On Kindness, On Intention, and On Anger in Children’s Writers
“It is not my intention today to hurt anyone. I would never want to cause anyone pain.”
Jane Resh Thomas, a well-respected children’s writer of the 20th century, benefactor of a scholarship on critical analysis, and professor at Hamline University’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children (MFAC) program, began her lecture, “On Kindness: Writing in the Age of Disgruntlement,” this way today.
She then spent just over an hour ardently telling students – students of color, students who are queer, students who are women, students with learning disabilities, students with mental illness, students who have backgrounds she does not know and cannot assume – that those who have been oppressed, those whose essential humanity has been denied, silenced, literally erased from history and society, must grant to their oppressors Kindness and Empathy, Because We Are All Equals.
With all due respect: no, we are not. That’s the goal. That’s the hope. I believe, even right now, in my anger, that it is also Jane’s hope. I believe that Jane believes it is true, even.
But Jane believes in that level playing field because she is granted the privilege of visibility. She is white. She is straight. She because of those privileges, she has had the opportunity to be eminent in her field. Because she has had that privilege, her voice has been heard, and heard with reverberation and influence, echoes of Jane Resh Thomas bouncing in arcs around the field of Children’s Literature to this minute. And beyond.
And that is why I am so angry that she would use that voice to say, Those who have never been heard must still hear me. People whose voices have never been heard because if they speak up, they are in danger, must allow those who put them in danger to hold the megaphone still.
I am angry that I had to listen to someone whose job is to teach me to write with clarity and empathy and resonant word choices say that the word “redneck” is comparable to the word “n******.” I am appalled that she called another professor a c**t to get a laugh. I am appalled that she got it, although I think so much of it was a funereal giggle – that laugh that bubbles up in the face of discomfort and fear of consequences. But there are no funereal jokes.
I am angry that someone whose job is to teach critical analysis argued that the historical significance of the Confederate flag meant that it earned its place to fly simply because it once flew, completely disregarding the historiographical significance that it did not fly over the South Carolina capitol until nearly a century after the Civil War and the cultural and critical implications of its continued and violent use to harm human beings. There was no attempt at the analysis of culture and place here, and that rightful outrage was spoken about like a temper tantrum.
We are children’s writers. Honestly, we need to honor the emotional validity of temper tantrums, too. Even if you don’t want to listen.
I am angry that someone who speaks every semester on writing gently and truthfully about pain placed her own need to feel heard over the pain of others – including the children we all are learning to write for. I am angry that someone with the comfort and privilege of a position of power above us students gave this lecture On High about how others’ pain can be invalid… if we cannot personally feel it. Or rather, if an old, straight, white woman cannot feel it.
“I would never want to hurt another person.”
I have seen Jane speak a number of times now, and I always come away uncomfortable with her ostensible assertion that the nature of pain is that all pain is equal and all pain is transient. Even as she spoke of the Fisher King, with his open wound, she asked for black culture to “get over” slavery. To “move past it.”
In the first lecture of hers that I saw, Jane posited that rape was not a “real” cause of trauma, that those who are strong enough can somehow “use” the experience to learn to be “better people.” Every time I have seen her speak, she asks for the (mandatory, captive) audience to write an exposure piece about their wounds. As though the place for that, for everyone, is always that place, at that time. For those wounds.
Some wounds do not close. The maggots that she talked about infesting the flesh of the burned are made of words and actions and, yes Jane, microaggressions (which are real, by the way). These maggots made of denial of privilege and leveraging of power over the powerless make a feast of all of us… but some more than most. Our, and their, pain runs the deepest and the hottest because those crawling parasites make their way past the bones and into the marrow of our culture’s consciousness. They are why an old white woman can feel that young black students opposed to any lauding of the Confederacy on their campus are “silly.”
They are why so many people in our own community jump down their own throats so far they speak out of their buttholes to defend sexist adult white men against young women calling them “sexist.” They are why people who wish to silence others can claim the word “kindness” and people trying so fucking (yes! fucking!) hard to speak cannot even claim their anger.
I am angry.
I am angry that by making her intentions a disclaimer, we are meant to act like Jane is absolved of her results.
I am angry that my safe place, for the last year, does not feel safe anymore.
But I will say that I think this experience taught our program one very, very valuable lesson about writing with “kindness” that Jane did not intend:
As content creators, as conscientious content creators, our intentions do not matter. Our executions matter. Jane did not set out to hurt people today.
But a lot of people in our community are hurting today.
And a lot of people in our community hurt all the time.
Not all wounds can be cleaned of maggots. Not even by burning them at the hot stove.
EDITORIAL CORRECTION: After speaking with Laura, she clarified that to her, it sounded like Jane said “I’ve been called c***,” not “I’d call you a c***..