Word Search

I have been kicking around titles for this blog post. One was “Awkward segue” since I will return to random topics after spending a few weeks focusing on the painful history of American slavery and its ongoing impact on American society.

Another possible title was “The unbearable whiteness of being” in case you were wondering about me. Although there are no biological differences between groups of human beings, there are social constructs that affect what each of us experiences, as well as culturally empowering identities that can aid those who do not benefit from white privilege. So I wanted to say yes, if you were wondering, I am socially constructed as white. For that matter, I am cisgender identifying as female, preferring she and her, aka boring. Due to most of those constructs, I am unfairly privileged in American society, which is not boring but tragic in a country that claims to be a democracy.

When I try to write some of my thoughts on these topics, words elude me, possibly because the words we most often use/hear/absorb are insidious tools reinforcing divisions.

Still, let me try to explain why it is so important that I read and reflect on these articles. Because I am human, the history of slavery and its aftermath is 100% relevant to me. The fight for justice and democracy for all human beings is 100% relevant to me. But also, because I am socially constructed as white, this history, and its continuing impact, is 100% relevant to me in that I have an obligation to help dismantle systems which benefit me unfairly.

Recently, I had the privilege of hearing Bryan Stevenson (a saint on earth) give a keynote lecture at Appalachian State University. He called on the audience to commit to several actions to make the world a better place. One of them was that we must “tell the truth before justice is possible.”

I recently heard some people of privilege in a documentary say, “Oh, let’s just move on. It’s over,” (meaning, I suppose, the history of discrimination that, um, actively benefits them every minute of every day). But we can’t move on until we acknowledge the truth of what has happened and what is continuing to happen.

So if I engage with this history on my blog or in my novel set during the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot, it is an attempt to reckon with what has happened. And what continues to happen.

On the other hand, I know I am more likely to make mistakes because the systems that provide privilege make me blind (or just plain stupid, to be honest), often just when I think I’m figuring something out. So something like the own voices movement is so critical to this project of speaking the truth/hearing the truth/reckoning with the truth.

One can be tempted to say, oh, in that case, the people who are negatively affected should be the only ones to speak of these issues. I would agree that when it comes to a topic in which I am the recipient of privilege, I should close my mouth and listen to those who have experience and insight into how to understand and address these challenges. I should do this as often as I can, even if it hurts sometimes to ponder what has occurred. What continues to occur.

But the same system of privilege that makes me blind at times is also what makes it tempting to stay silent. I should wait my turn to speak, yes. I should check my words, my facts, my interpretation, as often as I can. But staying silent and letting others do all of the work is yet another way to exercise privilege, which I want to dismantle. So, when I can, as humbly as I can, I have to engage. I know I will make mistakes, choose the wrong words, and sometimes realize, no, now wasn’t the time to speak. But another time might be.

And I will continue to seek the words I need.

And since I don’t yet have all the words I need, I will close with more advice from Bryan Stevenson, saint on earth: “We have to get proximate to our challenges.”

I recall similar advice from DeRay Mckesson on “Pod Save the People,” who urged listeners to get close to the work because that proximity makes visible what can and should be done. In both cases, they mentioned the insights they gained from visiting people in prisons.

Next goal: “We have to get uncomfortable.” Any meaningful reform requires it, Stevenson said.

And finally, my favorite, though I get why this can be hard, Bryan Stevenson urged us all to “Stay hopeful. Hope is our super power.”

1619 Project: Muhammad

Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s essay is titled “The sugar that saturates the American diet has a barbaric history as the ‘white gold’ that fueled slavery.”

As always, my goal is to highlight these articles rather than summarize, assuming that you will read the original works.

This line in particular stood out for me:

In Europe at that time, refined sugar was a luxury product, the backbreaking toil and dangerous labor required in its manufacture an insuperable barrier to production in anything approaching bulk. It seems reasonable to imagine that it might have remained so if it weren’t for the establishment of an enormous market in enslaved laborers who had no way to opt out of the treacherous work.
(Muhammad)

I especially liked the framing of this article in which he reminds the reader of how harmful sugar is to our health, as well as its ubiquity.

I am glad I am not trying to summarize because I could not do justice to this article, which explores the brutality and hardship experienced first by the enslaved people and then after enslavement ended, including ongoing efforts to sabotage Black-owned farms.

It is especially striking that the same prison mentioned by Bryan Stevenson is mentioned here: Angola. Which means that prisoners are forced not only to pick cotton but also sugar, one of the most painful crops to tend, or be forced into the “hole” if they don’t do the job well –which also will affect their chances at earning parole.

I am picturing now the sugar bowl that sits on my kitchen counter. I have been trying to use less sugar for health reasons. But how much worse to consider what I might be stirring into my tea or coffee, the product of such horrors, past and present.

Note: I found time recently to listen to an episode of Pod Save the People, and discovered they discussed this very article, so you might want to check it out, too:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/pod-save-the-people/id1230148653?i=1000450075992

1619 Project: Stevenson

I continue to read, reflect, and shine a spotlight on the essays in the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project. Author of Just Mercy (and to my mind, a saint walking amongst us) Bryan Stevenson wrote an article titled, ”Slavery gave America a fear of black people and a taste for violent punishment. Both still define our criminal-justice system.”

I have read Just Mercy twice now because it was the summer reading assignment for my children, an important and wrenching report on his activism to combat the cruelty and discrimination and injustice embedded in our criminal justice system, particularly as it relates to capital punishment. I highly recommend reading this book. I understand there may be a movie coming out, which is an unsettling thought because movies sometimes destroy the nuance and sensationalize disturbing content, but I will hope for the best because these are issues that demand reform.

Again I will try to avoid summarizing, but there were many points I wanted to highlight. One of them is that in a prison called Angola prisoners are forced to pick crops, including cotton, and receive harsh punishments if they don’t do so, or don’t do a good job of it. Stevenson then reviews the history of brutal punishments of enslaved people, and clarifies what I found an important point:

The 13th Amendment is credited with ending slavery, but it stopped short of that: It made an exception for those convicted of crimes. After emancipation, black people, once seen as less than fully human “slaves,” were seen as less than fully human “criminals.” (Stevenson)

Sigh. I am going to let myself quote more because it all seems so important, but in fairness, I think every word in this 1619 Project is important… still, here you go:

Anything that challenged the racial hierarchy could be seen as a crime, punished either by the law or by the lynchings that stretched from Mississippi to Minnesota. (Stevenson)

So not only does the brutality of how African Americans are treated by the judicial system have its roots in slavery (not to mention the disturbing continuation of enslavement in the work forced upon inmates), but the criminal justice system worked (works) in tandem with white supremacists to deny legal and human rights of African Americans.

Here is another important line (okay, they are all important):

It’s not just that this history fostered a view of black people as presumptively criminal. It also cultivated a tolerance for employing any level of brutality in response. (Stevenson)

I was about to add something here but Stevenson words it so well, so here it is:

The smog created by our history of racial injustice is suffocating and toxic.

I like that line because I was thinking about the toxic legacy of the mindset that made the system of slavery in America possible. It is a mindset that continues to damage our nation, and one we all need to actively dismantle—both the thinking, such as the ability to shrug off gross injustices, and the ongoing acts of injustice.

Phew, you have to read this article. I can’t quote it all here, you know.

1619 Project: Interlandi

Today I am reflecting on the article in the 1619 Project by Jeneen Interlandi titled, “Why doesn’t the United States have universal health care? The answer has everything to do with race,” as well as the parallel podcast called “Episode 4: How the Bad Blood Started.

As always, I prefer not to summarize, so again I will instead highlight a line that stood out for me.

The author cites Jim Downs’ 2012 book Sick from Freedom, explaining that white leaders were ambivalent about addressing a small pox outbreak that was hitting Black communities especially hard because:

They worried about black epidemics spilling into their own communities and wanted the formerly enslaved to be healthy enough to return to plantation work. But they also feared that free and healthy African-Americans would upend the racial hierarchy (Interlandi)

The phrase “free and healthy” jumped out at me when I reread this essay. To have good health and access to healthcare is liberating, and liberation is something that people in power want to deny people of color. This arises directly from the racist ideology that made a slave economy possible.

A very wise friend of mine reflected recently on the direct line between healthcare and poverty in our country, encompassing not only the devastation caused by chronic and major illnesses, but also the challenges of drug addiction and/or mental illness. To limit access to healthcare is to impoverish, endanger, and disempower people, a harm and threat to us all. In our country, though, there continues to be disproportionate harm to Black people in terms of quality of and access to healthcare.

Yesterday I kvetched about the foolishness of sabotaging our environment to maintain racist power structures. Today I am staring at a history in which people preferred to see our fellow Americans suffer in order to maintain those same systems. I hasten to state the obvious: it is immoral, it is unacceptable, it is heartbreaking.

But I have to add that the stupidity of it is breathtaking. We all breathe the same air. Whether it is polluted or carries a plague, we all go down together.

In the accompanying podcast, Nikole Hannah-Jones starts by sharing her own personal story of injustices that connect the past to the present (spoiler: it made me cry). This leads to an interview with and narrative by Janeen Interlandi which further unpacks this history, including a spotlight on a famous Black doctor, Dr. Montague Cobb, who taught anatomy at Howard University and joined the fight for Medicare (which played a central role in the actual integration of hospitals, which had otherwise ignored the newly passed laws against racial discrimination).

The podcast ends with a reading of the story “Bad Blood” by Yaa Gyasi, which was one of my favorites of the collection of poetry and stories in this series (okay, they were all my favorite).

 

1619 Project: Kruse

I continue to read, reflect, and shine a spotlight on the essays in the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project.

Princeton University professor Kevin Kruse, who I know as That-History-Guy-on-Twitter, wrote an essay titled: “What does a traffic jam in Atlanta have to do with segregation? Quite a lot”

A quote that resonated for me comes from the closing:

In the end, Atlanta’s traffic is at a standstill because its attitude about transit is at a standstill, too. Fifty years after its Interstates were set down with an eye to segregation and its rapid-transit system was stunted by white flight, the city is still stalled in the past. (Kruse)

I appreciate how these articles delineate examples of systematic discrimination. The earliest versions of most of our governmental assistance programs, as Kruse and other writers point out, were deliberately designed to exclude people of color.

This article reminded me of the three months I lived in Atlanta not long after I graduated from college. I remember hearing back then how Gwinnett County had voted against expanding the transit service for racist reasons, and I have had a grudge against that county ever since. It sounds as if little has changed. Apparently, preserving systems of discrimination against the poor and people of color is more important than saving the damn planet, which raises the question, as it always does: How foolish are these people?

The answer then and now: Very.

1619 Project: Bouie

I continue to read, reflect, and shine a spotlight on the work of the 1619 Project.

Today I read the work by Jamelle Bouie, titled “America holds onto an undemocratic assumption from its founding: that some people deserve more power than others.” You can read it in full at this link:
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/republicans-racism-african-americans.html

Again, I hope you will look to the title to give you a sense of what the article is about.

This article covered more recent political history than past history, which, I admit, is preaching to the choir for me since I am sharply critical of the current leadership of this country and of my home state of North Carolina (which got a well-deserved mention for shenanigans from 2016, and deserves further shame for the way the state leadership team recently used the 9/11 memorial as a way to win a vote that based on actual democratic representation they would have lost, revealing that they are both anti-democratic AND generally terrible people).

Here is the quote I choose to share from Bouie’s article, as he analyzes statements made by Republicans in recent years:

The larger implication is clear enough: A majority made up of liberals and people of color isn’t a real majority. And the solution is clear, too: to write those people out of the polity, to use every available tool to weaken their influence on American politics. (Bouie)

Reading this article is enraging because we have seen anti-democratic strategies work too often in the past and the present. Nonetheless, let us recommit to push forward in the name of what democracy should be.

1619 Project: Desmond’s Essay

Today I continue to read, reflect, and shine a spotlight on the 1619 Project, a series of articles in the New York Times Magazine. Today I read Matthew Desmond’s essay titled “If you want to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.”

As I have in previous posts, I want to avoid summarizing these articles because I don’t want to step on the work of the contributors (nor to misrepresent it). Instead, I chose a few quotes that particularly resonate for me:

It was not so much the rage of the poor white Southerner but the greed of the rich white planter that drove the lash. The violence was neither arbitrary nor gratuitous. It was rational, capitalistic, all part of the plantation’s design. (Desmond)

So important to ask who truly benefits from systematic injustices, usually those who create an illusion of distance from the evils from which they profit.

Unrestrained capitalism holds no monopoly on violence, but in making possible the pursuit of near limitless personal fortunes, often at someone else’s expense, it does put a cash value on our moral commitments. (Desmond)

 

I wish I could put in words what it means to be moral versus the self-serving faux virtue manufactured in our culture, often by those who claim to be religious, an empty substitute that yields some of the most immoral results.

It is the culture of acquiring wealth without work, growing at all costs and abusing the powerless. It is the culture that brought us the Panic of 1837, the stock-market crash of 1929 and the recession of 2008. It is the culture that has produced staggering inequality and undignified working conditions. (Desmond)

Hmm… yes, you are right. Desmond is succeeding in indicating what it might mean to be moral by revealing the immorality of what we in the U.S. accept as status quo.

One other note that stood out to me was that he said it has been only two lifetimes since slavery ended. That hurt somehow, I suppose because I want as much distance as possible from the horrors of that time period. But I am naive, probably in a self-serving way, to suggest that the passing of time alone might protect us. As Hannah-Jones pointed out in her article (in a line that I’m still processing), the wrongs we inflict now arise from the wrongs of the past as a way to protect ourselves from any kind of reckoning. This most horrific history is being reenacted in altered forms again and again, every day.

And, as Desmond points out, it is how some of us earn money without effort.

His article included some helpful historical highlights by Tiya Miles and Mehrsa Baradaran.

I also wanted to include this quote from a section by Miles:

It is uncanny, but perhaps predictable, that the original wall for which Wall Street is named was built by the enslaved at a site that served as the city’s first organized slave auction. (Miles)

Addendum:

I found time to listen to the first two podcasts of the 1619 series that builds off of these articles, including authors reading parts of their work and interviews with the authors. When Desmond was interviewed, he said the following: “The enslaved workforce is where the country’s wealth resides” (at least for the first hundred years or so of the existence of the United States). So the investment and profit from slavery was shared widespread beyond the regions where slavery was legal, the early foundation of our economic growth. Deeply chilling insight.

The second podcast ends with Jesmyn Ward reading a piece of fiction she wrote for the series that you can find here: african-american-poets.html

I highly recommend listening to the podcasts. Here’s a link as a starting place: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/23/podcasts/1619-slavery-anniversary.html

1619 Project: Hannah-Jones

It is my firm belief that any time Ms. Nikole Hannah-Jones has something to say, I need to listen.

Indeed, she says everything that needs to be said, with both precision and artistry, in the first article in the 1619 series in the New York Times Magazine.

So instead of describing her article at all, especially because I want everyone to read it, I will simply point to the title, which aptly signals the central premise: Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.

Every line in this article matters, which is a challenge to me since I thought it might make sense to highlight a quote or two per article as a way to pay homage to this series.

Still, this one is worth a look:

And so the inhumanity visited on black people by every generation of white America justified the inhumanity of the past. (Hannah-Jones)

(Chilling. Disturbing. Accurate. Perhaps one reason I relish this series is this hope—that if mainstream culture can acknowledge the inhumanity of the past perhaps we can reduce the inhumanity of the present.)

And…

The truth is that as much democracy as this nation has today, it has been borne on the backs of black resistance. Our founding fathers may not have actually believed in the ideals they espoused, but black people did. (Hannah-Jones)

(Amen.)

Today I also discovered that the New York Times created a podcast based on this series—the first one relates to her article:
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/23/podcasts/1619-slavery-anniversary.html? 

History versus Fairy Tales

So my goal is to explain what resonated with me in the introduction to the Times’ 1619 Project (which I intend to continue to read/reflect upon in a few upcoming blog posts).

Here, again, is what I quoted yesterday:

It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.

Though some people aim for accuracy when they discuss U.S. historical events, there is nonetheless a sweeping and pervasive fairy tale that is bandied about more casually, one that makes me think of drawings I made in school as a child, usually every November, of Pilgrims standing beside a big rock and a large ship. For the most part, the stories we tell about the history of the United States are incomplete, if not completely fallacious. The term fairy tale comes to mind. Sure, just like in Cinderella, there may be a few pieces that have some historical basis. There were people called Pilgrims. There were ships. (There used to be kings, princes, and daughters who had hard lives after their fathers died.) But the rest? A bit doubtful, with a lot left out.

Mainstream culture produces a story in which slavery, if mentioned, is treated as a minor side note, when it was actually defining. Make that present tense— all of the systems related to it can be traced to fault lines in our society, the heartbreaking loss of potential, the inhumanity that at times is eerily second nature.

Yet this quote also highlights the need to celebrate and acknowledge the contributions of Black Americans— a brave and uncomfortable task in the face of the horrors of American slavery (which, I would argue, should be clearly delineated from any other use of the word slavery because it relied so fully on a deeply dehumanizing construction of racial identity as well as an entrenched economic/political system devoid of morality).

I know I felt that the biographies of Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells gave me a more complete understanding of American history. To learn U.S. history without delving at length into the impact of American slavery or contributions of Black Americans… which happens far too often… is to study fairy tales in lieu of engaging with genuine history.

One word in the quote stands out–“we.” A point of deep contention that has bubbled up repeatedly over the centuries is this: Who is meant by “we” in this country—who gets to be included? Who has been excluded, and who gets to do the excluding?

And then there is the question of cultural identity—if we more fully understand our history, will we gain insight into who we are as a people?

Time traveler blues

These days I teeter, as I think many of us do, between joy in my daily life and despair over what is not being done to save our environment, —or, for that matter, our democracy.

More often than I like, I think about how a response to the history of the rise of Nazism and the atrocities that followed is to wonder, if it were possible to travel through time to warn everyone, could we stop what happened?

Brighter people than I already know the answer to this question.

Decades ago, I learned that a beloved Jewish couple in our community had lived in Britain in their twenties during World War II before immigrating to the United States. I gathered my courage to ask if they knew anything about the concentration camps before the war ended, and they said everyone heard rumors that they assumed were propaganda, too awful to be credible.

I imagine a time traveler from twenty or thirty years in the future risking everything to warn us about the need to protect our environment and to elect more democratic leadership. He or she could arrive in 2016, or perhaps even next year in 2020, and tell us of the great human suffering that even now is unfolding.

Here’s a snapshot of this week in America–basic human rights are trampled in pursuit of short-term financial gains for the few, including brutal treatment of refugees, particularly children. Devastating floods and mass shootings are on the rise. Our election systems are under constant attack by international adversaries, yet the Senate’s response is to dismantle election protections. As for the environment, just when we desperately need to make courageous and sweeping changes in hopes of sustaining life on this planet, our administration is pushing full-steam ahead with policies to make things worse, not better. Stop me if I tell you something you didn’t already know.

That’s what our time traveler will learn: We already know, though some may dismiss it as propaganda, and others as God’s will.

As I ponder the history of the past few centuries, we have often faced threats and heard warnings, and I can find a few examples in which we managed to make some advances in terms of saving the environment and expanding democratic rights.

Still, knowing we are in danger has not been enough. I wonder what our time traveler would do next, in the face of so much inertia? Perhaps the same as we must. Knock on any door that will open, push for better political solutions, bring up the topics no one wants to discuss, refuse to accept inaction, even in the face of those who embrace it as ideology.

And take time now and then to hold our loved ones close and savor perfect fall mornings, because time is slipping away.