Defending What the (Chicago) Defender Defended: The Need For a Non-Dominant Lens

The Chicago Defender, legendary Black newspaper, has ceased printing after nearly 115 years.According to today’s story in the New York Times, by Monica Davie and John Eligon, 

…the demise of The Chicago Defender’s print editions represented a painful passage for many people who grew up in Chicago and for those with memories of its influence far beyond this city. Of its many significant effects over many years, The Defender told of economic success in the North, and was seen as a catalyst in the migration of hundreds of thousands of black Americans from the South.

The article goes on to say,

The Defender delivered news of monumental events — the funeral of Emmett Till, the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the election of Barack Obama — but also of everyday life for black Americans, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said.

“We never saw ourselves listed other places in weddings, funerals, debutantes, so this became a real frame of reference for activities,” Mr. Jackson said. “My career would not be what it is today if not for The Defender.”

Images courtesy of New York Times and Chicago Defender

I won’t say “R.I.P.” because the Defender will continue–and, I hope, thrive–in its digital form.  But the article caught my attention because the news hits in a moment when I, like many White liberals, am scrutinizing what it means to be a part of white supremacist society that benefits me even while I criticize it.

One thing it has meant, over the years, is a comforting sense of “Yep, I’m America,” while minorities, no matter how much I support their rights, remain just that: minorities. Not fully people with their own lenses, lenses which might cast me in a view I’d rather not face up to.

To battle this default, given that I live in a very White community, I’ve been reading and listening to challenging words. My current book is Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric.

Image courtesy Indiebound.com

Part poetry, part essay, part lament, part witness, filled with art and filled especially with pointed pain, this small book skewers any notion of White righteousness with passages like this one:

Someone in the audience asks the man promoting is new book on humor what makes something funny. His answer is what you expect–context. After a pause he adds that if someone said something, like about someone, and you were with your friends you would probably laugh, but if they said it out in public where black people could hear what was said, you might not, probably would not. Only then do you realize you are among “the others out in public” and not among “friends.” (p. 48)

Or this:

At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?

It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.

I am so sorry, so, so sorry. (p. 18)

Reading Citizen is painful. That’s why I’m doing it. I know The Chicago Defender was not written for me. That’s why I need it to exist. If I think about this a little longer, I’ll probably end up subscribing. 

Yes. I think I will. Because if I’m okay with my lens being the only lens offered to Americans, aren’t I complicit in pushing everyone else out of the frame?

 

 

 

 

That Big Green Lady

Could America possibly have a more relevant poem right now than this one? 

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Image by H. Zell, Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to a wonderful article* by Walt Hunter in The Atlantic, “The Story Behind the Poem on the Statue of Liberty–and thanks to a very un-wonderful comment by the president–I’ve been thinking a lot  about Emma Lazarus’s poem.

Hunter’s article points out many features of  poem which I had never thought about before: its unusual structure (Petrarchan Sonnet–can I get a “yeah” from my English nerds?); its usage by various politicians in underlining our favorite dream of American exceptionalism; the nuance of the statue’s gender in contrast with statues of yore.

But here’s the passage of Hunter’s that really sticks with me:

The philosopher Simone Weil argues that the impersonal cry of “Why am I being hurt?” accompanies claims to human rights. To refuse to hear this cry of affliction, Weil continues, is the gravest injustice one might do to another. The voice of the statue in Lazarus’s poem can almost be heard as an uncanny reply, avant la lettre, to one of the slogans chanted by immigrants and refugees around the world today: “We are here because you were there.” The statue’s cry is a response to one version of Weil’s “Why am I being hurt” that specifies the global relation between the arrival of immigrants and the expansion of the colonial system.

“We are here because you were there.” America has immigrants because the global system we benefit from displaces people. But lucky us–we BENEFIT from those desperate people.

Raise your hand if you’re a child of immigrants. Thought so. Can’t find a way to talk about this with your anti-immigrant neighbor? Yeah, I struggle with that too. Meanwhile–stay involved. Stay heartened. And VOTE.

*Note: shout-out to Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings for bringing this article to my attention.

John Oliver, Edward Snowden, and Us: Why Does a Brit Seem to Care More About American Freedoms Than We Americans Do?

Quick: Turn to someone near you and tell them who Edward Snowden is and why he matters to Americans.

If you’re like the folks Comedy Central’s John Oliver interviewed on the streets of Manhattan, you will either a) draw a blank or b) confuse Snowden with Julian Assange, the “Wikileaks Guy.”

Hopefully you’re not like those folks. But if you suspect you might be, watch this breathtaking interview conducted in Moscow with what Oliver calls “America’s most famous patriot and/or traitor.” When I say breathtaking, I mean that literally: breathtakingly bold, breathtakingly honest. Oliver asks Snowden the questions most of us would want to ask.

But in so doing, he also turns the camera on us, in effect asking Americans, “Why don’t you care more about the real effects of the Patriot Act? Why don’t you care more that your government has been proven to have the capacity to spy on you?”

A quick warning, before you watch this episode from Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight”: if you’re offended by casual profanity and excessive references to male body parts–don’t. This ain’t the New York Times, remember–it’s Comedy Central.

But in my opinion, it still deserves a Peabody Award.

So, you watched? Is John Oliver brilliant or what? Tell me what you think.

The Sanctity of Human Perseverance: Why Nelson Mandela Should Not Be Beatified

I realize that no one’s going to make me Pope anytime soon. (My not being Catholic is only one of the many reasons.) But WERE that ever to happen, down the road, and were I ever to come under pressure, as I am sure a future pope will, to declare Nelson Mandela a saint, my answer would be a thoughtful No.

Not because he doesn’t qualify. Sacrificing his entire life to the cause of justice, including 27 years suffered in prison; knitting together a country on the verge of bloody explosion; living as a constant symbol of hope, love, and reconciliation–those are indeed saintly qualities. Performing a miracle? How about getting Black South Africans to cheer for the all-White Springbok rugby team? That beats walking on water any day.

I would also not beatify President Mandela merely because he himself protested that people should not call him a saint. Humility is, of course, one of those saintly qualities.

I would not declare Saint Nelson because to do so would be to distance him from the rest of us, to make his example, for future generations, less “relatable”*…and less effective.

*one of those words with which this former English teacher maintains a hate-love relationship: can’t stand its overuse, but haven’t found an equally effective synonym

(orig. image courtesy blackpast.org)

(orig. image courtesy blackpast.org)

Saints suffer, of course. But the word “saint” implies–to this non-Catholic, at least–a certain inherent holiness, a kind of built-in insurance against ultimate suffering. “Well, jeez, he’s a saint,” my brain says. “Of course he sacrificed; he knew he was going to end up at God’s right hand, didn’t he?” And I don’t think my brain is all that different from other people’s brains.

What made Mandela great is the same thing that made Jesus great. But it’s also the same thing that makes cancer patients great, or anyone who gets up each day to face enormous burdens of pain or responsibility but does so with the pure energy of love and generosity toward others.

Human perseverance. Not the grit-your-teeth-and-suffer-through-it kind. The kind which makes it seem as though your burdens weigh nothing at all, because you’re constantly offering to carry the burdens of others.

I know some of those people personally. I might think of them, briefly, as saints, or even call them that, jokingly. But inside I know that what I love and admire them for is the fact that they are very, very, very human–they are flawed just like me!–and yet they STILL act so nobly.

Nelson Mandela was flawed. Nelson Mandela still managed to be an icon for all of us. It helps me to think of humans as having that potential even in the face of other humans’ evil. His very human-ness is what we need to hang onto, as we look for ways to apply his approach to other ugly parts of the world.

How about you? Do you know any human “saints”? Do you think the title of “saint” distances a person from the rest of us? Or does it bring him/her closer as a role model?