The Heart of Darkness: This Bridge to Awareness
It is a powerful calling, this Darkness. It lulls. It is a siren song, sounding so sweetly yet so deadly. I cannot keep my head up. It is an act of will, one that I am failing at. I can think one thought: to sleep. I want my death sleep. It is a place of no dreams, a place where I am just gone. It is three or four hours of nothingness, of blackness. My two king-sized bed pillows on my queen sized bed encase my head in my grave. My heavy comforter’s weight anchors me to the physical world. I am gone. I no longer have to pretend to be happy. Here, I cease to exist. I can die for a time. I awake. I am not refreshed, but I am not searching for metaphorical death as a means of survival. It is better this way. It is less permanent than suicide. It helps, I imagine, until the doctor changes my medication again and the new antidepressants kick in. It was through extensive reading and therapy over many years that I finally understood that others felt exactly how I felt. It wasn’t until I overcame my fear of people thinking I was crazy that I began to share my own story. I began to speak about my depression with coworkers, church members, and even, with my own students. In the “’looking for my own bridge to get over’. . .exploring the impact” section of This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation the essayists discuss their lives and the impact This Bridge Called My Back has had on them. This paper explores the sense of awareness This Bridge provided the essayists and how awareness in any situation is the first step in moving out of oneself.
Renée M. Martínez, in “From Bridge to Rainbow,” retells her experience of moving from “warrior to peacemaker” (42). This Bridge Called My Back showed her that there were other paths she could take; she did not have to continue to be a fighter (42). Martínez tells us that This Bridge let her know that “You are not alone, no matter how lonely you may feel” (42). She felt like a bridge between “cultures, generations, worldviews” (42), and This Bridge helped her to no longer feel the weight of this work (43). Instead, she is now “like a dancing light,” traveling “within and between worlds…asking others to follow” (43). It is much less of a burden to ask others to walk with you than it is to let them use you as a bridge to be walked on.
Martínez is Mexican and tells of the racism her father experienced in Claremont, California. Because he was darker than his siblings, he had to attend Mexican schools while his siblings attended white schools (43). Martínez herself has fair skin and notes that there are all sorts of skin tones in her family (43). Her dad experienced more racism once the schools integrated. Because he spoke only Spanish, he failed his English test, and the school said him as mentally retarded (43). He fought to be in college preparatory classes and was accused of cheating (44). Martínez learned her warrior ways from her dad (44). She dominated in sports and the classroom and had a violent temper. She always “felt under siege” in her all-white mountain community because of her ethnicity and lesbianism, aspects of herself that go against the dominant culture (44). Martínez decided to show a gentler side when she left for college and decided to “fight ‘within the system’” (44). She had reservations, though. Her college professors did not demand that students question the systems they were in nor did it seem to her that the lives of people were more important than saving animals (44). This Bridge, though, provided a “cool refreshing awakening” (45). For the first time, Martínez saw racism and societal privilege named and saw a description of reality that matched her reality (45). She felt a “license to feel and cry. . .[and was reminded]. . .not to ignore [her] emotions for the sake of analysis” (46). This Bridge helped Martínez to stay even when she “was convinced that [she] didn’t belong” (46). She recognized that because of her “class, education, and fair skin” that she had access to many things other women of color had not had access to. She understood “the dynamics of white privilege” (47). Because of This Bridge, Martínez was aware that she was not alone and she moved from fighting to seeking peace (47).
Later, “As an educator in several multiracial high schools,” Martínez saw that the youths were united solely by “mutual distrust” of the system and Martínez felt only despair (48). By teaching nonviolent conflict resolution to her students, Martínez “slowly abandoned the sensibility of a warrior” (48). This Bridge allowed Martínez to embark on a different path. She now “looks for reconciliation that holds people accountable, but not at the cost of their dignity” (48). Instead of fighting because of her “unfocused anger” with its “self-destructive properties,” Martínez had a means, through nonviolent conflict resolution, of activism without destroying her or others’ dignity (49). She is living “the change that we wish to see” and living “the life we dream” (50). This Bridge made her aware. She was not alone, and it inspired her “to dare to dream, to struggle audaciously for a world that does the same” (50).
This Bridge “was an affirmation of our identities,” Alicia P. Rodriguez and Susana L. Vasquez explain in “Engagin Contradictions, Creating Home. . .Three Letters” (57). They each use letter writing to write to someone dear to them, to exorcise their pain. For Rodriguez, the important person she writes to is her child, and she explain the intensity she had in everything she did (54). She also explains that she chose to be a mother, ignoring society’s expectation that women put their careers first (58). Vasquez writes a letter to her dead father, exorcising the ghost of her father’s disapproval of her lesbian lifestyle from her dreams and talking to her father about his abuse of her mother (56-57). Neither Rodriguez nor Vasquez had “neatly fit into the dominant definitions of ethnic and racial affiliation” due to their racially mixed Latina heritages (58), and they had always “served as bridges between people who would otherwise remain apart” (57). This Bridge gave them affirmations of their identities and provided a link for them to feminism (58). The volume gave “voice to the contradictions” they faced because it spoke of the journeys they were experiencing. They became aware that they were not alone and that their life experiences were worth discussing. They “became the center of [their] own debate” (57).
Helen Johnson also became aware as a result of reading This Bridge. Johnson is a white Englishwoman who emigrated with her family to Australia (62). We could consider her part of the “white-settler society” of British immigrants who colonized both Hong Kong (where she lived for a time and which was a British colony) and Australia (63). In “Bridging Different Views,” Johnson discusses how This Bridge made her aware of “the concept of pluralism among women” and “social biases’ effects on women’s sense of self” (63). Johnson is an anthropologist and states that This Bridge “enhances [students] awareness of how identities are constructed and articulated as racialised [sic], sexualised [sic], and classed representations” (63). She uses the text in her college classroom to bring “a deeper understanding of ‘women’ to students’ work”(63). Quoting Essed, Johnson says that “Building identifications and coalitions across nation-state and racial boundaries helps students learn that ‘rather than locking ourselves into static identities, many of us may be able to identify’” with the perspectives of those elsewhere (65). This Bridge, Johnson says, creates “social and cultural consciousness of regional and global dynamics” in her students and shows her students that “recognising [sic] and acting against political and economic oppression is a continuous struggle and a primary purpose of education” (66).
Australia has many Asian Pacific female students “from cultures where self-effacement is constructed as the most socially appropriate ‘femininity’” (66). By reading This Bridge, “some students evolve a different sense of self as they realise [sic] how their received ideas have been formed by knowledge constructed and propagated through relations of power (66-67). The text allows them “to diminish their confusion and sense of fragmentation” (67). Women are no longer locked into the “notion of universal ‘woman’” (67). Instead, This Bridge makes its readers aware of the idea of difference, that not all women share exactly the same experiences (67) but it also shows that they are not alone. Quoting Mitsuye Yamada, Johnson says that “we must remember that one of the most insidious ways of keeping women and minorities powerless is to let them only talk about harmless and inconsequential subjects, or let them speak freely and not listen to them with serious intent” (68). From here, Johnson “emphasises [sic] the need to listen to women’s diverse viewpoints” and sets up a discussion of sex tourism in the Asia-Pacific region (68). The insights of the essayists in This Bridge help Johnson’s students to be more aware of diversity and allow Johnson to “maintain local and international cross-border dialogues” through the awareness the essays bring to readers.
Rebecca Aanerud’s “Thinking Again: This Bridge Called My Back and the Challenge to Whiteness” tells how students enroll in feminism courses for many reasons. Some enroll because of the “crushing and pervasive force” of the gender system in their own lives and “want to arm themselves with the tools of knowledge” (70). Others have a “far more complex understanding that an oppressive gender system cannot work without the collaboration of other systems of power and oppression” (70, author’s emphasis). This means that there is a range of reasons and motivations within the classroom. Aanerud uses Barbara Smith’s definition of feminism as “the political theory and practice to free all women” including “white economically privileged heterosexual women” (70). Aanerud first read This Bridge in 1986 and did not quite realize that it “represented voices and perspectives too often silenced in western feminism” (70). Before whiteness studies “entered the academy,” the authors in This Bridge analyzed “how whiteness as a socially constructed category of racial and cultural identity maintains and reproduces its hegemony” (71). This Bridge helps to de-center whiteness but at the same time gives agency to white anti-racism (71).
Unsurprisingly, Aanerud tells us that This Bridge “is one of the most cited books in feminist theorizing” (71, author’s emphasis). But authors do not discuss its specifics. It is a hip book to acknowledge and is often cited, but white feminists have failed to fully engage because “seeing oneself as a racist is highly disagreeable” (71). Aanerud indicates that the problem is that that there is no “nuanced understanding of racism: either one is or is not a racist” (71). For whites, racism has been depicted as individual events instead of as events that occur within a system (72). This Bridge, according to Aanerud, is notable because it noted how racism (and heterosexism, classism, ageism) “works in conjunction with sexism” (72). While de-centering and repositioning whiteness (73), it brought together a variety of women of color and does not offer a “single and unified statement on racism” (72). It marks the difference in women’s lives and acknowledges “that all women must find ways to build alliances across difference” (73).
For white middle class women, This Bridge makes us aware that racism does not exist merely as events between individuals; instead, racism exists as a result of systems of hegemony. Aanerud discusses Barbara Cameron’s “Gee, You Don’t Seem Like an Indian From the Reservation” and how it complicated her own understanding of racism (74). Through Cameron’s willingness to discuss her own racism, Aanerud discovered that white middle class women are not the only ones who are racist. “There is no site free of racism,” she says, because racism “is the inevitable result of living in this culture (75). Despite Aanerud’s thoughts to the contrary, “racism was [her] problem” (75, author’s emphasis). This Bridge insisted that “white women must educate themselves” (76). To continually explain, translate, mediate, legitimize, and connect people across difference is an “energy-sapping strategy” (77). It is not the task of women of color to educate white women, but it is the task of white women to educate themselves instead of depending upon others to do it for us. This Bridge allows us to do that, to begin to form awareness through self education (77).
Why did I choose these essays? I am a bridge for those who experience depression and who wish to be sane. I am a bridge between those who try to understand what their depressed relatives are going through. Within the last two weeks, I have shared my experiences with depression with a seventeen year old student who told me she wanted to die. The girl had begun throwing up in class for no apparent reason, and in the school’s clinic there was something she clearly was not telling us. When she began to speak to me, after I had been there for an hour, she said people would think she was insane. I shared my thoughts of feeling utterly alone while putting on a happy public face and how I have in the past feared that others would think I was insane as a result. I shared how no one knew what I thought. That I just wanted to crawl into a dark place and hide. Her eyes widened. I asked her how I could know such a thing. How could I read her thoughts? I told her I knew. I understood. I spoke with her mother, while the paramedics took the daughter to the ambulance. I told the mom how I would hide in my dark closet and cry uncontrollably. There was no reason. I knew it was irrational. I told her mom how my parents had tried to get me help, but I refused to talk to the psychiatrist. The mom nodded in recognition. I told her mom that I understood. It would be okay, and I would continue to be there for her daughter when she returned to class.
Indeed, it is easy to disguise my depressive states. I can speak of many things, pretending to speak about what is important to me without revealing any part of me. I know that “one the most insidious ways of keeping . . . powerless is to let them only talk about harmless and inconsequential subjects” (68). I can discuss how I’m tired from all the reading and writing and grading I must do without stating the real reason I’m tired is depression. I can smile in public and tell people to have a good day. I can compliment students as they walk by my classroom, and I can empathize when coworkers discuss dying parents and custody battles and troubles with students. But inside I am alone. Until someone asks about more than the weather or the students, until someone asks what is truly going on with me or unless I volunteer the information, no one knows. Without the power of awareness, I am trapped.
Awareness gets us out of that trap. It isn’t until my husband points out that I am sleeping more than usual, napping after work and during the entire weekend, that I know I have to see the doctor again for a medication adjustment. To continually explain, translate, mediate, legitimize, and connect people across difference is an “energy-sapping strategy” (Aanerud 77). I never understood how my questions of women different from me could be so much like my depression until we discussed it in class and until I received further explanation in Aanerud’s essay. This Bridge insisted that “white women must educate themselves” (76). I would add that it is imperative that humans educate themselves about the systems of dominance in their cultures. Even M. Jacqui Alexander states that the Indians in Trinidad are treated as second-class citizens by the black majority (Alexander 92). It isn’t just a white American problem. “Decolonization is a project for all,” Alexander writes (92, author’s emphasis). Awareness of the issues is the first step in that decolonization. As a bridge or as a dancing light, we each have a goal: the freeing of all women.
Aanerud, Rebecca. “Thinking Again: This Bridge Called My Back and the Challenge to Whiteness.” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. Eds. Glorida E. Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating. New York: Routledge, 2002. 69-77. Print.
Alexander, M. Jacqui. “Remembering this Bridge, Remembering Ourselves: Yearning, Memory, and Desire.” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. Eds. Glorida E. Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating. New York: Routledge, 2002. 81-103. Print.
Johnson, Helen. “Bridging Different Views: Australian and Asia-Pacific Engagements with This Bridge Called My Back.” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. Eds. Glorida E. Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating. New York: Routledge, 2002. 62-69. Print.
Martínez, Renée M. “Del puente al arco iris: transformando de guerrera a mujer de la paz – From Bridge to Rainbow: Transforming from Warrior to Woman of Peace.” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. Eds. Glorida E. Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating. New York: Routledge, 2002. 42-50. Print.
Rodriguez, Alicia P. and Susana L. Vasquez. “Engaging Contradictions, Creating Home ... Three Letters.” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. Eds. Glorida E. Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating. New York: Routledge, 2002. 53-59. Print.
Originally published 2/20/12