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?

The 1619 Project in the New York Times Magazine

One of my goals has been to return to a special series in the New York Times Magazine called the 1619 Project published in August 2019 and use my blog as a place to reflect more on each piece.

Here is the link to this series:
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html  I hope you will consider reading it, too.

I want to celebrate the importance of this undertaking without diverting attention away from the actual work and insightful contributors. How do I do that? I don’t want to talk over anyone: I want these voices heard.

Hmm. Still thinking. Here goes: I will choose one or two lines to highlight from each article. I will talk about what resonated for me… but as briefly as I can. My aim will be not to replace the experience of each piece but rather to nudge anyone who might be nudge-able to read the quote in its full context in each article (or story).

As a starting place, here is a critical line describing the goals of the series as a whole:

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.

(No author is named in this intro, fyi.)

I have decided to leave that quote standing by itself for now. Tomorrow (or sometime soon), I may share why this quote stands out to me.

Daily Blend

Since my ability to monitor calories, let alone restrict them, is more limited than I’d like to admit (my Fitness Pal app seems to average 1-2 days of records per month), I am experimenting, again, with the strategy of stopping eating at 6:30 pm each day. As a part of this goal, I am ending the day with a smoothie made with the Magic Bullet blender, which I was told is better than a blender, though I have no idea why that would be. I pretend it is true, that micronutrients are better than nutrients because there are more syllables. I also, more or less, let the smoothie replace my evening meal.

Last night as I threw together a blend, it occurred to me there were parallels between what I was putting in the mixer and my mood in response to the daily march of bad news. I added the healthy stuff first—fresh pineapple and spinach, frozen blueberries and strawberries, a tablespoon of chia seeds, and 3 ounces of oat milk. But then I added lemonade—a dose of acid after hearing the man in charge of justice in this country prevaricate on behalf of a man who thinks he is king. It made the smoothie sickeningly sweet, the tang of mendacity. The excess sugar immediately counteracts the health benefits of the smoothie. Undermining our health makes sense as the prevaricators, that is, stock investors parading as elected officials, fight to keep power so we won’t accidentally save the planet, which must not be good for the quarterly reports. Since their sole concern is not truth nor, apparently, national sovereignty, but boosting their own stock portfolios and future employment opportunities, they only need to live a quarter of a year longer… or so I must conclude from their actions.

So this smoothie need not provide long life.

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Fill-in-the-blank

I ended on a cynical note last time, so today I’d like to open up on a less cynical one. Hmm. After I wrote those words, I sat for a moment staring at a blank screen, which strikes me as a bit ironic. But I really am a glass-is-half-full kinda woman (married, by the way, to a glass-is-not-only-half-empty-but-it-probably-has-a-leak kinda man, so perhaps we balance each other out).

If you’ve picked up any vibes from me on this blog, I am a bit worried about the future of our planet. And the state of democracy, especially the rise of autocrats. And lately it feels as if human suffering on this planet is not being addressed not because it is a hard problem to solve (which it is) but *because* keeping people in desperate situations literally empowers autocrats and millionaires.

You may be wondering where my less cynical note is. I realize I wrote the statement above because it always seems insensitive to speak optimistically when so many people face so many challenges. I am yet to find a graceful and concise way to recognize this fact. Indeed, to speak of one concern is to risk appearing indifferent to other struggles. You know, I like the phrase YMMV, “Your mileage may vary,” as a way to recognize that what works for me may not be experienced the same way by someone else, for many reasons, including institutionalized discrimination. Perhaps there already is a phrase out there that would work here, but until it floats before me, I think I will try creating my own: IKIAMS—“I know I am missing something.” Or FITB Fill-in-the-blank. Write in what you see as the greatest struggle, the most urgent concern.

So there is always FITB, that which I don’t know how to articulate or address when I make an attempt to be optimistic, yet I will be optimistic anyway.

Why? Because autocrats and people-who-promote-suffering benefit from pessimism. So even if we must recognize that FITB exists, we can be radical and subversive by being optimistic anyway. To say, maybe the suffering can be reduced. Maybe democracy will resurge. Maybe we can heal the planet. Maybe we can heal one another. I will say maybe, because I don’t know the future. But neither do the autocrats and those-who-promote-suffering.

I also, oddly enough, find something optimistic in considering the idea that suffering empowers autocrats and millionaires. Besides various historical and political events that might support this claim, I am thinking of a Last Week Tonight analysis of how investors are buying up mobile home parks because mobile home owners are helpless customers—a deeply disturbing story.

What is optimistic in this rather dark vision of the world is that it means that every act to reduce suffering, to provide, for example, food, medical care, opportunity, or agency to another person—or even just an encouraging word, is to increase democracy and undermine the power of autocrats and corrupt individuals. Choose your FITB. We might not be able to fix everything all at once, but we can take one step every day to comfort and empower one another (including ourselves). To reject those who want us to fear one another and to embrace helplessness in the face of great challenges. They are out to make a buck and/or to indulge in delusions of grandeur. We are here for each other.

Reading Notes: Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

Cover of bio

I am halfway through this biography now, so don’t spoil the ending for me ;).

I have been tempted to comment often as I read, even if I fear I will reveal gaps in my knowledge despite my efforts to learn more. Still, here are a few thoughts, and forgive me for where I fall short in understanding:

  • This biography, at least thus far, has given me a better education on the build-up to the American Civil War than anything else I have encountered. In fairness, I have never been eager to read about any war, so I haven’t encountered as much as others may have. But I recall watching most of Ken Burns’ famous documentary, many years ago. Indeed, if I could stomach it, I would be curious to watch at least parts of it again after I finish this biography. I suspect, though I could be wrong, that I will feel the documentary misses some insights revealed in this book.
  • I take comfort in the internecine battles within the abolitionist movement. (I finally get to use the word internecine, which means “referring to conflict within an organization.”) This gives me comfort because I witnessed similar in-fighting among progressive people three years ago that arguably undermined our ability to stop cruel people from taking power. It’s comforting because a) such divisions are not some modern failure in vision but part of the history of political change, and b) slavery eventually became illegal in this country despite those disagreements. It is reasonable to observe that we still cannot celebrate the elimination of all forms of slavery or the advent of an egalitarian society, but it is a comfort nonetheless to point to one good outcome in the face of daunting odds and divided allies.
  • This will sound odd, but as I read about the in-fighting among abolitionists and the way pro-slavery monsters verbally and physically attacked abolitionists, including Douglass, I keep picturing it all unfolding on Twitter. The violence in words and actions endemic to social media echo what took place then in newspapers, paper pamphlets, public lectures, and really long letters.

All of which leads me back to my sense that too little has changed since the 19th Century. Or perhaps, that we continue to battle the same battles as we did then.

Here’s a tantalizing quote to end on:

“If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand” (Frederick Douglass as quoted by Blight, p.286).

image of books

Origin Stories

I have been on something of a reading tear, binging on several novels that I had on my TBR (to be read) list. At the same time, I have been working steadily through Paula Giddings Ida: A Sword Among Lions and David Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. Plus Dreyer’s English for comic relief.

This may be why I’m not much fun at parties.

I am still early in both biographies, but I am filled with gratitude for the effort the authors put into researching and illuminating these lives. I sense that such time-consuming work can feel thankless in a culture that seems to treat it as futile, even for authors as esteemed as Giddings and Blight.

The first few chapters detail the early years of Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass, and the experience for me is that of reading the origin stories of superheroes. They are two giants, and I am humbled to learn what they never stop teaching us.

Don’t trust anyone over 40

As someone on the other side of 40, I only partly mean this title. I have felt despair and moments of fury when millennials disregard the insights and experiences of those who have been in a job for decades, preferring to recreate the wheel in the most inefficient means possible. I also love the acerbic comments of experts and grassroots activists older than me who have ridden through many ups and downs, professionally and politically.

But there is something liberating about some of the younger voices in literature and politics who are operating free of the confines of “how it’s always been.” To be specific, and I know I am sometimes coy about specifics on this blog, I loved the diversity represented within Marie Lu’s Warcross duology. Her characters were diverse in terms of ethnic identity, ability, gender, class, even nationality. None of these were flagged as problems or the focus of the story, just a way to reveal the world with clarity and insight.

I’ve noticed a similar trend in movies and TV shows, so much so that when I watch a rerun of an older show, I can’t get over how white, straight, and/or privileged everyone is.

Recently, I picked up a classic that would be worth reading but couldn’t get past the language used to depict difference. I remind myself this is a journey. If we manage to continue to break down the barriers of privilege, sometime in the future these examples I celebrate now may not measure up as well. The classic author I picked up was certainly forcing the reader to engage with difference in as advanced a method as was possible in the 1950s.

Still, it made me want to read more books that break away from what people over 40 sometimes claim is “just the way things are.” I am ready to embrace what should be, and I want to support authors *and politicians* who speak in those terms.

And don’t get me started on political analysts.

Silence is not golden

As a string of egregious actions make the news, including personal behavior that reveals the blindness of those in power and far too many policies that will secure that same blind power for decades to come, I am thinking today about the silence people use to avoid reckoning with their complicity. I am remembering moments in my youth, and sometimes later, when someone has made a statement, usually as a joke, sometimes with what he or she considers a keen sense of irony, that offends me whether or not it directly relates to me, yet the burden is on me to decide if I should say something, or if I should leave the conversation, or if I should rethink this friendship. This is the power of culture, especially our culture which relies on discrimination as a tool for power. It is this culture that makes me feel as if I’m being uptight or just can’t take a joke when I am gasping with shock or outrage or confusion (and this especially bothers me because I actually like to laugh, just not at the messed up things that people with too much power find amusing).

I will say this as strongly as I can—it is not the responsibility of those who are offended or directly harmed to speak up in that moment or in its aftermath. We can choose to speak when we are safe doing so, sure. But it is the responsibility of those who are making the jokes or engaging in the actions to be open to the possibility that everything they say or do is not actually fine or without consequence. Pay attention to those unexpected silences. Read the room. Stop and consider that just because you have the power in the moment to do or say whatever you want doesn’t make it right.

time limit on twitter

Your Tweets Are Not Enough

I made a resolution this year to be more active on Twitter, and so far I have managed to lose a lot of time on Twitter without gathering my courage to post anything. More often than not, a terrible event occurs (As-Seen-On-Twitter), and I get caught in a vortex of outrage and helplessness, peering at what looks like Apocalypse Now.

I struggle to identify the right response. Clicking “like” seems inappropriate, especially if an outrage relates to experiences that I sympathize with but may not bear the brunt of, which makes me feel, fairly, like Part of the Problem rather than the Supporting Caring Random Stranger that I hope to be if I click “like” on your Tweet.

I have set a goal to let the professionals handle the Right Response On Twitter. On the other hand, I worry that if I am not posting how I totally AGREE or DISAGREE on some issue, I am not being the ally that I need to be for people confronted with systemic oppression. I take some comfort in the fact that my number of followers is, um, petite, so the odds are good no one is waiting for me to do the right thing as a Twitter influencer.

Yesterday I read what I considered an appropriately outraged tweet telling me: “Your tweets are not enough” in the face of another horror. Since I still haven’t figured out what would be an appropriate tweet, I feel like a double failure, though I remind myself that I have taken actions IRL to stand up for those who are oppressed and to comfort those who are in pain.

It occurs to me that my feelings of guilt and inadequacy are appropriate. Dabbling on social media as a means of sharing thoughts and ideas is not a politically neutral activity. It is an exercise of privilege to engage in any activity without explicitly addressing matters of injustice. It is an exercise of privilege to enjoy a moment of quiet or humor or irony. Add to that the challenge that social media postings rarely reveal the unpolished layers of actual lives.

Here’s what I think for now: I will continue to engage in my own muted and unpredictable ways. In the face of outrages spotlighted on Twitter, I will aim to amplify the voices of those who might not be heard enough as well as those who have read and researched enough to compose appropriate responses. But writing about this topic here has helped me see what I hadn’t acknowledged before: the discomfort must exist. It should not be easy to decide what to say and when. It always matters, even the clicking of a like button. Or the not-clicking. The lurking or the speaking out.

My tweets are not enough. I don’t even have the right to know what actions would be *enough* in order to fight against systems of power that consistently and disproportionately harm our fellow human beings based on, for example, race, LGBTQ+, sex, religion, ability, class… So no, tweets are not enough because this is a battle for human dignity and the promise of democracy.