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?

 

 

 

 

When Routine Is Anything But: Finding A Daily Path That Requires Open Eyes

Hey, welcome back to Wing’s World in its non-travel-blog iteration. If you’re hoping to read about travel adventures, sorry–you’ll have to wait till my next trip. THIS entry is about the art of staying home, one day after the next.

Home, for me, begins with a ferry ride.

If I were still teaching school, finding a daily routine would be no struggle; the struggle, as all teachers (and students, and parents) know, is keeping your head above water enough to teach/learn/communicate/eat/sleep/repeat with some minimal effectiveness. In my 20 years of teaching, I got all the news I needed during my commute.

As a former teacher, however, employed in one part-time, manual-labor job and one completely non-paying, artistic one, the idea of routine is usually just that: an idea. I gave up commuting, but I was fine with creating my own balance of baking and writing and keeping vague touch with the rest of the country for the first several years of my post-teaching life. Then came the election of 2016, and the real illusion was revealed: that America was on the right path, that Dr. King’s good ol’ Arc of Justice was bending appropriately.

Since that time I, like a lot of my White friends, have been working hard to re-educate myself in American reality, recognizing my own unwitting but comfortable complicity in helping make Trumpmerica possible. Routine is long gone as I cast about for the best way to make of myself a better instrument, a better citizen.

Going back to teaching is a decision I have moved beyond. I’m too deeply immersed in my writing career to be willing to sacrifice it, and too respectful of both jobs to be able to do justice to both at once. So I work at the bakery I continue to love, and fill my non-baking, non-writing time with a slew of different types of volunteer activity. This makes for a ragged schedule. I rather like the variety of my days…after breakfast. It’s that first hour that, since 2016, has really gotten to me.

See, my Mate is an early riser, and starts his day with a workout. Which he does in front of the TV, watching the news. He keeps the volume low, but our living room lies between our bedroom and kitchen. So by the time I’ve prepared my tea and sat down with my cereal, I’ve had, willy-nilly, an injection of CNN that makes my stomach hurt.

How I don’t want to start my day: angry, defeated, cynical, self-berating.

How I do want to start my day: hopeful, inspired, open-eyed, empathetic, challenged.

I’m lucky to live in a place where the scenery itself can inspire. But this view is NOT available to me first thing in the morning; it takes a 25-minute drive to the ferry dock. Not to mention clear skies.

Here are some steps I’ve taken to try to shape that first hour:*

  1. Hum to myself to drown out any CNN until my tea kettle does it for me.
  2. Before turning on my computer, re-read the poem I read yesterday from the collection of poetry I keep on the kitchen table. (Currently: Seamus Heaney.) Then read a new poem. (By this time CNN is a mumble in the background, nothing my brain cares about.)
  3. Turn on my computer, but before going to email, read some news stories. Lately, after finding myself turning to BBC, NPR and the Christian Science Monitor to escape CNN’s Trump focus, I decided to subscribe to the good old “failing” New York Times. The story that really got me today was about the escalation of violence against women in Honduras.
  4. Again, before email, I look at the weather forecasts, not just for Lopez Island, but for the whole country. I try to imagine how different people are being affected in different states and regions. (Road trips help with this–we know a lot of folks in a lot of different states and regions!)
  5. OK, now it’s time for email, Facebook, all that delicious focus on ME and my near-and-dear, or far-and-dear. But because I started with the bigger picture, it stays with me in perimeter even as my focus narrows. And because of the poetry, my brain feels brighter, my noticing muscles primed to do their job.

*on baking mornings, which start around 3 a.m., this routine is foreshortened, of course. I don’t need to worry about the Mate’s news habits; I’m actually up before him. But I spend the first ten minutes of my ride (if biking) or my drive, saying the names of people in need of special attention and love–anyone from an ill neighbor to, for example, the people of Puerto Rico.

I have tried, by the way, to internalize this kind of empathic meditation and make it part of my day when I’m not leaving for the bakery. But I haven’t yet found a place and time that feels natural. Still a work in progress.

“No man is an island, let that be my prayer/ no matter how alluring be the shore…”

Because of that, I would love to hear of other people’s routines. What special things do you do to start your day off on the right foot, for both brain and soul? 

 

An Unexpected Gift: Music From The Supposedly Destitute

Last week when I came in to work at the bakery, a colleague handed me a note. “Someone left this for you.”

“This” turned out to be a New York Times article about a group of musicians, all refugees, in a camp called The Jungle in the Parisian outskirts known as Calais. “For Gretchen,” was all the note said–unsigned.

I read the article, titled “Musicians in a Refugee Camp in France Record ‘The Calais Sessions.'” I was so moved by the story, I immediately went to the musicians’ website to buy their album.

I listened to one song before buying, but honestly–I didn’t need to. The idea of people crawling out of evil and hatred and misery and death to come together to produce music–that ultimate expression of humanity–that’s all I needed to know. That, to me, IS music.

I imagine some of you might feel the same way. To read more, and/or to order your own CD or digital version of The Calais Sessions, click here.

And to the person who left me that article? Thank you. You rock.

Baltimore: In Need of a Laugh, Or at Least a Smile?

What’s there to smile about in Baltimore? Good question.

Baltimore saddens us–not just because what happened to Freddie Gray fits a sickening American pattern, but because the reaction to his death continues to remind us of the disgusting disparities in American socioeconomics.  Last weekend felt like 1968 all over again–yes, I was just a kid then, but I vividly remember those riots, that televised hopeless anger. Our lack of progress is as sickening to me as Mr. Gray’s death.

In North Carolina that same weekend, I had spent time with an old classmate who now lives in Baltimore, and several of us immediately emailed to express our sorrow over what was happening in her city. But Rachel’s reply was heartening:

Wow, thanks everyone. We’ve been untouched other than a cancelled doctor appointment. And of course having our hearts broken and filled like everyone else here. Holding hope it can be the start of a break from the patterns that led to it. Not sure how much the national media are covering all the little moments? The drumline and step dancers at the central spot. Everyone sweeping and cleaning together. Street corner and basketball court conversations between elders and young people. The symphony playing outside at lunchtime.

That statement about the national media touched a nerve. Not only are they generally playing up the worst of the situation while missing those smaller human moments–let’s face it, flames and looting make for more titillating coverage than street-corner conversations–they are, apparently, having trouble distinguishing the individuality of Baltimoreans themselves.

Comedy Central’s John Oliver weighed in hilariously on this topic during his latest episode of Last Week Tonight. The YouTube link was blocked, but I’ll let The Daily Beast take over from here, quoting John Oliver:

“It has been a delicate situation handled by the media with all the deft, not-at-all racist touch that they’ve become known for,” Oliver said. “Please watch as Geraldo Rivera greets someone as Russell Simmons who is absolutely not Russell Simmons.”

Yes, the man marching with NBA star—and Baltimore native—Carmelo Anthony is none other than Kevin Liles, who bears only a very slight resemblance to Simmons.

“Geraldo, you do realize that when African Americans stand together as one, that does not mean they’re all literally the same person, right?” he continued. “Geraldo Rivera is supposed to be a journalist, and I suppose we should all be thankful that at least none of his colleagues made the same mistake.”

Oliver then cut to a clip of CNN reporter Brian Todd, who also mistook Liles for Simmons—and not only that, kept harassing him about it, proclaiming, “I’m not sure I believe you. We think this is Russell Simmons, Wolf.”

Then Oliver got serious. “This week has shone a serious light on the disparities in Baltimore between the community and the police force—disparities that were highlighted when six officers were arrested on charges in Gray’s death, and were then released on bail,” he said.

He threw to a news clip announcing that the six officers charged in Gray’s death had bail amounts ranging from $250,000-300,000.

“That sounds like a fair amount for such serious charges, but juxtapose that with the bail set for people involved in the protests, like this 18-year-old who helped smash in the windows of several cars, including a police car. How much was his bail?” asked Oliver.

The young man in question is Allan Bullock, who allegedly was captured on film bashing in the windows of an unmarked police car with a traffic cone. And his bail was set at $500,000—more than for any of the officers charged with Gray’s death.

“Five hundred thousand dollars for breaking car windows!” he said. “To put that in context, even Robert Durst had his bail set at just $300,000 after definitely not killing that guy in Galveston, Texas. That amount of money makes absolutely no sense! That kid’s crimes were misdemeanors, he turned himself in—in fact, the only explanation for his bail being set that high is that, just like Geraldo Rivera and that guy from CNN, judges in Baltimore can’t look at black people without seeing millionaire Russell Simmons.”

I salute John Oliver for pointing out this hypocrisy. I salute the strong citizens of Baltimore who are out there cleaning up their streets and safeguarding their young people. I salute any politician at any level who is doing the necessary work to address the income gap in our country which has turned cities like Baltimore into powder kegs.

(Copyright Shannon Stapleton/Reuters, Newsweek.com)

(Copyright Shannon Stapleton/Reuters, Newsweek.com)

 

If I could vote right now to raise my own tax rate to deal with this appalling inequality, I would. Failing that, right now, the least I can do is to send a check to help restore the Baltimore neighborhood foundation building that fell victim to the riots. And publicize whatever there is in Baltimore worth smiling about.

To Kill a Rumor About a Mockingbird: Have it Be True

“When he was thirteen, my brother Jem had his arm badly broken above the elbow.”

Two points if you can identify the book and the speaker of that quote; an extra point for identifying its place in the novel. (Note to my former 10th grade English students: you better know this one!)

‘Course, my post title’s a bit of a giveaway. And it’s possible that I’ve quoted imperfectly. Thing is, that quote’s from memory. Want some more?

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.”

 

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

 

“Pass the damn ham.”

OK, that last one’s not particularly significant–except that it makes me laugh. Which I guess is significant. Considering that To Kill a Mockingbird is, nearly 55 years after publication, still the most widely-assigned piece of literature in American high schools (along with Huckleberry Finn and a few Shakespeare plays), the fact that this densely-written, theme-heavy book filled with challenging vocabulary is also FUNNY is a minor miracle.

Harper Lee only wrote the one book. For decades, rumors have floated about a second one, but nothing has ever come of them. Until now. We get a prequel!

cover

 According to the New York Times, the recently-discovered manuscript of Go Set a Watchman “takes place 20 years later in the same fictional town, Maycomb, Ala., and unfolds as Jean Louise Finch, or Scout, the feisty child heroine of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” returns to visit her father. The novel, which is scheduled for release this July, tackles the racial tensions brewing in the South in the 1950s and delves into the complex relationship between father and daughter.”

The article goes on to say that Harper Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman first, but her editor, “captivated by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, told her to write a new book from the young heroine’s perspective and to set it during her childhood.”

And the rest is history.40 million copies sold, with a million still sold every year. Translated into 40 languages. Like I said–history.

(Courtesy Wikimedia)

(Courtesy Wikimedia)

When my husband, watching CNN, first told me of this news, I blurted, “That’s a literary bombshell!” He laughed. “Maybe to you English teachers…”

It’s true–I’m a lit nerd, and proud of it. All of us lit nerds are. But I can’t help thinking this is somewhat larger than us. This is an author whose career has been created–game, set, match–by A SINGLE BOOK, about which, famously, she has given no interviews for 50 years. And now–another book? This is much bigger than JK Rowling writing under a pseudonym.

I hope Go Set a Watchman doesn’t disappoint. Most of all, I hope its release doesn’t disappoint Ms. Lee. I hope all of us Mockingbird fans (even those who might have been forced to read it initially by a teacher like me) read it, have good discussions, and write Ms. Lee some more fan mail. But even if we don’t, let’s not speculate on or judge her motivations for releasing it now, at age 88. After all, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

What was your experience of To Kill a Mockingbird? Love, hate, don’t remember? Never read it? Well, lucky you. Just, if you can–read Chapter One aloud, in a Southern accent. Take it from a teacher–it’s so much better that way.

 

Where Have All My Heroes Gone? R.I.P., Pete Seeger

Uncle Pete is gone. I miss him already.

He lived to 94, but considering what he packed into those years, I’d say he was really more like 188 when he died the other day. Consider these facts:

Pete Seeger wrote, co-wrote, or adapted all of the following songs:

  • We Shall Overcome
  • If I Had a Hammer
  • Where Have All the Flowers Gone?
  • Turn! Turn! Turn!

All the royalties from We Shall Overcome go to the We Shall Overcome Fund of the Highlander Center, which provides grants to support the organizing efforts of impoverished Southerners for improved conditions.

He and his group, The Weavers, were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, then blacklisted for their Communist ideals (i.e., the shocking notion that people ought to be treated and paid fairly).

Later, when The Weavers recorded a song to advertise Lucky Strike cigarettes, Uncle Pete left the group, not wishing to support the tobacco industry.

 

Uncle Pete traveled the world with his guitar and banjo. Twice, he came to my town, Durham, North Carolina. One of my earliest memories is of him bounding around the stage as he enacted the chorus of a song–something about a giant named “Abayoyo.” “Aba-yoyo…Aba-yoyo…” I must have been about six years old, but I can hear him now.

Uncle Pete was married to the same woman his whole life. They lived in a modest cabin in upstate New York where, in his 90s, Uncle Pete still split his own wood.

I won’t even go into all his efforts to stop the war in Vietnam, to support the Civil Rights Movement, to clean up the Hudson River, to bring Israelis and Palestinians together…You may already know. If you want to learn more or spend some time remembering, you can read about them in his New York Times obituary.

For now, I just want to say: Thanks, Uncle Pete. Thank you for lending your voice to the voiceless. Thank you for giving your boundless energy to the poor, the desperate, the war-weary, the polluted waters. Thank you for your beautiful example, living your life with such humble simplicity.

What’s your favorite Pete Seeger song? What does it evoke for you?  Please share–then take some time to hum or sing it to yourself as you go through your day.