One month (or so) in

I have wondered how to take stock of one month (or so) of the pandemic and ongoing extreme social distancing measures. There are the good parts—my family and I have fallen into something of a routine, finding ways to get things done, work, chores, hobbies, and various diversions. We’ve found ways to connect with friends and family online and (at a distance) in the neighborhood.

The hard parts, of course, are watching what seems like so much incompetence and avarice by the U.S. executive branch and its enablers in the Senate, versus the valiant efforts by people at all other levels, regardless of political affiliation, to rise to this challenge. As someone who cares deeply about protecting and exercising the right to vote, I am still reeling from what took place in Wisconsin. Truth to tell, the hardest part of this pandemic hasn’t been social distancing, nor even worrying about how everyone will recover from shutting everything down (as frightening as that can be), but the pain of reading so many reports on all that is going wrong, of the pain and suffering caused by the illness and by the economic hardships, and simultaneously the horror of knowing that there are people whose only reaction is to figure out how to grab power and money in the midst of it. There are no monsters in fiction that come close to the cruelty and depravity on display in our country right now (and alas, similar patterns are emerging in countries led by autocrats around the world). I am a bit ashamed to admit that this still surprises me. I like to see the good in people, and I believe in the radical embrace of hope in the face of daunting odds. Yet what I am forced to witness these days beggars my attempts to describe it, let alone absorb it.

I have heard that emailing our representatives in Congress is as effective these days as calling, and as a writer, email has always seemed easier to me than calling. If you care about the vote as I do, and you happen to be a citizen of the U.S., please consider emailing your representatives (or filling out their website forms) urging them to

-Pass a fourth Coronavirus relief package that includes at least $2 billion in “safe election money” and protects the U.S. post office
-Require states to invest in expanded vote by mail and early voting
-Ensure that in-person polling locations have the resources they need to operate safely and efficiently

(talking points provided by Vote Save America)

Enough.

Even before our world turned upside down and/or made all of our fault lines even more distinct, I wanted to reflect on the concept of enough. If I am allowed to be judge-y this morning, and even if it is my blog, I am not sure it’s a good idea, but still, I tend to define as toxic the insatiable desire for more that permeates my culture. Whatever you have, your job, your house, your car… there is this tendency to want more. To feel as if you are missing out or failing if you don’t get more of something, somehow.

One of my superpowers (and alas, it falters at times) is to be content with enough. Or at least, to try to be. And if necessary, redefine or be creative about what I see as enough. What is enough? This moment, this breath, can sometimes be enough. The sunlight casting a pattern across the room. The birds singing as if it is spring. Kind words from a friend or a stranger.

It is daunting, though, to write on this topic now as I worry about people who do not have enough—enough food, enough shelter, enough human contact, enough medicine. It is hard right now to have enough hope, even though that is something we can, sometimes painfully, try to construct on our own.

There is a saying that I’ve seen out in the world, a bumper sticker, I think: Live simply so that others may simply live. Is it possible, and I ask this sincerely, to find ways to be content with enough so that others might, too?

America on Trial

First, I want to share Adam Schiff’s closing words from January 24, 2020:

Sometimes I think about how unforgiving history can be of our conduct. We can do a lifetime’s work, draft the most wonderful legislation, help our constituents, and yet we may be remembered for none of that, but for a single decision we may be remembered, affecting the course of our country. I believe this may be one of those moments, a moment we never thought we would see, a moment when our democracy was gravely threatened and not from without but from within. Russia, too, has a constitution. It’s not a bad constitution. It’s just a meaningless one. In Russia, they have trial by telephone. They have the same ostensible rights we do to a trial. They hear evidence and witnesses. But before the verdict is rendered, the judge picks up the telephone and calls the right person to find out how it’s supposed to turn out. Trial by telephone. Is that what we have here? Trial by telephone? Someone on the other end of the phone dictating what this trial should look like. The founders gave us more than words. They gave us inspiration. They may have receded into mythology, but they inspire us still. And more than us, they inspire the rest of the world. They inspire the rest of the world. From their prison cells in Turkey, journalists look to us. From their internment camps in China, they look to us. From their cells in Egypt, those who gathered in Tahrir Square for a better life look to us. From the Philippines, those that were the victims and their families of mass extrajudicial killing. From Elgin prison, they look to us. From all over the world, they look to us. And increasingly, they don’t recognize what they see. It’s a terrible tragedy for them. It’s a worse tragedy for us because there is nowhere else for them to turn. They’re not going to turn to Russia. They’re not going to turn to China. They’re not going to turn to Europe with all of its problems. They look to us because we are still the indispensable nation. They look to us because we have a rule of law. They look to us because no one is above that law. And one of the things that separates us from those people in Elgin prison is the right to a trial. A right to a trial. Americans get a fair trial. And so I ask you, I implore you, give America a fair trial. Give America a fair trial. She’s worth it.

Schiff’s final words are searing. And troubling. I know too well how consistently we have fallen short of what is invoked when he speaks of a fair trial. Justice for all is too often merely justice for the elite. The vote has been suppressed violently, stealthily, and systematically. The structure of our Senate and the electoral college award power based on geography, not population. The brutality of this administration is staggering, but injustice and brutality are not new to our country. What is also not new is that there have been hard-fought victories that we should celebrate and simultaneously losses that exhaust our ability to grieve.

The challenge to live up to the ideals of democracy is not new to this moment. It will always be an ambitious goal that will break our hearts again and again.

In the past, though, when we failed, we could still agree on what we were trying to achieve: democracy, fairness, justice… life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, even if we disagreed on how to achieve these goals. We frequently failed to see what was missing or to include everyone. We must push for a government of the people, by the people, and for the people that actually serves and protects all of its people. Democracy and justice are actions, not outcomes, an endless journey to places we cannot yet imagine.

There are some who claim power due to the absence of perfect outcomes. They say that because promises of democracy and justice were made but not yet attained, we will promise you nothing and you must be content. Since perfect isn’t possible, you have to accept despair and cynicism.

So what is at stake in this impeachment trial is not the question “Are we democratic and just?” That will always be a work in progress.

No, it is something more chilling, dark, and desolate. The question is “Do we still aspire to be democratic and just?”

The defenders of this White House say no.

Did you vote yet?

It’s voting day, and I just spent a few hours encouraging people to vote.

I already voted during early voting because nothing scares me more than missing the chance to vote. One time I drove past my voting precinct and saw what at first glance looked like campaign signs and volunteers, and I literally clutched at my chest, wondering if I had forgotten to vote. (Long story short it was not a vote but some kind of fundraiser. Phew).

I don’t care if it is a vote for second assistant insurance fire commissioner, someone I don’t know wanting to do a job I don’t understand—I plan to cast a ballot no matter what.

Another vote here signThere are no perfect candidates, but there are usually those who are willing to work hard to make sense of sometimes mindlessly boring policy issues, and sometimes a few no-win situations. I will have to accept that none of them see the world exactly as I do, and we won’t agree on everything— but it usually is easy enough to identify which candidate will do the most good for the community. Yet even the best of them will make mistakes, or run up against systemic challenges that will take generations and a few miracles to overcome. I know that the least I can do is show up to vote. And, of course, vote out anyone who violates the public trust.

No one can promise me any candidate will be perfect, nor any problem easy to solve. To me, though, there is one thing that is perfect, and that is my vote. The vote matters so much that American history is riddled with bloody battles to gain the vote in the first place, and then to expand it (too slowly) to include more and more people.CDE810FC-6952-4331-B6C2-EBA8BCA122DD.c9088e8f602e4755bd25acb43a9d6047

Even though the constitution says most of us can vote, there will always be people both foreign and domestic who attempt to interfere with our access to vote, not to mention any chance to be well-informed as voters. And fighting for the vote means engaging in an imperfect and endless battle, but it is one I believe in because I believe in the vote, both as a symbol of faith in what humans can do together and as a practical matter that says in this one small way, I can make the world a tiny bit better.

Which is just to say, did you vote yet? You should.

 

 

Listening Notes: 1619 podcast, Episode 5, Part 2

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/11/podcasts/1619-slavery-farm-loan-discrimination.html

“The Land of Fathers, Part 2” is the last episode of the 1619 podcast series.

Phew. This podcast picks up where it left off by highlighting the weight of the grief and loss experienced by a family of African American sugar cane farmers. They compare the way this family was treated by a bank (perhaps better described as sabotage) with a landmark class action law suit on behalf of African American farmers.

I hope you have listened to this series of podcasts, too, especially so you can get the impact directly rather than through my comments. I will share some of my takeaway points, which will likely make more sense if you have listened to the episode.

First, the bank that sabotaged this family was doing so with money provided by federal government, specifically the USDA. In fact, I learned something about how this works in the alarming book that I blogged about earlier called the Fifth Risk. Banks often tout how much they are helping the community when the truth is, they are just a conduit for federal support. In the Fifth Risk, the author even documented one time when a conservative legislator pointed to one such loan as an example of how private enterprise solves problems better than the government.

So basically, this bank used my tax dollars to undermine this family by giving the family less than what was needed to succeed and by providing it to them too late in the season to succeed.

I was curious if the reporter asked the belligerent white man who now owns this family’s farm if he believed it possible to farm well without the funds or the time to do so? By the way, is it just me, or does it start to feel like, what’s the word, a ‘tell’ when someone like that gets angry, it usually means he knows that he is not in the right but he’d rather get mad than make amends?

It is painful to reflect on this episode and think, hmm, setting people up to fail, lying about what happened, and blaming individuals rather than the larger system… that sure sounds familiar, as if it is the same game plan used throughout history by people without morals, conscience, or any kind of guide rails who are pretty much steering our world to devastation right now.

This episode also made me think about farming as a so-called private enterprise, and I wound up having so much to say that I will move it to another post because it is somewhat tangential to this podcast (though some of those connection points are significant).

The last takeaway is based on Nikole Hannah-Jones’s parting comments at the end. I realize that I tend to be most concerned that injustice and discrimination are happening today, and they are built on what happened before, and that is absolutely a problem, but there is also a parallel question of how to reckon with what has happened, how to acknowledge it, how to make sure that this knowledge informs how we move forward. And that reckoning is painful and infuriatingly elusive,

Given her statements here and elsewhere, I worry about and also deeply respect the way she engages in this work given the emotional toll it can take.

Which is why I want to return now to the closing lines of the podcast episode by Wesley Morris reflecting on the history of Black music, which I will copy below, because it hints at a way to keep fighting while allowing for the possibility of joy:

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. (Wesley Morris)

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: 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).