My teen girl, Scout, is reading A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah for school. At first, she moaned every time she had to read a new chapter. “I hate this book,” she said repeatedly. “It’s so, so bad.”
So I held an intervention.
A Long Way Gone is the memoir of a young boy in the Sierra Leone who was driven from his home and forcibly conscripted into a rebel army, where he witnessed – then learned to commit – horrific atrocities. Eventually, the aid organization UNICEF rescued him and other boys, and placed them in programs to help them regain their humanity and learn to function in a changed world.
Scout has had a hard time with it. “I just hate it,” she said yesterday, like I hadn’t heard her say it the first 72 times.
“No,” I told her. “You don’t hate the book. It’s beautifully written and powerful. You hate what it’s about.”
“Right,” she said. “I mean, he’s a really good writer. But I just can’t read this stuff.”
“But you have to,” I said. “It’s your responsibility to know about this stuff. How can you understand the world if you don’t know what’s happening in the world?”
I read Beah’s book years ago when it first came out. It’s devastating. I remember weeping in parts. I didn’t immediately fly to Sierra Leone to help farmers dig irrigation trenches. But I did stop buying and wearing diamonds, and I began paying closer attention to U.S. foreign policy in Africa.
Similarly, I’m not camped out on the White House lawn wearing my brown knit pussy hat. But I emphatically know the difference between fake news and facts. [Example of fact: Norway has free health care, 12 paid weeks of paternity leave, a guaranteed 25 vacation days a year, and low pollution due in part to a commitment to electric cars.]
I know how to check sources. I pay attention, regardless of how painful it is. And I read material that’s hard to digest. I read books about poverty and child abuse and mental illness. I read historical novels to teach me about the past even as it’s repeated in the present.
“The hottest place in Hell,” said Martin Luther King, Jr., “is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.” We are certainly in a time of great moral conflict. I am not going to yawn on now about the evils of Donald Trump, because, frankly, if you still think Donald Trump is a good man, then you are a clear candidate for electroshock therapy. For real.
No, today, on Martin Luther King Day, I’m thinking about those of us who, while perhaps not remaining neutral, are at the very least failing to act like we recognize the dawning apocalypse – those of us who say we can’t watch the news because it’s too depressing, or can’t talk about what’s happening due to a disdain for politics.
We need to fight for what we believe, and we need to understand our beliefs in order to fight for them. We need to have beliefs. A person who has not suffered racial injustice still must be aware of its existence. We also need to teach our kids to do the same thing, and sometimes that means not protecting them from books that upset them.
Sure, in a perfect world, I’d rather my 16-year-old not be forced to read detailed accounts of genocide and child rape and drug addiction. But in a perfect world, Ishmael Beah would not have had to endure those horrors. He survived to tell his story. The very least we can do is listen.