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  • Nikhil Dhawan

Small Great Things #BLM

"If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way." - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This quote is the inspiration for the book, Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult. If you've been feeling confused, frustrated, or angry over the past few months about social unrest, this might be a good read.

Small Great Things is based on real events from 2015; the reader is taken on a journey to understand the back story and context of three specific characters: Ruth, an African-American female nurse, Kennedy, a Caucasian female Public Defender, and Turk, a white male supremacist. Each chapter is written through one of these characters' viewpoints, so a lot can be learned about the importance of perspectiveI was reminded of the difficulties of being Black in America; I learned about the background of white supremacists; and I gained insight into a population of people, like Kennedy, that most of us can probably relate to. 

The story is based on Ruth Jefferson, an African-American female nurse who works in the Labor & Delivery ward at a hospital in Flint, Michigan. She is a light-skinned Black woman, and her mother works as a housekeeper for a wealthy white family. Her father died in the Vietnam war, so she was raised by a single mother who ran two households. Ruth was gifted, so she received scholarships to good schools since she was eight. After undergrad, she attended Yale Nursing school, got her degree, and became a full-time L&D nurse at Mercy-West Haven Hospital in Michigan for the past 15 years.

Enter Turk, a white supremacist who has the Confederate flag tattooed on his arm. Turk grew up in Vermont and had his own set of challenges. The first African-American he ever met happened to be in court when he was 11. The man was charged for killing Turk's older brother. The jury was hung, and the man was set free. Turk's father left, and his mother became an alcoholic. That incident tore his entire life apart. After losing all their money, he and his mom moved in with his grandfather. Gramps was a vet who never stopped fighting the war; he began to train Turk.

By the time Turk was 16, he was a tough kid who knew how to fight; he just needed a group to roll with. He made friends with people from "NADS" (North American Death Squad). NADS was a white supremacist group that primarily hated Jews and Blacks. They held carnival-style conferences where they wore shirts like, "I'm the white child you're securing the race for." Initially, Turk struggled with this, but he was also excited to be a part of something bigger, especially to get retribution for his brother's death. From then on, Turk became an active member of NADS and married the leader's daughter.

Fast-forward to present-day, 2015. Turk and his wife Brit deliver a baby, Davis, at Mercy-West Haven. The delivery nurse completes her duty, and Ruth does a follow-up. The moment she enters the room, she sees that they both freeze. Ruth assumes they're nervous as first-time parents, so she continues and eases their nerves by talking through every step. Ruth cleans Davis and does the necessary check-ups. She notices an irregular heartbeat and tells them she's putting in a note so the doctor can address the issue. At that moment, Turk tells Ruth not to touch his baby and rolls up his sleeve to reveal the Confederate tattoo. He asks to see the manager. 

Turk tells the manager that he does not want any African-American nurse to touch his baby. The manager says that Ruth is the only Black nurse, and she's excellent at what she does. Turk repeats his demand - he'll take anyone but her. The manager caves and adds a note to Davis' file: "No African American Personnel To Care For This Patient." Ruth is appalled. It's 2015.

The next day, Davis is being circumcised in a different part of the hospital, and Ruth happens to be working nearby. There's an emergency in the L&D ward, so the nurse attending Davis has to rush out. She asks Ruth to cover for her, but Ruth tells her she's not allowed to care for Davis. The other nurse insists she'll be quick. Nervously, Ruth accepts and watches Davis. Within seconds, she notices that Davis has stopped breathing. Ruth sees the post-it note on the file, clearly indicating that she can't touch the baby, but her Nightingale pledge as a nurse says she must put patient care first. 

Ruth is in a lose-lose situation. After hesitating for a split second, she administers CPR. In the meantime, the other nurse returns and sees what's happening. She begins to help as well, and they "call the code." Chaos ensues, alarms go off, nurses rush in, and Turk and Brit see the commotion. They see Ruth administering CPR on Davis, and they're livid. Davis has a cardiac arrest. The compressions and the Ambu bag don't help. Davis dies within moments. 

This is where the real story begins. 

Turk goes to the police and blames Ruth for his son's death. The hospital wants nothing to do with this, so they release Ruth from her duties and launch a formal investigation. In the meantime, the sheriff wants to bring Ruth in for questioning. Instead of calling Ruth in, the sheriffs show up at 3 am, knock once, break down the door and place her under arrest while she's half asleep. To top it off, Ruth's 17-year old son, Edison, a large Black man, is tackled and arrested for no reason. For extra context, Ruth lives in a middle-class white neighborhood, and Edison is a scholarly student at his high school. 

Ruth is charged with negligent homicide and is appointed a Public Defender, Kennedy McQuarrie. Kennedy is a middle-aged white American woman. She and her husband are financially stable, so she uses her degree for a good cause. Kennedy is representative of most Americans; she can look at Turk and call out his blatant racism, but she doesn't think she's racist. At her job, Kennedy works with African-Americans often, she supports the Black community, and she's raising her daughter to be open-minded and inclusive. Kennedy does things that she thinks are anti-racist. She doesn't seem racist to the reader either - Kennedy is an everyday American and possibly the most relatable character for most of us.

As the story continues, however, Kennedy passively perpetuates racism and micro-aggressions towards the Black community without realizing it. Her character evolves through situations within the story, and she comes out more aware and enlightened of how deep-seated and nuanced these issues are. 

When Ruth and Kennedy first meet, it's awkward. There's an exchange where Kennedy asks Ruth if she prefers to be called "Black, African American, or a person of color." She follows that by saying, "I just want you to be comfortable. Frankly, I don't even see color. I mean, the only race that matters is the human one, right?" This happens just moments after we read Kennedy's inner-monologue, where she notices that Ruth is lighter-skinned than she remembered. 

Ruth is convinced that if she weren't Black, this case wouldn't be happening. While Kennedy agrees, she knows bringing up race in the courtroom is suicide. She wants to argue the case differently so she can guarantee Ruth her freedom. Ruth doesn't understand this. She becomes frustrated, because if it's not discussed now, then when? All Ruth wants to do is share her truth. She spent her entire life making sure no one could judge her based on her skin color by working hard and trying to fit in. Ruth's sister, who didn't find as much success as Ruth, had always told her that she tried too hard to fit in with white people. Ruth didn't believe her until the post-it note said that she couldn't tend to a baby because she's Black. It got even worse when the hospital relieved her of her duties and launched an investigation. They knew of her innocence but didn't want to get involved because she was Black. Ruth's truth is profoundly real, but according to Kennedy, it's dangerous.

Small Great Things evolves from setting the circumstance for each character, to a courtroom drama. As the trial gets underway, Ruth and Kennedy get to know each other better, and Kennedy gets real insight into what it's like to walk in Ruth's shoes. She sees the blatant discrimination Ruth experiences from shopping at T.J. Maxx and how the bailiff and sheriff treat her and Edison. 

As the reader, we see the small micro-aggressions that emerge when Ruth and Kennedy interact too. We even see Kennedy's surprise when she realizes Ruth lives in her neighborhood. We learn that racism isn't just about being proactively negative towards a group of people, but also our inherent assumptions and how we react to things. The more Kennedy interacts with Ruth and Edison; the more she becomes aware of how difficult it is to be Black in America. 

Based on real events, the book is a window into the oppressed, the oppressors, and those that fall unintentionally into the middle. Small Great Things took place in 2015, was published in 2016, and we're now in 2020. I think it's fair to say that we're still divided.

This book gave me the chance to learn about other people's lives and gain perspectives that are different from mine. Since it's impossible to live in another's shoes, I try to read and learn to understand better where people are coming from. I'm not usually the person that thinks everyone needs to support social issues overtly. But I will say that living in 2020, reading this book and consuming a lot of other content in this realm, is that there are certain things in life where we can't be neutral. We're either for something, or we're against it. 

For example, today we either wear masks in public, or we don't. If we wear a mask, we're proactively saying that we believe in science, and we're trying to protect ourselves and those around us. If we don't wear a mask, we're saying we don't believe in science, and we don't care about our well-being or those around us. There's no in-between; there's no neutral.

The same ideology applies to the BLM movement. If Black people are being oppressed, we're either for the oppression or against it; there is no neutral. There's an example from the Bible that explains why it's okay to say, "Black lives matter" right now, instead of, "All lives matter." In the book of Luke, Jesus says in one of his parables, "Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn't he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?" If one group of people is oppressed, aren't we supposed to go out and help them? If we believe all people are equal and should not be discriminated against based on color, or anything else, then the answer is yes. 

The problem isn't whether racism exists or not. The problem is that racism exists. It's not a belief; it's a fact. In her Author's Note, Jodi says,

"Most of us think the word racism is synonymous with the word prejudice. But racism is more than

just discrimination based on skin color. It's also about who has institutional power. Just as racism

creates disadvantages for people of color that make success harder to achieve, it also gives

advantages to white people that make success easier to achieve. It's hard to see those advantages,

much less own up to them. And that, I realized, was why I had to write this book. When it comes to

social justice, the role of the white ally is not to be a savior or a fixer. Instead, the role of the ally is to

find other white people and talk to make them see that many of the benefits they've enjoyed in life

are direct results of the fact that someone else did not have the same benefits."

As someone who identifies with and wants to promote equality, I turn inward first. When social unrest happens, it's easy to look at sensationalized media and create a black and white narrative, pun intended; but we all have context too. Some of us are like Ruth, some like Kennedy, maybe even some like Turk. I can feel empathy and compassion for all the characters based on their stories. I have a story, and so do you. How can we use our stories to influence, empathize, and spread inclusivity? 

I'm not here to change anyone's mind; I just want us to take a moment to think deeper. To question ourselves, no matter how great we think we're doing. Think about how it feels to be born and raised in an oppressed world without knowing what to do about it. What if you were born like Ruth or Edison? What if you did everything seemingly right, and you still are seen through a stereotypical lens? Would you then care about how your community is treated? How can we come together as a society and push for justice and equality? 

If you want to explore other work, this is more material I've consumed that's insightful on the same topic:

  • Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari talks about the fundamental notion of economic disadvantage. For example, in 1865, the 13th amendment outlawed slavery, and the 14th amendment mandated that citizenship and equal protection of law could not be denied based on race. However, 200 years of slavery meant that most Black families were poor and far less educated than most White families. A Black person born in 1865 had much less chance of getting a good education or a well-paid job than their White neighbors. Then their children born in the 1880s and 1890s started life at the same disadvantage. Due to these historical events, blacks were perceived as unreliable, lazy, and less intelligent. Even if a Black Alabaman in 1895 miraculously managed to get a good education, and then apply for a respectable job such as a bank teller, his odds of being accepted were far worse than those of an equally qualified White candidate. Instead of people seeing these stigmas as myth, the opposite happened, and the prejudices became more entrenched as time went on. Since Whites held all the best jobs, it became easier to believe that Blacks were, in fact, inferior. The vicious cycle continued when Blacks were forbidden to vote in elections, study in white schools, shop at White stores, eat at White restaurants, or sleep in White hotels. This lasted several generations, and even as recently as 1958, Clinton King, a black student, was forcefully admitted to a mental asylum for merely applying to the University of Mississippi. The judge ruled that he must surely be insane if he thinks he could be admitted to the university as an African American. 

  • In the movie, The Banker (also based on a true story from the 1950s and 1960s), we can see that Blacks were not given access to loans so that they couldn't buy a home. 

  • In the movie, Just Mercy, which is based on a true story from the late 1980s, we can see how Blacks were pinned for crimes that were unsolved in specific communities. The purpose of falsely arresting a Black person for an unsolved crime was to spread a sense of ease amongst the rest of the community. 

  • I recently read a New York Times article that outside New York, there's a small town called Levittown that Whites created for Whites. The town was built in the late 1940s for returning War veterans. Levittown became a symbol of the "American Dream," but also had a clause in the agreement stating that, "the house could not be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race." When the first Black family moved in, they were bullied and beat by their neighbors. 

  • In Malcolm Gladwell's podcast, Revisionist History, he talks about the case of Brown v. The Board of Education. Although it seems like it was a win for Blacks that schools were no longer segregated, that's actually not entirely true. The case was awarded to Brown; however, it was under the pretext that Black schools weren't good enough for Black students, so they could now be allowed to attend white schools. The result implied that Black teachers weren't good enough; the fallout was that every Black teacher, principal, and administrator lost their jobs. White schools began to allow Black children, but white students' parents said that they would pull their children from the school if a Black teacher taught there. Even when the law called for desegregation, that's not actually what was happening. 

Are we at a better place today than we were 100 years ago? Of course, but are we where we could be? Are people's attitudes changing, or only the written law? It takes decades, if not centuries, to overcome systemic problems. If we gain more perspective, create more empathy, and teach/share this with those around us, we can be part of the solution. By changing our small worlds, we can slowly make a more significant impact on the whole world. 

I concur. "If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way." - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

1 Comment

Sid Patwa
Aug 20, 2020

Good read, been meaning to watch just mercy. I think a major challenge is trying to fight the innate cynicism that comes with knowing we are in a vastly segregated country with incredibly divisive leadership. It seems daunting, almost impossible to push back and hope to make change and for that reason I think many people just leave it be. But I think if we all "look inward" as you say, and make even tiny changes within ourselves and within the things in our control, they will add up. Maybe not in our lifetimes or even the next, but one thing I have learned is that we truly have no idea how far our reach extends. We dont know how…

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