The Default Character and Why Elizabeth Acevedo Made Me Cry

The Default Character and Why Elizabeth Acevedo Made Me Cry

February 28, 2019, 1:16 am
Filed under: art, feminism, Racism, resistance, writing | Tags: Boots Riley, colonization, Default Character, Elizabeth Acevedo, gentrification, Neutral Character, nobility, patriarching, patriarchist, poetry, rat ode, SCBWI, self-editing, sexism-ers, sexism-ing, Sorry to Bother You

Elizabeth Acevedo’s presentation at the Conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators made tears fall down my face in a way that I usually try to avoid in public. Acevedo is an extraordinary performer, writer, speaker and it’s no surprise that she took hold of the room full of writers and illustrators and moved us. But why was I crying?

At first, I thought, “Well, I’m old enough and she’s young enough that she could have been one of my students when I was doing workshops and residencies all over New York.” And while I probably didn’t teach her specifically, I certainly taught a lot of kids could have grown up to be poets or performers. I thought maybe I was having a teacher’s kvell moment, feeling proud of my former students by watching her work. But I think it was something more.

One of the stories she shared was about her graduate training in poetry that led to her writing an ode to rats. (I’d tell you the story in more detail but SCBWI’s blogging policy forbids me from disclosing the contents of a presentation. Though if you watched the beginning of this video, which is freely available on the internet, you’d be pretty much up to speed.) At the heart of the story is a kind of mental gentrification of an artist in the midst of learning a craft. It’s a story about the way that a person in power, coddled in privilege (white, male, economically secure, always part of the dominant paradigm) can thoughtlessly dismiss a culture, a humanity, can fail to see what treasures are right in front of them.

I thought, perhaps, after hearing this story, particularly the part where all of Acevedo’s Spanish words are circled in red, that I was crying for the loss of all the books I haven’t read, all the stories I haven’t heard from the people whose art was cut off at the knees by this kind of colonialist mind set, the kind that can’t look up words he doesn’t know, the kind that can’t see an experience outside of his own. There are so many books we won’t get to read, so many poems we won’t hear, so many films and plays we missed. I mean, I’m crying for that loss again right now as I write this. It is our culture’s great loss. There is no question.

But this felt more personal. It felt like she was talking to me — like it was my story she was telling in addition to her own. I’m not Dominican. Not Latina. Not a woman of color. I cannot claim to have had my work edited to fit a whiter paradigm. My work is probably right in the white zone, probably with its own unconscious colonialist impulses. I have seen the cultural knee-capping happen to students in my orbit but that particular injustice has not been one I’ve had to face. So what is it? Why does this feel so personal? I’d love to believe I was just moved by a cultural loss but I don’t think my tears are that selfless.

I suspect the feeling is familiar even if the facts are different. I suspect I felt all the ways I have been dismissed, edited or questioned for being too feminine, too disorderly or too much trouble. I suddenly found myself looking for a word that expressed a kind of colonization of gender. I want to be able to note the action while it’s happening. I want to be able to say to someone something like “Stop patriarching me!” (but better) or to find the equivalent of calling someone a colonizer. It’s not the same, I know. I know it’s not the same. But there are many ways that women’s bodies have been claimed by others instead of the people to whom they belong.

Of course we have words for the many ways that that claiming happens — many of which have only recently become common parlance. We can acknowledge that someone has committed domestic abuse or sexual assault or sexual harassment or reproductive tyranny or gaslighting or rape or objectification, etc, etc — even something as tiny as mansplaining — but so many of these things stem from a basic entitlement to women’s bodies and space. I need a word for the whole basket. I need a word bigger than sexism. I need a word for when someone is editing the femininity (or feminism) out of my work. I want to be able to shout something better than “You’re being sexist!” That phrase is too passive. It’s something the person is being, not doing. I want something like, “You’re doing sexism!” — both so I can identify it myself and to make it clear to other people. I need a word that can help highlight the subtle ways this happens. Sexism, like colonization, is ACTIVE. It’s not just in the water. It’s something people do to each other all day long and repeat and repeat, generation after generation. Colonizers try to make people assimilate to the dominant culture. Sexism-ers (sorry, still need a word and until I find one, I’m going to keep making them up) make people assimilate into the biased binary.

I have no idea what I would have been able to create if I hadn’t already spent a lifetime in the Patriarching Machine. I hope I’ve been able to resist most of the assimilation to the sexist structures — but I know there is a colonizer and patriarchist in my own mind, who does at least as much damage to me as any sexist colonizer outside me. I’d like to believe that if someone told me my idea wasn’t good enough that I would have gone ahead and written it anyway, the way Acevedo did, but I don’t know if I would have. Or did.

At this same conference, I learned about the Default Character — this is the “Neutral” character, the one that you don’t need to specify anything about. Unless we’re told otherwise, we assume the character is male, white, upper middle class, able bodied and Christian. Any character outside this norm, tends to need to be specified.

In order to be welcomed into the mainstream, we try to make ourselves closer to the default, to the neutral. We might edit out our femaleness and/or our cultural identity. (When Boots Riley won a Spirit Award for my favorite 2018 film, he pointed out how class struggle has been pretty much invisible in film due — in part — to self-editing.)

It’s a gentrification of the mind, of art. Where has my own artistic sensibility been edited and proclaimed not noble enough for the taste-makers, educators and gatekeepers? What poems haven’t I written because I was told my experiences were not sufficient? What plays or books or songs did I set aside because they weren’t nice enough for a “nice” girl like me? Acevedo heard criticism of her rat idea and she did not fold, she did not nod and say, “Oh, okay, how about an antelope?”

She went ahead and wrote that ode to rats. And she performs it on stages and in videos and there are likely people who have heard her rat ode that have heard no other odes in their lives and so she sets a new standard, a new possibility. We can praise what had once been held in contempt. We can change the definition of nobility. We can all be noble humans and there will be no more default characters.

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Originally published at artiststruggle.wordpress.com on February 28, 2019.

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Theatre Artist, writer, blogger, podcaster, singer, dreamer, hoper

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Emily Davis

Theatre Artist, writer, blogger, podcaster, singer, dreamer, hoper