Listening Notes: America Dissected

Thanks to some extra time on the treadmill, and it’s true that I am glad I got on there after I’m done with the workout, I caught up on a new podcast called America Dissected with Abdul El-Sayed.

He has released three episodes so far, the first on modern quackery, and my main takeaway point was that some website named Goop is bat*&^%crazy (so I immediately warned my children, since I don’t think I’m the target demographic), and it’s a good reminder that one should not trust any celebrity who wants to sell you something. The next episode on Anti-vaxxers had a helpful insight to remember that the victims swept up by the anti-vax movement are motivated by fear and the desire to keep their children healthy. But since I am old-fashioned enough to think it is good when people don’t die of preventable diseases, I especially liked his statement that refusing to vaccinate is a lot like choosing to drive drunk—you are not just putting yourself at risk.

Warning, I am about to vent a little, so avert your gaze, if you’ve had enough venting this week. But anyway, I inexplicably chose to read some of the reviews of the anti-vax podcast, which is like reading comments on Twitter, (i.e. don’t), but it did expose me to the term “the vaccine-injured,” which turns out to be as effective a red flag as a mention of Hunter Biden to identify the speaker as a conspiracy theorist. I appreciate these little red flags, though in the latter case, it’s also a red flag of “the ethically-injured” because they are trying to ignore alarming factually-supported crimes by focusing on fabricated rumors, which, oddly enough, don’t erase the existence of the actual crimes. But hey, that’s what it means to be an American, I guess—just ignore everything we learned through massive research and heartbreak about what might protect us all from harm in order to embrace random *&^% so that a handful of the ethically-injured can make a quick buck.

Anyway, back to the podcast: his third episode was lit, and I rate it as a must listen because he unpacks the way pharmaceutical companies jack up prices for products literally made possible by tax payer funding.

photo of treadmills

Back on the treadmill

I don’t spend as much time listening to podcasts as a glimpse of my podcast library might suggest. At times, I feel as if I have as many “must listens” in terms of podcast episodes as I have “to be read” books on my shelf. Unlike my TBRs, I will sometimes rebel and delete the episodes just to say, okay, I give up. I don’t have time to listen to them all. But I still care about (fill-in-the-blank issue).

Still, I have been getting on the treadmill a bit more often lately, an activity that makes my mind go, “Oh, not this again, please distract me, please,” so I find a podcast episode. Watching television shows or movies is not an option for me because they are so time-consuming and I don’t want to risk getting addicted, but if it’s not addicting, I don’t want to watch it. So anyway, podcasts it is, though even then, my mood varies. Sometimes I go for writing-related topics, sometimes political junky venting, and sometimes something new.

So just as I sometimes share Reading Notes, I think I will post a few Listening notes, because I have heard a few podcasts this week that I want to blog about. Stay tuned :).

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: Final articles

With this post, I bring to a close my endeavor to read, reflect, and spotlight the articles of the 1619 Project. There are several final essays worth reading:

One of the final essays, “Their Ancestors Were enslaved by Law. Now They’re Lawyers,” is a photo essay that focuses on several graduates of Howard University’s Law School and their family’s connection to slavery, a moving testimony and a way to celebrate some hard-earned triumphs. Photos are by Djeneba Aduayom, and text is written by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Wadzanai Mhute.

 

 

 

Another article by Logia Gyarke reports on the making of this issue of the New York Times Magazine, including the fact that the print copies sold out. Gyarke interviews Nikole Hannah-Jones, who led the effort.

 

And there is a lively essay by Kurt Streeter entitled “Is Slavery’s Legacy in the Power Dynamics of Sports?” He explores the possibility that this history relates to the NBA, and all of sports, and how fraught it is to refer to anyone as the “owner” of a sports team.

 

 

I have many thoughts percolating thanks to this series, which I may share in later posts. For now, let me state how grateful I am to the writers and editors who made this project possible.

1619 Project: Stewart

For some reason, I had difficulty finding this article the first few times I tried. I think perhaps I kept clicking on another worthy article, that I will discuss in my next post. So feel free to use the link below in case you have trouble reaching it, too.

Nikita Stewart’s article is entitled “‘We are committing educational malpractice’: Why slavery is mistaught –and worse–in American schools.” She discusses the failure to teach the history of slavery adequately and/or accurately in our school systems, which resonated for me both because I have already complained about the fairy tales that are perpetuated in our society and because I used to teach middle school, (I lasted four years–during which one of my goals was to improve my ability to teach history, including taking a NC History class at Appalachian State and learned, for the first time, about the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot).

Here’s the link:

She covers some important ground in this article, both what has gone wrong and ideas for change. Her closing words stand out, after recounting the stories her grandfather told:

He wanted listeners to understand the horror of the institution, even if he was too afraid to condemn it outright. For me, it’s a reminder of what our schools fail to do: bring this history alive, using stories like these to help us understand the evil our nation was founded on. (Stewart)

 

1619 Project: Lee

In one of the final essays in the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, Trymaine Lee writes that “A vast wealth gap, driven by segregation, redlining, evictions and exclusion, separates black and white America.”

Again I want to highlight a few quotes that struck me.

The period that followed the Civil War was one of economic terror and wealth-stripping that has left black people at lasting economic disadvantage. (Lee)

One goal that I may or may not achieve by spending extra time on these articles is to (maybe) have a better grip on the words that might help me if/when I dare to speak about the challenges we face. I have more frequently used the word terrorism to describe the events that took place during the period after reconstruction, but it doesn’t fully encompass what happened. Yes, there was violence, the kind used to intimidate, bully, and degrade human beings, and there was murder, torture, and truly twisted sick events that make one question the humanity of the perpetrators. But also/in addition/sometimes simultaneously there was this: economic terror and wealth-stripping.

Lee touches on some of these acts of terror as well as data on the lasting impact in terms of wealth gaps. He even references the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot (aka violent white supremacist coup), which took place in my home state, as one example of the systematic disruption and displacement (and murder and terror) that affected the ability of the Black community to thrive.

He points out that government programs designed to help people originally excluded most African Americans: Social Security did not cover agricultural laborers or domestic workers (which I have heard before but still find mind-boggling), the Home Owners Loan Corporation helped the housing market but excluded Black neighborhoods, and the G.I. bill was administered in a way to limit support for African Americans.

I would like to highlight this quote by William A. Darity Jr., a professor of public policy and African-American studies at Duke University:

“The major way in which people have an opportunity to accumulate wealth is contingent on the wealth positions of their parents and their grandparents,” Darity says. “To the extent that blacks have the capacity to accumulate wealth, we have not had the ability to transfer the same kinds of resources across generations.” (Darity as quoted by Lee)

I wrote earlier about how the 1619 Project aims to make visible our actual history, rather than the sanitized, self-serving fairy tales that have been proffered as substitutes within our culture. In this context, I want to connect with a conversation between Sam Sanders “It’s Been A Minute,” and author Malcolm Gladwell:

I read a paper – an article – an essay written by a historian at Chicago named Charles Payne, and it was called “The Whole United States Is Southern!” And it is and remains one of the single most brilliant things I’ve ever read. And Payne is talking about the kind of Southern – the white Southern project in the era of the civil rights movement. In response to it was to shift the frame from a discussion about institutions and practices and laws to a discussion about people…

SANDERS: And the heart.

GLADWELL: The heart.

SANDERS: Are you racist?

GLADWELL: …To personalize it.

SANDERS: Where’s your racist bone?

GLADWELL: Yes – to say that we can end racism if only we all got along and we were all – if our hearts were pure, and we tried really hard. That was their response to the kind of broader argument that was making. And Payne’s essay is all about how that side won, that they managed to transform the debate in this country about racism from one in which we were considering these larger structural issues to one where we were just personalizing everything

(From Sam Sanders “It’s Been A Minute”)

One of the fairy tales used to cultivate inaction and the illusion of powerlessness in the face of grave injustices is the idea that it all comes down to individual choices. Indeed, the same strategy is being used successfully to delay the kind of sweeping reforms necessary to address climate change.

Sure, it is good to recycle. It is good to be against racism. It is good to make wise choices. But when the systems and structures are designed to impoverish one group of people to the advantage of another, we must interrogate and reject those systems. As individuals, we are all fallible. But together as a part of the larger democracy, we can and must do better.

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.