Books

This Is America: One Nation “Under God”

Currently reading: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind.

I recently finished Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. In this work, Fanon examines the psychological effects of racism and colonialism on the Black psyche and traces their roots through observation of our media and psychoanalysis. My takeaway from Fanon is that racism continues to be a cancer that the United States refuses to treat. We see its ugly manifestations in our current immigration policy and even the way we treat successful people of color like Serena Williams.

Fanon argues that, “All forms of exploitation are alike. They all seek to justify their existence by citing some biblical decree.” (69) The notion of biblical justification has precedence in our past as well as our present. Nazi Germany, South Africa during apartheid, and the United States back then and now have the following in common: they all utilized the Bible to justify their systems of subjugation. The United States cherry-picked Bible verses to justify enslaving Black people. Nazi Germany and South Africa during apartheid both quoted Romans 13. The first verse reads, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” In other words, do not question or challenge authority. When you pick a fight with authority, you pick a fight with God Himself. You know who else quoted this verse to justify atrocities? Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

When announcing the Trump administration’s zero tolerance immigration policy, Jeff Sessions evoked Romans 13: “Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” [1] Sessions is using this verse to legitimize separating families and putting them in facilities (see also: internment camps). Immigrant families are being exploited for political gain because Trump’s base is anti-immigration. The zero tolerance policy is a racist policy because these families are not white. I don’t see Trump promoting stereotypes when mentioning European immigrants. Immigrants are not the only group subject to prejudice and racism. We can see mistreatment on the basis of color in the recent case of Serena Williams with the Anti-Doping Agency.

Serena Williams is a seven-time tennis champion. She has also been tested for performance-enhancing drugs “five times this year by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.” [2] This is more than double her fellow women players. Why is that? We can find our answer in the way our society’s collective unconscious[3] views Black people as criminals. In the case of Serena Williams, this is criminality in the world of professional sports. Fanon encapsulates our country’s collective unconscious when he says, “Sin is black as virtue is white.” (118) This mental association of Black with wrongdoing is why people of color are disproportionately stopped by police, arrested and locked away by police, and shot by police. This prejudice of the Black person as criminal is also why Serena Williams is being disproportionately tested. Some may argue not everything is about race, but ask yourself this: Why only Serena Williams? What is even more damning is that the USADA has found no suspicion of doping on Serena’s part. This goes beyond viewing her as capable of cheating because of her being Black; now this looks like simple harassment because she is black. The fact that Serena has been the victim of racist and sexists remarks by members of the tennis world only bolsters the view that Serena is being disproportionately scrutinized because she is Black and a woman. The situation of Serena Williams teaches us that a Black woman can be accomplished and successful through hard work and still be subject to harassment because of the color of her skin.

After cataloging the various forms of our country’s racism, what is the solution? The Four Noble Truths contain an important step our country needs to take. In order to transform suffering into joy, the first step is acknowledgment of suffering’s existence. Before our country can take the necessary steps to heal, the injury needs to be identified, but the denial is strong. People of color are consistently told to get over it. Racism is in the past. Color doesn’t exist. Really? The children of immigrant families and successful people of color who are treated like criminals share the following in common: they are not white. But remember, folks: color doesn’t exist.

[1] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2018/06/16/jeff-sessions-bible-romans-13-trump-immigration-policy/707749002/

[2] https://www.npr.org/2018/07/03/625746829/deadspin-serena-williams-is-one-of-the-most-drug-tested-tennis-players

[3] And by collective unconscious, I refer to Fanon’s redefinition which argues the collective unconscious is the “repository of prejudices, myths, and collective attitudes of a particular group.” (165)

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Books

Octavia’s Talents: A Parable for Modern Times

Currently reading: Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler.

The Parable of the Talents is the second part of Octavia Butler’s Parable series. The story takes place in a United States ravaged by climate change, a widening wage gap, and drug abuse. Butler paints a world that is futuristic yet so familiar to us in the present, making it a must-read especially for current times. For starters, the president in the Parable of the Talents, Andrew Steele Jarret, is Donald Trump with a different name because of the rhetoric he employs and his inability to hold his followers accountable for the wrongdoings they commit. Also, the administration in the novel has no respect for the law in the same way that our president’s administration has no respect for the law.

Let’s begin with Andrew Steel Jarret. The novel introduces the character when he is running for president. Jarret says the following during his campaign: “Join us! Our doors are open to every nationality, every race! Leave your sinful past behind, and become one of us. Help us make America great again.” (20) Sound familiar? What makes this line disturbing in 2018 is the fact that this novel was published in 1998, yet Butler’s world is disturbingly familiar. Butler was ahead of her time for creating the “Make America great” line that serves as the slogan of our president (unfortunately) Donald Trump. Jarret is not only similar to Trump because of those words. Like Trump, Jarret does not hold his supporters accountable when they engage in wrongdoing.

Jarret’s supporters engage in heinous acts in the name of Christianity. Before Jarret wins the election, they began to “form mobs and burn people at the stake for being witches.” Instead of telling his people to stop, Jarret decides to use “such mild language that his people are free to hear what they want to hear.” (19) This inability to hold followers accountable bears a striking resemblance to Donald Trump’s inaction during the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. When a bunch of white supremacists decided to stage a racist rally, an action that resulted in one death by a vehicle-ramming attack and over thirty injuries, instead of coming out definitively against ignorance and racism, Trump argued there was violence on “both sides”. Like Jarret, Trump cannot hold his supporters to the mark and allows them to run amok, yet another testament to Octavia Butler’s accurate vision of the direction our country is heading. Another area where Jarret and Trump turn a blind eye is to the law.

Under the Jarret administration, slavery makes a comeback. His supporters, calling themselves the Crusaders, start to enslave the poor population. Despite the Thirteenth Amendment prohibiting slavery, no effort is made on the part of the Jarret administration to put a stop to this heinous institution. This disregard for our laws bears a striking resemblance to something recent our president said. Yesterday, our president said in a tweet, “We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country. When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came.” This move would violate Due Process, a right that is guaranteed not only to US citizens but to those who may have entered the country illegally. This similarity proves chilling because, like Jarret, Trump completely disregards what the law says. Atrocities begin when we flout laws designed to protect the people. Jarret serves as a warning of where this disregard can lead us if we as a people allow it to happen.

I am halfway through the novel. I do not know if things will get better in Butler’s vision of the United States, but I am not optimistic. This novel is not a light read, but it is a must-read for the times that we are living in. The similarities are startling and serve as a reminder of the direction we may be heading in if we do not exercise caution.

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Books

How Not to Disagree in 2017

On December 17th, 2017, Dr. Cornel West published a scathing critique of Ta-Nehisi Coates on The Guardian after the release of Coates’s book We Were Eight Years in Power. West accuses Coates of being soft on Barack Obama’s presidency and silent on his serious flaws. The feud exploded on Twitter and eventually led to Coates deleting his Twitter account after white supremacist Richard Spencer also joined the fray by stating West was right. West’s criticism mischaracterizes Coates’s arguments in such a way that I question if we read the same book. Dr. West inaccurately describes what the book is, claims Coates fetishizes white supremacy when he analyzes systemic racism with the purpose of moving away from it, and inaccurately describes Coates as silent on Barack Obama’s flawed presidency when the evidence from the text proves otherwise.

In the beginning of the Guardian article, West describes We Were Eight Years in Power as “a book about Barack Obama’s presidency and the tenacity of white supremacy”. Wrong. It is a collection of essays that touch on a number of different topics such as the differing histories taught about the Civil War, Michelle Obama’s background, mass incarceration, the way real estate hurt the black community, etc. You do not have to read the book to get this idea; you can take a gander at the table of contents. While three of the eight essays directly talk about Obama, the other essays bear titles such as “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?”, “The Case for Reparations,” “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” etc. These titles reveal that the book is not solely about Barack Obama and white supremacy; they demonstrate that the book talks about a whole host of issues that affect the black community. Cornel West quotes from the book as if he read it, but from the very beginning he fails to accurately describe what this book in fact is.

West also makes the claim that Coates “fetishizes white supremacy”. Fetishizing implies devotion or reverence. Coates discussing white supremacy has nothing to do with either. Coates dissects white supremacy and expands upon its prevalence because the purpose of examining white supremacy is to confront and move past it. To say that Coates is “fetishizing white supremacy” is missing the point. Coates traces the history of systemic racism to force us to come to grips with our nation’s dark past because this is a requirement for redemption. In the essay “The Case for Reparations,” he explains, “An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.” (207) Racism is a persistent and systemic problem in our country. Coates states that the remedy is coming to grips with the fact that we have a problem. The first step to solving any problem is acknowledging that it is there. West’s dismissal fails to recognize the goal of examining history: to avoid repeating it. West does not only misrepresent Coates’s examination of white supremacy; he also mislabels Coates as an Obama fanboy. The book shows that Coates is measured while critical of Obama’s shortcomings.

Cornel West disagrees with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s argument that the Obama presidency is an example of “Good Negro Government”. During an interview with The Root, West explains, “I don’t view Good Negro Government as policies that don’t highlight poor people, that have drone strikes, that’s tied to Wall Street, that reinforces surveillance. That is not good government for me.” On this point, I do agree. I too do not view a government that is complicit in mass murder and other heinous forms of injustice as good government. I disagree with West’s assessment on the Guardian piece that Coates’s views on race and politics “has no place for keeping track of Wall Street greed, US imperial crimes or black elite indifference to poverty.” This statement ignores the fact that Ta-Nehisi Coates likes Obama, but liking him does not mean he is incapable of criticizing the former president.

Coates supports what Obama represents, but he is critical of his missteps and horrible decisions. West claims that Coates is silent on the crimes of the US, but Coates explains in the essay “Fear of a Black President” that he was “horrified by Obama’s embrace of a secretive drone policy, and particularly the killing of American citizens without any restraints.” (140) This line contradicts West’s charge that Coates is quiet on the crimes of the United States. West’s condemnation bothers me as someone who believes in the Buddhist concept of Right Speech, which consists of not “speaking with a forked tongue” (i.e., lying). I am not arguing that Cornel West is intentionally lying, but he is making claims that the evidence reveals is not true. Stating something that is blatantly not true is a falsehood whether it’s intentional or not. This misrepresentation also extends to Coates’s view on Barack Obama’s presidency.

West paints Coates as quiet on Obama’s mistakes, but what the book describes is an internal conflict within Coates. On the one hand, Coates admires what the Obama presidency symbolized: “The Obama family represents our ideal imaginings of ourselves — an ideal we so rarely see on any kind of national stage (127). On the other hand, Coates experiences difficulty reconciling Obama’s great achievements with his shortcomings. When it comes to the issue of race in our country, he saw Barack Obama as “playing both sides. He would invoke his identity as a president of all people to decline to advocate for black policy—and then invoke his black identity to lecture black people for continuing to ‘make bad choices.’” (299) This quote serves as an acknowledgment that the former president did not do as much for the black community as he would have liked. Obama instead decided to enact policies that favored all Americans, which does not address a system that is stacked against minorities when you factor in mass incarceration, police brutality, gentrification, redlining, etc. Coates does not fail to point out when Obama falls short of his expectations.

Coates also did not agree with Obama’s optimism with regard to where the country was on race during the former president’s two terms: “Only Obama, a black man who emerged from the best of white America, and thus could sincerely trust white America, could be so certain that he could achieve broad national appeal. And yet only a black man with that same biography could underestimate his opposition’s resolve to destroy him.” (324) This line demonstrates Coates, despite liking Obama, harbored serious disagreements he is willing to express. Coates feels white supremacy was the foundation for our democracy and continues to operate in more subtle forms, but Obama still held onto hope for the best in people, a hope that proved too optimistic when you take into account the racism he dealt with during his two terms and that same racism becoming more emboldened with the election of Donald Trump. To categorize Coates as an Obama fanboy is misleading. Coates is a fan of Obama who is willing to admit when his president messed up.

The feud between Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates serves as a sobering lesson on how not to express disagreement. Dr. West definitely did not deeply read Coates because he managed to say numerous things about his thesis that are proven false upon further study. When you don’t agree, it is important to disagree in a way that encourages a healthy exchange of ideas. I would advise staying away from the word fetishizing and linking it with something heinous, especially when the person with whom you disagree is against that something heinous. At the same time, it is important to not walk away from a debate. I hope Ta-Nehisi Coates returns to social media. There are plenty of people who are on his side and support him. I count myself as one of them. I am also on Cornel West’s side because he brings up issues that we need to discuss, but this discussion needs to be done to unite and share ideas, not tear each other apart.

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Books

Hermione Granger and the Struggle for Social Justice

In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Hermione Granger becomes an activist for house-elves. She observes how Winky the house-elf is treated roughly and immediately dismissed by her owner Bartemius Crouch for a crime she did not commit. This injustice leads Hermione to take up the fight for racial equality in the wizarding world, but J.K. Rowling does more than teach young audiences to take a stand when you see something wrong going on in your community. She teaches us that the fight for social justice is an uphill struggle that does not lead to immediate change. Hermione learns this lesson when she meets resistance in the form of the status quo with regard to the role of house elves and the fact that house-elves do not feel their oppression.

When Hermione hears that Hogwarts employs house-elves without pay or benefits, she launches a grassroots campaign to promote change. She creates the organization S.P.E.W. (Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare). The aim of this society is to “secure house-elves fair wages and working conditions.” (225) Hermione attempts to rally students to create reform in the school, but she is told every time that she is on the wrong side of the issue. When Hermione explains how house-elf enslavement in the wizarding world goes back centuries, Ron Weasley responds, “Hermione — open your ears. They. Like. It. They like being enslaved!” (224) Even Hagrid, known for his love for magical creatures, explains, “I’m not sayin’ there isn’t the odd elf who’d take freedom, but yeh’ll never persuade most of ‘em ter do it — no, nothin’ doin’, Hermione.” (265) Hermione’s words fall on deaf ears precisely because of what she mentions to Ron: house-elf enslavement goes back centuries. In the eyes of the wizarding community, that is just the way it is. You cannot expect to easily change an idea that is considered normal and a part of everyday life. Ron and Hagrid’s words point to another problem: house-elves love their enslavement.

Hermione not only has to change the minds of the entire wizarding community; she also needs to convince the oppressed of their oppression. House-elves love to serve. Fred and George Weasley, when visiting the kitchens of Hogwarts, observe that they look “happy” and “think they’ve got the best job in the world.” (239) Harry Potter and the gang confirm these observations when they visit the kitchens. The house-elves, upon seeing them,“came trotting up. . . bearing a large silver tray laden with a teapot, cups for Harry, Ron, and Hermione, a milk jug, and a large plate of biscuits.” (377) Service is hardwired into the house-elves. When Dobby, the house-elf freed by Harry Potter, mentions how he is enjoying his freedom, the house-elves “started edging away from Dobby, as though he were carrying something contagious.” (378) How can Hermione fight for the freedom of house-elves when they hate the very mention of it? Even Dobby, a lover of freedom, reverts back to his servant ways. When he calls the Malfoys “bad masters,” (381) he seems okay at first but suddenly starts calling himself bad and banging himself on the head. Dobby is incapable, despite being free to do and say as he please, to freely express himself without shock and a feeling of wrongdoing. Dobby’s self-punishment points to how deep this institution runs. This institution has its intricate web in the psyche of house-elves. Hermione will have a tough time liberating the oppressed if they love their oppression and balk at the idea of freedom.

Hermione Granger’s struggle to promote house-elf rights is the struggle for social justice. It is a constant battle that requires, to borrow Professor Moody’s words, constant vigilance. If we are not vigilant and accept things as they are without question, like Ron, that is how systems of oppression are allowed to take root in society and flourish. The battle is not easy. It is a gradual, uphill battle. Hermione learns that change is not going to happen overnight. It will require dismantling an institution that has thrived for centuries and changing ideas that society views as the natural order of things. Tough lesson aside, Rowling does an excellent job of providing young readers with a role model who questions what society deems as normal and challenges injustice when it rears its ugly countenance. In other words, Hermione Granger is woke as fuck.

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Books

Banishing the Basements of Bigotry

I have been revisiting the Harry Potter series. I just finished up Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, and I really dig how J.K. Rowling deftly explores the notion that hate is a behavior that is learned and passed down from generation to generation through wizarding families like the Malfoys. Rowling further unravels this philosophy and exposes it for the foolishness that it is through the example of the talented and intelligent witch Hermione Granger.

Hate makes its ugly debut as a theme in Harry Potter when Draco Malfoy calls Hermione Granger a “filthy little Mudblood,” (112) an epithet for a wizard or witch born from Muggle (non-magic) parents. This term is a part of the philosophy of the pure-bloods, wizarding families that claim they are pure because their blood is not mixed with any Muggle blood. Pure-bloods believe they are superior to Muggles. In their eyes, Muggles are base, unworthy, and unfit to learn magic. Harry and Ron learn in their History of Magic class that, over a thousand years ago, Salazar Slytherin harbored this same hatred for Muggles when he founded the Slytherin House. According to their teacher Professor Bins, Slytherin’s founder believed “magic learning should be kept within all-magic families” and “disliked taking students of Muggle parentage, believing them to be untrustworthy.” (150) This hatred led to the creation of the Chamber of Secrets and the plan to purge Hogwarts of wizards and witches with Muggle relatives. Salazar Slytherin’s belief system from its inception to its current incarnation teaches us that hate is not a natural feeling; it is a behavior that is taught. The seed of hatred for Muggles was planted by Salazar Slytherin and is continuously maintained by future generations of Slytherins.

Rowling further unravels this hate for the harmful behavior that it is by introducing us to the genius Hermione Granger. Despite not coming from a wizarding family, Hermione has proven to be proficient in magic. Though the pure-bloods would believe that people like Hermione are unfit to learn magic, Hermione demonstrates she is more than fit by excelling in the field. Her hand always shoots up in the air with the correct answer to every question. She is able to master new spells quickly. Hermione makes magic look effortless. It is silly to ban someone from practicing magic when they are so damn good at it. She also played a critical role in saving the school by helping Harry identify the monster attacking students as a basilisk. Without that knowledge, Harry would not have triumphed over the monster by avoiding its fatal gaze. If Hogwarts would have followed Salazar Slytherin’s lead and barred talented witches like Hermione Granger from attending the school, Hogwarts would frankly be fucked. It is because Hogwarts accepts people of different backgrounds that the school flourishes and produces talented wizards and witches of many talents like Ms. Granger.

Rowling’s treatment of the subject of hate is just as relevant today as it was when I was a teenager. In the Trump era United States, people in our country experience bigotry, discrimination, xenophobia, and other pernicious examples of hate. Kids need to learn that these behaviors have a root that can be traced. Hate is learned. If we can learn to hate, we can unlearn to hate and replace it with community-boosting behaviors like compassion and love. It is inspiring that authors like Rowling teach younger audiences about important topics like hate in a clever way. We need to educate our kids that your background has no bearing on who you are. Your hardwork and your actions shape your fate.

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Books

Bookworms, Unite!

The postliterate society is a term in fiction dating back as early as the 60’s. It means a society where technology advances while reading is either extinct or has reached the point where it is not a common activity. Examples of the postliterate society in fiction include works like Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and Ilium by Dan Simmons. While bookstores still exist in parts of New York, sometimes I fear my community is moving in the direction of postliteracy. The surprise I experience when I am seen reading and the closure of our only bookstore serve to me as red flags that we are not heading in a positive direction.

I am almost always seen with a book in my hand. I like a good read during my commute to work and sometimes during my breaks. The reactions I experience when caught reading always boil down to one feeling: surprise. One day, I was reading a novel while eating breakfast at my local bagel spot Bagels On Bartow. A lady sitting next to me saw me immersed in my book and wanted to take a picture of me to post on her Facebook page. She explained she wanted to share the great news that people are still reading books. A part of me felt flattered, while the rest of me felt a sense of sadness that reading is viewed as a rarity.

My favorite reaction was from an elderly gentleman who saw me reading while walking (don’t try this at home, kids). The man pointed at my book and exclaimed, “A book! That’s a real book!” Completely blindsided, I was only able to produce a nervous laugh. These reactions bothered me because I know I am not alone. I know people who read, but my community doesn’t seem to have a lot of readers. If they did, it should not come as a shock that I am reading a book.

The recent closure of our local Barnes & Noble does not help my pessimism about the state of reading in my community. Barnes & Noble in the Bay Plaza Mall was the only bookstore of the Bronx. It served as a great hangout spot for readers who wanted to buy books, graphic novels, manga, etc. The problem with the bookstore boiled down to prices. People were not buying books frequently with the existence of Amazon, which offers books at more discounted prices. This probably played a role in why the store closed and was replaced by Saks OFF 5th. Apparently people can afford expensive purses but not a book.

The only silver lining is The Lit Bar, a wine bar and bookstore project by Noelle Santos, which promises to bring a bookstore back to the Bronx. The project was successfully crowdfunded. The only question now is when The Lit Bar will come to the Bronx. I am brimming with anticipation for the day this spot opens in the Bronx.

I am comforted by the fact that I know I am not alone. I am surrounded by awesome people who are woke as fuck and well-read. Bookworms need to unite and show that we are not a dying breed. The Lit Bar was successfully crowdfunded, demonstrating that the Bronx has folks who love to read. We are few, but we are not extinct. We are the last bastion against our community’s descent into post-literacy.

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