Friday, December 14, 2007

When No One Is Listening

When I go out around my way at night, to the store or the gas station, more often than not I get approached by someone asking for money for some reason or another. “Ay breh, I don’t mean no disrespect, but I just got out of the hospital and I need some help to get this prescription. Can you help a brother out?” “Excuse me brotherman, I don’t mean to step to you like this breh, but I’m hungry, can you help me out with a dollar so I can get me something to eat?” “Sir, you look like a righteous black man, so I ain’even gonna lie to you, I just got out of jail and I need some money to get on the bus. Can you spare a dollar or something to help me out?"

I realized recently that this happens so much that I am becoming blind to the men on the other side of these questions. I am failing to look at them and see them as men, but rather I see them as obstacles to my getting gas or milk or dental floss. I realized that with each encounter my increasing insensitivity is a reduction in my own humanity. Typically, if I have money in my pocket I would give it to them and if not I would say so. I often do not give it much more thought than that.

Last night another brother stepped to me while I was out buying some aloe for a mark on my face. As I pulled into the parking lot I saw him in my rear view mirror quickly limping up to my door. I got out quickly so I would be out of the car and standing up by the time he reached me.

Excuse me breh, I don’t mean you no harm. I’m just hungry. Can you help me out with some change, please?

He was a young black man, he looked like a teenager. His clothes were filthy, he smelled bad and he only had on one shoe. The other foot was broken and in a cast which he had covered with a sock. Rather than the usual – keep walking you’re a nuisance posture – we were standing still and face to face. Before I could answer, he said he had been hit by a car and broke his ankle. He proceeded to pull up his pant leg and show me the top of the cast and the skin on his leg that looked infected and awful. I asked him how old he was and he said that he is 21. I asked him why he was out there like this.

Where are your people?

I ain’ got nobody. My Mama died and I never knew my father and I ain’ got nobody else.

He was speaking softly by now and he opened his jacket and pulled up the sleeve of his t-shirt and showed me a crude tattoo on his arm of a picture of his mother. Underneath the picture of her face was a picture of the prayerful hands together with R.I.P. and the dates of her life. I asked him where he sleeps and he said in an abandoned house somewhere on the other side of the park. I gave him the name and address of a church that is nearby that has a system for helping people.

Thanks breh, cause I need some help, with my foot and to get me some food, I’m hungry. I just need some help youknowwhatimean.

I hear you blood, but make sure you go to the church. Those folks can really help you.

I gave him the money I had. He took it, looked at me and then grabbed me. He put his head on my shoulder and hugged me hard for a long time. I could feel him breathing and shaking. When he let go and faced me he was crying.

He extended his hand to me and said his name is Charles. He said that its rough “to be out here and don’ nobody want to listen you.” Then he promptly hobbled off.

I sat back down in the car for a moment to hold back my own tears and collect myself. I felt ashamed that I had stopped seeing these brothers as men; that I had stopped listening.


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Jesus, God and Rice Krispies

A real conversation between a man, me, and a three year old girl, my daughter….


Daddy, did Jesus die?


Where did he go?

He went to heaven.

Mommy said he went to heaven to be with God.

Yeah, he went to heaven to be with God and to help him.

What does he do? I thought God doesn’t need any help.

Um, I don't know, but they both want you to eat up these Rice Krispies before they get soggy.


Friday, November 30, 2007

If I Were A Jew

If I were a Jew today, my sensibilities would be tormented. I would find it increasingly difficult to reconcile the long cycles of oppression that Jewish people have endured and the insatiable appetite for vengeful violence that Israel, my homeland, has now acquired. This reconciliation would be particularly difficult now, in November, 79 years after Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass. The anniversary of this dreadfully monumental day in my history would bring me pause. It would force me to reflect on the legacy of extraordinary human suffering. I might wonder how the vicious eruption of cruelty in the mid-twentieth century has influenced the shape of my identity as a Jewish person and our collective identity as Jewish people.

Suffering and oppression typically give rise to sympathy and compassion among the oppressed. I can look upon the sufferer and know that, “there but for the Grace of God, go I.” During this period I might well reflect on the redemptive qualities of suffering that my people have learned through a ghastly set of lessons. I would not have to reflect alone, I could read the lessons explicitly from Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank, or Chaim Potok. I would conclude that my Jewish faith and the history of my people render me closer to human compassion; closer to the instinct to offer healing to hurt, patience to anxiety and understanding to confusion.

I don’t know how I would reconcile that identity with the behavior of fundamentalist Jewish extremists or of Israel as a nation. The details would confuse me. I wouldn’t understand those who suggest that bombing Lebanon, slaughtering Lebanese people and largely destroying Beirut in retaliation for the capture of a few soldiers is justified. I wouldn’t understand the notion of collective punishment, cutting off gas, electricity and water from residents in Gaza because they are attacking Israel who is fighting against them. It would be unconscionable to me to watch Israeli tanks donning the Star of David rumbling through Ramallah destroying buildings and breaking the glass.

I would be confused in concept too. My faith would lead me to believe that Israel is the homeland of my people. My intellect would convince me that it cannot be that simple. The faith and reason of the Palestinians or of Muslims cannot simply be baseless. I would have to believe that the degree of animus, vengeance and violence that they now carry is not rooted in their identity, but rather in their experience; in the sordid nation shuffling and rebuilding that took place after World War II. It must be rooted in their hurt, in their sense of displacement, abandonment and hopelessness.

My reflections on Kristallnacht would lead me to feel that these are precisely the human sentiments that I as Jew would understand; that I ought to understand and feel compelled to help alleviate. It cannot be that the sum total of a history of suffering and slaughter places such a premium on my identity that I would be willing to damn others in defense of it.

If I were a Jew I would be concerned about my insatiable appetite for war and killing in defense of myself. Self defense is undoubtedly an instinct, but I would be afraid of my increasing insensitivity to the suffering others. My greatest torment would be that I’ve misinterpreted the identity offered by my history and transposed spiritual and human compassion with self righteous impunity.


Monday, November 19, 2007

White Values and Convergence

Recently National Public Radio reported on the results of a national poll that suggests there is a division among black people about what it means to be black. NPR’s Juan Williams’ report, Redefining What It Means To Be Black In America accompanied the poll results. In short, the poll suggests that black people these days think there are two sets of black people in America – one set, those ensnared by poverty and donning the trappings of the thug life and the other, those financially better off, genteel and more visibly responsible.

The results of the poll are what they are, an indication of the desperation that all black people feel about the abyss swallowing up so many of our kind. This abyss is creating a value system and a mode of being in the world that is unrecognizable to many black people. Hence, many black people feel that two separate sets of black people are emerging. There is nothing spectacular about diverging classes of people thinking that they possess divergent value systems. In every society in the world class has served as a proxy for all manner of divisions, not the least of which are value systems.

The real problem with the report is its core claim, that the group of black people who work, are civic minded and oriented around responsibility are converging on a white value system. The claim is essentially that the value system of "good" blacks is converging with the value system of whites.

The degree of arrogance and paternalism in this claim is astonishing. Does it need to be explicitly pointed out to white and black people alike that white people are not the model against which the rest of humanity is referenced? If the value system personified by 50 Cent is supposedly representative of a separate set of black people, why is not the value system of avarice, deceit and ignorance personified by George Bush representative of a separate set of white people? Why are not the dishonest, unethical and inhumane value systems of Jack Abramov, Lewis Libby, Dick Cheney and Tom Delay representative of a separate set of white people? Why aren’t the redneck whites who hang nooses from trees, who dragged James Byrd to death, who rapped and sodomized Megan Williams, who rape and ravage Mexican women crossing the border and Indian women on their reservations considered a separate set of white people?

White people do not have a monopoly on righteousness or on sound value systems. They are every bit as susceptible to the frailties and ugliness of the human spectrum as everyone else. The claim that responsible black people are converging on a white value system implies that I am converging on a white value system – that somehow the values ingrained in me through the particular journey of my family, my faith, my life and my own critical thought has led me to the doorstep of the temple of white values. Not only is that notion ridiculous, it is personally offensive. Indeed, that idea scorns the morality born of my ancestors’ resistance to oppression meted out to us by the very white people whose value system is now thought to be impeccable.

I find it shameful to have to make this argument so far along on our supposed path to enlightenment. White people and the value systems they employ are neither the standard nor the metric. Value systems ought to be referenced against goodness, against kindness, honesty and human decency. Acquiring that system is a human challenge that we all face.


Thursday, November 1, 2007

Halloween and Surrender

There is no end to the discussion about the failures of No Child Left Behind. A lot of it centers on the systemic failure and persistent underachievement of black children. The President and his men have reconstructed the education debate so that it revolves around metrics and statistical trends on meaningless standardized tests. Ironically, it is the disguises of Halloween that reveal the real damage that society has inflicted on black children. Multiple sets of black kids came to our door on Halloween night trick or treating. Several of the encounters demonstrated the degree to which black children have been reduced.

My wife and I were eating dinner with a too cute “biting scary cat” when there was a loud pounding, not knocking, on the door. The biting scary cat dropped her broccoli and flew to the door screaming, “the trick or treaters are here, the trick or treaters are here!" When we opened the door there was a group of six or seven black kids ranging from about 3 to 13 years old. None of them had on costumes. One of them boldly and gruffly said, “trick or treat” and they all extended their plastic bags. I said, “But hold up, none a yall have on costumes. What’s up with that?” The biting scary cat had the bowl of candy in her hands and turned to my wife and me and asked, “how come they don’t have on costumes?”

“Cuh we broke.”

I was instantly crushed. Creativity does not cost. On the contrary, it supposedly flourishes in the face of limited resources. Apart from that, listening to this little girl look us straight in the face and say, “cuh we broke,” hurt. What I heard in her response was, “because we’ve surrendered.” They were not bothered by their lack of effort. It did not seem to occur to them that they ought to be uncomfortable, if not embarrassed, to be asking for candy on Halloween at a stranger’s doorstep without a costume of any kind. The compounding weights of low expectations and poor education are not only stifling their creativity, but are undermining their pride in themselves.

When my wife told the biting scary cat to give them some of the candy they grabbed handfuls each and we had to tell them not to take it all. They turned to start down the steps without a word. The biting scary cat looked back at us again and said, “Mommy, they didn’t say thank you.” On hearing that, one of them threw a thank you over her shoulder as they continued down the steps.

I turned back inside in a combination of anger and sadness. My wife suggested that we take the biting scary cat trick or treating to some of our friends in the neighborhood. As we turned up our block we saw the same kids riding in a car with the radio blasting 8Ball & MJG’s, “Alcohol, Pussy and Weed.” A three year old in a car listening to alcohol, pussy and weed? How does that happen? and what does it say? In my mind it says the same, that we have surrendered.

And the night got worse.

When we came back, the biting scary cat returned to a little girl and went to sleep around nine o’clock. At about ten o’clock I was watching HBO on-demand boxing, Manny Pacquiao versus Marco Antonio Barrera, when there was another pounding on the door. I couldn’t believe it. This time, there was a young brother maybe 14 years old with a little boy that was either 3 or 4. Again, neither of them had on costumes. From the same bag of gruffness as the other girl he said, “trick or treat.” I said, “Yo!! You don’t have on a costume and its 10 o’clock.”

He smiled and said, “I’m a crook.”

“What do you mean you’re a crook?”

“This is how crooks be looking, I got on a black T.”

I think its surrender.


Friday, October 26, 2007

An Order of Magnitude

[Also in the Atlanta Journal Constitution 26 October issue under the heading, Assessing the Magnitude of Our Skewed Priorities.]

During the last year, I have spent a considerable amount of time in Atlanta high schools. These visits occurred under a public outcry concerning the absence of young black male teachers in public schools. The outcry is tied to the idea that black youth generally are wanting for male guidance, discipline and posturing. That is a consequence of the claim that somewhere in the neighborhood of 70% of all black children in the United States live in households without their fathers. As a result of all that, on several occasions I was offered the opportunity to teach. In one instance the starting salary would have been $41,000.

An order of magnitude is a multiple of 10. In this case, an order of magnitude more than $41,000 is $410,000. Ten people working at $41K earn as much as one working at $410K. Alternatively, one person working for ten years at $41K earns what another working at $410K earns in one.

I recently was at a meeting at Harvard and visited some students in the business school there. One of the students told me of a potential job offer with a private equity firm where the starting compensation package was approximately $410,000. It was pure coincidence that the offer was exactly an order of magnitude more than the one I had been offered to teach. In the face of the magnitude all I could say was, “wow!”.

I wonder about the implications of such a difference, about an order of magnitude difference between financial management and teaching young people. In the most simple comparison, if two people at these respective salaries work for five years, one will have amassed nearly $2.5 million and the other just shy of $250,000. Let me write those numbers: two million four hundred sixty thousand dollars versus two hundred forty six thousand dollars over five years.

What is really happening that can create such an enormous difference? Since when is financial planning and the buying and selling of companies so astronomically more important than everything else? If we dig beneath the standard arguments in support of the free market and its aggressive promotion of individualism, what does this order of magnitude really say about our collective instincts? In many ways the occupations dealing with social justice and education and the laying of hands on people are so devalued monetarily that they appear almost trivial, a wasteland for the less talented. Why must wanting to make an immediate difference in someone’s life require an almost cherubic sacrifice in your own?

A teacher holds on to a young person, looks at them in their eyes and battles with them day in and day out to ensure that they learn, that they grow, that they can comprehend the system into which they are born. In many ways they serve as guards protecting young people from the darkness of ignorance. How do we really say that that activity is on par, in terms of money, with picking up garbage? Indeed, that it is ten times less valuable than a financial modeler? Ten times?

Clearly I am biased on the side of social justice, education and personal contact. Having said that, I do not underestimate the significance of a viable business class and sound financial markets. I am baffled though, by a whole order of magnitude.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Morpheus, Neo and Believing

Several years ago I was invited by one of the Associate Vice Chancellors of the University System of Georgia to address a group of graduating college seniors who were interested in attending graduate school. I spoke about the discipline involved in succeeding in graduate school, but more importantly the need that the country and the world have for talented people. Human suffering at the moment is so rampant that it will require an extraordinary collection of skills to help alleviate it.

The Associate thought that my message was fantastic and that it was important for the students to listen to it from the voice and mind of a young man. He embraced me long and hard and said that he had every faith that I would become a significant force for good and an important public intellectual. I took that in stride and appreciated his kind words. Since then, whenever we reconnect he says the same thing. He says it so much and with such conviction that at times I say to myself, “C’mon man, ease up.”

Recently, I have been battling through a crisis of confidence – a fractured belief in my ability to matter, to influence people and things that I care deeply about. At the bottom of the valley of that crisis, an almost divine combination of opportunities presented themselves to speak publicly on the very issues about which I was struggling. Part of the serendipity of those opportunities, is that they resulted in another meeting with the Associate.

He is a short, hard edged black man, former college president and generally high ranking academic official. I explained to him what had been happening. He looked at me so hard that it hurt. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Kamau, you are it. You have the combination of vision, the analytical skills, the honesty and a remarkable ability to communicate with people.” He was speaking in a soft gruff voice, and it seemed that he was willing me to believe in myself. I blinked as the emotions surged. I felt like Neo must have felt in the face of Morpheus’ all consuming faith in him.

I have always believed that mentorship and cheerleading are important. When I can, I try to serve in those capacities just because it is my way and I generally believe in the capacity of people. It is clearer to me now, however, that in order to really be Morpheus, I have to be Neo. The experience of having a relative stranger believe in you so fiercely is incredible. The Associate said that he owes me because I’ve helped him to keep hoping and to keep believing. His belief in me is somehow loosely tied to his belief in himself and his mission. Listening to him and grappling with how what he said made me feel was an awesome experience. The timing and the setting created the drama, but it helped me better appreciate the tremendous significance of playing his role – of holding a young person, believing in them, telling them that you do and making them understand the force of your belief.


Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Brother Malcolm, We Need You



Monday, October 1, 2007

Rasta and Cinderella

This weekend Cinderella stormed our household like a Chechen terrorist. I took my daughter to a birthday party for a friend of hers, another little girl. One of the party favors was a little purple plastic watch. The party was at one of those jumping warehouses where children disappear into big inflatable tents with slides and bumpers and emerge yelling and giggling and tired. My little girl disappeared and somewhere along the line arranged for someone to put this purple watch on her wrist. She came running out, “Daddy, Daddy look at my watch!!” Then, with all the cutsie of an already cute 3 year old she cocked her head with her chin on her shoulder and slyly asked, “Do yooooou know what time it is?”

My heart was bursting the way only parents’ hearts burst. I said, “Nooooo, what time is it?” Then she ran up and said, look, its seventeen o’clock.” When I looked, Cinderalla jumped off the watch face and slapped me in my eye. I felt like a conservative middle aged white woman must feel if Rza from the Wu-Tang Clan suddenly jumped in her window while she was eating dinner. I smiled – deflated. “Nice, but I think it is 12:30.”

I cannot stand the blistering intensity with which the images of these white princesses are pushed upon everyone. Seeing Cinderella on my girl’s wrist was like poison. I call my daughter Rasta. “Rasta, who loves you?” “Daddy does,” she answers. Behind that, in my mind, are the images of strength and beauty and grace and femininity that are embodied by Rastafarian women in particular and black women in general. There could be nothing more antithetical to that image and my image of my little girl than Cinderella and her crew. More broadly, it really upsets me and simply hurts that the images of white girls, royalty and beauty are all inextricably bound together and injected into all little girls heads. My wife and I feel like guards protecting the clean and impressionable space in her psyche from that biased and exclusive imagery. For the little while that it lasted, it burned me that Cinderella was marching around on my girl’s wrist.

Needless to say, the watch came off at the first opportunity where I could do it peacefully. “You can’t bathe with the watch on ole girl.” At every conceivable opportunity after that, she asked if she could put it on. At every opportunity I said no and then had to withstand a slew of why’s. I just kept saying because I don’t like it. She pleaded, “but Daddy she’s not wearing pink.” Herein lies the challenge. I don’t want to address the issue directly because I’m not sure you can explain these reasons to a three year old. I also do not want her to develop, as my wife said, a chip on her shoulder. It isn’t that we fail to see the beauty in white dolls, little white girls or Cinderella for that matter. We simply want her to develop an appreciation for beauty that is as nuanced, various and personal as beauty itself is. The Cinderella cocktail is an expanding poison that sucks out the space for alternative images of beauty -for all little girls. Whenever do you see a little white girl wearing a t-shirt with a black girl on it thinking that the girl on her shirt is beautiful?

The onslaught has backed us into a corner. It has forced me to resist these images in ways that I find uncomfortable. I don’t want to deny my little girl party favors – that is almost cruel. The intensity of the siege, however, has dictated the intensity of our resistance. To the extent that we can provide a variety of images of beauty we will. That variety will include Cinderella and her ilk, but they will be just one of a number of images of beauty and of royalty and of femininity. Even then, while her development is still delicate, my Rasta will never wear Cinderella.


Thursday, September 27, 2007

Looking at Locks and Links

I realized this past weekend that I have the privilege of a black perch – a position from which to see a range of black people. My wife and I went to a wedding this weekend in New York. The groom is an old and close friend of ours. He is an MIT grad and the wedding was populated with black MIT and Harvard alum. The migratory pattern of black birds like these are such that a host of us flew west to Stanford and Berkeley as well. So there we were, a slew of black people with the best education the country has to offer.

In this group of people there were no locks, it was a cuff-link crowd at a cuff-link venue in the Bowery in lower Manhattan. Many of the brothers were immaculately groomed with short professional afros or low cuts edged with laser precision. The women also brought out the sartorial big guns. A few even had on the same dress, which looked like one that Kimora Simmons might wear.

The conversation canvas of snippets yielded an interesting picture of this group. It consisted of Microsoft professionals, neurosurgeons, private equity big leaguers, corporate executives, high end management consultants and venture capitalists. The concern for the proverbial “community” was at the level of continents and regions. “We’re placing particular emphasis on investments in the Caribbean basin.” “We’re trying to strengthen capital markets in West Africa.” “We’re dealing with closing the epidemiological divide.”

When I paused to absorb the circumstance, it was fascinating. Here was a group of young black people impeccably educated whose influence is slowly gaining strength and sending long wave shocks out into the world. It is a group that is seldom talked about and certainly rarely seen together in the same place. It was amazing to see and even more humbling to be a part of.

Last year around the same time my wife and I went to another friend’s wedding in California. The difference in the venue reflected the difference in the people. It was held in the Berkeley Botanical Gardens at an outdoor alter in a Redwood grove. There, there were not only locks, but locks that were laced with cowry shells. There was a sister with a small tattoo of Che Guevara on her back. There were several people dressed in African clothing and several others who were grads of the Nation of Islam and alum of the Five Percenters.

The conversation canvas there presented a picture of street level activists for whom community meant the people that can be seen and touched whose lives are obviously connected to their own. There were teachers, Freedom School workers, youth program coordinators, social councilors, artists of all sorts and old sages from the Black Panther Party. “I’m trying to get some of these brothers to recognize the beauty in themselves.” “At the Freedom Schools, we try to teach these kids that our community is either going to flourish or perish, but whatever it does, it will do it as a community.”

At that wedding too, I had to pause and appreciate the significance and the beauty of the group of people. It is a group that is more visible than the cuff-links set, but its influence is quiet and steadily growing. It was also amazing to see and humbling to be a part of.

From locks to links, the parties at both of these weddings went well into the wee hours of the morning; they were dark, hot, full of reminiscing, full of love and most importantly full of hope.


Friday, September 14, 2007

The Utility of Mirrors

I recently went to a screening of the documentary, The Price of Sugar. It is about the slave-like working conditions of Haitian cane cutters in the Dominican Republic. According to the film, which chronicles the advocacy work of Father Bill Hartley, there are thousands of Haitians who are brought into the Dominican Republic to cut sugar cane every year. They are brought in by a Dominican sugar company and stripped of their Haitian papers and never given Dominican papers. They exist essentially as stateless people and are forced to work and live in horrific conditions that are reminiscent of slavery. The film also spends considerable time showing the anger and hostile attitude of Dominicans towards the Haitians. Their vitriol was laced with racist venom as they decried the “Haitianizing of the Dominican Republic.” It was an emotionally difficult film to watch as it showed malnourished children and black people cutting cane barefoot with severed fingers and limbs and all manner of awful disease and dysfunction. During the scenes where they showed the protests of the Dominicans against the Haitians you could feel the anger of the audience and their mounting scorn towards them.

The audience at the screening was a very cultured set of predominantly black people with a number of the academic street conscious crew too. The high end set had ornately arranged dread-locks and were adorned with golden Egyptian scarabs on their hands that poked out from expensive looking cuff-linked French cuff shirts. The street conscious brethren and sistren were crowned with their black, gold and green tams, bathed in Egyptian musk and carried their signature weathered leather satchels with two heavy books that contain the “knowledge.”

What was striking about the public discussion that followed the film was the combination of a sense of victimization among black people and anger directed towards the Dominicans. There was a lot made of the negative consequences of “globalism” and the detrimental effects it has had on African people throughout the centuries. The scorn directed at the Dominicans was palpable. Members of the audience scolded the Dominicans in the film for looking down on the Haitians as being “blacker and poorer” than them, while failing to see the mutuality of their collective plight. That idea seemed to capture the attitude of the audience.

What was interesting about the dialogue is that we failed to look into the mirror that was presented to us. The Dominicans in the film are us. The attitude that black Americans have largely adopted towards Hispanic immigrants is identical to that adopted by the Dominicans towards the Haitians. The analogy is almost perfect. The working and living conditions of many Hispanic immigrants in the United States are atrocious and largely unknown to black people. We don’t really know where they live and what they are subject to in their working lives. Hispanics are broadly viewed as lower down on the totem pole of respectability than we are. We tend to see their limited proficiency in English as an indication of limited intelligence. We don’t understand the difficultly of having families split between countries. Our instincts probably hint to us that they are not, in general, living comfortable and peaceful lives; however, that hasn’t muted our resentment. Many black people have taken the side of conservative white people who decry that America is for Americans and we have to resist the “Browning of America.” We tend to view Hispanics as “browner and poorer” than we are and therefore we derive some distorted sense of self-importance by denigrating them. Essentially, we fail to see the mutuality of our collective plights.

This small screening made it abundantly clear that in the absence of critical thought, mirrors are useless.


Monday, September 10, 2007

Damn This Imagery

I woke up this morning and saw a picture on the cover of the New York Times of an obviously African black woman lying on the ground. There is one little bird, standing by the corner of the sheet, looking at her as if to say that everything is not going to be alright. To confirm the message of the picture the article begins by describing the woman’s condition.

Mrs. Sesay was sick. She had breast cancer in a form that Western doctors rarely see anymore – the tumor had burst through her skin, looking like a putrid head of cauliflower weeping small amounts of blood at its edges. (Donald G. McNeil Jr., NYT. 10 September 2007. Drugs Banned, World's Poor Suffer in Pain.)

I found the expression of disgust at the grossness of the description and the sadness of the situation stuck on my face. Even as I write this now it has returned. This woman’s face could be my grandmother’s face. There are several women in my family and my wife’s that resemble her. What bothers me most is the constant reinforcement of the link between a face like hers – that is reflected in us - and intolerable pain. The title of the article is, “…World’s Poor Suffer in Pain.” I look at this picture and my face contorts. I won’t speak of what it does to my heart, but the imagery is damning. I would be deceiving myself if I did not think that the connection between images of black people and bad things in general were not being quietly sewn together in my psyche. When you skip onto page A12 you find the following picture of a woman holding her young son who had been burned with boiling water.

The point of the article was to say that families like her’s, poor black people, cannot even get morphine to ease their pain. We are then left to imagine what it must be like to have a 2 or 3 year old child, as I do, and have her be burned with scalding hot water all over her body and not be able to offer her anything for the pain. I do not underestimate the quiet and incremental contribution to the relationship between black people and pain that this article has made in me. The imagery is so powerful that it must be having an effect.

This morning’s story comes on the heals of a local news story last night about a set of young black boys that vandalized a daycare center. They broke into the building and just destroyed it. My wife had tears in her eyes as she watched it. I could only imagine that she was thinking about how could our children, black children, become so mean. They poured paint over the computers for the children, broke the tables and threw the little chairs all over the place. They even defecated and smeared their feces on the walls and windows and urinated on the toys. The image associated with this was a meeting of the children’s parents – a room full of black women crying and wondering what evil had befallen them and what they would do with their children while the center recovered from the damage.

That whole story is in the context of an incessant barrage of pictures of ridiculous looking young black boys as legislation is being discussed in Georgia to criminalize the way they wear their pants. The image of black boys with sagging pants, unkempt clothes and foul behavior is another that is being steadily driven into our psyche. It is making it hard to distinguish between the images and the full story.

Reality is what it is – but damn this imagery. Had those boys not done what they did, there would be no story. There would be no association between them, their image and such reprehensible behavior. Similarly, the convergence of western exploitation and domestic corruption in Africa is real. The world’s poor are suffering. That lady did not lie down on the ground to pose for the picture, she lay down to die.

The images of us are tilted so heavily in the direction of things bad that it is hard to find balance. It is becoming difficult for me to pit the positive imagery of my personal experience against the wave of negative images that I am confronted with and still expect not be deeply wounded.


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Random Righteousness

At the heart of Cooper’s faith and sense of righteousness was his firm belief that Jesus Christ is the singular pathway to salvation. He made reference to a biblical dictum that says that in order to be saved you must declare with your mouth and in your heart that Jesus Christ is your personal Lord and Savior. Baring that declaration, a person is doomed to damnation. Cooper was reluctant to say that outright, but in the end he coyly said, “Yeah. I guess so, if you don’t accept Christ you’re damned.”

In my view this doomsday edict is undermined by the randomness of human circumstance. A person’s particular faith and spiritual orientation is significantly influenced by the family and social circumstances into which they are born. Both of those enormously powerful developmental influences are random. Cooper could no more choose to grow up in a subdivision with super Christian parents than I could choose to grow up with super Christian parents in Brooklyn with a church on every block. The whole process by which we became conscious of ourselves took place under a Christian social order. Our Hindu or Muslim analogs who are born in India or Indonesia have a spiritual orientation that is equally a consequence of the circumstances of their birth – over which they have no control. Is salvation then, dependent on the randomness of birth?

According to Cooper, those people have the opportunity to learn about the opportunity for salvation, shed their spiritual belief system and accept Christ. That is why he spends time spreading the Word, so that they will be informed. I find this argument painfully simple when it comes from people who do not know anything about the other major religions. Quite in keeping with my stereotype of him, Cooper did not. In fact, he was momentarily confused about whether the Torah and the Koran were associated with Judaism and Islam respectively or vice versa. He himself did not make an informed decision to accept Christ. He accepted Christ, in part, because that is all he knew. His options were Christ or no Christ; not, Christ or Allah or Shiva. That constitutes a faith randomly determined. Had he been born Saladeen Amatuallah on the outskirts of Mecca his deep seated spiritual belief system and the anchor of his faith would almost certainly be different. Not only would his spiritual belief system be different, it would be equally strong and likely far more disciplined. The only difference is circumstance, the randomness of birth, yet one is damned and the other saved.

Cooper didn’t really have a response for that. “I don’t know, I guess I just know that Christ is right,” he said. In a classroom when it boils down to, “I don’t know, I just know,” nine teachers out of ten will assume you just guessed. If you have no further explanation than that, the random nature of the selection is apparent.

I would never argue against the power of revelation. As a consequence of that, it is easy for me to accept those that believe that Christ is the path to salvation. I have trouble, however, when that revelation is coupled with ignorance of the possible alternative paths and an adamant declaration that those unknown paths are not righteous. Faith can be the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. It ought not be the prosecutor of things unknown and the constraint on human variation.


Monday, August 20, 2007

The Girl, The Dragon and the PhD

Legend holds that the Doctoral Degree lies beyond the forest, beyond the mountains and is the sacred possession of the Dissertation Dragon. Tales are spun and spun again about travelers' quests for the degree and the ferocity of the Dragon. The Course is the path leading to the Dragon’s lair. It is strewn with the bodies of noble intellectuals unsuccessful in their bids. The Course for some was too long, for others too steep and for still others, simply too difficult. Before even reaching the Dragon’s lair the traveler must face the attack of the Questions. The Questions attack one’s sense of purpose, of competence, and in extreme attacks, one’s self-worth. The Questions lay in wait, in the darkest sections of the path. It is from there, when the traveler is most weary, most beaten, and most in need of a balm that the Questions launch their attack. They coordinate with the Vicissitudes of Life to maximize the destructive force of their arsenal. The Vicissitudes periodically clamp down and inject life forces to undermine the concentration of the traveler. These forces are the Too-Forces. They inject too much sorrow or too much happiness. Illness and misfortune are legendary foes of concentration and the Vicissitudes bring them both to the siege. They also bring life pleasures of love and lust which are equally dangerous to the focus of the traveler.

In addition to the attacks from the Questions and the Vicissitudes, the traveler's persona is threatened. In the struggle to traverse the Course, the Course itself vies to steal the persona of the traveler. It tries to capture the voice of the traveler. It attempts to replace the traveler’s native tongue with a jargon-laden, hypersyllabic, abstract intellectuo speak. That voice, unnatural to the traveler, is the language of the thief. It is a language that complicates the truth and hides conviction. The process is a slow-moving heist. Once the voice is gone, passion is next. The passions that drove the traveler to challenge the Dragon are somehow dampened. Each of the traveler’s thoughts begins to commence with “it depends” and ends by trailing off into relativism. The absolute stand of conviction that is born of fiery passion is gone, the theft of the persona complete.

The lucky and tenacious traveler will survive these trials. She may well have to step over the fallen bodies of her partners but she persists. She meets the attacks of the Questions with uncertain answers backed by unshakable faith. She remains sufficiently resilient such that the Vicissitudes are reduced to mere impostors like triumph and disaster. She holds onto her voice such that the connection between her words and her meaning remains clear. Most importantly, she is successful in beguiling the Course. She turns its trials against it and uses it as fuel for the fire of her passion. While absolutism may be the property of the extremist, the position and conviction of the traveler is clear and unmistakable. She remains true to herself and an honorable representative of the clan from which she has come.

After having warred with Shaka-style ferocity, the traveler has simply survived the Course. The degree still rest in the bowels of the lair guarded by the Dissertation Dragon. Despite apprehension, the traveler opens the comprehensive gate and in so doing alerts the dragon of her presence. Everything that the traveler has learned, everything that she has endured is designed to prepare her for this last battle. The dragon they call Dissertation, however, is a dragon indeed. Its lips drip with the complexities of interposition and operationalization. Its skin is an elusive problem that render it difficult to see and more difficult still to characterize. In addition, it is singularly armed with all of the weaponry of the Course – the Questions, the Vicissitudes and the Heist. It is also armed with the psychological weapon of boundlessness. The Course had a visible end. The traveler was spurred on when, from the mountaintop, she could see the end. The dragon at first sight is boundless. On top of the awesome sight of the dragon are the terms of engagement. The traveler must first devise a cogent plan by which she intends to slay the dragon. This plan, devised under the pressure of the looming dragon, must survive the attack of the Guardians of the Degree. The Guardians are themselves dragon slayers. They are the sages of the journey. In attacking the traveler’s plan, they push until the brink of capitulation to ensure the readiness of the traveler for the battle at hand. Out from the clamoring of swords and the posturing for power comes a potion of guidance and encouragement. Armed with this potion, a symbol of the blessings of the Guardians, the traveler attempts to slay the dragon. Legend has it that the potion renders the traveler unconquerable but not uninjurable. There are those, however, that have gone in to fight the dragon and have neither been seen nor heard from since.

There is a traveler poised to absorb the attack from the Guardians and hopefully earn a sip of the potion of potency. She hasn’t done it yet so we’ll see if there is any truth to all this legend shit.


Tuesday, August 7, 2007

If Jesus Lived in a Subdivision

On the flight back from New Orleans I happened to sit next to a white guy named Cooper. When he told me his name I laughed to myself. He fit the image of a Cooper that must be in the American book of stereotypes. He had long curly dirty blond hair. Every minute or two he took off his cap and brushed his hair back and then put the cap back on. It was a nasty University of Georgia baseball cap. The brim was bent and frayed at the tip and there was a sweat stain all around the bottom. He had on those big cargo shorts that they sell at Target and Old Navy that are a favorite of white boys just like him. He was also wearing flip flops and a close fitting t-shirt that said, “Property of Abercrombie and Fitch.” He couldn’t have fit the stereotype any better.

I learned that he was on his way back from New Orleans having completed a church mission to help rebuild damaged homes. He said that he had spent the earlier part of the summer in Guatemala doing missionary work with people in some small village. I asked if the work he was doing in New Orleans was missionary work too. He said yes, that while they were helping to rebuild people’s homes, “we were spreading the Word too.” Indeed, the airport had been full of these church groups going and coming from all over the place. There were whole gangs of white kids with matching t-shirts emblazoned with an old rugged cross on the front and some bible verse or another on the back wearing Livestrong and What Would Jesus Do? bracelets.

Religion is not a chitchat topic for a plane conversation, but you don’t learn much from chitchat topics. I asked what personal philosophy drove his missionary work. He immediately responded that he wanted to help share the keys to Christ and salvation with people. He followed that by saying, “that life with Christ is like such a beautiful thing and like it is based in so much love that like it only seems right to share that with people, and like give them a chance to experience it.”

I always assume that white boys that look like Cooper are super privileged and equally sheltered. Their worldliness, which is sometimes extensive, appears to be undone by the sense of superiority that they exude. They might go into Guatemala, for example, look at the people and say “By the Grace of God, I have the opportunity to make a difference in these people’s lives.” They do not say, “There, but for the Grace of God go I.” Nothing in their experience can help them relate to the circumstances of poverty and exclusion that they are so fond of visiting to spread the Good News. Based on that assumption, my reaction to him was that poor people in Guatemala and New Orleans and wherever else he had been do not need his faith, they need his privilege. They need the comfort and safety of his subdivision and the luxury of not being preoccupied with surviving. In New Orleans they need the sense that they as individuals and their communities matter, that if they are hurt someone will care. In Guatemala, those devout Catholics do not need faith, they need peace. In my view, the appreciation of faith born in privilege always seems weaker than the appreciation of privilege born in faith.

In my mind I was careful not to dismiss the fundamental goodness of what Cooper spent his summer doing – helping. It was obvious to me and he said as much, that his ability to do all this Christian good work was based on his parents’ ability to pay for him to travel all around the globe to do it. Despite that, what he chose to do with the resources available to him was significant. It bothered me though, that he was so steadfast in his belief that his experience of the righteousness of Christ was something that he felt compelled to share with poor people. In spiritual terms, what did he really have to offer? If these poor people accept Christ the way he had, that they would experience the righteousness of Christ the way he does? I wondered if it is possible for him to decouple the component of his identity that is privilege from the component that is faith? His faith was born in subdivision safety where all his needs were met and the righteousness of Christ’s love, if not its bounty, may have been fairly easy to focus on. Pastors are quick to say that Christ’s faith was not born while lounging by the side of a pool, but while nailed to a cross between two thieves.

I found the confluence of class and faith confusing. I also realized that not only was I bothered by Cooper’s professed evangelical righteousness, it made me angry. That triggered the need for me to reflect on the relationship between faith and privilege in me. Cooper left me with that personal challenge. He also left me wondering if Jesus’ word would be the Word if he had grown up in a subdivision?


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

When Nigger Means Nigger

The survival stories of Katrina were heart-wrenching emotional ordeals. Traveling around with HANO, it seemed that he spent half of his day sharing storm stories with people and relaying those of others with me so I could better appreciate what people had been through. For those people he hadn’t seen since before the storm their reconnection with each other was like people reconnecting after a war. They embraced each other like neither one expected to see the other alive. They held on to each other long and hard. HANO said there were unspeakably terrible things that happened to people during the storm so when you see folks alive, “you’re just happy, you know?”

One brother that we ran into was a huge hulking man. Between he and HANO they split the plus side of a quarter ton about sixty forty. Big Man survived the storm and started off with jokes. He told us that his wife didn’t want to evacuate.

“I said to her, I said, looky here. I got you and my Mama in this house and I’m the only one can swim. I can only save one a you, an’ you don’ want me to choose between you an’ my Mama.”

He and HANO burst out laughing the way only enormous black men laugh.

“HANO, she packed her bags with a quickness, you know. You don’t make a man choose between his wife and his Mama.”

We laughed and then he repeated that he had survived. He said that he had survived, “those Goddamn rednecks too.” When he said that, he stopped smiling. He had gone back to his neighborhood to look after other relatives. He said that towards the end of the storm at the beginning of the flooding he was racing to get back to the house where his relatives were and one of, “those white boy police” told him that he couldn’t go in that direction. “I told him I lived down there and I was going to get my family.” Then Big Man told the story like this:

His car was in front of me. He got out of his car, walked over to me and drew his gun and aimed it right at me.

Nigger, I told you you’re not going down that fuckin’ street.

I told him, I said, ‘Officer, my family is down there.’

Nigger, if you open your fuckin’ mouth again it will be the last time.

By now Big Man was telling this story as if he were in a trance. He was not really looking at us. He said that it was the first time in his life that he felt like slaves must have felt. “You standing there with the white man sticking a gun in the temple of your head, making you watch your family die or get sold off or hung.” He said to HANO, “Breh, when that white man called me Nigger like that, with that gun in my head, it was like a hundred years of poison.”

Big Man said that he was thinking about his family up ahead and explained to us how some of them were old and would definitely drown if he did not get there to help them. He tried to explain the combination of feelings, but he couldn’t really. He said that he was raging and wanted to smash the police officer but he knew that if he opened his mouth he would be killed. Again he said to HANO, “Breh, you know I ain’ no weak brother. But Breh, I just cried. I couldn’t stop the tears from falling.” Big Man continued, and said he just nodded yes and sat there crying. He said the police officer told him, “Now Nigger, get outta here,” and turned away from Big Man to walk back to his car.

During this whole story I was trying to comprehend all these emotions, particularly coming from a man looking like Big Man. He was not one of those soft looking oversized Bluetooth-wearing black men with expensive shoes and a Blackberry clipped to his belt. He was huge, looked like he was made out of steal and could be rough as hell. I felt in that moment, like I was from another planet and I spoke a different language. I am a black man and have grown up in this country, but I’ve never been so close to the degree of hatred bundled around the word Nigger when it really means Nigger. The whole time I was keenly aware of the fact that I was in the south and his description of surviving the rednecks made the whole experience more intense. Since I’ve been in the south I have seen real rednecks with their leathery skin, southern drawl and confederate flags draped all over themselves. I can’t imagine one of those type of men holding a gun to my head and with blinding hatred calling me Nigger. In the middle of those thoughts, Big Man’s story went from the intense to the surreal.

Big Man said that when the policeman turned his back on him and was walking back to his car, he hit the gas and ran him over. I’m sure my mouth fell open. For a second I doubted the story. Then I could see the water coming to his eyes and his lips starting to tremble. He said, “Breh, I been praying about it and crying about it ever since. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t turn my back on my family. And the way he called me Nigger filled me with so much hate.”

Throughout the day HANO always had a wise and insightful summary of the various experiences. This time he didn’t say anything and we just stood there.


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A White Girl Slapped Me

Late into the evening HANO took me to the French Quarter. He said that I couldn’t come to New Orleans and not go the French Quarter. We were walking down the main strip where there are bars with upstairs balconies that overlook the street. The balconies were packed with white people drinking and throwing those colorful beaded necklaces down to people walking by. As we walked under one of the balconies a necklace hit me on the head. When I looked up I caught the eyes of the white woman who threw it. Her face had those sharp non-fat features. She was tan with jet black hair and green eyes. She was pretty. It being the French Quarter most of her breasts were exposed and I noticed that too. She looked slim and fit. She was already laughing and waving her beer around when our eyes met. Then, while we were looking right at each other, she yelled the white girl yell.


Her yell and her smile and her appearance shook me. I had spent the day like an apprentice studying the suffering of black people. I’d listened to the woman with her child in her arms declare she was homeless. I’d seen scores of young black boys in sweaty long white t-shirts aimlessly smoldering in the shade of FEMA trailers all over the city. I’d been to the processing pen for Section 8 returnees and watched depressed looking black people sitting for hours waiting to be processed by government workers. I’d also been through the destroyed wards and seen whole swathes of people’s identities and backgrounds still destroyed, now overgrown with weeds to insult their injuries. I’d listened to a brother explain that he goes to a funeral every couple of weeks because, “the depression is getting to be a little too much for us.” I met the director of one of the homeless shelters who explained that most shelters that accept women and children do not accept men so several men sleep on the streets nearby to be close to their wives and children. I’d watched the soldiers like HANO and Sister hold hands with each other and promise to protect the fragile hope.

Then the white girl, let’s call her Ashley – or Brittany or Kirsten or Molly or Hannah - takes a drink, drops some beads on my head and yells the white girl yell.

I’m not even sure how to continue and explain what that felt like.

It is unfair, if not simply mean, to begrudge people their happiness so I won’t. I struggle; however, to understand this class of white women. Admittedly I don’t know any of them personally, but they appear to be like canaries – whistling and happily chirping along on top of American life. Atlanta is a haven for them. They can been seen on any given evening jogging all over the place in the Virginia Highlands, in Midtown, in Grant Park with blond pony tails bobbing back and forth underneath their khaki colored caps. They go to tanning salons. They say, “Oh my God, that is sooo true,” instead of, “You know what I’m saying.” They drive Jettas and BMW’s and drink complicated long explanation drinks at Starbucks. Their images are plastered on all the billboards and ads for high rise condominiums – be white, live, work and play in the Aqua Towers or in the Spire or in the Such and Such Luxury Lofts at Buckhead. Indeed they serve the traditional mining function of canaries in some neighborhoods. When you see single white women walking their dogs or jogging alone, you know the neighborhood has been adequately transitioned and is “safe”. In so many ways they appear to be a protected specie, living an insulated life on a balcony with their friends throwing decorations or charity or whatever they feel like down on the passersby.

Having this enigmatic and chipper white girl drop those beads on my head felt like she slapped me. She was chirping from her perch right in line with my stereotypes of her and then she threw the necklace on me to make sure I knew she was up there. It seemed like Ashley lived in a different world, was from a different planet and spoke a different language. Even when I’m happy, I don’t understand that yell.

I hadn’t said anything during all these thoughts. When I looked at HANO he was looking right at me and said, “Breh, if we could take turns on the balcony, we wouldn’t be suffering so much down here.”