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: Kruse

I continue to read, reflect, and shine a spotlight on the essays in the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project.

Princeton University professor Kevin Kruse, who I know as That-History-Guy-on-Twitter, wrote an essay titled: “What does a traffic jam in Atlanta have to do with segregation? Quite a lot”

A quote that resonated for me comes from the closing:

In the end, Atlanta’s traffic is at a standstill because its attitude about transit is at a standstill, too. Fifty years after its Interstates were set down with an eye to segregation and its rapid-transit system was stunted by white flight, the city is still stalled in the past. (Kruse)

I appreciate how these articles delineate examples of systematic discrimination. The earliest versions of most of our governmental assistance programs, as Kruse and other writers point out, were deliberately designed to exclude people of color.

This article reminded me of the three months I lived in Atlanta not long after I graduated from college. I remember hearing back then how Gwinnett County had voted against expanding the transit service for racist reasons, and I have had a grudge against that county ever since. It sounds as if little has changed. Apparently, preserving systems of discrimination against the poor and people of color is more important than saving the damn planet, which raises the question, as it always does: How foolish are these people?

The answer then and now: Very.

1619 Project: Morris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wow.

 

1619 Project: Poems and Stories

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

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

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

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

Clint Smith

Yusef Komunyakaa

Eve L. Ewing

Reginald Dwayne Betts

Barry Jenkins

Jesmyn Ward

Tyehimba Jess

Darryl Pinckney

ZZ Packer

Yaa Gyasi

Jacqueline Woodson

Rita Dove

Camille T Dungy

Joshua Bennett

Lynn Nottage

Kiese Laymon

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

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

My advice: read them!

 

1619 Project: Bouie

I continue to read, reflect, and shine a spotlight on the work of the 1619 Project.

Today I read the work by Jamelle Bouie, titled “America holds onto an undemocratic assumption from its founding: that some people deserve more power than others.” You can read it in full at this link:
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/republicans-racism-african-americans.html

Again, I hope you will look to the title to give you a sense of what the article is about.

This article covered more recent political history than past history, which, I admit, is preaching to the choir for me since I am sharply critical of the current leadership of this country and of my home state of North Carolina (which got a well-deserved mention for shenanigans from 2016, and deserves further shame for the way the state leadership team recently used the 9/11 memorial as a way to win a vote that based on actual democratic representation they would have lost, revealing that they are both anti-democratic AND generally terrible people).

Here is the quote I choose to share from Bouie’s article, as he analyzes statements made by Republicans in recent years:

The larger implication is clear enough: A majority made up of liberals and people of color isn’t a real majority. And the solution is clear, too: to write those people out of the polity, to use every available tool to weaken their influence on American politics. (Bouie)

Reading this article is enraging because we have seen anti-democratic strategies work too often in the past and the present. Nonetheless, let us recommit to push forward in the name of what democracy should be.

1619 Project: 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

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.

Reading Notes, Ida: A Sword Among Lions

IMG_3301So I have finished Paula Giddings’ biography of Ida B. Wells, Ida: A Sword Among Lions. At 659 pages, it is positively succinct in contrast to the Douglass biography. The time it took to read these books made me feel like an inefficient reader, yet I was sad, both times, to finish because I had come to enjoy hanging out with these lively heroes as they took on some of the most important battles of our time.

If you want to better understand American history, African American history, and women’s history, this book is essential reading. Indeed, many of the major figures in African American history and women’s history appear in these pages with depth and vibrant individuality in a way that makes my past conceptions seem like paper dolls. I can’t shake the feeling that to understand some of the painful events of this century, it helps to learn more about the events of the 19th Century. Though I prefer reading to viewing, my next goal is to watch Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Reconstruction documentary on PBS.org.

I found this biography insightful on many levels, so I plan to blog a few more times about this book. The insights ranged from the expanding my knowledge of the history and nature of lynching in America to intense awakenings to what it means to push forward on any goal and to overcome setbacks when people are prone to second guess or criticize.

I will try to dig into these thoughts in future blog posts. But my hope is that if you are up to it, you might read Giddings’ biography. It’s not a hard read, but it is long and detailed, so unless you frequently read such works, you might pace yourself so you can absorb all the twists and turns.

I have the impression Wells’ granddaughter Michelle Duster is working on a biography, too. You might check her out at https://mldwrites.com. Also worth following is journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who co-founded an organization in homage of Wells, and her work as a journalist has many echoes to Wells’ legacy: https://nikolehannahjones.com

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.