Once again I am moved not to say much. I am left speechless as I learn of yet another Black American murdered by law enforcement. There are things we can do. Today I have nothing left to say that has not been said by others more qualified.
I share here a blog from public scholar RENÉE ATER. Last year, in May, she wrote about her anger and anguish at the police killings taking place. She made a list of those recently murdered. Unfortunately, she has had to update that list many times since. I’ll paste the beginning of that very long list of lost lives here, and include a link to her blog at the end. Peace, if at all possible.
Daunte Demetrius Wright, October 27, 2000 – April 11, 2021 Brooklyn Center, Minnesota Shot: Brooklyn Center Police Officer, April 11, 2021
Marvin David Scott III, 1995 – March 14, 2021 McKinney, Texas Peppered sprayed/Restrained with spit hood/Asphyxiated: 7 Collin County Jail Detention Officers, March 14, 2021
Patrick Lynn Warren Sr., October 7, 1968 – January 10, 2021 Killeen, Texas Shot: Killeen Police Officer, January 10, 2021
Vincent “Vinny” M. Belmonte, September 14, 2001 – January 5, 2021 Cleveland, Ohio Shot: Cleveland Police Officer, January 5, 2021
“We are all in this together.” That hollow phrase has rung throughout the halls of this pandemic. And even if some of us at times were actually with and for others, there were a whole bunch of people that never really felt they were part of that bigger whole — the community’s, the state’s, the nation’s, or the world’s. I am afraid that any semblance of that sentiment is now fading ever quickly, as folks post their “I’m vaccinated” selfies and plan parties in celebration. Meanwhile, shop keepers in East LA, and farmers in India continue to struggle mightily due to this pandemic.
I, for one, never felt “we” were all in this together. I saw my life, one where I could easily choose comfortable isolation, where my children did not have frontline jobs, where my excellent health kept me even further away from the possibilities of contracting COVID, as far removed from so many others’ realities. This year has spanned two coasts for me, and both times spaces of comfort, where walks could be taken free from crowds, and fresh air was plentiful. I am not “in it” with the men and women who clean the hospital rooms of COVID patients, nor the doctors and nurses who approach these bodies daily. I am not in it with the many, many families whose furloughed jobs brought them homelessness. Nor am I in it with my students who continue losing family members to the virus because they belong to at-risk groups of many categories. When folks back East were begging me to be careful during Southern California’s spike last year, I explained that I was, and that, also, I was not living in the same LA as others. Later, when an article in the LA Times covered the glaring differentials of pandemic experience, entitled, “The Two LAs,” I had a catch-phrase to explain what I meant.
Some say we have learned to think more collectively this last year, we Americans. That this has been a year of truly understanding that when our fellow humans are not well, then no one is well. We often quote/post bits and pieces from Dr. King’s letter written in his Birmingham jail cell. For example, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” But we tend to neglect the following sentences which project an air of implicit responsibility upon the reader. (This was something King was so good at doing, and thus his words are often truncated in pretty memes before we get to the part where we’re called to action). The Birmingham letter goes on to say, by the way,“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Right now, because of the pandemic, which is not over, people are dying from this virus. Countries like Italy and India are dealing with new surges and we have to pay attention. One reason is simply pragmatic, that if people are carrying the virus somewhere in this world then all of us are still at risk. And then there is the affective reason: these people are our brothers and sisters, the ones we watched in videos singing from balconies, or whose food has been a mainstay of our take-out orders this past year. We are all connected. Yes, it feels good to be vaccinated, to have my one body in a sea of so many, allegedly immune to this killer disease. But there are so many at greater risk than I who have yet to receive a vaccine. They are ringing us up at grocery stores, delivering food to our front doors, and living unhoused because they cannot afford shelter due to a waterfall of COVID-related circumstances. I mean, I qualified for the vaccine as early as I did because I volunteer at a food pantry. That is privilege.
So what do we do? We keep paying attention to everyone. For example, after checking in on the bogus trial surrounding the murder of George Floyd, we pay attention to the fact that Minnesota’s COVID cases are rising. We learn more about the lingering effects of this disease so as better to understand our neighbors, students, and friends going forward. We read articles that look at the bigger picture, like one in Medical News Today regarding the inequity in vaccine availability. It reads in part, “Such vaccine nationalism perpetuates the long history of powerful countries securing vaccines and therapeutics at the expense of less-wealthy countries; it is short-sighted, ineffective, and deadly.” https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/herd-immunity-may-take-4-6-years-due-to-vaccine-nationalism#Continuing-the-inequity
It’s not that we cannot celebrate the progress. I, for one, am relieved to have been vaccinated, that my children, and so many friends, have been vaccinated. And I am glad for those small-business owners who somehow survived this catastrophe and are once again serving their communities. I am thrilled at the prospect of students returning to campuses, and eager to return to a physical classroom myself. All that. And yet, we cannot forget this time. Our country has a history of forgetting, of pushing news out of the way because it’s killing our vibe. During the darkest times we pay attention, take solace in the fraternity of people across the land. But now the light is shining again, more brightly on some than others, and we shift to the “hopes and prayers” phase of that inevitable march towards blissful ignorance.
In my religious tradition we are reminded to look to God in all circumstances. Don’t just praise Him because life is going great; and don’t only come to Him when you need help, but be in His presence at all times. (I will at some point write about that He pronoun). If you don’t include a concept of higher power in your life, then consider simply resting in the presence of humanity. Yes, we must all heal, seek shelter and solace and fellowship right now. Those of us fortunate enough to have access to such things must use those gifts — that is how we show gratitude. But then we need to, I believe, duck out of those caves of comfort and step into the glare of reality. Stay informed, send a check, go to a rally, sign a petition, call a representative, write a letter, tell a friend. These are actions that make the air move, that can gather momentum if enough of us are performing them.
According to NASA’s explanation of Newton’s Laws of Motion, “The property that a body has that resists motion if at rest…is called inertia. Inertia is proportional to a body’s mass, or the amount of matter that a body has. The more mass a body has, the more inertia it has.” The United States has a lot of mass. Some of it has been in motion this past year, but a lot has remained inert. Imagine if we created, through collective action and love, a giant body in motion. Like pebbles cast onto still waters, the ripples would multiply and things would change. Change is needed. Big change. Each of us can affect some change. It has never been easy or comfortable or even obvious to do this. It requires consciousness, something I continue to practice and am far from mastering. I remember my dad used to exhort me and my sister to “pay attention to the world around you.” It didn’t really resonate with me much back then. It sure does now.
What an elevated eight days it’s been, from Passover to Easter/Resurrection Sunday. Elevated in that I could clearly see that my life was full of blessings, so much goodness just playing out at eye level.
Last Saturday we had a Seder in the backyard. While I may not worship as a Jew anymore, I certainly embrace the culture and traditions of my late — albeit assimilated — Jewish father, and of a life once lived as an observant Jew, and most importantly of my beautiful children whose identity includes their Jewishness. As well, this time of year opportune for acknowledging the intersections of religious practice, such as Maundy Thursday in the Christian tradition being the day Jesus shares Passover dinner with His disciples. There is so much to celebrate.
Monday my deeply passionate, funny-as-hell, incredibly intelligent, and very good looking (I’m not the only one who thinks so) son returned East. He had been out here for most of March, as we bookended a pandemic year by living together during that month on each end. Along with my beautiful, multi-talented, spiritual and generous daughter we had a blast with each other, with friends, and with my new home of Los Angeles, California. Hikes and thrift shops, beer gardens and picnics highlighted a month that took us just a little bit closer into the world we were forced to abandon a year ago. And let me tell you, it was exhausting! To be so active after a year of relative isolation… But we powered through, all in vacation mode, willingly leaving work by the wayside. What a gift to be a part of this team.
Tuesday I got a new car. New-to-me. My son had accompanied me on the first round of the process the week before. Without inciting suspicion in the reader that I receive any kind of fee for this, CarMax rocks. I traded in my fourteen-year-old Toyota Rav 4, purchased when I was still was driving kids around in the back seat, for a two-door white Honda Accord with very sexy hubcaps. I am still in the process of learning how to use the many bells and whistles included on the dashboard of this thing (is there a class I can take?!) but I did figure out how to tune to my favorite radio stations. The Wave and NPR’s local station, KPCC, are my go-tos. There’s also a great old-school hip-hop station I play when feeling that OG vibe. And I tune in to a reggaetón station once in a while, too, when attempting to catch up with the 21st century.
Wednesday I recovered from Monday and Tuesday — and taught class. Then Thursday came wherein I returned to the parking structure at Pasadena Community College for my second Moderna vaccine. Still worried it would not happen, that I would not have the correct paperwork, that they would run out, or that the sky would fall (because, really, how has it not yet?) I arrived early and cried once again as I got the injection. And not because it hurt. Although maybe, yes, because it hurt — it hurt my heart. I hurt for the year that’s been, and for all those who have suffered so much, and for all things wrong still not righted in this country, and in this world. Like the Passover tradition of removing a drop of wine from your glass to acknowledge the pain that the Egyptians endured during the plagues — and like the drink offering that has gone from Biblical times to urban street corners — I felt sorrow during my joy. I feel sorrow that people are actually being asked if the police officer who murdered George Floyd actually did; sorrow that mass shootings have returned, and yet lawmakers still hold tight to the “right” to own rapid fire weapons; sorrow for the immigrants fleeing violence and pain, only to find that we inflict that pretty well ourselves… Joy. Pain. Sunshine. Rain.
Friday found me continuing work on a book proposal, propped up by a longtime writing buddy via Zoom. She and I wrote dissertations together in various North Jersey libraries a few years back, always breaking after our four-hour stints for wine and gluten-free pizza. We are writing with another woman now who is at the tail-end of her own dissertation work. We encourage her as best we can, but before we know it the post-traumatic stress of graduate school gets a hold and we begin babbling, reciting facts and naming theories so that I’m not sure how much we’re really helping. P.S., My pastor just defended his dissertation last week, so now he’s a Reverend Doctor. School — some of us just can’t get enough.
Saturday I worked my shift at Pasadena’s Friends In Deed food pantry with my daughter. (Meanwhile my son was working at a Lenape community farm in New Jersey — did I mention my children have big hearts, too?). The food pantry has been such a blessing; it is why I qualified for a vaccination when I did, and how I have already met some really cool people in my new home during a pandemic. I am lucky to be associated with this amazing organization and you all are free to donate at any time. I see the work they do, I watch its direct impact on humanity. https://friendsindeedpas.org/fid/what-we-do/our-programs/the-food-pantry/
Mom’s birthday was Saturday, too, and I found myself missing her in fresh ways. A friend told me recently that the three-year mark after a person’s death is unique in its time away from the loss, and time into the realization that that person will not return. It’ll be three years this fall that Mom passed. It seems to me this period also entails forgetting the trying logistics of death and dying, difficult feelings and the like, while recovering happy mental snapshots. Kind of how we forget labor pains and begin to remember only the joy of giving birth, any negativity that arose around mom’s last years is slowly slipping away from me, replaced with images like the Easter baskets she used put together for us when we were very young, replete with malted milk chocolate eggs and cute underwear. Why underwear, I ask now. That was mom.
And then here it is Easter Sunday, Resurrection Sunday, a day celebrating Spring, renewal and hope. Seems like a good time for all that, doesn’t it? I solemnly and heartily pray for these things for humankind; for our earth that continues to take a beating; for all the animals that bring us unconditional love. Blessed Sunday to everyone, powerful Spring, joyous Resurrection. Here’s hoping that you find happiness staring straight at you. And if that’s not the case, then here’s to seeking it like a child hunting for precious Easter eggs, thrilled at the discovery each and every time.
Yesterday was International Poetry Day. I was reminded by a dear friend’s text this morning. I typically write my blogs on Sundays but, as anyone who is reading this series knows, I am not “on schedule” these days thanks to the extended visit of my fabulous son. So, let’s pretend it’s yesterday and dedicate this space to poetry today. Because any day is a good day for a poem!
One thing I inadvertently did do in homage to Poetry Day yesterday was have dinner with my daughter, one of the most gifted poets you’ll read. Here’s one of her many:
8th Grade Layer Cake
by Kayla Ephros
the horny 8th graders in my art class are all taller than me and it is horrible their performance of coupledom under the table all the shaved knees knocking gobstopper manicures and remember ink poisoning?
the other day Iʼm looking for money from the old me and feeling guilty for it too, feeling like a flimsy piece of trash digging in the pockets of my misfits jacket with the visitor sticker
visiting the 5th graders who are still kind I am meant to teach them science but itʼs easy, we talk about mind/body or landscape but imaginary…
when I was in 8th grade, I was told that wearing a sweatshirt all winter would create the effect of bigger boobs come spring
I think of the Jubilee the renewal of the land my haftarah and its transliteration always cheating all the time freeze-ing that sweatshirt with the cat pee
the other night I was working at a brothel and this guy in a Spiderman thong asked me If I actually had boobs I was about to show him but then just said yes and walked down the long hallway identical to the one in my apartment Iʼm certain itʼs only a veil certain I woke up with those wages
sleeping beside the spell book and the almanac, ever a keepsake waking up to my naked neighbor amidst the bamboo, having come straight down the mountain speaking with Joanna of inky art projects, shooing Spiderman because he found me there too
turning over into a new kind of sleep, a version that’s brighter like if sleep were a job I’d be paid better
all of the brothel rooms have windows on the doors big cracks, leaks for looking on
deja-vu and movies, party girl and the other party girl
up and down and open and shut and up and down and in and out until the mirror shatters
I reverse this omen into a time capsule while the early chapters at the brothel lie beneath the scalloped edge of each day, an ant farm
we used to treat our science teacher like an ant, of course because we all felt like ants ourselves punished, low
I imagine sometimes getting high before class, but now Iʼm the teacher haha
body extensions cake exquisite corpse pillows LOL
at work I never know what anyone is talking about when he says how quiet it is I say I guess we are now used to the drum of rain?
I cry a tear with all this information but itʼs just from the sunscreen the watercolor the early morning
what have I learned today? the origins of chrome yellow, Marigold, what have I forgotten the teacher survey the plaid skirts what time of year is it here I never know if we’ve just summited winter or summer, which dent of vacation on the soft egg
I learned that if youʼre eating you should just eat, and if youʼre walking you should just walk but if youʼre eating and walking you should just eat and walk
And here’s one of my favorite poets – way ahead of HER time:
No matter what the grief, its weight, we are obliged to carry it. We rise and gather momentum, the dull strength that pushes us through crowds. And then the young boy gives me directions so avidly. A woman holds the glass door open, waiting patiently for my empty body to pass through. All day it continues, each kindness reaching toward another—a stranger singing to no one as I pass on the path, trees offering their blossoms, a child who lifts his almond eyes and smiles. Somehow they always find me, seem even to be waiting, determined to keep me from myself, from the thing that calls to me as it must have once called to them— this temptation to step off the edge and fall weightless, away from the world.
And finally, here’s one I wrote in my journal in January. (This is straight from the journal, not a crafted piece).
notable in LA
in LA where the sun shines hard and bright
Mountains, my mountain, shows shadows today
and I marvel at the ins and outs of darkness
Cars whiz down North Verdugo
often I don’t hear of them –
until there are none
and it is silent
And then I wonder if, perhaps,
I like noise these days more than peace.
Why not share your favorite poem — in the comments on my blog or on this platform.
May you give and receive love, health, and poetry in your life.
It’s been chilly in Los Angeles these last few days. People here like that. It’s a change of pace, a chance to wear sweaters and Uggs instead of t-shirts and Nikes. My son is visiting from New Jersey. He does not like this weather. I mean he chose to ride an airplane during COVID in order to escape the snow and cold and gusty winds of the East, to bask in sunshine under palm trees. But after a few sunny SoCal days upon arrival, it has turned blustery here — even as New York City recently hit the 70 degree mark. But what’s a person to do? He also came to see me and his sister and we are enjoying each other immensely.
Los Angeles is not one place. There’s no L.A. experience that I can decipher so far. For the past ten years I’ve been visiting here, staying with or nearby my daughter as she took me around to gardens, bars, galleries, and mountains. So many neighborhoods, so many experiences. Chinatown, Silver Lake, Eagle Rock, Highland Park… And that’s just the city. L.A. county, where she and I both live now, has Pasadena with its historic downtown, Glendale with multiple hiking trails, and Burbank — which always makes me think of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In when the announcer would say, “coming to you from beautiful downtown Burbank.” I go there now to play tennis at a beautiful public park.
Southern California honors its winter season, too. People go indoors — relatively. I’ve been having a smattering of folks over, all outside, hosting COVID-safe “parties” as we circle the firepit left here graciously by the last tenants. We’ve grilled salmon for fish tacos, and served burgers with tomatillo chutney. People bring firewood. We hang out in the back until we can’t take it anymore, layers of jackets and sweaters warming us along with the alcohol. It feels really special to be able to socialize this way right now. At the same time, there is always a kind of self-consciousness about what the “neighbors must think” of us COVID-deniers living it up like that.
Since my son’s arrival, he’s gone thrifting in Pasadena, gallery-hopping in Chinatown, outdoor dining in Glendale, and hiking in Alta Dena. We took a hike the other day that started out as a hot and sunny ascent. As we began our trek back down the trail, we watched a sheet of rain move quickly over the Verdugo Mountains and float across the valley, growing ever closer to our location. Hail began to softly pelt our sweatshirts as we retraced our steps back down the Beaudry Loop Trail. And then, once again, the sun appeared. Verdant grasses seemed to spring up instantaneously, responding to that rare taste of moisture.
I really like it here, having only been a resident for six months. My daughter says I don’t even know what it’s like yet, what with so many cultural venues and dining establishments closed. The person coloring my hair at Paul Mitchell the School Pasadena last week said the lore is that it takes East coast folks six years to love L.A. They continually swear that they are heading back home as soon as possible. And then, after that sixth year, they are here to stay. I’m here to stay. I believe that this place — this vicinity — is my destiny. It turns out I never told my kids the story of coming to Palo Alto as a child. My parents rented the house of an academic mother and her very cute teenage son for the summer so that my father could guest-lecture at Stanford. I fell in love with the place. And the son. And their houseboat. And the inground pool at the house. I decided then that I wanted to live in California. Destiny, like I said.
Tonight the kids and I will have Mexican food. We’ve been busy with Armenian take-out, brew-pub appetizers, and a German biergarten replete with beer made by Monks in Munich. So it’ll be tacos or tamales or maybe one of my favorites, chile rellenos, tonight. And some cervezas, of course, or maybe a nice shot of mezcal. One always indulges when visitors come. Lots of consuming, of food and material goods. It’s really fun to consume here. But it’s also been a fun place not to do that, too, to simply gaze off at the mountain view from my backyard, or take a walk along the L.A. River. (Which we actually saw flow the other day, thanks to that rain)!
I look forward to hosting others in my home soon. As things open up and people get vaccinated, the city and county will spread before me, offering that much more to explore. You know, a lot of folks wondered about the wisdom of moving across the country during a pandemic. Turns out it’s kind of genius. In a time where so many are thirsting for something new, something outside their four walls and established safety protocols, I am in a place where everything is new — from the neighborhood Von’s Supermarket to the Fremont Tennis Center, five minutes away. New spots, new people, and most of all new views — literally as well as figuratively.
This is an ode to Los Angeles, to the privilege of being able to relocate to sunny California, and most of all to the joy that is being the mother of my two beautiful children. The best of all worlds, my children are both forever new to me and the most familiar humans I know. How lucky can I get? Peace, love, and health. We are getting there.
On Friday, Amanda Gorman was followed by a security guard en route to her home. She looked “suspicious,” apparently. Once it was clear that she indeed resided in the building in question, the guard did not acknowledge any kind of culpability on his part regarding the surveillance, according to Gorman. “This is the reality of black girls: One day you’re called an icon, the next day, a threat,” she Tweeted. Yup. That’s the reality of Black people as a matter of fact.
And it makes me wonder if all those folks who posted her poem and picture on Facebook after she read at the inauguration, are also sharing this somewhat less “uplifting” news. Or has their focus already shifted elsewhere? And what about those teachers who leapt at the chance for a “teachable moment,” incorporating Gorman’s inauguration poem into their lesson plans? Are they also teaching their students that Americans who look like Gorman get followed, stopped, questioned, and more on a daily basis? Or is that not part of the curriculum?
I wrote this in my blog on January 26:
I am somewhat nervous about our country’s response to Amanda Gorman. Mostly about the White people’s response. We do this to African Americans a lot. We lift one up and celebrate them — as long as they keep us somewhat comfortable while still allowing us to show just how supportive we are of “them.” And then… There are so very many stories of talented, brave, intelligent Black Americans being lauded one day, and forgotten — or worse — the next.
I am not prescient, only someone who pays attention to history’s patterns. Frederick Douglass? First lauded as a great orator for the cause of abolition, Douglass soon tired of the paternalism of William Lloyd Garrison, the White abolitionist. Feeling more like part of a dog and pony show, not the intelligent and experienced representative against slavery, Douglass finally went in a different direction. He was fortunate to escape (once again) the White man’s tendency towards feelings of ownership.
Jack Johnson, world famous boxer, revered by Black and White fans alike. He made a lot of money in the sport, and in subsequent business ventures. He also showed a disdain for the racist norms of the day. He even married a White woman. Johnson was ultimately arrested under the guise of the Mann Act, “aimed at moral reform …its ambiguous language about “immorality” resulted in it being used to criminalize even consensual sexual behavior between adults (Wikipedia). Johnson ended up in the Leavenworth Penitentiary.
Rosa Parks? Well, we all know what a “great” African American she was. Mrs. Parks received numerous awards and even had a street named after her. Feted by various organizations and individuals throughout her life, she was almost homeless at the end of it. Since the 1970s she had struggled with ill health and financial troubles, often relying on local groups’ charity to keep her afloat. In 2002 a church took up a collection in order to pay her rent after she was threatened with eviction.
Hank Aaron, Marian Anderson, Arthur Ashe, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry… So many famous Black Americans have been “done dirty” by White folks. Whether by individuals or institutions, through active assault or simple erasure, far too many African Americans have been lifted up and then dropped directly to the curb when no longer useful to us. And so often the surrounding narrative is shaped such that the responsibility of said downfall rests on the Black American’s shoulders. Mike Tyson, as yet one more example. Yet, the real responsibility quite often rests squarely on the same shoulders that once hoisted up these so-called heroes.
I hope Amanda Gorman survives this life she’s been given. I hope she doesn’t get handcuffed and pepper-sprayed like the 9-year-old girl in Rochester last month. Or attacked by a mob of White supremacists like happened to Berlinda Nibo in LA in January. I hope the next time Ms. Gorman gets followed home — and she will — that the worst thing that happens is a lack of apology. But it doesn’t look good. And it hasn’t for some time. And we really need to be cognizant of these trajectories next time we decide to hoist someone up as an icon. I mean, will we still be there when others begin the process of tearing them down? It seems to me the least we can do.
Black History Month is over. For some. For others it doesn’t really end. I’m not going to go into how it’s the shortest month and all that. I mean an African-American scholar is the one who chose it — albeit to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, as well as Frederick Douglass’. (Historical narratives have developed over the years to allow for a more “complicated” version of the Great Emancipator). But Dr. Carter G. Woodson, early on, was aware that American history (and culture) was being taught and purveyed absent of Black people. His idea was to inject his people, his ancestors, back into the stories that kept getting told by and about White people. Now, he also had intended for February to be a celebration, a culmination of all the amped up study and programming occurring throughout the year around Black history. And that’s where Black History Month, as it is today, has failed.
This month has certainly provided a bevy of lectures, panels, creative presentations and historical documentaries surrounding the history of Black America — which is, of course, the history of America. Networks, government, educational and cultural institutions make big plans each year about how they will acknowledge the African-American citizens of this country. There is an embarrassment of riches, really, making it difficult to even catch all that is being offered. There is a real sense of urgency for some of us that we better catch as much as possible before the airwaves and video screens and classrooms return to the foregrounding of Whiteness for another year. I mean, doesn’t the fact that there is just so much to say and show — from the PBS Black Church series, to CBS’ features on Black athletes, to YouTube’s Black Renaissance — get these folks in charge to consider that maybe, just maybe, they need to keep up with the programming throughout the year?
I think “the firsts” are the worst for me. All February we see little mini-showcases about the first Black fill-in-the-blank. And it’s usually the same handful of people. And it’s rarely mentioned just how utterly egregious it is that, for example, the the first Black woman to appear in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition (Tyra Banks) did not happen until 1997; or that the first African-American Secretary of State (Colin Powell) did not hold office until 2001; or that the first Black anchor to have his own newscast (Lester Holt) only occurred 6 years ago?! That’s a lot-hundred years of Whiteness, wouldn’t you say? These firsts come with a subliminal message that, yes, there have been some African Americans who made something of themselves — and 28 days is sufficient to list them all, thank you very much.
Oh and one more thing, the “statements” put out by various institutions — from education to entertainment:
The White House: “This February, during Black History Month, I call on the American people to honor the history and achievements of Black Americans and to reflect on the centuries of struggle that have brought us to this time of reckoning, redemption, and hope…”
New York Stated Education Department: “…Certainly, there is tremendous value in recognizing these contributions that helped advance our knowledge and our civilization in so many ways. …”
Catholic Diocese of Arlington, Virginia: “…In his recent Christmas message, Pope Francis reminded us, ‘Our differences, then, are not a detriment or a danger; they are a source of richness. As when an artist is about to make a mosaic: it is better to have tiles of many colours available, rather than just a few.’”
As Eliza Doolittle sang in My Fair Lady, “Words Words Words/I’m so sick of words/I get words all day through/First from him, now from you/Is that all you blighters can do?”
So what do I want? Why the complaining? I want African Americans, Americans of African descent whose ancestors built this country in the most literal as well as figurative way possible, to be a regular part of the grand discussion. I want history teachers who teach World War I to spend time on the plight of Black American soldiers’ return to “their” country; I want African-American writers to be mainstays in literature courses; I want to be able to find a movie with a Black cast, in a myriad of genres, any day of the year. I really just want there to be a time when we don’t have to continue this crazy catch-up, this reinsertion of Americans into their own culture and history. Why do we have Black History Month — and Women’s History Month, and Hispanic Heritage month, to name a few months? Because we’ve ignored the majority of our citizens for so very long.
The problem is, by the time next February rolls around a whole bunch of new important things will have been done by African Americans. Yet we’ll still have little kids coloring in the face of Dr. King, and grownups watching the latest documentary about select “heroic” African Americans of past centuries. Reparations cannot be limited to financial compensation, but must also include cultural compensation, a shifting away from our White (male) focus to a lens that sees all of this country’s actors. Until then, I guess February will continue to provide us with a packaged version of Black History, a check-marked box on the to-do list of our nation’s conscience.
When I was a bartender at a grim restaurant located just outside the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel in New York City, I used to tell my customers stories. It passed the time, and it kept them from drunk-talking to me.
I’ve always been a storyteller. Of one kind or another. Growing up, I told my parents lots of stories. They usually centered around me and where I had been and who I had been with. That is, if they asked. In college I told myself stories, like that guy probably liked me even though he was insulting — and worse. Once on my own and doing what I wanted, the stories got more intense. They were like spells I would cast, concerning subjects like money, fame, and love. I told these stories to almost anyone who would listen. Then, in my adult life, I realized I had been telling myself a lot of stories that really didn’t ring true. I mean there’s nothing wrong with fictional story-telling. But when we publicize them as non-fiction, well that’s just disingenuous.
Telling a story brings with it a connotation of not telling the truth. (But all us spiritual folks know that truth is a pretty weak word to pin our hopes on). “Stop telling stories,” the old folks might say. (And maybe some of you young folks, too). But I later figured out that what that actually means is, don’t say anything to me that doesn’t sound true to me. Ah-ha, truth is in the ear of the be-listener.
As an actress I participated in a lot of stories — on stage and off. As a mother I told my children all sorts of stories, some I made up, some were made up by others who got paid to write them. It’s an actual market! Of course, there were some stories I also kept from my children. There were even some stories I kept from myself. Those would emerge later, fully illustrated, in hardcover, waiting to be plucked off my psychic shelf. Gotta face your own stories sooner or later.
Now my work is all about asking who tells stories and why. Historians look at people’s stories and then take those stories and tell them differently to others. But some historians actually ask why the story gets told that way in the first place; and then they ask who told it, and just where the characters and plot actually originated. We even ask if there was possibly an agenda to a particular story, and if perhaps there were different stories told on that same subject at the time. If you’re a scholar, or activist ,or engaged citizen, when it comes to Black history, then this activity will keep you busy for the rest of your years.
You know, I was thinking this week that I was going to tell a story here. Do something different. But the thing is, I’m always telling a story in these blogs. I’m telling my stories, about women and love and fear and pandemics and oppression and more love again. I like to tell stories. But I don’t like to tell others’ stories. That’s not my job. In fact, it’s why I am an oral historian, spending hours listening to the stories of people who didn’t get to tell theirs at the time. My job is to highlight and foreground and amplify others’stories.
Once upon a time there was a country that started with the premise that all people should be free to practice life in just the way they choose. But the premise was a story told by those who got here first, assumed some power, and then realized that if everyone did as they chose their power would be no more. All sorts of people suffered at the hands of these power-people and their story. They still do. There are moments in this very long story when it seems the country in question might actually be heading in the direction of its premise. But just as soon as it veers that way, the story goes back to the power-people and their need to be in charge. It’s kind of like Wagner’s Ring Cycle, except the three days are translated into three centuries and still going strong. People might need to get up and stretch their legs, go to the bathroom, grab a snack, but the tragic epic tale will continue.
I don’t want to spoil the ending. (I don’t actually know the ending). But it’s a pretty sad story. (With some happy moments interspersed). Black History Month is a radical idea because Dr. Carter G. Woodson knew that certain stories had been interred and were in need of exhumation. He found many avenues for this story-telling, and thanks to him and his colleagues, and all the griots since then, we still amplify these stories — in February, anyway. It’s not silly or antiquated; it’s a month to remember that we are lacking in a certain genre of story told by a certain ilk of author about a certain kind of people. We’ll never catch up, mind you, but it is imperative that we keep seeking out and telling these stories. Every month. Every year. Every life.
I realize I am writing this on Valentine’s Day, this subject that has been buzzing around my mind for a while now. I guess it’s fate, or karma, that this blog falls upon February 14th. Here’s the thing, I keep getting this question from people as if I’m in the middle of some 1950s TV series about a 21 year old girl who has yet to “find a man.” Only I’m 59. I mean, really. I can be telling a story about tennis or protests or cured ham, but if a male figure enters the narrative then my friends and family inevitably jump in to ask if the male is married. I am so used to it by now, that I begin generating my response as soon as I realize I’ve said the m-word.
My responses have certainly changed throughout the years, but they all tend to include some kind of explanation as to why the aforementioned man and I aren’t already in the throes of love. He’s married (most always); he’s gay, he’s boring, I don’t actually know him… Yet, my responses are sometimes met with skepticism in the form of a follow-up questions such as, “happily?”; or “are you sure?”; or “you only played tennis with him once, right?”; or “did you even try to talk to him?”
It has slowly dawned on me that folks are worried about me, worried that I’ll be “alone” (which means I don’t have a romantic partner, so even though I don’t feel particularly alone, apparently I am). Now, I’m not mad at these people and their concerns, they all love me. And they mostly think I’m fabulous and that a man would be lucky to have me. They are correct about that. But I do feel like some of these folks are not considering just how swimmingly I’ve been getting along for some time now — with and without men.
I really like men. Some of my best friends are men, dare I say. I tend to talk to them more when I find myself in large groups. You know, when large groups were a thing. And I’ve dated some great guys these last decades, all on my own! By that I mean, I spoke to them, expressed interest, allowed them “in” — all that stuff my inner circle is concerned I don’t quite know how to do. I have been coupled and non-coupled, and I like both states of being depending upon the company. There are benefits to both.
I’d like to be in a partnership worthy of my time. And I am assuming that I will be, down the road. But it’s not exactly up to me, not according to my particular faith tradition anyway. Certainly I must be open to God’s directions, open to possibilities, but it’s not up to me to twitch my nose like Samantha on Bewitched and generate a boyfriend. Nor is it my particular manner to plow into every human’s life story to see if I’d like to be friends/lovers with them. I just don’t work that way. This is partly because I really like myself, my self, my company, my thoughts, my ideas. Yes, I am more aware of alone-ness (not exactly loneliness) these days, and the hours do sometimes draw on once the “work-day” has ended.
And sometimes I get so caught up in the hype that I start to believe I need a guy. You know the hype, like, oh, say, on Valentine’s Day? The other day I blurted out to my daughter (who probably didn’t need to hear this) that these times were so constricting I couldn’t even have a one-night stand. She promptly replied that I could have one with myself (so wise). And then I promptly responded back, ewwww. Well, I was horrified by my own reaction. My daughter said I better read bell hooks’ All About Love stat.
I am a little tired of myself, it’s true. Not sure that too many people aren’t right about now. And folks are probably a little tired of their partners, too, because quality time is pretty much through the roof these days. But I think my self-devaluing response was a reflection of society seeping in, the “agreement” that alone is bad. I have been re-reading The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom and am really finding the framework of agreement so useful. According to Don Miguel Ruiz, basically we agree to certain opinions early in life, mostly those expressed by our parents: You’re pretty, you’re fat, you’re smart, you’re too sensitive, and so on. Then later we start agreeing to other sentiments, such as being busy is good, having material things brings happiness, not having a partners is sad. The idea is to realize these agreements that we don’t even know we have made, and then cancel the poisonous ones. I guess I still have some work to do in that area.
This is not a new topic for women of a certain age. There are a lot of really nice pieces written, podcasts aired, and art created on the subject matter. It tends to be a subject unique to women because men either die early or get married pronto. So I am just sharing my own little thoughts on the topic, from a birds eye view. Or perhaps more like from the center of the storm. I’m not asking my people to change their behavior; I am just asking myself to pay attention to my responses.
Here’s what I do know, I’m making myself a nice dinner tonight, after getting a pedicure this afternoon. I’m treating myself because that’s what I would do for someone else if they were here. I’m still practicing this whole love-yourself thing, and probably won’t ever participate in one of those wedding ceremonies women are doing when they marry themselves. (Why)?! But if I am going to enjoy a partner again one day then I damn well better enjoy this time I have with me right now, while I have it.
So, Happy Valentines Day (I won’t mention the part about this holiday really celebrating a massacre and all), to me and to you, to all my friends and acquaintances, single and not — and especially to that cute guy out there who will some day be my Valentine.
The people across the driveway are having a party and I’m not even mad. It’s nice to hear people having fun. I am guessing it’s a Super Bowl party, though it doesn’t sound like everyone is exactly glued to the TV. Reggaetón is playing loud, and right now some folks are singing along. There are probably too many people in the space, but the host has the apartment door open so the air can flow I guess. They are a really nice family and that probably plays into my lack of issue with the party. For God’s sake, have a celebration.
I mean everything sounds like a loud party these days. We cringe when someone nears our personal space, which has now grown to 6 feet in distance. We spot groups of 4 or more at a park and judge them for their carelessness. Everything seems looming and treacherous and so I like this little contained party that I can attend vicariously from the safety of my study. In another season I might even try to get invited, pretend I was going out for a walk or something. But I am off the hook for making new friends like that right now.
I don’t watch the Super Bowl anymore. I used to — always. I love sports, the idea of sports, the spirt of sport, the feeling of participating and watching sports. And I also know the NFL has been a corrupt, capitalist organization for a long, long time. Yet, I happily entered a relationship with the New York (New Jersey, yo!) Giants in the 1980s, after moving to Manhattan. (I used to say “the city” but apparently that term expanded into the outer boroughs a long time ago).
I was waitressing and bartending at Chumley’s, an historic speakeasy in the West Village. It had no signage. People who knew about it would vociferously pat themselves on the back upon entering the Hobbit-like wooden door, ushering their yuppie (because that’s what we called them back then) entourage into the dark, paneled interior. There was a juke box that seemed to play Billie Holiday on repeat, which was fine with me. I dressed up as a member of Run DMC one Halloween. That was before I/we realized that was appropriation. (Please, I did *not* wear blackface). I even was part of an effort to start a union at the restaurant. We all met with the NLRB in my tiny studio on East 28th Street. We went to court. We got a settlement, and made an agreement we would never enter the premises again. Sure, okay.
Anyway, the clientele was all over the place. Lots of yuppies sat at the tables ordering hamburgers and mugs of Black and Tans, but regular folks from the neighborhood — which was still regular-ish in the 80s — were at the bar. (As an aside, I met the one and only Adam West there. I was barely able to speak. Batman was right there in front of me). So there was a guy who lived on the block, seemed old as the hills. But that may have been because he drank his weight in cheap whisky and beer most hours of the day. He was a Giants fan. I had recently arrived in NYC without a real affection for a pro football team. I was a rabid University of Michigan Wolverine fan, and kind of paid attention to the Detroit Lions. But I could be easily swayed. Phil Simms was QB for the Giants back then. This bar-regular would curse Simms up and down, like he was strangling his mother or something. The passion moved me, and before you knew it I, too, was a Giants fan. As in fanatic.
When I met Pepper Johnson at a club on Varick Street, and he took my relatively petite hand in his to shake, I almost passed out. Years later, at a fundraiser in Montclair, New Jersey, Michael Strahan held the floor length leather coat I had won in a raffle. I took as long as possible to slip my arms through the sleeves as he patiently stood behind me. (Sigh). Now, all along I was kinda “woke,” like I knew that the way the NFL treated its players — especially the ones of color — left much to be desired. (Remember I tried to start a union)? But they made so much money anyway, I rationalized, as I put on my various jerseys, from Lawrence Taylor to Victor Cruz. And sure, the players did some wrongheaded things, but… Anyway, I scheduled my Sundays around the games. 1 o’clock start? Okay, get the house cleaned first, workout after. 4 o’clock kickoff? Get everything done first, and you can drink beer by half time. Night game? Yes!
But times change. Life changes. And as life changes we sometimes sharpen our senses in the process. Stuff was always happening but lots of people started paying more attention. Concussions. Bounties for injuring opponents. Cheating, in all manner of ways. Domestic violence perpetrated by players, barely acknowledged by management. Weapons fired in public spaces. Racism. Homophobia. How you gonna say you support all the causes you do then turn around and crack a beer and root for cheaters, abusers, racists and bullies? I had to stop. And I will say right here that college football is no dream of humanitarianism, to be sure. That is a whole other subject. But, the way I see it, the college athletes still have more “agency” than the pros in a certain kind of way. I take some solace in the trend towards fair remuneration of college athletes, while there is just no major sign of change that I can see on the NFL horizon. Colin Kaepernick was my last straw.
The party is still going on across the way, though it has quieted somewhat. Here on the west coast it’s the 4th quarter of the game, with only minutes left. And apparently it’s quite a rout. I hope all the players return home safely — in good health, mentally and physically. They probably won’t. I really pray that my neighbors have had a good time, let out a little steam (through their masks, God-willing). They probably have a better chance of a happy end to their night. Maybe. I don’t know what their tomorrows, their Mondays bring. Mine? Oh, I’ll be following my routine: read, write, exercise, teach. And hopefully, before we know it, I’ll be having parties in my backyard, replete with people singing along with my music and rooting for a new tomorrow. I really hope we’re at the two-minute-warning of this Pandemic Bowl. Maybe I’ll even go to Disney World when it’s all over.