We’re All Coopers

As an English teacher, one of the disciplines I try to teach my students is analysis. Take a situation, a piece of art, a novel, a political view, a fight you had with your friend. Lay it out in front of you and examine it from every angle. Check out its component parts, and start asking yourself questions. How does this cog fit into that cog and make this crankshaft turn? How does this word combined with this biblical or pop culture allusion develop this tone that creates in the reader a sense of satisfaction or humor or existential dread? How does the painter use indigo to create a sense of depth perception in this painting?

So often, when we see a painting, or read a poem, or experience a national moment, we rush into our conclusions, and that’s not necessarily bad or un-intellectual. I think first impressions are really important in analysis. How did it make you feel? The first reactions lead the analyst into deeper questions, beginning questions: Why did she do that, I wonder? What caused him to react that way? How would I have acted in that situation?

Here’s why I am ranting about analysis today: Amy Cooper woke me up really early this morning. She’s the most recent national “Karen,” a white woman calling the police on a black person for being in a public space. Yesterday, I had First Reactions. Remember, first conclusions are not invalid. They’re the spark that takes us deeper into analysis. Why am I so angry? What was she thinking? Yesterday, Amy Cooper stepped out of her individual story and into the boat of an archetype. She’s a “Karen.” She’s a morality lesson. She’s an example of implicit bias and unquestioned entitlement and white supremacy. And when she floated into my mind at 4:30 this morning, I wasn’t getting back to sleep.

I do not know Amy Cooper, and any guesses I make about her motivations and choices are a complete disservice to her as an individual. I’m pretty sure she had no intention of stepping onto the stage and becoming a player in a National Morality Play. But she did do so. And now her part in this story has become the setting for necessary cultural analysis.

There are a lot of possible points of analysis here. The most obvious, of course, is race. The setting, however, has to do with civic duty and entitlement. Again, I do not know Ms. Cooper or why she would walk through a sensitive wildlife habitat, past signs that read Dogs Must Be Leashed At All Times, and let her dog run free of the leash. (Just this week, a friend of mine was injured while walking her own leashed dog, by a rambunctious unleashed dog in a park with Leash Your Dog Signs. “Oh, he’s friendly!” called the scofflaw owners of the leash-free pup just moments before the dog barreled exuberantly into my friend and her dog.) What is this entitlement that causes people to assume that basic laws and guidelines of civic and community co-existence don’t apply to me? There’s fodder for a whole article here. I would guess that we could all find some of these rules that we would scoff at personally. My favorites are the Homeowners’ Associations that forbid gardens in front lawns or washlines or wildflower patches. This piece of the analysis gets to the root of who we are as a society: Where does your freedom end and mine begin? Are there necessary “rules” for how we behave together in shared spaces? Don’t we need rules that protect the Earth and animals, which cannot speak for themselves? Should we regulate industries that pollute the air and earth and water that we all share? Can we ask each other to wear masks in public in order to protect each other from a pandemic? American individualism versus community health and well-being. Anarchy, individualism, authoritarianism, communitarianism, civic-mindedness all crunch together. There are whole articles to be written on this one.

Obviously, the main issue in this story, however, is the race issue. A white woman calling the police on a black man. Birding while black. Upholding community standards while black (he was simply asking her to leash her dog). In the context of the murder of a Minneapolis man by the police this week, the possible danger she placed him in cannot be discounted or minimized. Amy Cooper said later that she saw the police as protectors. As a black man in America, Christian Cooper (no relation) has every historical reason to fear the police when a white woman says, “I am afraid!” There are historical echoes in Amy Cooper’s phone call, echoes of Carolyn Bryant Donham calling down white wrath on Emmett Till, echoes of white slave-holding women maintaining cultural supremacy by placing black men in the role of dangerous savage from whom they needed protection.

And the moment I get into that territory, I need to recognize the gender story here. While this is a Morality Play about Race, we can’t ignore the gender question, the fact that women fear public spaces. I’m not sure how to parse the general fears of women from the racialized use of that fear that Amy Cooper played upon. A woman alone hiking in the woods has to contend with fear of male violence. Women grow up knowing we’re prey in some men’s minds. It doesn’t matter that most men would not harm us. We learn to be watchful and vigilant, to feel unsafe. We who look through Christian Cooper’s camera feel no sense of threat toward Amy Cooper. Yet we don’t know what traumas she may have experienced in her life that might have sent her into her reptilian brain for responses. We do hear her name race in her call, repeatedly. (Echo. Echo.) Still, simple gendered fear has to be taken into account not as an excuse, but as a factor.

You could analyze the surreality of their names. Were you to write this as a short story about race and gender and social entitlement in the US today, surely you wouldn’t name them the same thing. And yet, there’s something that awes me about this detail, some universal synchronicity that says: In the midst of it all, you’re the same. You’re related. You may think you’re the opposite on every imaginable scale–race, gender, age, civic engagement–but you’re really the same. You’re coopers, barrel-makers. You take the different elements of wood and metal and put the pieces together with such skill that the water and the wine stay safely within.

You could analyze their age difference. You could do a psychological exploration of the role of fear in this encounter. You could look at her treatment of the dog. You could look at the subculture of birders, and wonder about the warblers that Christian Cooper was most likely watching that day. You could explore their religious and political leanings (she appears to fall on the liberal side of the spectrum, if you’re making assumptions).

To do this justice, I would parse each piece in much greater detail, examine every element, but this is a blog-journal and not a professional article. It’s personal ramblings and not an English essay. Instead of trying to wrap it up neatly, I want to take it back to what I wrote yesterday, about curiosity. After all this muddling through today, I’m still angry. I still think Amy Cooper needs to be held accountable for calling the police on a black man who just wanted her to follow the rules and leash her dog, despite that fact that the story may have human complexity that extends beyond the symbolic and archetypal significance we place upon it.

But now I am curious. I wonder how this story would play out as deliberate fiction, what it might tell us about ourselves and how we live in the world. I’m curious about how Amy Cooper will find her way into life again as herself after living as an archetype. I wonder what would happen if Mr. Cooper and Ms. Cooper could be brought together in a mediation situation where they could tell each other their stories. I wonder what would happen if we would all begin to tell each other our stories, if we would all explore our internal biases, if we could maintain curiosity as a constant, if we would choose to encounter each other–with all our differences in age and race and gender and social awareness and civic-mindedness–as somehow inherently the same. This really is a morality play in which each character holds layers of symbolism. It’s a Jungian dream, in which each of us is equally each of the characters, bringing with us the distinct elements of race and gender and age and experience that make us distinct. We’re all Coopers.

Gratitude List:
1. We’re all different. We’re all the same. Being human is messy, but it’s so beautiful.
2. Wonder and curiosity
3. The way dawn came this morning on an aural wave, first the night insects and the early twittering of birds, along with an occasional rumble of a bullfrog in the pond, then louder, more voices joining, echoes resonating in the bowl of the hollow.
4. Finding closure
5. Blackberry blossoms covering the bluff like snow.

May we walk in Beauty!

“What does it mean to be pro-life if you defend the life of a child in the womb, but not the life of a child on the border?” —James Martin SJ

“It simply isn’t an adventure worth telling if there aren’t any dragons.” —Sarah Ban Breathnach

“Forests will always hold your secrets,
as that’s what forests are for.
To envelop things.
They’re the blankets
of the earth,
grown to protect,
to comfort, to hide,
to carry, to seep
into our chests,
and to teach.
Your sharpest aches
and bygone dreams
will be scattered across
these knowing trees
while the ancient contrasts
of shadow and light
whisper once again
that we are built to seek.
It is here in this space
where we’ll rediscover
the rhythms of roots
and what it fully means
to renew.
To revive.
To breathe.” —by Victoria Erickson

“Live in the sunshine, swim in the sea, drink the wild air.”
—Ralph Waldo

“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.” ―Rachel Carson

“In nature’s economy, the currency is not money. It is life.” —Vandana Shiva

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