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: Morris

I am the type to read the book before I see the movie, and I tried to do something similar with the podcasts for the 1619 series, which both encompass and differ from the essays they address.

But I accidentally hit play on the third podcast on “The Birth of American Music” before reading Wesley Morris’s article, titled “For centuries, black music, forged in bondage, has been the sound of complete artistic freedom. No wonder everybody is always stealing it.”

Here’s the podcast link:
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/06/podcasts/1619-black-american-music-appropriation.html

Once I started listening, I couldn’t stop, especially because the podcast includes excerpts from some of the music he references.

It’s not a lighter topic since it traces the pain and indignities from which arose what Morris calls black American music. But there are some light moments in the podcast, and I especially appreciated Morris as narrator, the emotion, the irony, even moments of amusement that he conveys.

In light of that lightness (hmmm), I will mention that as I listened to it, and this is all me, I kept wondering, what is Yawk music? I am very out of it when it comes to music, which also means that I absolutely recognized all of the so-called Yawk songs. Anyway, hopefully you’ll listen to the podcast AND read his article so that you’ll get why I’m laughing at myself.

The experience of listening to the podcast is very different from that of the article even though both contain similar information. So it is well worth engaging with both. And I am glad it is my policy not to summarize these articles because I could not do this one justice.

There were some searing lines in Morris’ essay that I dare not quote because they don’t work out of context. But I also liked this one:

What we’ve been dealing with ever since is more than a catchall word like “appropriation” can approximate. The truth is more bounteous and more spiritual than that, more confused. That confusion is the DNA of the American sound. (Morris)

And although I really don’t want to steal the thunder of the podcast, I have to quote part of his closing lines. I suspect that this line, plus that one from Hannah-Jones’ essay, will be one I will return to again and again:

What you respond to in black music is an ultimate expression of belief in that freedom, the belief that the struggle is worth it, that the pain begets joy, and that that joy you’re experiencing is not only contagious, it’s necessary and urgent and irresistible. (Morris on podcast)

Wow.

 

1619 Project: Poems and Stories

I continue to read, reflect, and shine a spotlight on the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project. Typically I rely on the titles as a kind of summary for the essays, and I pull out a quote or two that resonated with me. That won’t work for today’s readings, which were poems and stories by 16 writers… 16 rockstar writers, I might add.

On the upside, when I posted the link here, it gave me a snapshot below, so you can see how the Times wishes to describe this section, plus their image (given the gravity of this topic, I have mostly avoided including any images in my blog posts about this project).

I am hesitant to quote specific lines, first because the words deserve to be read and absorbed in context as an artistic whole. And of course, second because my goal is not to step on their work, but support it.

So instead, I want to provide a full list of the authors of these poems and stories, which could serve as a kind of TBR for me in the future:

Clint Smith

Yusef Komunyakaa

Eve L. Ewing

Reginald Dwayne Betts

Barry Jenkins

Jesmyn Ward

Tyehimba Jess

Darryl Pinckney

ZZ Packer

Yaa Gyasi

Jacqueline Woodson

Rita Dove

Camille T Dungy

Joshua Bennett

Lynn Nottage

Kiese Laymon

Just surveying this list makes my eyes pop out, and I think everyone should drop whatever they are doing to read this special series, or at least this collection of poetry and prose. It’s almost odd to me that this is all published in a multimedia form online, which somehow feels so temporary to me, when this is work that should be preserved. But perhaps that reveals my age. I have to remind myself that print books don’t necessarily last longer than digital publications.

The selections walk through many key moments of history, often touching the wounds of tragedies and making visible the way these moments connect to events today. Not all respond to tragic events, such as one on hip-hop music or one of my favorites (okay, they are all my favorite) on the Black Panthers. Many pay homage to a painful mix of hard-won victories and unimaginable losses (which speaks to the bravery of these writers to attempt to imagine and depict them).

My advice: read them!

 

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: Villarosa’s article

I continue to read, reflect, and spotlight pieces in the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project. Today I read Linda Villarosa’s article entitled, Myths about physical racial differences were used to justify slavery — and are still believed by doctors today.

As I’ve mentioned, I want to avoid summarizing these works, though it does feel as if the titles each time capture the gist well (and, one hopes, in the author’s words). This article is a bit shorter than the first two, which was merciful because even though the past two articles included specifics about the horrors of slavery, I found this report even more gruesome, both reading about the deeds themselves and witnessing the monstrousness of these white doctors incapable of sympathy for the suffering of their fellow human beings.

I feel uncomfortable quoting any part of those passages, so I will quote instead a salient fact from the latter part of the article:

A 2016 survey of 222 white medical students and residents published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that half of them endorsed at least one myth about physiological differences between black people and white people, including that black people’s nerve endings are less sensitive than white people’s. (Villarosa)

That, with some of her other findings, not to mention her own famous investigation into black infant and maternal mortality, raises deep concerns about the quality of healthcare provided to people of color in this country.

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?