An intriguing question arises over the course of the 30 essays in “Readying to Rise,” a new collection of writing by Seattle journalist Marcus Harrison Green: If the personal is political, does that mean the local is universal?
Green is a South Seattle native who, after working in finance and noticing a significant disparity in how the media continually framed narratives about the Black community, co-founded the South Seattle Emerald, for which he’s currently also the publisher and editor-in-chief. He realized, he writes, that the “media, like most of our country’s systems and institutions, is a structure of power for, dominated by, and founded on a supremacy of whiteness.”
Green explains in the essay “Our World Needs More Truth, Fewer Saviors” that he became a journalist after being “inspired by Plato’s axiom that storytellers rule the world, so they are best positioned to change it. … The mantra of journalism has long been that it exists to speak truth to power. And as much as I bought into that then, and still do, I thought its superior purpose was speaking truth to those who believe they are powerless and reminding them that they are not.”
To that end, he left behind a successful career in finance in Los Angeles, moved back to Seattle and used his own savings to found a nonprofit news outlet specifically designed to amplify the authentic narratives of South Seattle. In doing so, he became, he says, “someone who has the unenviable task of having to somehow speak for the entire Black population to a few groups of, shall we say, less-than-open-minded people.”
But that’s the public face of Green. The personal aspects, which he fearlessly reveals in “Readying to Rise,” give an idea of how the private lives of people of color in America are inherently political.
Green’s path to success was marked by financial struggles, (probably) well-meaning but covertly racist allies and battles with alcohol use and depression. As a Black man living with mental illness, Green discovered a harsh truth, backed by data from Harvard studies and nonprofits like the Treatment Advocacy Center; he asks in the essay “How I Survived the Collision of Racism and the Stigma of Mental Illness,” “When the bias of race merges with the stigma of mental illness to collide with law enforcement and criminal justice systems inadequately addressing either, what else can be produced except disaster?”
In several of the essays, Green recounts one such disaster, an incident that had a formative impact on the rest of his life. One day, when he was just 13 years old, he was stopped for jaywalking by a Seattle police officer. The officer roughly handcuffed and held him against the patrol car, using a racial epithet against the young Green. “I stood in the middle of the street, trembling with horror after he uncuffed me and drove off without another word. For almost a year afterward, he would smirk at me whenever I would walk into the doughnut shop with my mother, his sinister smile triggering a rerun of the experience.”
This single moment is recalled repeatedly, while other milestones such as Green’s graduation from college, the numerous awards for his writing or even his reasons for returning to Seattle are barely mentioned. The incident with the officer points to a thread that runs through the collection. Namely, that the banality of evil has a parallel: the banality of heroism.
To many, Green is a hero. Yet he fearlessly “de-Supermans” himself throughout the book, just as he recounts the failings of such social justice heroes as Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Susan B. Anthony. His reason for doing so, he tells the reader in the essay “Superman Taught Me Most of What I Know About Life,” is simple: “If what constitutes the worst of our heroes is not restricted from us, then neither is what constitutes the best of them. Their voices that spoke loudly for all those who couldn’t find their own — well, we happen to come with one.”
Between the evil and heroic, between those society deems worthy and those who are disposable, Green reveals a cautionary truth about the future of American society. “To continually deny someone’s humanity, someone’s suffering, is to eventually deny your own humanity and invite suffering on yourself. … We can live in a society that puts a higher value on some lives, or we can choose to live in a society where all lives truly matter, including black ones, but we cannot have both.”
The essays in “Readying to Rise” are short but not slight. Green’s writing is marked by robust language and a laser-sharp clarity of focus. The collection is eminently readable, but it isn’t a “quick read.” Though brief, each essay is best read slowly, with pauses to think about or discuss the ideas presented before moving on to the next.
Several of the entries in the collection test the boundary between essay and article. And this is where the original question — is the local universal? — comes to the fore.
The original working title of the book, “Just Outside Utopia,” suggests the importance of place as a unifying theme. Green situates a number of the pieces firmly in both time and space, their structure distinctly journalistic in style.
How well will these pieces read to someone not acquainted with the landscape (political, social and literal) of Seattle? Will Green’s evocative references to “Skyway,” “the Rainier Beach neighborhood” and “the Grocery Outlet on Renton Avenue” resonate with someone from Tacoma or Everett, Atlanta or Milwaukee?
Reading “Readying to Rise,” I had the delightful yet entirely coincidental experience of recognizing most of Green’s references. I used to live in Skyway. I worked in the Rainier Beach neighborhood. I have even shopped at the Grocery Outlet on Renton Avenue.
So I can’t personally judge how someone from New York City or rural Alaska would understand Green’s South Sound-focused statements like “Kubota Garden first showed me how powerful the concept of ‘home’ is.” I knew exactly what he meant, but will this hyper-localism evoke the inclusion Green is striving for? Or will it only alienate?
Green himself provides the answer.
“The world is not yet just when it has more black people locked in jail now than were slaves before Emancipation,” he writes in the essay “Our World Needs More Truth, Fewer Saviors.” “The stone-cold truth is that in a city where a mayor’s race can be won without one single black vote, the social currency possessed by white folks is powerful.”
Just as there is a banality of evil and heroism, there’s also a banality of empathy. Replace the locations in Green’s essays with any other in America, and the message remains the same. There’s enough of both the universal and the empathetic in “Readying to Rise” to transcend place.
Read more of the Dec. 22-28, 2021 issue.