires. And a homeowner owner then fled from The of a cannery ordered his pole police. between with to throw workers dirt back into the hole was the telephone company His men threw the dirt back in digging in front of his building. as fast as the telephone workers could dig it out. Then he sent out a team with a load of stones to dump into the hole. Eventually, the pole was erected on the other side of the street. take only four years the War on Telephone Poles, it would Despite after Bell's first public demonstration of the telephone for every town of over 10,000 people to be wired, although many towns were wired only to themselves. And by the turn of the century, there were more telephones "Time than bathtubs in America. read an early advertisement for the overcome," B. Hayes pronounced Rutherford the installation of a in the White House "one of the greatest events since cre and dist. telephone. telephone ation." The Edison declared, "annihilated telephone, Thomas and space, and brought the human family in closer touch." time a black man was hanged from In 1898, in Lake Comorant, Mississippi, a telephone pole. And inWeir City, Kansas. And in Brook Haven, in Tulsa, where And the hanged man was riddled with Mississippi. In Pittsburg, Kansas, a black man's throat was slit and his dead body was strung up on a telephone pole. Two black men were pole in Lewisburg, West Virginia. And hanged from a telephone bullets. two one man was dragged out of the Texas, where by a mob and another was dragged out of jail. in Hempstead, courtroom A black man was where a fire was hanged from a telephone pole in Belleville, set at the base of the pole and the man Illinois, was cut 85 his body was down half-alive, covered in coal oil, and burned. While to the mob beat it with clubs and nearly cut it burning, pieces. is an American the first scholar of the subject determined, Lynching from bridges, from arches, from trees standing Lynching, invention. weight in fields, from trees in front of the county courthouse, from as public billboards, from trees barely able to support the of a man, from telephone poles, from street lamps, and from poles erected alone trees used century for that purpose. of the to the middle for crimes children's message distorted the middle of the nineteenth century black men were for imagined, "disputing with a white in marriage," for "asking a white woman real and lynched man," for "unpopularity," for "peeping in a window." The From twentieth game passed quietly at some point of on the fact that a depends "telephone" from one ear to another to another will get the line. along a black man charged with kicking a white a telephone In Long View, Texas a pole. a woman was hanged from of attacking white In Pine Bluff, Arkansas from girl was hanged black man a telephone accused pole. a white Mississippi operator was a black man "Men and women in automobiles In Greenville, accused of hanged from a telephone attacking telephone a to time asked pray." In Purcell, Oklahoma pole. "The negro only a woman a was tied to white tele black man accused of attacking phone pole and burned. to watch him die." stood up It was only coincidence poles, of course, were not to blame. as gallows, because that they became convenient they were tall and a in public places. and because stood with crossbar, they straight, it was only coincidence that the telephone And pole so closely a crucifix. resembled The calls were full of noise. "Such a jangle of meaning Early telephone less noises had never been heard by human ears," Herbert Casson wrote in his 1910 History of the Telephone. "There were the rustling of leaves, the croaking of frogs, the hissing of steam, the flapping of 86 There were birds' wings.... rasping, whistling In Shreveport, from hanged spluttering and screaming." and bubbling, jerking and a black man charged with attacking a white girl was in the left sticking pole. "A knife was a a black man accused of assaulting Georgia a telephone body." In Cumming, then hanged from a telephone white girl was shot repeatedly pole. InWaco, Texas a black man convicted of killing a white woman was taken from the courtroom by a mob and burned, then his charred was a from hung telephone pole. body A postcard was made from the photo of a burned man hanging from a telephone pole in Texas, his legs broken off below the knee and his arms curled up and blackened. Postcards of lynchings were sent out as greetings and warnings declared them unmailable. reads the Postmaster General 1908, when "This is the barbecue we had last night," until one. "If we are to die," W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1911, "in God's name let us not perish like bales of hay." And "if we must die," Claude ten years later, "let it not be like hogs...." McKay wrote In Danville, Illinois a black man was hanged from a telephone pole, cut down, burned, shot, and stoned with bricks. "At first the negro was defiant," The New York Times reported, "but just before he was hanged he begged hard for his In the photographs, poles are silhouetted life." of the men lynched from telephone two men to a pole, against the sky. Sometimes three. They hung hanging above the buildings of a town. Sometimes like flags in still air. the bodies a mob used a telephone pole as a batter Maryland a black man charged with the ram to break into the ing jail where a was murder of being held. They kicked him to death policeman to burn his body, then fired twenty shots into his head. They wanted In Cumberland, but a minister asked them not to. 87 all over the United States. everywhere, happened to long after the From shortly before the invention of the telephone in rural areas. in the South, and more call. More first trans-Atlantic were race In the cities and in the North riots. there The lynchings in Cincinnati, New Houston.... Philadelphia, Riots Orleans, Memphis, New York, Atlanta, the black section of Springfield, the race riots that destroyed During a Ohio black man was shot and hanged from a telephone pole. the race riots that set fire to East During hundred black people to flee their homes, from a telephone pole. The rope broke and ter. "Negros are lying in the gutters every read the newspaper St. Louis and forced five a black man was hanged his body fell into the gut few feet in some places," account. In 1921, the year before Bell died, four companies Guard were called out to end a race war in Tulsa of the National that began when a white woman accused a black man of rape. Bell had lived to com from New York to San Francisco, which the call first required plete 14,000 miles of copper wire and 130,000 telephone poles. grandfather was a lineman. He broke his back when a telephone pole fell. "Smashed him onto the road," my father says. My When Iwas wires along that the arc and swoop of telephone young, I believed I believed the roadways were beautiful. that the tele phone poles, with their glass transformers catching the evening sun, were glorious. I believed my father when he said, "My dad could raise a pole by himself." And I believed that the telephone itself was a miracle. Now, I tell my sister, these poles, these wires do not look the same to me. Nothing I is innocent, my sister reminds me. But nothing, would like to think, remains unrepentant. 88 One summer, heavy rains fell in Nebraska grew small leafy branches. phone poles A Note on "Time and Distance Overcome" and some green tele I began my research for this essay by searching for every instance of the phrase "telephone pole" in the New York Times from 1880 to 1920, which resulted in 370 articles. As I read through these articles, start forward in time, Iwas not prepared ing with the oldest and working to discover, I had not intended in the process, a litany of lynchings. to write an essay about lynching, but I found that, given what my I could not avoid it. After reading an article research was yielding, headlined "Colored Scoundrel lined and then another head Lynched," and then another headlined Lynched," Negro "Mississippi I searched for every instance of the word "Texas Negro Lynched," "lynched" in the New York Times from 1880 to 1920, which resulted in 2,354 articles. I refer, in this essay, to the first scholar of lynching, meaning James E. Cutler, author of the 1905 book Lynch-Law, in which he writes, on is a criminal is peculiar to practice which is debatable, of course, and very possibly not true, but there is good evidence that the Italian Antonio Meucci on his device, invented a telephone years before Bell began working so as long as we are going to lay claim to one invention, we might the first page, "lynching States." This the United as well take responsibility for the other. 89 Eula Biss The Pain Scale 0 !!!!!!!" No Pain The concept of Christ is considerably older than the concept of zero. Both are problematic—both have their fallacies and their immaculate conceptions. But the problem of zero troubles me significantly more than the problem of Christ. I am sitting in the exam room of a hospital entertaining the idea that absolutely no pain is not possible. Despite the commercials, I suspect that pain cannot be eliminated. And this may be the fallacy on which we have based all our calculations and all our excesses. All our sins are for zero. Zero is not a number. Or at least, it does not behave like a number. It does not add, subtract, or multiply like other numbers. Zero is a number in the way that Christ was a man. Aristotle, for one, did not believe in Zero. If no pain is possible, then, another question—is no pain desirable? Does the absence of pain equal the absence of everything? Some very complicated mathematical problems cannot be solved without the concept of zero. But zero makes some very simple problems impossible to solve. For example, the value of zero divided by zero is unknown. I’m not a mathematician. I’m sitting in a hospital trying to measure my pain on a scale from zero to ten. For this purpose, I need a zero. A scale of any sort needs fixed points. 5 The upper fixed point on the Fahrenheit scale, ninety-six, is based on a slightly inaccurate measure of normal body temperature. The lower fixed point, zero, is the coldest temperature at which a mixture of salt and water can still remain liquid. I myself am a mixture of salt and water. I strive to remain liquid. Zero, on the Celsius scale, is the point at which water freezes. And one hundred is the point at which water boils. But Anders Celsius, who introduced the scale in 1741, originally fixed zero as the point at which water boiled, and one hundred as the point at which water froze. These fixed points were reversed only after his death. The deepest circle of Dante’s Inferno does not burn. It is frozen. In his last glimpse of Hell, Dante looks back and sees Satan upside down through the ice. There is only one fixed point on the Kelvin scale—absolute zero. Absolute zero is 273 degrees Celsius colder than the temperature at which water freezes. There are zeroes beneath zeroes. Absolute zero is the temperature at which molecules and atoms are moving as slowly as possible. But even at absolute zero, their motion does not stop completely. Even the absolute is not absolute. This is comforting, but it does not give me faith in zero. At night, I ice my pain. My mind descends into a strange sinking calm. Any number multiplied by zero is zero. And so with ice and me. I am nullified. I wake up to melted ice and the warm throb of my pain returning. Grab a chicken by its neck or body—it squawks and flaps and pecks and thrashes like mad. But grab a chicken by its feet and turn it upside down, and it just hangs there blinking in a waking trance. Zeroed. My mother and I hung the chickens like this on the barn door for their necks to be slit. I like to imagine that a chicken at zero feels no pain. 6 #!!!!!!!5!!!!!!!" “The problem with scales from zero to ten,” my father tells me, “is the tyranny of the mean.” Overwhelmingly, patients tend to rate their pain as a five, unless they are in excruciating pain. At best, this renders the scale far less sensitive to gradations in pain. At worst, it renders the scale useless. I understand the desire to be average only when I am in pain. To be normal is to be okay in a fundamental way—to be chosen numerically by God. When I could no longer sleep at night because of my pain, my father reminded me that a great many people suffer from both insomnia and pain. “In fact,” he told me, “neck and back pain is so common that it is a cliché—a pain in the neck!” The fact that 50 million Americans suffer from chronic pain does not comfort me. Rather, it confounds me. “This is not normal,” I keep thinking. A thought invariably followed by a doubt, “Is this normal?” The distinction between test results that are normal or abnormal is often determined by how far the results deviate from the mean. My X-rays did not reveal a cause for my pain, but they did reveal an abnormality. “See this,” the doctor pointed to the string of vertebrae hanging down from the base of my skull like a loose line finding plumb. “Your spine,” he told me, “is abnormally straight.” I live in Middle America. I am of average height, although I have always thought of myself as short. I am of average weight, although I tend to believe I am oddly shaped. Although I try to hide it, I have long straight blond hair, like most of the women in this town. 15 Despite my efforts to ignore it and to despise it, I am still susceptible to the mean—a magnet that pulls even flesh and bone. For some time I entertained the idea that my spine might have been straightened by my long-held misconception that normal spines were perfectly straight. Unknowingly, I may have been striving for a straight spine, and perhaps I had managed to disfigure my body by sitting too straight for too many years. “Unlikely,” the doctor told me. 16 $$$#!!!!!!!10 The Worst Pain Imaginable Through a failure of my imagination, or of myself, I have discovered that the pain I am in is always the worst pain imaginable. But I would like to believe that there is an upper limit to pain. That there is a maximum intensity nerves can register. There is no tenth circle in Dante’s Hell. The digit ten depends on the digit zero, in our current number system. In 1994 Robert Forslund developed an Alternative Number System. “This system,” he wrote with triumph, “eliminates the need for the digit zero, and hence all digits behave the same.” In the Alternate Number System, the tenth digit is represented by the character A. Counting begins at one: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, A, 11, 12 . . . 18, 19, 1A, 21, 22 . . . 28, 29, 2A . . . 98, 99, 9A, A1, A2, A3, A4, A5, A6, A7, A8, A9, AA, 111, 112 . . . “One of the functions of the pain scale,” my father explains, “is to protect doctors—to spare them some emotional pain. Hearing someone describe their pain as a ten is much easier than hearing them describe it as a hot poker driven through their eyeball into their brain.” A better scale, my father thinks, might rate what patients would be willing to do to relieve their pain. “Would you,” he suggests, “visit five specialists and take three prescription narcotics?” I laugh because I have done just that. “Would you,” I offer, “give up a limb?” I would not. “Would you surrender your sense of sight for the next ten years?” my father asks. I would not. “Would you accept a shorter life span?” I might. We are laughing, having fun with this game. But later, reading statements collected by the American Pain Foundation, I am alarmed by the number of references to suicide. 24 “. . . constant muscle aches, spasms, sleeplessness, pain, can’t focus . . . must be depression . . . two suicide attempts later, electroshock therapy and locked-down wards. . . .” The description of hurricane force winds on the Beaufort scale is simply, “devastation occurs.” Bringing us, of course, back to zero. 25 2018/10/20 No-Man's-Land - Believer Magazine 0 E S S AY S February 1st, 2008 | Issue Fi y-One No-Man’sLand F E A R , R AC I S M , A N D T H E H I S TO R I C A L LY T R O U B L I N G AT T I T U D E O F A M E R I C A N PIONEERS DISCUSSED Laura Ingalls Wilder, Kansas, Bonnets, “A Great Many Colored People,” Copper Gutters, Martin Luther King Jr., People Who Know Nothing about Gangs, Scalping, South Africa, Unprovoked Stabbing Sprees, Alarming Mass Pathologies, Chicago, Haunted Hot Dog Factories, Gangrene, Creatures from the Black Lagoon, Tree Saws, Headless Torsos, Quilts, Cheerleaders, Pet Grooming Stores, God by Eula Biss Illustration by Tony Millionaire SHA R E 2 1 3 SNA P S ON THE PRAIRIE “What is it about water that always a ects a person?” Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in her 1894 diary. “I never see a great river or lake but I think how I would like to see a world made and watch it through all its changes.” Forty years later, she would re ect that she had “seen the whole frontier, the woods, the Indian country of the great plains, the frontier towns, the building of the railroads in wild 1/25 2018/10/20 No-Man's-Land - Believer Magazine unsettled country, homesteading and farmers coming in to take possession.” She realized, she said, that she “had seen and lived it all….” It was a world made and unmade. And it was not without some ambivalence, not without some sense of loss, that the writer watched the Indians, as many as she could see in either direction, ride out of the Kansas of her imagination. Her ctional self, the Laura of Little House on the Prairie, sobbed as they le . Like my sister, like my cousin, like so many other girls, I was captivated, in my childhood, by that Laura. I was given a bonnet, and I wore it earnestly for quite some time. But when I return to Little House on the Prairie now as an adult, I nd that it is not the book I thought it was. It is not the gauzy frontier fantasy I made of it as a child. It is not a naïve celebration of the American pioneer. It is the document of a woman interrogating her legacy. It is, as the scholar Ann Romines has called it, “one of our most disturbing and ambitious narratives about failures and experiments of acculturation in the American West.” In that place and time where one world was ending and another was beginning, in that borderland between con icting claims, the ctional Laura, the child of the frontier, struggles through her story. She hides, she cowers, she rages, she cries. She asks, “Will the government make these Indians go west?” and she asks, “Won’t it make the Indians mad to have to—” but then she is cut o and told to go to sleep. She falls ill and wakes from a fever to nd a black doctor attending her. She picks up beads at an abandoned Indian camp and strings them for her sister. e real Laura grows up riding back and 2/25 2018/10/20 No-Man's-Land - Believer Magazine forth in covered wagons across the Middle West, passing through immigrant towns and towns where she notes in her diary seeing “a great many colored people.” She marries a farmer named Almanzo and settles, nally, in the Ozarks. Laura Ingalls Wilder loved the land enough to know exactly what had been stolen to make her world. “If I had been the Indians,” she wrote in her 1894 diary, as she looked out over a river and some blu s in South Dakota, “I would have scalped more white folks before I ever would have le it.” ON THE BORDER Shortly a er we married, my husband and I moved to a part of Chicago that was once known as “No-Man’s-Land.” At the turn of the century, when Chicago had already burned and been rebuilt again, this was still a sandy forest of birch and oak trees. It was the barely populated place between the city of Chicago and the city of Evanston, the place just north of the boundary that once designated Indian Territory, a place where the streets were unpaved and unlit. Now this neighborhood is called Rogers Park, and the city blocks of Chicago, all paved and lit, run directly into the city blocks of Evanston, with only a cemetery to mark the boundary between the two municipalities. e Chicago trains end here, and the tracks turn back in a giant loop around the gravel yard where idle trains are docked. Seven blocks to the east of the train station is the shore of Lake Michigan, which rolls and crashes past the horizon, reminding us, with its winds and spray, that we are on the edge of something vast. 3/25 2018/10/20 No-Man's-Land - Believer Magazine ere are a dozen empty storefronts on Howard Street between the lake and the train station—a closed Chinese restaurant, a closed dry cleaner, a closed thri shop, a closed hot dog place. ere is an open Jamaican restaurant, a Caribbean American bakery, a liquor store, a shoe store, and several little grocery markets. Women push baby carriages here, little boys eat bags of chips in front of the markets, and men smoke outside the train station while the trains rattle the air. We moved to Chicago because I was hired to teach at the university in Evanston, which is within walking distance of Rogers Park. Walking to campus along the lakeshore for the rst time, I passed the cemetery, and then a block of brick apartment buildings much like the ones on my block, and then I began to pass houses with gables and turrets and stone walls and copper gutters and huge bay windows and manicured lawns and circular drives. I passed beaches where sailboats were pulled up on the sand, where canoes and kayaks were stacked; I passed fountains, I passed parks with willow trees, I passed through one block that was gated at both ends. I passed signs that read PRIVATE ROAD, NO ACCESS, POLICE ENFORCED. Evanston was still an o cially segregated city in 1958 when Martin Luther King Jr. spoke there about the Greek concept of agapē, love for all humanity. On my rst visit to Evanston, after my job interview, I experienced a moment of panic during which I stood with the big cool stone buildings of the university and its lawns and trees behind me while I called my sister to tell her that I was afraid this might not be the life for me. I was afraid, I told her, that if I became a professor I would be forever cloistered here, forever insulated from the rest of the 4/25 2018/10/20 No-Man's-Land - Believer Magazine world. My sister, who is herself training to be a professor, was not moved. ere are, she reminded me, worse fates. Of the seventy-seven o cial “community areas” of Chicago, twenty-four are populated by more than 90 percent of one race, and only twelve have no racial majority. Rogers Park is one of those few. It is celebrated as the most diverse neighborhood in a hypersegregated city. By the time I moved to Rogers Park, quite a few people had already warned me about the place. Two of them were my colleagues at the university, who both made mention of gangs. Others were near strangers, like my sister’s roommate’s mother, who asked her daughter to call me on the day I was packing my moving truck to share her suspicion that I might be moving somewhere dangerous. And then there was my mother, who grew up in a western suburb of Chicago but has, for almost twenty years now, lived in an old farmhouse in rural New York. She told me that she had heard from someone that the neighborhood I was moving to might not be safe, that there were gangs there. “Ma,” I said to her, “what do you know about gangs?” And she said, “I know enough—I know that they’re out there.” Which is about as much as I know, and about as much as most white folks who talk about gangs seem to know, which is to say, nothing. IN THE IMAGINATION Gangs are real, but they are also conceptual. e word gang is frequently used to avoid using the word black in a way that might be o ensive. For instance, by pairing it with a suggestion of fear. My cousin recently traveled to South Africa, where someone with her background would typically be considered neither 5/25 2018/10/20 No-Man's-Land - Believer Magazine white nor black, but colored, a distinct racial group in South Africa. Her skin is light enough so that she was most o en taken to be white, which was something she was prepared for, having traveled in other parts of Africa. But she was not prepared for what it meant to be white in South Africa, which was to be reminded, at every possible opportunity, that she was not safe, and that she must be afraid. And she was not prepared for how seductive that fear would become, how omnipresent it would be, so that she spent most of her time there in taxis, and in hotels, and in “safe” places where she was surrounded by white people. When she returned home she told me, “I realized this is what white people do to each other— they cultivate each other’s fear. It’s very violent.” We are afraid, my husband suggests, because we have guilty consciences. We secretly suspect that we might have more than we deserve. We know that white folks have reaped some ill-gotten gains in this country. And so, privately, quietly, as a result of our own complicated guilt, we believe that we deserve to be hated, to be hurt, and to be killed. But, for the most part, we are not. Most victims of violent crimes are not white. is is particularly true for “hate” crimes. We are far more likely to be hurt by the food we eat, the cars we drive, or the bicycles we ride than by the people we live among. is may be lost on us in part because we are surrounded by a lot of noise that suggests otherwise. Within the past month, for example, the Chicago Tribune reported an “unprovoked stabbing spree,” a “one-man crime wave,” a boy who was beaten in a park, and a bartender who was beaten behind her bar, the story being, again and again, that none of us are safe in this city. 6/25 2018/10/20 No-Man's-Land - Believer Magazine IN THE CITY In the spring of 2006, the New York Times published an analysis of all the murders that had been committed in New York City during the previous three years—a total of 1,662 murders. e article revealed one trend: people who were mur- dered tended to be murdered by other people like them. Most of the killers were men and boys (a disturbing 93 percent—a number that, if we weren’t so accustomed to thinking of men as “naturally” violent, might strike us as the symptom of an alarming mass pathology), and most killed other men and boys. e majority of children were killed by a parent, and in more than half of all the cases, the victim and the killer knew each other. In over three fourths of the killings, the killer and the victim were of the same race, and less than 13 percent of the victims were white or Asian. Even as it made this point, the article undid its own message by detailing a series of stranger-murders. ere was the serial murderer who shot shopkeepers, the KFC customer who stabbed a cashier, the man who o ered a ride to a group of strangers and was then murdered for his car. ese are the murders we nd most compelling, of course, because these are the murders that allow us to be afraid of the people we want to be afraid of. In a similar layering of popular fantasy with true information, the article went on to mention speci c precincts in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Harlem where murders were concentrated, and then quoted Andrew Karmen, an expert in victimology, who explained, “ e problem of crime and violence is rooted in neighborhood conditions—high rates of poverty, family disruption, failing schools, lack of recreational opportunities, 7/25 2018/10/20 No-Man's-Land - Believer Magazine active recruitment by street gangs, drug markets. People forced to reside under those conditions are at a greater risk of getting caught up in violence, as victims or as perpetrators.” In other words, particular neighborhoods are not as dangerous as the conditions within those neighborhoods. It’s a ne line, but an important one, because if you don’t live in those conditions, you aren’t very likely to get killed. Not driving through, not walking through, not even renting an apartment. I worked, during my rst year in New York, in some of the city’s most notorious neighborhoods: in Bed-Stuy, in East New York, in East Harlem, in Washington Heights. at was before I knew the language of the city, and the codes, so I had no sense that these places were considered dangerous. I was hired by the Parks Department to inspect community gardens, and I traveled all over the city, on train and on bus and on foot, wearing khaki shorts and hiking boots, carrying a clipboard and a Polaroid camera. I did not understand then that those city blocks on which most of the lots were empty or full of the rubble of collapsed buildings would be read, by many New Yorkers, as an indication of danger. I understood that these places were poverty stricken, and ripe with ambient desperation, but I did not suspect that they were any more dangerous than anywhere else in the city. I was accustomed to the semirural poverty and postindustrial decay of upstate New York. ere, by the high- ways, yards were piled with broken plastic and rusting metal, tarps were tacked on in place of walls, roof beams were slowly rotting through. And in the small cities, in Troy and Watervliet, in Schenectady and Niskayuna, in Amsterdam and in parts of Albany, old brick buildings crumbled, brownstones stood 8/25 2018/10/20 No-Man's-Land - Believer Magazine No-Man’s-Land EULA BISS vacant, and factories with huge windows waited to be gutted and razed. Beyond the rumor that the old hot-dog factory was haunted, I don’t remember any mythology of danger clinging to the urban landscape of upstate New York. And the only true horror story I had ever heard about New York City before I moved there was the story of my grandmother’s brother, a farm boy who had gone to the city and died of gangrene a er cutting his bare foot on some dirty glass. “Please,” my grandmother begged me with tears in her eyes before I moved to New York, 2 1 3 SNA P S “always wear your shoes.” And I did. But by the time I learned what I was really supposed to be afraid of in New York, I knew better—which isn’t to say that there was nothing to be afraid of, because, as all of us know, there are always dangers, everywhere. But even now, at a much more wary and guarded age, what I feel when I am told that my neighborhood is dangerous is not fear but anger at the extent to which so many of us have agreed to live within a delusion—namely that we will be spared the dangers that others su er only if we move within certain very restricted spheres, and that insularity is a fair price to pay for safety. Fear is isolating for those that fear. And I have come to believe that fear is a cruelty to those who are feared. I once met a man of pro-football-size proportions who saw something in my body language when I shook his hand that inspired him to tell me he was pained by the way small women looked at him when he passed them on the street—pained by the fear in 9/25 2018/10/20 No-Man's-Land - Believer Magazine their eyes, pained by the way they drew away—and as he told me this he actually began to cry. One evening not long a er we moved to Rogers Park, my husband and I met a group of black boys riding their bikes on the sidewalk across the street from our apartment building. e boys were weaving down the sidewalk, yelling for the sake of hearing their own voices, and drinking from forty-ounce bottles of beer. As we stepped o the sidewalk and began crossing the street toward our apartment, one boy yelled, “Don’t be afraid of us!” I looked back over my shoulder as I stepped into the street and the boy passed on his bike so that I saw him looking back at me also, and then he yelled again, directly at me, “Don’t be afraid of us!” I wanted to yell back, “Don’t worry, we aren’t!” but I was, in fact, afraid to engage the boys, afraid to draw attention to my husband and myself, afraid of how my claim not to be afraid might be misunderstood as bravado begging a challenge, so I simply let my eyes meet the boy’s eyes before I turned, disturbed, toward the tall iron gate in front of my apartment building, a gate that gives the appearance of being locked but is in fact always open. IN THE WATER My love of swimming in open water, in lakes and oceans, is tempered only by my fear of what I cannot see beneath those waters. My mind imagines into the depths a nightmare landscape of grabbing hands and spinning metal blades and dark sucking voids into which I will be pulled and not return. As a charm against my terror of the unseen I have, for many years now, always entered the water silently repeating to myself this 10/25 2018/10/20 No-Man's-Land - Believer Magazine command: Trust the water. And for some time a er an incident in which one of my feet brushed the other and I swam for shore frantically in a gasping panic, breathing water in the process and choking painfully, I added: Don’t be afraid of your own feet. I am accustomed to being warned away from the water, to being told that it is too cold, too deep, too rocky, that the current is too strong and the waves are too powerful. Until recently, what I learned from these warnings was only that I could safely defy them all. But then I was humbled by a rough beach in Northern California where I was slammed to the bottom by the surf and dragged to shore so forcefully that sand was embedded in the skin of my palms and my knees. at beach happened to have had a sign that read how to survive this beach, which made me laugh when I rst arrived, the rst item in the numbered list being do not go within 500 feet of the water. It is only since I have discovered that some warnings are legitimate that my fears of open water have become powerful enough to ght my con dence in my own strength. I tend to stay closer to shore now, and I am always vigilant, although for what, exactly, I do not know. It is di cult to know what to be afraid of and how cautious to be when there are so many imagined dangers in the world, so many killer sharks, and so many creatures from the Black Lagoon. Now that we share a bookshelf, I am in possession of my husband’s dog-eared, underlined copy of Barry Glassner’s e Culture of Fear. Every society is threatened by a nearly in nite number of dangers, Glassner writes, but societies di er in what they choose to fear. Americans, interestingly, tend to be 11/25 2018/10/20 No-Man's-Land - Believer Magazine most preoccupied with those dangers that are among the least likely to cause us harm, while we ignore the problems that are hurting the greatest number of people. We su er from a national confusion between true threats and imagined threats. And our imagined threats, Glassner argues, very o en serve to mask true threats. Quite a bit of noise, for example, is made about the minuscule risk that our children might be molested by strange pedophiles, while in reality most children who are sexually molested are molested by close relatives in their own homes. e greatest risk factor for these children is not the proximity of a pedophile or a pervert but the poverty in which they tend to live. And the sensationalism around our “war” on illegal drugs has obscured the fact that legal drugs, the kind of drugs that are advertised on television, are more widely abused and cause more deaths than illegal drugs. Worse than this, we allow our misplaced, illogical fears to stigmatize our own people. “Fear Mongers,” Glassner writes, “project onto black men precisely what slavery, poverty, educational deprivation, and discrimination have ensured that they do not have —great power and in uence.” Although I do not pretend to understand the full complexity of local economies, I suspect that fear is one of the reasons that I can a ord to live where I live, in an apartment across the street from a beach, with a view of the lake and space enough for both my husband and me to have rooms in which to write. “Our lake home,” we sometimes call it, with a wink to the fact that this apartment is far better than we ever believed two writers with student loan debt and one income could hope for. As one Chicago real estate magazine puts it: “For decades, a low rate of owner occupancy, a lack of commercial 12/25 2018/10/20 No-Man's-Land - Believer Magazine development… and problems with crime have kept prices lower in East Rogers Park than in many North Side neighborhoods.” And so my feelings about fear are somewhat ambivalent, because fear is why I can a ord to swim every day now. One of the paradoxes of our time is that the War on Terror has served mainly to reinforce a collective belief that maintaining the right amount of fear and suspicion will earn one safety. Fear is promoted by the government as a kind of policy. Fear is accepted, even among the best-educated people in this country, even among the professors with whom I work, as a kind of intelligence. And inspiring fear in others is o en seen as neighborly and kindly, instead of being regarded as what my cousin recognized it for—a violence. On my rst day in Rogers Park, my downstairs neighbors, a family of European immigrants whom I met on my way out to swim, warned me that a boy had drowned by the breakwater not too long ago. I was in my bathing suit when they told me this, holding a towel. And, they told me, another neighbor walking his dog on the beach had recently found a human arm. It was part of the body of a boy who had been killed in gang warfare, and then cut up with a tree saw. e torso was found later, they told me, farther up the shore, but the head was never found. I went for my swim, avoiding the breakwater and pressing back a new terror of heads with open mouths at the bottom of the lake. When I retold the neighbors’ story to my husband later, he laughed. “A tree saw?” he asked, still laughing. ON THE FRONTIER 13/25 2018/10/20 No-Man's-Land - Believer Magazine When the Irish immigrant Phillip Rogers built a log cabin nine miles north of the Chicago courthouse in 1834, there were still some small Indian villages there. He built his home on the wooded ridges along the north shore a er noticing that this is where the Native Americans wintered. Rogers built just south of the Northern Indian Boundary Line, which was the result of an 1816 treaty designating safe passage for whites within a twenty-mile-wide tract of land that ran from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River, a treaty that was rendered meaningless by the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which dictated that all of the land east of the Mississippi would be open to white settlement. e Northern Indian Boundary Line, which was originally an Indian trail, would eventually become Rogers Avenue. And my apartment building would be built on the north corner of Rogers Avenue, just within the former Indian Territory. During my rst weeks in Rogers Park, I was surprised by how o en I heard the word pioneer. I heard it rst from the white owner of an antiques shop with signs in the windows that read WARNING, YOU ARE BEING WATCHED AND RECORDED. When I stopped o in his shop, he welcomed me to the neighborhood warmly and delivered an introductory speech dense with code. is was a “pioneering neighbor- hood,” he told me, and it needed “more people like you.” He and other “people like us” were gradually “li ing it up.” And then there was the neighbor across the street, a white man whom my husband met while I was swimming. He told my husband that he had lived here for twenty years, and asked how we liked it. “Oh, we love it,” my husband said. “We’ve been enjoying Clark Street.” e tone of the conversation 14/25 2018/10/20 No-Man's-Land - Believer Magazine shi ed with the mention of Clark Street, our closest shopping street, which is lined with taquerias and Mexican groceries. “Well,” the man said, in obvious disapproval, “we’re pioneers here.” e word pioneer betrays a disturbing willingness to repeat the worst mistake of the pioneers of the American West—the mistake of considering an inhabited place uninhabited. To imagine oneself as a pioneer in a place as densely populated as Chicago is either to deny the existence of your neighbors or to cast them as natives who must be displaced. Either way, it is a hostile fantasy. My landlord, who grew up in this apartment building, the building his grandfather built, is a tattooed Harley-riding man who fought in Vietnam and has a string of plastic skulls decorating the entrance to his apartment. When I ask him about the history of this neighborhood he speaks so evasively that I don’t learn anything except that he once felt much safer here than he does now. “We never used to have any of this,” he says, gesturing toward the back gate and the newly bricked wall that now protects the courtyard of this building from the alley. “We never even used to lock our doors even—I used to come home from school and let myself in without a key.” For some time, the front door of the little house that Laura’s pa built on the prairie was covered with only a quilt, but when Pa built a door, he designed it so that the latch-string could be pulled in at night and no one could enter the house from outside. Pa padlocked the stable as soon as it was built, and then, a er some Indians stopped by and asked Ma to give them her cornmeal, Pa padlocked the cupboards in the kitchen. ese padlocks now strike me as quite remarkable, considering that 15/25 2018/10/20 No-Man's-Land - Believer Magazine Pa did not even have nails with which to construct the little house, but used wooden pegs instead. In one scene of Little House, the house is ringed by howling wolves; in another, a roaring prairie re sweeps around the house; in another a panther screams an eerie scream and the girls are kept inside. And then there are the Indians. e Indi- ans who ride by silently, the Indians who occasionally come to the door of the house and demand food or tobacco, the Indians who are rumored—falsely, as Pa reveals—to have started the prairie re to drive out the settlers. Toward the end of the book, the Indians hold a “jamboree,” singing and chanting all night so that the family cannot sleep. Pa stays up late making bullets, and Laura wakes to see Pa sitting on a chair by the door with his gun across his knees. is is our inheritance, those of us who imagine ourselves as pioneers. We don’t seem to have retained the frugality of the original pioneers, or their resourcefulness, but we have inherited a ring of wolves around a door covered only by a quilt. And we have inherited padlocks on our pantries. at we car- ry with us a residue of the pioneer experience is my best explanation for the fact that my white neighbors seem to feel besieged in this neighborhood. Because that feeling cannot be explained by anything else that I know to be true about our lives here. e adult characters in Little House, all of them except for Pa, are fond of saying, “ e only good Indian is a dead Indian.” And for this reason some people don’t want their children reading the book. It may be true that Little House is not, a er all, a children’s book, but it is a book that does not fail to in 16/25 2018/10/20 No-Man's-Land - Believer Magazine terrogate racism. And although Laura is guilty of fearing the Indians, she is among the chief interrogators: “Why don’t you like Indians, Ma?” Laura asked, and she caught a drip of molasses with her tongue. “I just don’t like them; and don’t lick your ngers, Laura,” said Ma. “ is is Indian country, isn’t it?” Laura said. “What did we come to their country for, if you don’t like them?” With the bene t of sixty years of hindsight, Laura Ingalls Wilder knew, by the time she wrote Little House, that the pioneers who had so feared Native Americans had been afraid of a people whom they were in the process of nearly exterminating. And so as a writer she took care, for instance, to point out that the ribs of the Indians were showing, a reminder that they came, frighteningly, into the house for food not because they were thieves but because they were starving. ey were starving because the pioneers were killing all their game. If anyone had a claim on fear, on terror, in the American frontier, it was obviously the Indians, who could not legally own or buy the land they lived on, and so were gradually being driven out of their lives. Near the very end of Little House, a er the nights of whooping and chanting that had been terrifying the Ingalls family, and a er many repetitions of the phrase “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” Pa meets an Indian in the woods, the rst Indi 17/25 2018/10/20 No-Man's-Land - Believer Magazine an he has met who speaks English, and he learns from him that the tall Indian who recently came into the house and ate some food and smoked silently with Pa has saved their lives. Several tribes came together for a conference and decided to kill the settlers, but this tall Indian refused, thus destroying a federation of tribes and saving the settlers. On reporting the news to his family, Pa declares, “ at’s one good Indian.” is turn of events has the advantage of o ering a lesson and also of being a fairly accurate account of what took place in Kansas in 1869. Because Laura Ingalls Wilder was actually only a toddler during the time her family lived in Kansas, she did quite a bit of research for Little House, traveling back to Kansas with her daughter and writing to historians, in the process discovering the story of the tall Indian, Soldat du Chene. And so Wilder, the writer and the researcher, knows that the land the Ingalls have made their home on in Little House is part of the Osage Diminished Reserve. It is unclear whether Pa knows this, but it is clear that he knows he is in Indian Territory. He goes into Indian Territory on speculation, because he has heard that the government is about to open it up to settlers. At the end of the book, he gets word from his neighbors that the government has decided to uphold its treaty with the Indians, and soldiers will be coming to move the settlers o the land. “If some blasted politicians in Washington hadn’t sent out word it would be all right to settle here, I’d never have been three miles over the line into Indian Territory,” Pa admits, in a rare moment of anger and frustration. “But I’ll not wait for the soldiers to take us out. We’re going now!” 18/25 2018/10/20 No-Man's-Land - Believer Magazine e Ingalls family did indeed leave their home in Kansas under these circumstances. But the possibility the book suggests, by ending where it does, is that the settlers le Indian Territory to the Indians. “It’s a great country, Caroline,” Pa says, as they ride o in their covered wagon. “But there will be wild Indians and wolves here for many a long day.” is is how it could have been, Laura Ingalls Wilder seems to be proposing. icy. e government could have enforced a fair pol- e settlers could have le and stayed away. But, as it hap- pened, the government revoked its treaty with the Plains tribes within what one historian estimates was a few weeks a er the Ingalls family abandoned their house in Kansas. Laura Ingalls Wilder does not tell us this. She tells us, instead, that Pa digs up the potatoes he just planted and they eat them for dinner. e next day they get back into their covered wag- on, leaving the plow in the eld and leaving their new glass windows, leaving their house and their stable, and leaving the crop they have just planted. is is the end of the book, and this, I believe, is the moral of the story. ON THE LAKE Leaving my apartment one morning, I found a piece of paper on the sidewalk that read, “Help! We have no hot water.” is message was printed in pink ink above an address that I recognized as nearby, but farther inland from the lake. e paper was carried by the wind to the water’s edge, I imagined, as a reminder of the everyday inconveniences, the absent landlords and the delayed buses and the check-cashing fees, of the world beyond. 19/25 2018/10/20 No-Man's-Land - Believer Magazine “Everyone who lives in a neighborhood belongs to it, is part of it,” Geo Dyer writes in Out of Sheer Rage. “ e only way to opt out of a neighborhood is to move out….” But this does not seem to hold true of the thin sliver of Rogers Park bordering the lake, which many of our white neighbors drive in and out of without ever touching the rest of the neighborhood. ey do not walk down Howard to the train station, do not visit the corner store for milk or beer, do not buy vegetables in the little markets, do not, as one neighbor admitted to me, even park farther inland than one block from the lake, no matter how long it takes to nd a spot. Between my apartment building and the lake there is a small park with a stony beach and some cracked tennis courts where people like to let their dogs run loose. In the winter, the only people in the park are people with dogs, people who stand in the tennis courts holding bags of shit while their dogs run around in circles and sni each other. In the summer, the park lls with people. Spanish-speaking families make picnics on the grass and Indian families have games of cricket and fathers dip their babies in the lake and groups of black teenagers sit on the benches and young men play volleyball in great clouds of dust until dusk. “ e warm weather,” my landlord observed to me not long a er I moved in, “brings out the ri ra .” When my landlord said this, I was standing on the sidewalk in front of our building in my bathing suit, still dripping from the lake, and a boy leaving the park asked if I had a quarter. I laughed and told the boy that I don’t typically carry change in my bathing suit, but he remained blank-faced, as uninterested as a toll collector. His request, I suspect, had very little to do 20/25 2018/10/20 No-Man's-Land - Believer Magazine with any money I may have had, or any money he may have needed. e exchange was intended to be, like so many of my exchanges with my neighbors, a ritual o ering. When I walk from my apartment to the train I am asked for money by all variety of people—old men and young boys and women with babies. eir manner of request is always di erent, but they are always black and I am always white. Sometimes I give money and sometimes I do not, but I do not feel good about it either way, and the transaction never fails to be complicated. I do not know whether my neighbors believe, like I do, that I am paying paltry reparations, but I understand that the quarters and dollars I am asked for are a kind of tax on my presence here. A tax that, although I resent it, is more than fair. One day in the late summer a er we moved to Rogers Park, my husband came home from the fruit market with a bag of tomatoes and a large watermelon he had carried the half mile from the market to our house, stopping once to let some children feel how heavy it was. He was ushed from the sun and as he split the melon, still warm, my husband mused, “I hope more white people don’t move here.” My husband isn’t prone to sentimentality of any kind, or to worrying about white people, so I asked him why and he said, “Because kids were playing basketball by the school, and they had cheerleaders cheering them on, and black men say hello to me on the street, and I love our little fruit market, and I don’t want this place to change.” But this place probably will change, if only because this is not a city where integrated neighborhoods last very long. And we are the people for whom the new co ee shop has opened. And the pet grooming store. “You know your neighborhood is gen 21/25 2018/10/20 No-Man's-Land - Believer Magazine trifying,” my sister observes, “when the pet grooming store arrives.” Gentri cation is a word that agitates my husband. It bothers him because he thinks that the people who tend to use the word negatively, white artists and academics, people like me, are exactly the people who bene t from the process of gentri cation. “I think you should de ne the word gentri cation,” my husband tells me now. I ask him what he would say it means and he pauses for a long moment. “It means that an area is generally improved,” he says nally, “but in such a way that everything worthwhile about it is destroyed.” My dictionary de nes gentri cation as meaning “to renovate or improve (esp. a house or district) so that it conforms to middle-class taste.” ere is de nitely the sense among the middle-class people in this neighborhood that they are improving the place. New condos y banners that read luxury! e co ee shop and pet grooming store have been billed as a “revitalization.” And if some people lose their neighborhood in the process, there is bound to be someone like Mrs. Scott of Little House who will say, “Land knows, they’d never do anything with this country themselves. All they do is roam around over it like wild animals. Treaties or no treaties, the land belongs to folk that’ll farm it. at’s only common sense and justice.” Meanwhile, when I walk home from the train station at night, I watch unmarked cars pull up in front of black teenagers who are patted down quickly and wordlessly. Some of the teenagers, my husband observes, carry their IDs in clear cases hanging from their belts for easy access. One evening, I watch the police interrogate two boys who have set a large bottle of Tide down on the sidewalk next to them, and I cannot forget 22/25 2018/10/20 No-Man's-Land - Believer Magazine this detail, the bottle of Tide, and the mundane tasks of living that it evokes. I consider going to one of the monthly beat meetings the police hold for each neighborhood and making some kind of complaint, but month a er month I do not go. Walking down Clark Street, I pass a poster on an empty storefront inviting entrepreneurs to start businesses in Rogers Park, “Chicago’s most diverse neighborhood.” It takes me some time, standing in front of this poster, to understand why the word diverse strikes me as so false in this context, so disingenuous. It is not because this neighborhood is not full of many di erent kinds of people, but because that word implies some easy version of this di cult reality, some version that is not full of sparks and averted eyes and police cars. But still, I’d like to believe in the promise of that word. Not the sun-shininess of it, or the quota-making politics of it, but the real complexity of it. ON THE COAST ere are three of us here on the beach, with Lake Michigan stretching out in front of us. We are strangers, but we have the kind of intimacy that can exist between people who are lying on the same deserted beach. Aisha, a young black woman, sits on one side of me, and Andre, a middle-aged Polish immigrant, sits on the other. We bury our feet in the sand and talk of the places we have lived. Aisha is from Chicago, and she has never, in her twentyone years, lived anywhere else. Andre le Poland when he was seventeen, looking for more opportunities. Now, he says, he 23/25 2018/10/20 No-Man's-Land - Believer Magazine isn’t entirely sure that he didn’t make a mistake. We all fall silent a er this confession. is beach is a kind of no-man’s-land. To the south are the last city blocks of Chicago, where the beaches are free but rocky and plagued with chunks of concrete. To the north are the rst city blocks of Evanston, where the beaches are expansive and sandy but require a fee of seven dollars. To the west, beyond the wall of rocks directly behind us, is the cemetery that separates Chicago from Evanston, and a sign that forbids entry to this stretch of beach. To the east is an endless prairie of water. When I mention that yesterday a lifeguard from Evanston came down in a boat while I was swimming and informed me that it was illegal to be here and that I had to leave because this land belongs to Evanston, Aisha rolls her eyes and says, gesturing back toward the cemetery, “ is land belongs to the dead people.” Andre, the immigrant, the pioneer, looks out across the water and says, “ is land belongs to God.” CONTRIBUTOR Eula Biss’s newest book is On Immunity: An Inoculation. She is also the author of Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays and e Balloonists. MORE BY EULA BISS MORE READS 24/25 2018/11/7 Relations - Identity Theory A literary website, sort of. INTERVIEWS BLOGS FICTION NONFICTION P O E T RY REVIEWS ABOUT SUBMISSIONS ESSAY Relations By Eula Biss | Published: March 17, 2008 C O N T R I B U T E A N E S S AY View our nonfiction submission guidelines. In New York City, in the spring of 1999, a story hit the newspapers of a Long Island woman who had given birth to twins–one white and one black. The woman and her husband were white and the black baby was not theirs, at least not biologically. The embryo that became that baby had been accidentally implanted in the woman’s uterus with the embryo of her biological son, but it belonged to a black couple who were clients at the same fertility clinic, and they wanted their son back. After a DNA test, a custody battle, a state supreme court ruling, and an unsuccessful appeal, it was decided that the black baby was the child of the black couple, legally and entirely. The story had its peculiarities, like the fact that the fertility clinic had notified the black couple that some of their embryos had been mistakenly implanted in another woman, but did not tell them anything more, so they eventually learned of the birth of their son through a private investigator. But even odd facts like this took on the sheen of metaphor, pointing, for those of us who were looking, to further evidence of a systematic failure of any number of services to reach black people intact, in the form in which they are typically enjoyed by white people. If both babies had been white, I doubt the story would have become the parable it became– playing out in the newspapers over the next few years as an epic tale of blood and belonging. The fact that the story involved two babies and two mothers and, eventually, an agreement that gave both babies a family and both families a baby would inspire some reporters to use the phrase “happy ending,” but the story would resist that happy ending in part because the black baby was initially returned to his biological parents on the strict condition that he would continue to visit his twin brother, spending a week in summer and alternate holidays with the white family. On the question of whether a person can have a twin to whom he is not related, the New 1/13 2018/11/7 Relations - Identity Theory Jersey Record consulted an expert who explained that the babies were not technically twins, but their situation was so unusual it was impossible to determine, without further research, how deep a bond they might share. Long after the black baby had been returned to his biological parents and given a new name, the question of what exactly his relationship was to the white boy with whom he had shared a womb persisted. The answer to this question would determine whether or not the courts would mandate visits between the black boy and the white family. “Are the baby boys brothers in the eyes of the law,” asked the New York Times, “or two separate people who just happened to arrive in the world on the same subway car?” *** When we were young, my sister and I had two baby dolls that were exactly alike in every way except that one was white and one was black. The precise sameness of these dolls, so obviously cast from one mold in two different colors of plastic, convinced me that they were, like us, sisters. Sisters are only slightly more genetically similar than any other two human beings. We are all so closely related to each other, sharing over 99 percent of our genetic code across the world, that many scientists believe there is no biological basis for what we call race. Race is a social fiction. But it is also, for now at least, a social fact. We are not all, culturally speaking, the same. And if that Long Island woman had raised the black boy to whom she gave birth he might have been robbed of a certain amount of the cultural identity to which his skin would be assigned later in life, and might therefore find himself as an adult in an uncomfortable no-man’s-land between two racial identities. But this no-man’s-land is already fairly heavily trafficked. Without denying that blacks and whites remain largely segregated and disturbingly polarized, and without denying that black culture is a distinct culture, I think we ought to admit, as the writer Albert Murray once insisted, that American culture is “incontestably mulatto.” A friend of mine used to tell a story about a segregated restaurant in the South where a sign on one side of the room advertised “Home Cooking” and a sign on the other advertised “Soul Food” and the customers on both sides were eating the same biscuits and gravy. “For all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences,” Murray wrote in The Omni Americans, “the so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other.” Even so, we don’t tend to make family out of each other. Marriages between whites and blacks amount to less than 1 percent of all our marriages. And even after Loving vs. Virginia declared the last state laws banning inter-racial marriage unconstitutional in 1967, some states continued to ban inter-racial adoptions. Legal or not, such adoptions were rare in this country until the number of white parents looking to adopt began to exceed the number of white children available for adoption. Some of the agencies that first began placing black children with white couples viewed these placements as highly progressive. Not everyone agreed. The National Association of Black Social Workers, in particular, has continued to oppose the adoption of black children by white parents ever since the release of their somewhat notorious 1972 statement on the preservation of black families, in which they suggested that the likely outcome of such adoptions was “cultural genocide.” 2/13 2018/11/7 Relations - Identity Theory The vehemence of this statement, and its refusal to see white Americans as viable parents for black Americans, is probably best understood in the context of the havoc that has been wreaked on black families in this country. There was, during slavery, the use of black women for “breeding” purposes, the forced infidelities of that system, the denial of slave marriages as legitimate contracts, and the practice of selling members of the same family away from each other, so that sisters were separated from brothers, mothers were separated from fathers, and young children were separated from one or both parents. Now, more than a century after emancipation, we still have the unmanning of black men by law enforcement, the incommensurate imprisonment of black fathers, and the troubling biases of the child welfare system, in which a disproportionate number of black children are separated from their parents. That doesn’t mean white adults can’t be good parents for black children, but the endeavor is fraught by history and complicated by all our current social failures. If the white woman in Long Island had given birth to two white babies, it might have been easier to ignore one of the uglier elements of her story, the fact that our claim on our children is not entirely innocent, and amounts to a kind of ownership. At one point, the biological parents of the black baby decided that they would rather pay the $200,000 fine mandated by their shared custody agreement than continue to allow the white couple visits with their son. The white couple balked at this, and their lawyer said, “They’re not looking to, quote, ‘sell’ their son!” If both the babies had been white, I might have felt that the white woman was entitled to keep them both, no matter whom they were related to. I might have been wrong, and the courts would very probably not have agreed with me, but I would have believed in her right to keep any child she carried in her womb because that is what I would want for myself. As it was, because one of those babies was black, and because the black woman did not herself conceive–her treatments at the fertility clinic failed and she was childless–it did not seem right for the white woman to keep the black baby. It seemed like a kind of robbery, a robbery made worse by its echoes of history. But even still–and perhaps this exposes exactly how hopeful, or how naïve, I really am–I wanted to believe in the white woman’s desire to maintain a familial connection to the black child. I wanted the two boys to be brothers, and I wanted the original shared custody agreement to work out. And it might have, especially if the white woman had not made the mistake of saying “come to Mommy” to the black baby on one of those visits, and of calling him by the name she had given him, which was no longer his name. *** The white doll was my sister’s and the black doll was mine. My doll’s proper name was Susannah, but her common name, the name I used more often, and the name my entire family used, was Black Doll. My mother finds this hilarious, but I don’t enjoy revealing it, and I don’t enjoy knowing now that as a child I reduced this doll–who had her own distinct personality as many beloved toys do–to her race. Even so, the fact that Black Doll was black became very ordinary to me very quickly, so that her name was nothing but her name. The famous “Doll Studies” of Mamie and Kenneth Clark, which were conducted in a series of different schools in both the North and the South, used a set of identical black and white baby dolls bought at a Woolworth’s in Harlem to reveal how racism affected children. In one 3/13 2018/11/7 Relations - Identity Theory experiment, sixteen black children were shown a white doll and a black doll and asked to pick which doll best represented certain words. Eleven of the children associated the black doll with the word “bad” and ten associated the white doll with the word “nice.” This experiment later influenced the Brown vs. Board of Education decision to integrate the public schools. In the years and decades following that decision, questions would be raised about what exactly, if anything, the doll studies proved. Black children in unsegregated schools had responded to the Clarks’ dolls in much the same way as black children in segregated schools, which complicated the idea that the children were responding solely to segregation. But they were clearly responding to something. Perhaps the doll studies suggest that children are as sensitive to racial codes as adults. I do not know exactly how the word “nice” was used in 1939 when those studies began, but I do know what it means now to describe a neighborhood as “nice” or another part of town as “bad” and I know what “nice” hair is and I know what it means when my landlady tells me, as I’m applying for a lease, that she won’t need my bank account number because I look like a “nice” person. And I suspect that it is possible, especially in a racially aware environment, that the secondary meanings of these words are not lost even on six-year-olds. *** “Maybe we love our dolls because we can’t love ourselves,” a friend of mine–an artist who made drawings of dolls missing legs or arms or eyes that all looked, somehow, eerily like her–once suggested. Perhaps this is the essential truth behind why we make effigies. And maybe this is why we tend to believe that children should have dolls that look like them, or at least that look like who they might eventually become. In 1959 Mattel introduced a doll that was not, like most other dolls marketed for children, a baby doll. This doll had breasts and wore make-up and was modeled after a doll sold in Germany as a gag gift for grown men. The man who designed the American version of the doll, a man who had formally designed Sparrow and Hawk missiles for the Pentagon and was briefly married to Zsa Zsa Gabor, was charged with making the new Barbie doll look “less like a German street walker,” which he attempted in part by filing off her nipples. In the past few decades quite a few people have suggested–citing most often the offense of impossible proportions–that Barbie dolls teach young girls to hate themselves. But the opposite may be true. British researchers recently found that girls between the ages of seven and eleven harbor surprisingly strong feelings of dislike for their Barbie dolls, with no other toy or brand name inspiring such a negative response from the children. The dolls “provoked rejection, hatred, and violence” and many girls preferred Barbie torture–by cutting, burning, decapitation, or microwaving–over other ways of playing with the doll. Reasons that the girls hated their Barbies included, somewhat poetically, the fact that they were “plastic.” The researchers also noted that the girls never spoke of one single, special Barbie, but tended to talk about having a box full of anonymous Barbies. “On a deeper level Barbie has become inanimate,” one of the researchers remarked. “She has lost any individual warmth that she might have possessed if she were perceived as a singular person. This may go some way towards explaining the violence and torture.” *** 4/13 2018/11/7 Relations - Identity Theory My own Black Doll, who is now kept by my mother as a memento of my childhood, was loved until the black of her hair and the pink of her lips rubbed off. Her skin is pocked with marks where I pricked her with needles, administering immunizations. She wears a dress that my grandmother sewed for her. And she has, stored in a closet somewhere, a set of furniture made for her by the German cabinetmaker who boarded with my family when I was young. There is something very moving to me now about the idea of that man who left Germany in the 1920s, just as the Nazi party was gathering power, laboring at his lathe, perfecting the fancy legs of a maple dining table for a beloved toy known as Black Doll. Although the two can be confused, our urge to love our own, or those we have come to understand as our own, is, it seems, much more powerful than our urge to segregate ourselves. And perhaps this is why that Long Island woman went to court to fight for shared custody of a child who was very clearly, very publicly, no blood relation to her or her husband. It was an act of thievery, but it was also an act of love. In the agonized hand-written statement she released to the press just before she voluntarily surrendered to his biological parents the fourmonth-old child to whom she gave birth, long before the court decision that would decide she had no right to share custody of him, the white woman said, “We’re giving him up because we love him.” She had come to believe that it was in the best interest of the black baby to be with his biological parents. In a separate statement, her lawyer added, “She didn’t look at them as a white baby and a black baby. She looked at them as her sons.” This was already quite evident from the fact that she had insisted on a DNA test before she would consider giving the child back to the black couple whose embryos–as she had been informed by the fertility clinic–were implanted in her womb. *** A group of white children and a group of black children were asked, in one of the Clarks’ doll studies, to choose the baby doll that looked the most like them. The white children overwhelmingly chose the white doll. But seven of the sixteen black children also chose the white doll. Some of the others could not choose a doll, and a few broke into tears. As a teenager I sometimes posed for my mother’s sculptures. She worked in black porcelain, which is, when fired, as deep and rich a black as white porcelain is a cool and flawless white. At that time, my mother had just converted to a West African religion and was dating a black man. Her friends were black women and Puerto Rican women and her imagination was full of African folklore. I posed for a mask she was making of the face of Oya–Yoruba goddess of the graveyard, of wind, and of change– standing in her attic studio with my lips pursed as though I were blowing. Why should I have been surprised, and somewhat hurt, when the mask was finished, to see that my face had become unmistakably African? My eyes were still almond shaped, as they are, but my cheekbones were higher, my nose was flatter and wider, and my lips were fuller. Still, my face was in that face, I could see it there, especially in the mouth. The Topsy-Turvy doll is a traditional doll peculiar to the United States. These dolls have heads on both ends of their bodies and wear skirts that can be flipped up or down to reveal either one head or the other. In the antebellum South, many of these dolls had a white head on one end and a black head on the other. Historians do not agree about whether these 5/13 2018/11/7 Relations - Identity Theory dolls were made for black children or white children, or about what kind of play they were intended for. Some Topsy-Turvy dolls were sold with the slogan, “Turn me up and turn me back, first I’m white, and then I’m black.” The possibility of moving, through disguise, between one race and another is an idea so compelling that it keeps returning to us again and again. There was Nella Larsen’s Passing, John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, Eddie Murphy’s Saturday Night Live skit, in which he dressed as a white man and discovered that banks give money away to white people, and, most recently, there was Black.White., a reality television show produced by R. J. Cutler and Ice Cube, an experiment that put two families, one white and one black, in a house together and used Hollywood make-up to switch their races. *** I have a cousin whose race is sometimes perceived as black and other times as white. Her father is a black man from Jamaica, and her mother is my mother’s sister. My cousin and I grew up on opposite sides of the country, her in Oakland, California and me in upstate New York, but we both found ourselves in New York City in our twenties, and we shared an apartment in Brooklyn for a year. When I moved to New York I barely knew my cousin, but I was comforted by the idea that she was family. My cousin and I come from an extended family in which it is generally understood that even the most remote members cannot be strangers to each other. And we were not. We looked alike, but in an oblique way that was probably most striking to us, because my cousin looked very much like my mother, and I looked very much like hers, but neither of us looked like our own mother. Beyond that, we recognized in each other the distinctively frugal and, we decided, hereditary habit of washing and saving bits of tinfoil and plastic sandwich bags. Neither of us seemed, by nature, capable of working full time, and we were always saving our money so that we could afford not to work. We both slept very poorly in the city, and we both considered ourselves in exile there. Both of us were inexplicably moved by the concrete cross outside our living room window. And we both had the same characteristic gesture of putting our hands to our necks when we were not comfortable. We reveled in this sameness, in this twinning. We even called each other by the same name. “Cousin!” I would sing as I walked in the door, “Is that you, Cousin?” she would answer. At some point during the year we lived together, I watched my cousin cut out pictures of black college beauty queens from Ebony Magazine and glue them into a notebook. She didn’t know what she wanted to do with them yet, she told me, she’d have to think about it. But she lined them up lovingly–Miss Norfolk State University, Miss Morris College, Miss Florida A&M University, Miss North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Miss Southern University–like a paper doll parade replete with heartbreaking plastic crowns and tiaras. Years later, my cousin would send me a film called A Girl Like Me, in which a seventeen-year-old girl from New York re-created the Clarks’ doll studies at a Harlem day care center in 2005. In her re-creation, fifteen of twenty-one black children preferred the white doll over the black doll. “Can you show me the doll that looks bad?” a voice behind the camera 6/13 2018/11/7 Relations - Identity Theory asks a little black girl in A Girl Like Me. The child immediately chooses the black doll, and when she is asked why, she reports flatly, “Because she’s black.” But when the voice asks her “Can you give me the doll that looks like you?” she looks down, reaching first for the white doll but then, looking directly at the camera, reluctantly pushing the black doll forward. *** As Barbie dolls became increasingly popular in the sixties, Barbie’s family expanded to include her boyfriend Ken, her little sister Skipper, her twin siblings Tutti and Tod, and her cousin Francie. In 1967 Mattel released Colored Francie, a black version of cousin Francie. Notably, Colored Francie was intended to be understood as a friend for Barbie, not a cousin. One of the many objections to Colored Francie was that she was cast out of the same mold as the white Francie, and therefore had the same face and the same features. This oversight was seen as hostile, as just another attempt to erase the African-ness of African Americans. Colored Francie did not sell well, and she was soon discontinued. Despite this early failure, Mattel has maintained a long-standing tradition of releasing both a black version and a white version of many of their dolls. This was most problematic in 1997 when they teamed up with Nabisco to promote Oreo Fun Barbie. The cheerfulness of the black Oreo Fun Barbie, who was sold in packaging covered with pictures of Oreo cookies and whose dress was emblazoned with the word Oreo, seemed to mock, chillingly, the predicament of the oreo, the person who is seen as black on the outside but white on the inside. Oreo Fun Barbie was quickly recalled when Mattel realized that she evoked a term that implies cultural abdication and self-loathing. As a child, my cousin worried that her mother loved her brother more because he was not as brown as her. Even so, her skin is light enough to “pass.” That was a household word for us in those days when we lived together. I remember, in particular, an evening when I invited a graduate student I’d met at a party over for dinner. We listened to Neil Young and talked about World War II, and sized each other up as material for love. When he left, just after I closed the door behind him, my cousin shot me a look. “What?” I said. “You were passing,” she said, meaning that I had not been acting like myself. And she was right, although at the time I resented her accuracy. *** A friend of mine once accused my mother of using the men she is with– men who have tended, most recently, not to be white–to gain access to other cultural and racial identities. It is true that my mother has been running from her white, Protestant, middle-class background ever since she dropped out of high school and got on a Greyhound bus, but shouldn’t she be allowed out if she wants out? Especially now that she has sacrificed, in various ways, just about all the privilege to which she could ever have laid claim. “A well-ordered multiracial society,” Randall Kennedy recently wrote, “ought to allow its members free entry into and exit from racial categories.” Most scientists agree, if they are willing to make any sort of nod towards the existence of race as a legitimate category, that a person’s race is selfidentified, and the U.S. census now only categorizes people as they selfidentify. But our racial categories are so closely policed by the culture at 7/13 2018/11/7 Relations - Identity Theory large that it would be much more accurate to say that we are collectively identified. Whenever we range outside the racial identity that has been collectively assigned to us, we are very quickly reminded where we belong. Not long after I moved into my cousin’s apartment in the historically black neighborhood of Fort Greene, I stopped at a small shop a few blocks away to buy her a birthday present of some hair oil I’d seen her admire. I was standing with my back to the register choosing between “Nubian Woman” and “Jasmine” when I heard loud whispers and laughter from behind me. “White girl!” the sales women were saying, with every intention I would hear them. In that part of Brooklyn, the people I passed on the street often greeted me with a summary description of what they noticed about me, as in, “you’ve got some short hair, girl.” This was a phenomenon that my cousin and I found both arresting and amusing. For her part, my cousin discovered that the indicators of race she had learned in Oakland did not necessarily translate to Brooklyn. The way she walked, for example, the sharp switch of her gait, might have been read as black in Oakland, but it was not in Brooklyn. Here her identity became even more ambiguous. Walking home through the park after dark one night, my cousin passed a black man who nodded at her and said, “Mmm-hmmm, you’re a bad-ass white girl.” I was mistaken for a white boy twice, and once I was mistaken for Asian. But I was never taken for black. And I could not have expected to be. As much as I believe racial categories to be fluid and ambiguous, I still know that there is nothing racially ambiguous about my features, or my bearing, or my way of speaking. And although I was familiar, from my mother’s religion, with the cowry shells and oiled wood carvings sold in the African shops of my neighborhood, I could not even attempt to pass there. *** At the beginning of the six-episode series of Black.White., the white family needs coaching from the black family in order to learn to pass as black. But the black family, as they explain after an uncomfortable silence, already know how to act white, of course, because that is the dominant culture within which they have to live their daily lives. Knowing how to act white is a survival skill for the black family. The white family, on the other hand, struggles with acting black, frequently committing tone-deaf errors, and ultimately not quite pulling it off. Perhaps my inability to pass is part of why I feel so trapped within my identity as a white woman. That identity does not feel chosen by me as much as it feels grudgingly accepted. But I haven’t worked very hard to assimilate into any other racial group. And I have rarely turned down any of the privileges that my skin has afforded me. When it became clear to me, for instance, that my landlady was looking for a “nice” tenant, I did not inform her that if she was under the impression I was white, she should at least know I was not nice. In my mostly white high school, where the white boys who listened to rap and sagged their pants were called “whiggers,” we were trained to feel disdain for anyone who ranged outside the cultural confines of whiteness. But later, in my mostly white college, among whiggers and punks and hippies and tattooed freaks, I began to understand the significance of the 8/13 2018/11/7 Relations - Identity Theory effort to advertise one’s resistance to the mainstream and undo one’s access to privilege through a modification of one’s clothing or body or skin. My college was such a safe and nurturing place for misfits, especially rich misfits, that it was hard to believe that dreadlocks and tattoos and piercings would really inhibit anyone’s ability to get a job, because they certainly weren’t getting in the way of anyone’s ability to get an education. And many of the punks and hippies who I went to school with have, after all that effort, found their way into positions of power and privilege by now. But I still believe it is important for white folks to find ways to signal that we cannot necessarily be trusted to act like white folks–that we cannot be trusted to hold white values, that we cannot be trusted to be nice, that we cannot be trusted to maintain the status quo. Noel Ignatiev, editor of the journal Race Traitor, has suggested that the power of the entire white race can be undermined by just a few members who consistently refuse to act according to the rules, and who refuse to be who they seem to be. At the end of the Saturday Night Live skit in which he was made-up as a white man, Eddie Murphy suggested exactly this possibility. “I got a lot of friends, and we’ve got of make-up,” he told the camera. “So the next time you’re hugging up with some really super groovy white guy, or you’ve met a really great super keen white chick, don’t be too sure. They might be black.” *** What exactly it means to be white seems to elude no one as fully as it eludes those of us who are white. In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison observes that the literature of this country is full of images of impenetrable, inarticulate whiteness. And these images, she writes, are often set against the presence of black characters who are dead or powerless. She cites, as one example, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which ends with the death of a black man in a boat that is traveling on a milky white sea through a white shower towards a white veil behind which a giant white figure waits silently. And so it is not surprising that what Marlow, the ferry-boat captain in Heart of Darkness, finds deep in Africa, traveling on a boat manned by starving natives, is not darkness but a blinding white fog so thick it stops the boat, a white fog from behind which he hears chilling cries of grief. “Whiteness, alone, is mute, meaningless, unfathomable, pointless, frozen, veiled, curtained, dreaded, senseless, implacable. Or so our writers seem to say,” writes Toni Morrison. We do not know ourselves, and worse, we seem only occasionally to know that we do not know ourselves. “It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me,” Melville tells us in Moby Dick, “but how can I hope to explain myself here; and yet, in some dim, random way, explain myself I must.” “It’s hard for me,” my cousin mused once as we waited for a train, “I have a lot of white family.” At the time, I couldn’t fully appreciate what she was saying because I was hurt by the implication that I was a burden to her. But I would remember that comment years later, when I was watching a public television program in which Henry Louis Gates Jr. was working with genealogists to trace the family trees of a series of African Americans including Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, and himself. Many of their ancestors were slaves, but the genealogists also revealed that some of their ancestors included free blacks and, of course, whites. 9/13 2018/11/7 Relations - Identity Theory In a particularly awkward moment, a genealogist informed Gates that one of his ancestors was a white man who fought in the Revolutionary War against Native Americans and left a will that freed his slaves. As I watched Gates struggle with that information, I realized exactly how much the stories of our ancestors, as we imagine them now, mark our identities. It isn’t easy to accept a slaveholder and an Indian-killer as a grandfather, and it isn’t easy to accept the legacy of whiteness as an identity. It is an identity that carries a heavy burden of guilt without fostering a true understanding of the painfulness and the costs of complicity. That’s why so many of us try to pretend that to be white is merely to be race-less. Perhaps it would be more productive for us to establish some collective understanding that we are both, white and black, damaged, reduced, and morally undermined by increasingly subtle systems of racial oppression and racial privilege. Or perhaps it would be better if we simply refused to be white. But I don’t know what that means, really. *** “I feel like an unknown quantity,” my cousin remarked at some point during the year that we lived together. She was referring to the algebraic term, the unknown quantity x, which much be solved for, or defined, by the numbers in the equation around it. I remember, when I first encountered algebra, feeling the limits of my own comprehension break around the concept that one number in an equation could be unknown. And what baffled me most was that the answer, in algebra, was known, but the question was incomplete. I could see two faces of the Brooklyn clock tower from my bedroom window in the apartment I shared with my cousin. The hands on those faces never told exactly the same time, and I often chose to believe the one I most wanted to believe. I was usually late, either way. The year we lived in that apartment was the year of the 2000 census. By chance, my cousin and I were chosen to complete the long form of the census, and we were visited in person by a census taker who was charged with ensuring that this form was completed accurately. The census taker asked us to report the highest degree or level of school we had completed, how well we spoke English, and whether we did any work for pay. For every question he asked, my cousin asked one back. It became a kind of exchange, which is how we learned that our census taker was an artist when he wasn’t taking the census. I laughed when my cousin asked him why he needed to know the address where she worked, and she cut her eyes at me. “It’s not for him,” I said, trying to help, “It’s for the government.” She pursed her lips. “I come from people,” she informed me, “who have learned not to trust the government.” And then there was question six: What is this person’s race? The census taker marked the box in front of White for me, with no discussion, but my cousin spent quite a bit of time on this question. “What are my options?” she asked first. The list was surprisingly long for a document conceived by the government of a country that does not readily embrace subtlety or accuracy in just about any form: White; Black, African American, or Negro; American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian Indian; Chinese; Filipino; Japanese; Korean; Vietnamese; Other Asian; Native Hawaiian; Guamanian or Chamorro; Somoan; Other Pacific Islander; or Some Other Race. Our census taker would list all of these options several times, stumbling over the words every time, until he eventually handed the form to my cousin in 10/13 2018/11/7 Relations - Identity Theory frustration. Part of the problem was that the list did not include her first choice–Mixed Race. But it did, unlike the 1990 census, allow the census taker to mark more than one race. Eventually, he marked both White and Black. *** “He has two mothers,” the Long Island woman said of the black baby to whom she gave birth, in a brazen refusal of the very terms in which her story was being told. She abandoned this idea only after it was suggested to her that this might be confusing for the child and perhaps even damaging. But she did not abandon her belief that the two boys who shared her womb should grow up knowing each other as brothers. “She wants him to know that she carried him and that she loved him and in the end made the ultimate sacrifice,” her lawyer said shortly after she surrendered the black baby to his parents. “And secondly, she wants him to know he has a brother.” In the same statement, the white woman’s lawyer also said, “The most important thing to her is that she wants this boy to know when he grows up that she didn’t abandon him because of his race.” If that was the most important thing to her and not simply her lawyer’s bad idea of what needed to be said, then her story was even sadder than it first appeared. She already feared, when he was four months old, that the baby she birthed and held and fed would grow up to believe she was racist. She was giving him up because he wasn’t hers, but the fact that he was not hers was all caught up, for her and for many others, in his race and her own. Ultimately, it is not at all hard to understand why the baby’s biological parents in New Jersey were so adamantly opposed to sharing custody with this woman. And so it was all the more surprising, all the more touching, when, after the white woman had refused them contact with the baby for the first three months of his life, and after several years...
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Irony of American Interventions
The Americans have made many inventions throughout their history of civilization. From
scientific, social, economic, to technological inventions. Some of these interventions have had a
good impact on the citizens while others don’t. However, Americans have still embraced such
inventions even if they do not seem favorable to them. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother
of inventions, American’s necessity of finding solutions to every problem (whether global or local)
and staying on the forefront in all matters has resulted in more inventions being made. Eula Biss
in her essays examines the issue of American intervention and the resulting impact on the citizens.
The major problem that Eula addresses in her texts is the issue of Americans promoting inventions
while some of these inventions result in creating bad influences, but the Americans refuse to admit
that they are wrong. This essay will examine the main problem postulated by Eula with direct
reference to her essays.
The pain scale is one of the inventions by the Americans which is also discussed by Eula.
This scale is used by doctors to quantify the pain that a patient might be going through. It is done
by asking the patients to gauge the pain they are in on a scale of 0-10 with 5 being the medium. In
her essay ‘The Pain Scale,’ Eula discusses the origin of zero as a value and how the pain scale is

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used by doctors. She explains that the scale is only meant to protect the doctors. While talking to
her father, she notes “is to protect doctors- to spare them some emotional pain. Hearing someone
describe their pain as a ten is much easier than hearing them describe it as a hot poker driven
through their eyeball into their brain.” (The Pain Scale 5). This statement reveals that this scale
was an invention necessitated by the doctors.
However, according to Eula, such a scale is just essentially wrong. Her father further
pinpoints that a better scale should be able to rate the patients on what they were willing to do to
relive their pain rather than just quantifying the pain itself. This is an invention that has been used
for long by many Americans. From the statement of Eula’s father, it becomes clear to the readers
that it is wrong and only serves the interests of the doctors alone.
Another invention addressed by Eula in her essay “The Pain Scale” is the invention of zero.
She explains that zero is not a number and does not add any value like other numbers. However,
zero has been embraced as a part of the integers by many. She pinpoints the scientist Aristotle who
did not believe in zero at all. Zero assumes the absence of everything. This is why she asks if the
absence of pain equals the absence of everything- just like the significance of zero(The Pain Scale
From her perspective, zero is just a digit used to indicate the absence of pain in the pain
scale but does not necessarily mean the absence of everything. For instance, a person might be
medically ill but experience no pain, and that does not mean they are not sick at all. The inclusion
of zero in this scale was a wrong invention by the Americans according to Eula. She goes ahead
to give some instances where zero was excluded such as in Dante’s Hell and Robert Forslund’s
invention of replacing zero with ‘A.’ A reader can see that the invention of zero and the pain scale
altogether are just wrong interventions- but no one seems ready to refute them. They are just left

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to be even when their true purpose is not clear to us. People continue to use them regardless instead
of looking for other alternatives that might seem to be much sound.
The idea of how wrong some of the inventions made are is further discussed in Eula’s essay
‘Time and Distance.’ This easy is a careful critic of the early intervention of telephone by Graham
Bell. Some inventions only result in more harm than good. People quickly do away with the initial
purpose of the inventions and use them for their personal and selfish interests. A good example in
the contemporary world is the intention of being able to scientifically create and inoculate viruses
and bacteria in laboratories. The initial intention of this invention was to help medical scientists in
the discovery of cures for certain disease caused by these viruses by carefully learning their
characteristics in the laboratories. However, this invention has been turned to a war tactic by others,
yet people do not perceive of it as being wrong.
A good example of the wrong use of such a medical invention is the arthritis bacteria being
weaponized. There was an incidence of the disease being transported to people as biological
welfare. For instance in America, it was transmitted through mail where it killed ten people. In the
essay ‘Time and Distance’, Eula describes the invention of the telephone by Bell. The initial
intention of Bell was to use his invention to achieve efficiency where people could communicate
with each other across long distances. At first, the idea was not welcome, but on proving to be
successful, it became a prestige for the rich. Soon, the telephone poles were used for lynching by
the citizens.
Eula also notes that lynching was an American invention were by Americans did it on
bridges, trees in fields, from arches, street lamps and poles erected. This was a wrong invention
necessitate by the Americans, but no one was ready to refuse it. Following the invention of the
telephone which relied on the telephone poles, people readily changed the original purpose. They

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started fighting over the erection of poles and even lynched people on the poles. The latter seemed
to be favorable to them since the poles were tall, straight and had levers. Such an incidence depicts
how some of the human inventions are wrong, but people do not complain or fight them since they
seem to favor the majority.
Eula notes that her research was meant to focus on telephone poles, but she realized that
there was many lynching on these poles. One her early ages, she used to see the poles as being
beautiful. However, when she grew up, this beauty disappeared, and she believes that nothing is
innocent (Time and Distance Overcome 88). This means that some inventions only seem to be
perfect and good to us until we come to unravel the truth about them. At this point, we can see the
inventions for what they are. It is only the adamant nature of people that makes them not see the
truth about some of these inventions that are virtually wrong.
American culture is another significant invention made by Americans. This invention
outlines clear-cut ethnical boundaries. For instance, a white woman cannot be a mother to a black
child. Even if that child is brought in an American home, they will still feel segregated when they
grow up. Eula exemplifies this wrong invention in her essay ‘Relations-Identity Theory.’ She uses
the example of the white woman in the Long Island who gave birth to twins. One of the twins was
black while the other child was white. What happened was that the black child’s embryo was
mistakenly transferred into the white woman. Later on, the black child’s parents pressed charges
demanding custody over their son (Relations-Identity Theory 1). However, despite their color and
ethnic backgrounds, they were born by the same mother- white.
She notes that we are all genetically similar to human beings and as such related to each
other. We share 99% of the genetic code and therefore scientifically, there no basis for what is
called a race. It is just a ‘social fiction’ (Relations- Identity Theory 2). Ethnicity is just a creation

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of humans, and it has resulted in wrong influences amongst the people. Many people feel
comfortable with this cultural invention. A black person will feel segregated when brought up in
the neighborhood of whites. People feel as if they are culturally robbed when raised by parents
who are from a different race. Such a cultural invention is only a misleading one and ethically
wrong. All people are the same and related regardless of their races and as such the invention was
wrong and results in bad influences. Slavery was promoted by this culture where the whites felt
that the blacks were inferior people and deserved no rights but to be subdued (Racial subjects:
Writing on race in America 15). Even though slavery was abolished and is now history, the
American culture still exists. The invention of races has resulted in dire consequences such as
promoting discrimination and prejudice (The American child and other cultural inventions 26).
Most people perceive of the American as...

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