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: 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? 

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).