Wherefore Art Thou?

dubois

W.E.B. DuBois

In 1890 W.E.B. DuBois delivered a commencement address at Harvard[1] in which he tackled the issue of the impact that leadership has on society. He brilliantly foreshadows the work of Martin Buber’s Ich und Du (I and Thou – 1923). More importantly, his words ring ominously true today as we start 2017 in the United States. In the piece, he reflects on the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis:

I wish to consider not the man, but the type of civilization which his life represented: its foundation is the idea of the strong man—Individualism coupled with the rule of might

DuBois goes on to caution that:

The Strong Man and his mighty Right Arm has become the Strong Nation with its armies. Under whatever guise, however, a Jefferson Davis may appear as man, as race, or as nation, his life can only logically mean this: the advance of a part of the world at the expense of the whole; the overweening sense of the I, and the consequent forgetting of the Thou. It has thus happened, that advance in civilization has always been handicapped by shortsighted national selfishness.

Today, we are facing a New Year and a new government and sadly a new shortsightedness. The choice is stark: are we, as a society, a nation and individuals, going to be an isolated “I” or are we going to be partners in cultivating a world of “I-Thou”?

The incoming US Government administration has utilized a “post-truth”, bully posture to convince the American people that the schoolyard will be better for everyone as long as the chief punk is in charge. This has ushered in a new dark age in American idealism that finds its greatest motivation in fear…fear of exclusion from the club, fear of the other, fear of appearing weak, etc. It backs up a nouveau belligerence that has no grounding in facts or integrity. “Because I say so” has become the default bargaining phrase of the day and the “deals” that are already being struck are less about negotiation and more about coercion and self-aggrandizement. In this equation there is only “I”. The “I” of the “strong man” who only functions for himself* and the “I” of the minions responding to the source of their intimidation, each one trying to see a small part of the big bully/strong man reflected in themselves.

But there is also the dangerous “I” of apathetic immobilized malcontents who refuse to fight back because they believe the system will correct itself. These are the same people who in 1868 allowed Jefferson Davis and the rest of the Southern aggressors in the civil war to be pardoned “with restoration of all rights, privileges, and immunities under the Constitution and the laws which have been made in pursuance thereof.”[2] The result was Jefferson Davis and his “Strong Man” never being called to task for defending the institutionalized possession, abuse, rape and murder of other human beings in servitude. This laid the groundwork for the next 150 years of political apologists who still don’t understand why blacks don’t just “get over” slavery and the legacy of Jim Crow. The “I” of apathy does more damage because it is the “I” of retreat and acquiescence with the full knowledge that grave wrong is being committed. This is the same “I” that quickly defaults to assumptions of sameness as a rationale for inaction. It proudly proclaims on one hand that “All Lives Matter” and that it does not see race, but it refers to “the Hispanics” or “the gays” as if they are entirely different species. This is the “I” who will see you as long as they see themselves in you first.

But, I-Thou does not function based on sameness; it is not a filter. Instead, I-Thou is a manifestation of interconnectedness. I-Thou asks us to be in relationship regardless of our ability to agree. It says that there is no I without Thou. The great advantage here is the elimination of in-groups and out-groups and the true nourishment and safety of all. The challenge for us then today is to avoid being swept up in the wave of “Strong Man” individualism based on assumptions about how we are all the same and instead embrace the importance of being able to submit strength, individual or national to the benefit of all in celebration of our collective uniquenesses. In truth, the more the “Strong Man” abandons his relationship with “Thou”, he is not only weak, but an utter coward, afraid of his own human frailty and need. I cannot improve upon the words DuBois uses to drive home our greatest calling, particularly now at the dawn of an era that will challenge our most basic potential for interconnectedness:

What then is the change made in the conception of civilization, by adding to the idea of the Strong Man, that of the Submissive Man? It is this: The submission of the strength of the Strong to the advance of all—not in mere aimless sacrifice, but recognizing the fact that, “To no one type of mind is it given to discern the totality of Truth,[3]” that civilization cannot afford to lose the contribution of the very least of nations for its full development: that not only the assertion of the I, but also the submission to the Thou is the highest individualism.

Happy New Year!

– ALD

*I have intentionally retained the limited masculine language of “he/him/his” in this piece to reflect the original language used by both DuBois and Buber from which I have drawn my analysis.

[1] http://credo.library.umass.edu/view/full/mums312-b196-i029

[2] http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=72360

[3] New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, Volume 7, Issue: 3, March, 1890, 361-374

 

75 Years

b2fccd81-8508-45a1-b523-9482647e4895-983-00000647e60f3850_tmpAs a Black person,  I have my own cultural nightmares, yet every time I think of the era that descended on this country after December 7, 1941, I am physically ill.  A president like no other before or since, responded to attack with a rhetoric and acts based on unsubstantiated racialized fear, suppression and hatred aimed at innocent citizens.

75 years later, on the day that set those events in motion a man who has claimed the presidency based on racialized fear, suppression and hatred aimed at innocent citizens was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year.

Apparently, America does not want to change.

Today I honor the men and women who lost their lives as civilians and as service members, and all of those who served during WWII before and after the United States entered that global conflict.  But most of all, I honor the Japanese Americans who suffered in this country…their country, under the tyranny of targeted oppression.  That period and our recent election both lay bare the perverse failing that still plagues this nation. Racism.

It’s Not About Race…

“It’s not about race” they say.
…my stomach turns
The sight of those self satisfied faces
Spinning politics on parade
…my heart burns
Not because they are white
But because they use the power of white
To turn me inside out always telling me,
“Its not about race”.
Yet race is always their final solution
To every problem or conflict.
It’s not about race…
It was a war between the states
It’s not about race…
It was about properly cultivating the land
It’s not about race…
It was about national security
It’s not about race…
It was about jobs and feeding families.
No, it’s never about race,
And its always about race.
So I rock in silence, too spent to weep
Too chilled to push back
Holding myself
Convulsing
From the poison I’ve been force fed
Over and over again
“It’s not about race”
It’s not about race
It’s not about race.

– ALD

Resist and Redefine

img_1026Below is a list of slaves held by Elijah Ratliff (1787 – 1865) in 1861. Among them is my great great grandfather Graham. I hold on to this history because my grandmother told me stories about him.  He is real for me.  This is also the farthest back I can go in my black family tree. Although I can link my “Dyer” family name directly to white settlers on the Mayflower and slave owners in the Caribbean, I cannot connect my maternal African roots to anything so lofty…an epic journey, a fledgling nation, kings or other empires or a specific region or tribe. Instead, the most concrete proof of my black ancestors involves me living as the legacy of this country’s deepest shame.

It is easy for the liberal consciousness to wrap its head and resources around the fact that the people at Standing Rock, the Sacred Stones Camp, Red Warrior Camp and the Oceti Sakowin Camp, are protecting water. Water is life.  Yet we cannot forget or ignore that they are also fighting for the right to remain connected to their past as well as their living heritage moving forward. Since the beginning of the organized European nation on this continent, the greed inherent in capitalism has fed itself on the erasure of non-white people’s ethnic history. This is an ongoing battle between culture and commerce. It is the real face of the American experiment.  It is wholly repugnant.

When I look at this list of names as property connected to my own family, I am reminded how sacred and powerful ancestral memory is and how often it has been the target of the American commercial machine. Tracing family trees has become big business and can be a thrilling way to learn history through a personal lens for some.  But for people of color in today’s America, these tenuous connections to ancestors and traditions are even more important.  They give a tangible context to the dominant culture’s relentless effort to deny us the status of basic humanity. Ancestral memory is in part what ignites our desire to resist and redefine.  Maybe this is what scares some people about “identity”.  If the American Indian and native people are any example, the fuel of cultural identity remains more viscous, volatile, alive and more permanent after 500 years of attack than anything that can ever be shaken loose from the ground…and it is already on fire.

Names taken from the will of Elijah Ratliff, Anson County, North Carolina, 1861

1. Big Ellick
2. Wesley
3. Laury
4. Graham
5. Bukugan
6. Anthony
7. Julyan
8. Dina
9. Lucy
10. Caroline
11. Wallis
12. Bone
13. Sallie
14. Washington
15. Tom
16. Harry
17. Martha-Jane
18. Bill
19. Johanna
20. Rose
21. Warren
22. Betty
23. Anna
24. Isaac
25. Mary
26. Anderson
27. Stephen
28. Harriett
29. Zacy
30. Willy
31. Silva
32. Anderson
33. Lize
34. Elbert
35. Tommy
36. Sass
37. Little Ellick
38. Ann
39. Frank
40. Peter
41. Stephen
42. John
43. Nealy
44. Nance
45. Sam
46. Hannah
47. Buck
48. Lane
49. Lewis
50. Luke
51. Abram
52. Henry
53. Jim
54. Peter
55. Peg
56. Robin
57. Jesse
58. Perry
59. Katherine
60. Peter
61. Jesse
62. Carolina
63. Reubin
64. Jacob
65. Jon
66. Tilla
67. Big Frank
68. Mary
69. Peter
70. Richmond
71. Poll
72. Alph
73. Jam
74. Riley
75. Alice
76. Riley
77. Ellen
78. Mary
79. Mike
80. Tempy
81. Molinda
82. Patience
83. King
84. Sam
85. Ellen
86. Ben
87. Sis
88. Riley
89. Harriett
90. (child)
91. Charity
92. (child)
93. George
94. Allen
95. Sarah
96. Vina
97. (child)
98. Isaac
99. Mitchell
100. Margaritt
101. Charles
102. Lisa
103. (child)
104. Vina
105. Ephraim
106. Matt
107. Frank
108. Harriett
109. (child)
110. Lizzie
111. Jane
112. Cindie
113. (child)
114. Emaline
115. Anderson
116. May
117. Jefferson

Family Wall

I keep hearing the story, mostly from my non-POC friends, about family members or people they are close to who voted for the incoming administration. These friends are all struggling to navigate feeling as if the world has been swept from under them, while having to face the people who did the sweeping on Facebook, on weekends home, and over the coming holidays. They are asking tough questions: when do you argue; when do you sit silent at the table or “just not talk about politics because…well…family”; when do your actions or inactions enable the violence that is steadily marching back into the norm of life in the US? Christina Sharpe wrestles with this question in her article for THE NEW INQUIRY titled “Lose Your Kin”…check it out!

When I consider this situation, I can’t help but think about the many people I know who were thrown out of their “families” because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. I think of families divided and ripped apart by war or extremism. These are people who have had no choice. They had to pick a side, just to survive. And they chose “family” that will always unabashedly have their back. We are taught in our Western democratic world that life should not be about choosing sides but about compromise. But the current “compromise” trades on the basic ability to survive for too many of us. It is not just that we are being asked to wait for another election cycle, we are being told to watch our communities get torn apart; we are being told that our lives matter even less than when we have been shot in the street; we are being handed an aggressively paternalistic message that says inequality is entirely justified by skin color and chromosomes. As a result, for those of us in the crosshairs, family cannot first be about blood. It must be about who we see in the mirror standing next to us. Liberals are woefully unprepared for the painful decisions that are needed to make the “beloved community” we so loftily talk about. “We did this to ourselves” is a tepid, inadequate and inaccurate response in light of the fact that so many seem to know someone they may call brother, or father or spouse who did this and did it proudly. We must be more.

There can be no easy answer to the question “what is family” but we must ask this question boldly and with a new sense of urgency. How has the desire to justify and make excuses for “kin” fed the growth of fear and hatred on the other side of family walls of denial?

Your family sits in the other room.
They have been there for a very long time.
It used to be easier to see them
…for them to see you.
There used to be an open space
where your room ended and theirs began.
It contained the support
that held the house together.
There you saw pictures and mementos
of the many lives before yours
that added up to who you are
…your birthright, your heritage.
Then someone thought
“French doors would be nice”
still letting light in from either side
but something to keep the sound out,
some privacy
while you learned to dance to music they didn’t enjoy.
Then you woke up one day
to the glass painted over
(did they do that…or did you do it in your sleep?)
You could still hear,
but couldn’t see them any more.
The doors still swung both ways
occasionally
until over time the hinges grew rusty
in one direction from lack of use
and the door was no longer safe to open.
The door was as good as a wall.
That’s when the lock came
…and the lost key.
Then you forgot altogether there was a door
let alone that it had ever been open
behind the shelves and the couch.
Occasionally, you heard them
your “family”, in the other room
claiming more mementos and taking pictures
of all that had come after you
…the noises of life.
They heard your sounds as well.
What a peculiar price to pay
when no one seems to care enough
or have the courage or the lack of pride
to shift the furniture and find the key
or just pack up all the memories and finally move away?

 

#unraced, #eraced

A Poem in (the) Twitter Verse*

Racism is not just about white people and non-white people hating. It is about who has “race”.

In the United States, there are “un-raced” bodies and “e-raced” bodies.

E-raced means there’s a social algorithm that makes your color, culture, religion and customs an opaque burden.

Un-raced means your color, culture, religion and customs are invisible and weightless.

If you are un-raced, sometimes you turn around to see racism in the distance, and you hate it.

If you are e-raced, you are the physical location of racism. You see it in the mirror, and you hate it.

If you are un-raced, you hear about shootings and poverty and say “what a shame.”

If you are e-raced, you wonder if you are next, or if someone in your family just died.

Most white people in the United States are un-raced.

Most everyone who is not white in the US is e-raced.

The Bundy family and their accomplices are free because they are un-raced.

The Alt-Right wants to protect the exclusive white privilege of being un-raced.

White liberals who write songs to speak for brown mouths are un-raced.

The Movement for Black Lives is a demand for an end to being e-raced.

Black youths being killed by police or each other are being e-raced.

Black conservatives being thrown out of Republican rallies as thugs are also being e-raced.

Muslim women having their scarves ripped off their heads are being e-raced.

Latino/a/xs being told to speak English are being e-rased.

The tribes protesting at Standing Rock are being e-raced…again.

I have never experienced the United States in an un-raced body.

Every day I wake up to news that reminds me how often and how easily my body is e-raced.

America, seen from inside an e-raced body is a nightmare.

No government or President alone can solve the tragedy of the un-raced vs. the e-raced.

Regardless of how you are “raced”, don’t vote for an ideology…vote to be seen.

The goal is not to be un-raced or e-raced.

The Goal is learning to share what it means to be human-raced.

-ALD

 

*This “poem” originally appeared line-by-line on Twitter

Goodbye Pussy Bow Blouse

tr-and-taft-bow

Teddy Roosevelt (Bo Peep) and William Howard Taft (her sheep)

I started this post with the intention of writing about Teddy Roosevelt and the word/phrase “bully!” I figured that would be a creative way to address some of the double standards in this disgusting election process.

Then the final debate happened.

Clinton, who is far from perfect (but remember Obama opposed same-sex marriage and had ties to the Chicago “machine” when he was elected) delivered one of the most gorgeous pieces of pro-choice rhetoric in a flawless manner that brimmed with the exquisite balance of an international politician’s skill and raw gut feeling. Her words were history…and neither of the men in her immediate sphere heard a word she said. But sure as hell when Clinton mocked Trump’s penchant for avoiding taxes he countered with the meme ready phrase “such a nasty woman” which everyone seems to have heard just fine. The other big thing everyone heard was Trump challenging the democratic process by avoiding an answer as to whether he would respect the decision of the American people if the election went against him.

The problem with us only focusing on these moments (Trump’s resistance to concession and his childish insult) instead of focusing on Clinton’s wisdom and insight is the basic problem we are facing in this election: maleness refuses to give up the spotlight. Calling Clinton a “nasty woman” isn’t about Clinton, it is about Trump. It is about every substitute word one could use in place of woman. Saying he won’t respect the outcome of the election, as well, isn’t about Clinton, it is about a democratic process that has been entirely male and is based on European male honor codes up until this point. Therefore, of course the election can’t be legitimate…she’s a woman. Of course a 40+ year political and legal career can be reduced to petty nastiness and namecalling…she’s a woman. This shit is messed up. What’s more messed up to me are the many women who are still supporting Trump. Messed up…but not surprising. One look at the history of women’s suffrage or the women’s rights movement and it is plain to see that sadly almost as many women who have been for progress have been against it.

Melania Trump, wife of Donald Trump, arrives before the second presidential debate between Republi can presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016.(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Melania Trump, wife of Donald Trump, arrives before the second presidential debate between Republi can presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016.(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

I am not an anthropologist, I am a minister. My study of history and data always comes back to asking the question, “where do people find peace?” As such, I spend a lot of time thinking about what motivates people in general and I’ve come to the conclusion that above all, it is the promise or premise of safety that drives people most. Whether it is seeking a better job or pulling the trigger of a gun, ultimately someone is making a statement about how they do or don’t feel safe in the moment. I have to believe that the women supporting Trump, much like the anti-suffragists are motivated by feeling the need to defend the way they see and experience safety and order in world. I would say that Clinton may even pose a greater threat to them than an Obama, simply because some of these women may have certain negative assumptions about Clinton that reflect the negativity that is projected about women in general. If you have been taught by male focused society to never trust yourself or as I believe is the case here, never feel safe with yourself, why would you ever vote for someone who mirrors your experience? That is not to say that Trump’s women supporters are ignorant or under the thumb of men or only capable of an emotional decision…they are grown people who can dig their own graves.  Rather, I am naming this cultural challenge to call out the toxic role of patriarchy that pervades all of our concepts of what we think a “President” should look like, sound like or how they should prioritize the value of life and the world.  We’ve learned that President = male identified embodiment and affectation.  One look at the criticisms of Clinton’s voice, demeanor and clothing over the last year proves this point and treating her position on women’s unique healthcare as a footnote in this last debate underlines the dominance of male privilege even more.

In this patriarchal society where the vast majority of women are pressured to present themselves in a way that is entirely about the male gaze and male based criteria of desire, the idea of a woman who is self possessed and who cannot be diminished by an irresponsible male partner and who is impenetrable to personal assaults on her accomplishments or her gender is not just anathema but may actually be mortally terrifying to some. It upsets the order that has been ordained by certain faith (1 Corinthians 14:34) and codified over the years by law (the eras pre-19th amendment and pre-Roe v. Wade, etc.) It flies in the face of how we have learned to navigate gender. It doesn’t let some people feel or aspire to what they know as safe. What does make some people feel safe? Melania Trump made up like a prize show kitten surrounded by expressionless hyper blond women who show no greater joy than promoting the “strong” “successful” man in their life who is someone who “tells it like it is” even if he’s not capable of telling the truth…least of all about himself. Seeing women as props for the male ego…that’s what makes some people feel safe.

I have two hopes for election night. The first is that Hillary Clinton is elected as the 45th President of the United States. The second wish is that she publicly and openly weeps with joy at the accomplishment. Not because she is a woman, but because it is a long over due achievement in erasing the ridiculous gender norms of politics that have been killing us all and for which the nation and our ancestors regardless of gender identity all deserve a good deep cry. Yes, Barack Obama opened the door to non-white men filling the office of President, but Clinton will actually take the door entirely off its hinges.

And you can be sure she won’t be wearing any (f**king) pussy bow blouse as she steps across the threshold.

01-pussy-bow

(c) Vogue Magazine

Inside the Lines

It is a test.
Not as functional as potty training
or as complex as matching shapes and colors
but a test just the same.
And so you sit doubled over
in a position that defies bones
with smudgy fingers working carefully
face screwed with concentration
and an occasional, focused and exasperated huff.
The blue cannot bleed to the red.
The red cannot touch the yellow,
because you are guided by solid black lines.
Working in earnest
to make the crayon behave in your hand.
Learning that if you press hard
the color is dark;
if you press lightly, it is barely there.
Finding wild abandon at having filled the edges
so you can broad stroke scribble through the middle.
Just the same, it is a test.
Rewarded even when what should be white in the eye is green
and the tongue is yellow
or the nails are striped.
The main goal is always staying inside the lines.

In one stroke you are 50
and all the books are filled
with tidy, neat inside-the-line precise shade.
What do you do when the borders disappear?
The sudden death,
your own breaking body
the change in course
a blank page.
What do you do when you must
create the image from scratch?
When your tiny hand only knows how to behave
and never learned how to give birth,
to improvise or riff?
So you dread the first un-girded mark
of your life that isn’t a test.
You self-medicate
and obsess a little I guess….
Somehow, you just have to learn to love the mess.

-ALD

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