(An endnote follows this month’s post)
If irony were an element, I believe it would surpass hydrogen as the most abundant in the universe. Take a moment to reflect on how it plays out sometimes in your life, and see if you aren’t inclined to offer an “Amen” (or an “Ashé”). One need only be alive to understand how ever-present it is, and how – unlike hydrogen – it is neither odorless nor colorless but takes on many fragrances and hues.
A teacher introduced me to the concept of irony in 7th-grade English. I didn’t get it at the time, but it was her expression as she talked about it that made me want to try. How can I describe that look? It was if the no-nonsense woman I had seen every school day had become a dreamy-eyed girl. The class was studying Longfellow’s epic poem Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie, but the only thing I could figure out about this new and strange idea was that it had something to do with two boats passing each other on a foggy night. It was years later that I understood the significance of those boats doing that, and of my teacher’s momentary transformation.
Irony springs from acts of nature and those of our own. It manifests itself as comedy, tragedy and in a myriad of ways between those extremes; it also has shown an ability to be both absurd and deadly serious simultaneously. This particular attribute comes to mind when considering stories reported only a few days ago.
According to a recent poll conducted by the widely-respected Marist Institute for Public Opinion, 52% of those polled said “professional sports leagues should require their athletes to stand for the national anthem.” This, of course, has come up because of the dust-up resulting from one athlete’s refusal – for good reason – to follow the custom. Digging deeper into the poll, one learns something in no way surprising, yet full of irony: more veterans than civilians feel that way.
Some veterans have expressed their support for the athlete in question, Colin Kaepernick. They are the ones on whom irony would not be lost. As for their fellow veterans who see things differently, a 7th-grade level of understanding of the irony they’ve produced might be the best they can achieve. No doubt, these veterans look at the sacrifice they’ve made and wonder why anyone would refuse to honor it, despite the fact that Kaepernick’s protest has nothing to do with veterans, active duty service members or anything regarding the military. These veterans are wounded by a perceived lack of respect, blinding them to the irony that arises when those who volunteer to defend our rights not only are angered when we exercise them, they support our rights being infringed upon.
A day after that poll was reported (by Brian Williams on MSNBC), another irony-rich story appeared in The Washington Post. As reported by Derek Hawkins, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), presently responsible for 140,000 state prisoners, has a banned-book list containing 15,000 titles. Want to read Narrative of Sojourner Truth, the poetry of Langston Hughes, a book about Jackie Robinson or Alice Walker’s The Color Purple? Too bad. Want to read My Awakening: A Path to Racial Understanding by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard and present-day white supremacist David Duke? Sure. Why not? How about Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf? Well, that would be just fine. Shakespeare’s sonnets? No siree.
I read Hawkins’ article more than once before I noticed a word that should have jumped out at me the first time, given the subject of this post. Here, let me show you what I mean: “TDCJ also bans, perhaps most ironically, It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, a novel that describes the fictional election of a fascist president in the United States who imposes totalitarian rule on the country. Mein Kampf, on the other hand — which laid the groundwork for an actual fascist takeover in a democratic country — is fair game.”
I bet you correctly guessed the word in that passage I read right over initially was “ironically”, didn’t you? Ironic, huh?
A few weeks ago, while on the phone with my grandson, Torian, discussing a ten-minute exercise from a writing class, I mentioned the theme from that day: “If I remain silent….” This resonated with him; just the day before, he said, he had been thinking those very words.
As some of you know, he presently is incarcerated. His thoughts on those words centered around his questioning whether he should or should not be telling people things he knows they need to know in the moment, things that might lift them up or prevent them from being broken down. He has a good sense for those who can hear him, but wonders if he might be heard by more.
As a result of our conversation, he decided to try the exercise, and asked if I would post what he wrote. Here it is:
“If I remain silent, then I wouldn’t talk about the things that I’m passionate about. I would probably always be stressed out because instead of talking about the things that I feel, things I see, I fake and walk around like I’m numb and I’m blind. ‘If you knew better you’ll do better, and for those who know there ain’t no excuses.’
So, I guess if I remain silent, on my judgment day my punishment will be tenfold because I cowered my way through life, biting my tongue, giving excuse after excuse for not speaking, talking – yelling, for that matter – when it was most needed.
If I remain silent, then I’m an impostor, fraud, phony because – let me tell it – ‘I’m a hundred, never biting my tongue for no man.’ P’sst, lie. So, I guess if I remain silent I’m a liar too.
If I remain silent, then I’m part of the problem. See, silence fixes nothing, so even if just ‘guilty by association’ I was never a part of any solution. So, by street definition, if I remain silent I’m an in-the-way-assed nigga (shaking my head), something I can never be ‘cause I’m a real man. But, if I remain silent, there’s no way I can consider myself a man. Real men do real-men things, and that includes simple things like talking. So, If I don’t get that down pat, I’m ’a be just like one of the many men/child running around screaming I’m a man but truly I’m a boy.
God gives us life and some beautiful/powerful abilities with it. One of these is vocal cords so – somewhere in our lifetime – we can use them when people need us to. So, if I remain silent, my life, my very existence was nothing but a waste.”