A Moment of White Silence

A couple of years ago, my then 9 year old daughter and I rode BART into Oakland for a Warriors game.  She was going to perform at half time with her dance team and about a hundred other dancers from around the Bay Area.  Inside the train, most of the seats were occupied, and anyways, she preferred the excitement of standing and swaying with the train’s motion, rather than sitting down.  So we stood in the open area near the doors where bikers have space to prop their bikes against the wall and where during rush hour, strangers stand together in forced intimacy.  This was before peak rush hour, though, so we stood in an open space, my one hand resting on her shoulder and my other hand holding the bar overhead to steady us as the train started and stopped at each station along the way.

At one stop, an elderly, mildly stooped Chinese man stepped through the doors onto the train, holding the hand of a small boy– assumedly his grandson– who looked about four years old.  The man spoke in Chinese to two women seated in the door-side seats that are reserved for elderly people or those who are pregnant or disabled.  Certainly, neither of the seated women spoke Chinese, but the man’s inquiring, polite tone and hand gestures clearly communicated that he was requesting that they move so that he could sit in those two seats with his grandson.  One of these seated women was loaded down with two suitcases and another bag, whereas the second woman merely held a purse.  Both of the women looked to be between 55-65 years old, and both of them were white.

After registering the man’s request, the woman with the purse in her lap shook her head and said “No” and continued to stare straight ahead.  On the other hand, the woman with the multiple pieces of luggage got up and moved to another seat nearby.

The man stood for another beat and then, because the woman with the purse still occupied one of the seats, moved on to another car to find two seats where he could sit down with his grandson.

As we witnessed this interaction a few feet from us, a black woman standing near us with her bicycle, spoke up to defend the Chinese man, telling the woman she should have moved to make space for this man and his grandson.  She pointed out the sign that stated who the seats are reserved for, and she said the woman should be ashamed of herself for not getting up.  “You’re old enough to know better,” she said.  “You should act your age.”  Then she said that she was sure there were other good people in the train car who would agree with her and who would speak up in support of what was right.

I, among a car full of strangers, continued to hold my daughter’s shoulder and the bar above me, and I continued to hold my tongue.

The black woman said, “The nerve of some people!” and took out her phone and made a verbal note to herself stating her name and the date and the BART stop we were near and her intention to record a podcast later that day on the topic of white privilege.  Her voice, clear and contained, projected throughout our half of the car, and she spoke the words “white privilege” with emphasis on the consonants and a pause between the two words.

I felt hot and a little sweaty and my insides shifted around.  I was being called upon to speak up for what was right, but I didn’t want to have to do it.  I wanted out.  Silence was easiest.  The black woman was angry, and I have a fear of angry black women.  The white woman was gray haired, as I am,  and slightly older than I, and I felt a little badly for her, being shamed in public.  I guess I identified with her.  I too have a cushion of privilege which has protected me since birth from having to experience racism or empathize with black and brown people.  Because of that cushion, I did not have to notice the unfairness, the unkindness of what was going on before me.  It was easier to ignore the situation and safer to just stay out of it.

A week or two later, I was driving into San Francisco and was passing Oakland on the Maze, and streaming out from the attic windows of one of the old Victorian houses along the freeway was a huge banner with black painted words: “White silence is violence.”

The banner was made for me.


Day 4 of 100 Days of Novel Research

The book, “Humboldt History, Volume One: Two People, One Place” by Ray Raphael and Freeman House is invaluable to me in envisioning my characters’ worldview, as my characters were born in the late 1800’s in Humboldt County.  The gold rush of Northwest California, beginning 1850, was about a generation before my characters were born, so miners hugely impacted.  the landscape and culture in which my characters were raised.

Here (below) is my sketch of an idealized drawing of “The Miner” from a popular publication (Hutchings’ California Magazine, February 1857.)  Raphael and House preface the magazine’s caption by writing, “The values expressed were common for these times.”  From the magazine:  “THE MINER:  He turns the river from its ancient bed, and hangs it, for miles together, in wooden flukes upon the mountain’s side, or throws it from hill to hill, in aqueducts that tremble at their own airy height; or he pumps a river dry, and takes its gold bottom out.  He levels down the hills, and at the same process levels up the valleys;… he pounds the rocks of the mountain into dust.  No obstacle so great that he does not overcome it; ‘can’t do it’ makes no part of his vocabulary.”

Raphael and House write: “Miners, like most people, placed themselves in the center of things, but they went a step further, for they assumed they were firmly in command of a world they did not know.  They claimed dominion, ignoring the natural shapes and rhythms of the place they suddenly inhabited and the people who were already living there.  They assumed they had the right to change things at will, and they thought they had the ability as well.  This made them proud.”


100 Days of Novel Research, Day 4


My third post in my 100 Days of Novel Research continues to draw from “Humboldt History, Volume One: Two Peoples, One Place,” by Ray Raphael and Freeman House.

Joseph Russ and his wife Zipporah Russ had 13 children together in Humboldt County.  He exhibited a keen business sense in buying up land that became available when “whites who feared local Indians fled from their homesteads in the Bear River area.”  Then he rented out the parcels he had acquired…”His store in Ferndale was described as the largest in the country, and he eventually operated an impressive chain of butcher shops in Eureka and several smaller towns.  Naturally, he did not overlook the county’s vast timber resources…  He bought up land, cut down the trees, sent the logs to his own mill, and shipped the finished lumber to far away places such as Honolulu on his own fleet of schooners…”.   The authors conclude this section with, “During an era in which entrepreneurial spirit was lauded and Euro-Americans did whatever they could to ‘develop’ the Humboldt region, more people owed their livelihoods to Joseph Russ than to any other local magnate.”

100 Days of Novel Research: Day 3

My study of “Humboldt History, Volume  One: Two Peoples, One Place” by Ray Raphael and Freeman House continued today.  I felt the darkness of the truths in this book, and I wondered, should something this serious and heavy really be my subject for the 100 Days?  (Answer is yes.)  And I also asked myself if I’m going to lose sight of my story in all of this research.  (Answer is, do not fear– go for it.  Follow my compulsion to know all of this history and trust myself– I’m the author of my novel, and my intuition has led me to wonderful places so far.)

These are pictures of Sally Bell (a To-Cho-be ke-ah, or Shelter Cove Sinkyone) and Lucy Young (a Set-ten-bi-den ke-ah, or Lassik Indian) which I drew from photos in the book.  The caption reads:  “As children they witnessed the horrific massacre of their people; as adults they offered vivid recollections of what had happened.”  Both of their stories are heartrending, and I intend to hold their memory close to me throughout the writing of my novel.

A couple sentences from the book that summarize the relationship between the Euro American pioneers and the Native Americans:  “This  is the context in which we must view the subjugation of indigenous people by those who coveted their land.  Fear and racism, when combined with acquisitiveness, led in the end to policies intended to subdue, remove, or kill indigenous people.”


100 Days of Novel Research: Day 1

For my first day of my 100 Days Project, “100 Days of Novel Research,” I’m reading in “Humboldt History, Volume One: Two Peoples, One Place” by Ray Raphael and Freeman House, about the Native American people who lived in Humboldt County long before– and during– the late 1800’s, early 1900’s, which is when my novel takes place.  One of the major ways the Euro-Americans devastated the landscape of Humboldt County was by mining the rivers for gold excessively and unwisely.  As Ray Raphael writes, “In the second half of the nineteenth century, citizens of Humboldt who looked to make their fortunes by mining or logging or fishing treated these resources as gifts of nature that would ‘go to waste’ unless utilized in the here and now.  They did not look very far into the future, to a time when resources might become depleted.”

Primary source, Charlie Thom, said in an interview:  “I’m telling you they really raped this land, and I am a full-blooded Indian from the Karuk tribe and it really disturbs me.  How this thing came about I don’t know.  Greed, a lot of bloodshed, and I look at the country today.  What it is.  How can they turn the soil upside down and out and do nothing about it?  Today we are living in a rock pile along the Klamath.  We’re living in a rock pile.  No more soil.  The erosion came and hit.” (“Humboldt History, Volume One: Two Peoples, One Place,” by Ray Raphael and Freeman House)


This is my sketch of a Karuk woman named Dolly Sanderson, with her handwoven baskets, along the Klamath River, circa 1915.

100 Days of Novel Research

IMG_1898For the second year in a row, I’m taking part in “The 100 Day Project” through Elle Luna and The Great Discontent on Instagram. Starting today, April 4, I am joining people all over the world in doing one creative act every day for 100 consecutive days, and posting about it every day on Instagram.  My project last year was “100 Days of Illustrating My Poems,” and it profoundly impacted my life by helping me give myself permission to draw daily and to share my work.  I learned through that challenge that I’m capable of much more self expression than I had experienced, and I gained access to a bubbling inner spring of creativity.

This year my project is entitled, “100 Days of Novel Research.”  I began my first novel a few months ago and it is going to require a massive amount of research, as it is historical fiction and covers many topics and settings about which I don’t know enough.  Starting today,  I am committing to posting a piece of information every day that I uncover in my research, plus the source in which I discovered it, and also a drawing that I made that corresponds to the information.

I’m thrilled to seek out the essence of my characters by sifting through events in history.  I’m excited to spend time thinking about the places in which I’ve set my novel– a sense of place is so important to learning my characters’ world view.