ebogjonson.com's memory archiverips and the lost; evanescences and eulogies; varied story-tellings and nostalgic appreciations
August 28, 2007
from the LA Times:
Houses abandoned to foreclosure are beginning to breed trouble, adding neighbors to the growing ranks of victims.
Stagnant swimming pools spawn mosquitoes, which can carry the potentially deadly West Nile virus. Empty rooms lure squatters and vandals. And brown lawns and dead vegetation are creating eyesores in well-tended neighborhoods.
In Northridge, the house next door to Michael McKenna's was put on the market, sold and then foreclosed on, all in the space of a few months last spring.
With the five-bedroom home now forsaken and deserted, McKenna has been reluctantly cutting the lawn and dumping chemicals in the pool to kill the bugs.
"I resent having to do this," the former studio production manager said. "It's breaking my back."
More than 100 houses a day are being foreclosed on in Southern California, up from 13 a day last year. That's still a relative handful for such a populous area, but even the optimists predict that the problem will soon get much worse. [full story, h/t atrios]
When I was growing up in Queens there was a house on our black that stood abandoned for almost two decades. We dropped the "house" and just called it "the Abandoned," as in "Let's go over to the Abandoned," or: "Where's Mark? He's at the Abandoned with Tommy."
The older boys would break into the Abandoned fairly regularly to drink and smoke cigarettes in the basement, and my generation kept all our pornography in the garage. (t was all hard copy in those days.) I remember that house as a usefully scuzzy freezone on our otherwise solidly and neatly trimmed, middle-middle class block. We told the littler kids that it was haunted, and I made out once with a lanky girl named Melissa who was summer-visiting from the Bronx, this in the tall, wheaty stalks that took over its back yard during the summer. When we stretched out in the weeds we could have been in a prairie for all we knew. The plants dampened the already suburban quiet, and all we could see besides each other was a 360 degree curtain of golden stalks, a ragged swath of blue overhead. My block sat beneath a major approach flightpath into Kennedy Airport, and every few minutes the sky would fill with a low-flying plane tracking the rough north-south orientation of 227th Street. It made Queens feel like a kind of fly-over country.
We were too young to have any real connection to the economic or family dynamics that had kept the Abandoned unoccupied for so long, although I do have a vague recollection that it was owned by someone who was elderly and down South. Our parents, of course, viewed the house as a kind of tumor that could spread in any direction at any moment. The house directly to the south of the Abandoned was a meticulously tended property owned by an elderly, white hold-out couple, and when the husband died there were whispers that his dotty widow wouldn't be able to keep up appearances to the satisfaction of the block's homeowners association. (The worries of first-generation property owners are numerous and complex, and the white folks who had sold our parents their homes let everyone know they figured the block was going to go to the dogs in their absence.) She was completely mad, that old white lady. She once chased me down the block yelling that I had left a pile of rocks in front of her stoop, and she was convinced that the boys on the street were constantly playing elaborate pranks on her. (We were, kind of.) When a stray ball - stick, foot, base or basket - landed in her yard there was a thrill of excitement and terror at the prospect of having to go get it, this because you never knew when she would come barreling out from behind her screen door, shouting your house number out at the top of her lungs. (The elderly white folks on our block didn't know our names, so they referred to us by the house number in our addresses. I was "68", which I always found numerologically significant given that 1968 was the year of my birth.)
The house directly to the north of the Abandoned was the " Monkey Bar House," this because of the elaborate set of monkey bars (!) installed in the back yard. The Monkey Bar House was a small single-story affair that came with its own, built-in aura of parental disrepute, this over how the owners rented it out instead of living there like good, honest people. The block association, being full of folks who had moved to South Queens in order to build equity, was of a mind that that renters and rentals were a step backward on the evolutionary chain, but at kid-level the occupants of the Monkey Bar House could do no wrong as long as they let us use the bars. Jazz drummer Chick Corea had lived there for a spell in the late sixties / early seventies, and although I was too young to overlap with him, the older boys had fond memories of his generosity with monkey-bar access, liked to wax nostalgic about what they interpreted as his druggie, hippie ways. (No one knew he was famous; he was just some guy who played the drums all day instead of going to work.) After Corea a single mother lived in The Monkey Bar House with her two blond daughters. Their names escape me now, but I remember they caused quite a stir on the block, what with their youngish, unattached mom, the way they had traveled up-stream against the current of white flight. The white people on the block were all either old, paranoid refusniks, or they were the Stira boys: Tommy, who was otaku-like in his precise study of 70s and 80s black culture (we used to joke he was the blackest person we'd ever met; he's some kind of Muslim now, I hear) and Paul, who was a legendary hacker before he was even grown. In that mix, the two reedy white girls across the street (their mom smoking on the stoop in hip-huggers!) were first exotic, then (once they'd moved on) legendary as "The Last New White People Ever." It would be 30 years before any new white folks moved onto the block, and those people turned out to not even be real neighbors, being instead some bizarre church group that took over a house for a year in order to store visiting Xtians.
The Abandoned stayed abandoned until the 90s or so, but the whole thing came apart when the house became infested by rats in the early 80s. It was like the house knew Reagan was president, that you could buy crack up on Linden Blvd 6-10 blocks away, that something thick and miasmic had been loosed in the city. Trips into the Abandoned got more infrequent, more violent and illicit. Every now and then strange kids from around the block would infiltrate it through a hole in a back fence, raising the troubling specter of being caught out alone on your own block. Instead of functioning as a boyish resource, the Abandoned started fueling strange, previously unheard of talk about needing to protect ourselves, about needing to teach those bitch motherfuckers from 228 various lessons. Empty movie and record dialogue, really, which had, all the same, jumped right off the screens and turntables and into our mouths. Despite our ritual rehearsal of the lines for fit and appropriateness, nothing bad ever happened to anyone on my tier, but Keith, one of the boys in my younger sister's cohort, was stabbed to death in 1997 on his front stoop, right across the street from the Abandoned. By then it was no longer "the Abandoned," it was Mr. Pete's house. Mr. Pete had bought the place and renovated it, added another floor and made it one of the nicer homes on the block. He was also the one who rushed out into the street that day in 1997 unarmed and waving his hands, chasing the boys who had just murdered Keith away. He must have been asking himself what the hell kind of neighborhood he had moved into.
Nobody lamented the loss of the Abandoned when Mr. Pete bought it, not even the generation of boys directly below mine. Keith's generation was glad to see it go, I think, to see the place filled in by a smiling new neighbor. Their entire lives that house had been nothing but a nest of rats, not one of them had ever lain on their back in its yard and stared up at a sky with a girl, the weeds leaning in protectively around them. I know it's not our fault, but there are times that I feel like me and my friends let those younger kids down. My generation ran around talking a lot of shit on that block, but we had boys 5-10 years older protecting us, letting us round out their teams of touch football. Teaching us to smoke menthols and insisting we settle our differences with each other fair and square, little boxing matches in the middle of the street, with cornermen and shouts of advice, assurances the swelling would go down. But soon after becoming the oldest kids on the block me and mine all either moved or retreated from its life, leaving the care and feeding of its younger denizens to the street itself. I feel like we took all the good and interesting things about growing up in bad old NYC with us. All those stories and eccentrics were gone by the time Keith and his boys hit high school. It's like we'd left them nothing to inherit but the danger.
June 2, 2007
One of my favorite bloggers ever, Steve Gilliard, just passed away after a long fight with complications following heart surgery. I feel the need to write: "I didn't know Steve personally," but what the fuck is that supposed to mean? I never met him IRL, didn't have a clue what he looked like until he was dead, but I also sought his writing out every day for 2 or 3 years, worried over "what might Steve blog?" when I wrote, his thinking seeping into my own process as invaluable touchstone and jumping off point. I have live friends I have know for decades whose minds are a mystery to me in comparison.
I knew he was in trouble after his operation but I was shocked to read he was only 41 when he died. In my head Steve was a big brother: older, stronger, more solid. He was part of a class of under-50 black men who I guess you could shorthand as "old souls," except that the tagline doesn't quite give you a sense of the funny, self-assured, playful juggling-act involved in being a youngish man with a well-honed Stanley Crouch growl. Steve was kind of a grouch really, but he was too incisive for the pat, cloying sobriquet of "lovable," and he also came without the free-floating Crouch-ian belligerence or the hackneyed neocon nostalgia. He struck me as the kind of man other men fantasized about being buds with because his approval was proof of their mettle, while I would bet a ton of women found his written persona endlessly charming for similar reasons of gendered fantasy. Its unfashionable to talk about things in terms of manhood without the obligatory post-post disclaimer, but Steve hated hypocrisy and dishonor in a way that I found incredibly instructive when it came to my own thinking about how to be a grown man. His entire worldview seemed a vigorous assertion that the so-called rank-and-file, everyday working stiffs of New York City were fundamentally decent and brave, and he himself seemed like the kind of cat who was liable to end up on TV someday for intervening in a mugging on the subway. I think there is a sense in which his blogging adds up to a slow motion version of such an intervention. Steve was merciless in his mockery of conservative bloggers who believed that "those who blog also serve," but if there was ever a case in which such a thing might be true, it was his.
rips Steve and condolences to your family and loved ones, especially your co-blogger on the The News Blog, Jen. Although people talk about "Steve Gilliard's blog" his site was a two-person operation and his partner Jen was, as I think he put it more than once, his blogging better half. She soldiered on with an impressive amount of strength and grace after he took ill, and I can't begin to imagine the depth of her sadness and loss.
Posted by ebogjonson at 2:45 PM | Permalink
April 29, 2007
@ yale 004
@ yale 003
Posted by ebogjonson at 3:53 PM | Permalink
@ yale 002
Double-major Dayo wrote two senior theses this year. This stack is from #2.
Posted by ebogjonson at 2:40 PM | Permalink
Posted by ebogjonson at 2:30 PM | Permalink
February 12, 2007
best laid plannery
So no sooner do I (kinda) (plan to) get back up on the proverbial blogging horse than I find myself rushing off to Miami all in a tizzy, all my plans for a powerfully focused and active ebog February falling to the proverbial wayside somewhere between LAX and MIA. What happened is that the 89-year-old Haitian woman who raised me and my sister, who has lived in my parents' home since I was born as an occasionally confusing combo of grandmother, nanny and companion (to my mother since Dad died, that is) had a series of mild heart attacks starting two Thursday's ago. Since then her prognosis, diagnosis and planned course of treatment has been flipping from cloudy to underdetermined and back on a daily basis, so I'll likely be in Miami until the dust clears one way or the other. As a result I haven't really been able to focus on the blog until today.
After the initial heart attack (described as mild, in so much as any 89 year-old's ticker trouble is mild), my big fear was that I wouldn't get to FL in time. I got on the first LAX>MIA flight I could, completely freaked out and convinced that I'd arrive to find Saint Anne (dig those crazy rural Haitian first names!) already quite cool to the touch and stiff on a slab in a morgue, much as I found my father after getting the "come right away" call. I have no distinct memories of those last moments with my (un-embalmed) dad, my first moments of being, as my shrink put it, "fatherless in the world," but I do vividly recall the morgue attendant, who was this gigantic, Ruben Studdard-looking gent. There in the middle of my shock and grief at finding my father a corpse, dude starts humming and singing like he's in church, this before abruptly jumping up from behind his desk, launching himself across the few feet between us and throwing me in an inescapable bear-hug. He quite literally cooed at me, going, "It's okay, big man. No shame in a grown man crying for his daddy," and after struggling in vain to get away for a few seconds, I, needless to say, gave in to his embrace and bawled like a baby against his chest. That incident has since morphed into a favorite anecdote of mine, and in the process it has rather completely overwritten memories that should have been filed under "last moments with father," leaving me instead with a file marked "first/only moments with Ruben Studdard-looking morgue-attendant." Which is obviously neither here nor there when it comes to the question of fathers and fatherless-ness.
(Although, not quite. There is likely a short story somewhere in the above, where the state of living without a father begins with the protag's surrender to the loving embrace of a brother who happen to be bigger and stronger than he is. I'll give the story away open-source-ish to the group blogmind, but the stipulation is that whoever takes it has to write the same story three times: once as a queer love story, once as a kind of afrocentric-journey story, and once as a black frat pledge story.)
Anyway, when I got to Miami I learned that Saint Anne's condition is an attenuated kind of dire wherein she is in no particular pain, doesn't seem to be in danger of dying within any given, coming 48 hour span, and yet also manages to present something of a mystery to her doctors. They've switched her blood pressure meds this way and that, and then they put a pacemaker in (a freshly minted cyborg!), this on the theory that the paced ticker would allow for more aggressive treatment of her hypertension. They let her out of the hospital a day after her surgery, too soon perhaps as she was back in the ER a few days later complaining of chest pains. Now they are keeping her for extended observation and talking obstruction, cardiac catheterization, radioactive dye, clots in her legs and so on. There is blood in her urine and they are worried about her kidneys. They have detected anemia, want to check the color of her stool. No one has said the C-word, but the docs seem to think something is putting additional strain on her heart and organs. They say everything really, then they cap it off by saying "she's 89," like this should explain something.
The doctors and nurses also keep insisting she's a fighter, which I guess is true although it strikes me that that what she's actually doing is closer to maintaining. Saint Anne is already in her 50s and 60s in the bulk of my conscious memories of her, I can recall her nimbly darting into traffic after my toddling sister when she must have been almost 70. Even now she could pass for a hard-living recent retiree. I could picture her living a thousand years, is what I'm saying, shaking her head the way she does whenever she settles down to some annoying (yet integral) task of caretaking, putting her shoulder to 900 more years of arthritis, implants, diabetes, eye surgery, complaining high yellow brats and so on. "Fighting" to me suggests clawing one's way towards the better, whereas Saint Anne's energies have largely been directed towards the maintenance of a never-ending steady state. Her favorite show is Matlock, her only vice is decaf coffee, her favorite verbal interjection, this for use once she's stopped listening to you and needs to get on with her day, is (in kreyol) "have courage, my brother/sister! Have courage!" Maintain it is.
It's actually enormously difficult for me to write about Saint Anne without worrying that my words are going to fail her, that I'm going to get her story wrong. I feel that in addition to sitting at her bedside and interrogating doctors I owe her some or another accurate form of, well, analysis. Her life with us has always seemed to me as having built into it a broad range of inequities, so getting her story all fuck wrong would be insult added to injury, not what you want to do for someone during their (maybe) last days. My main fear isn't so much error as self-service, self-protection. I worry that I'm trying to alternately/simultaneously extract absolution and an exquisite, related form of indictment from her story. My relationship to her binds up so many of my most thorn-laden life strands that I have a hard time mustering much enthusiasm for taking them in hand and untangling - that is, until there's a need for me to stand a particular kind of tall, to show the (reading) world my palms and bleed from them in public, to display various forms of bravery, clear-headedness, insight.
Another problem about writing about Saint Anne is that doing so makes my mother somewhat uncomfortable and unhappy. She once came across an essay I wrote in college that seemed (to her) to question her unitary maternal primacy, this in favor of the notion that Ebog (kinda) had two mommies. (Not because anyone was particularly dyke-ish, but because someone was born lighter and richer than someone else.) The spectacle of my mother's persistent confusion and hurt in response to thinking about Saint Anne in certain ways has always given me an inordinate amount of satisfaction, suggesting to me that I clutch my version of Saint Anne's story closer my breast precisely when I want to indict my biological mother for something, for being a certain kind of uncritical Haitian, say, or for not buying me that TCR racetrack I wanted.
I worry that I scrutinize Saint Anne's lot in life not to improve it but in order to make myself feel different from and better than my parents and their generation, which is a bit of a pickle, as this "better" and "different" thinking also involves my feeling, well, kind of white or, at least white-ish. I find myself immediately converted into a kind of cliché, a light child protesting that the dark woman who cared for him really was a member of the family, that his love really is a mitigation of the ways she's been screwed by various histories and people, some of them his blood relations. Even if I take myself at my word about the love and family and mitigation thing, the scenario is still a tornado of wild, often unfortunate association, something that is liable at any moment to lift me up and away from my usual zones (fantasies?) of solidarity and community in order to deposit me in nabes (shoes?) where the white folks live, some of whom I have likely been berating for various, taxonomically similar and often circumstantial sins since god knows when.
Of course, quite literally billions of people have been mothered by poorer, darker, whatever-er women since time immemorial, several hundred million such pairings at least producing bonds of genuine and mutual adoration that neither sum up to nor reduce to the circumstances/conditions of the caregiver's employment. My own such relationship has instructive nuances, but when I was a freaked-out, over-thinking kid, I had no idea what a nuance was, no predisposition to look for one as a neat, counter-intuitive way to navigate a situation. (Did I even have a predisposition for the counter-intuitive then?) I had to feel/think the whole thing through on the fly for myself, blind, under-educated (that is, young), all of that under the most stressful circumstance possible, i.e., under the hot spotlight of some kid asking exactly who that person living in our house was who didn't look like us and seemed to be doing all the woman's work. That kid might not have known shit, but unconvincing BS? Verbal laziness? Shame? Fear? All that, dudes could smell.
Because I was a teacher's pet-type, I proceeded from the foundational premise that there was a "right answer," something that would be true, (2+2 equals 4 under all meaningful circumstances, sorry) but that would also get me out of the social bind implicit in the question, its allegation of difference. Cube the above by the fact that I had distinct home (a middle-class African American block), school (a white Catholic school), and family (multihued bourgie Haitian) constituencies and my answer both called for and instilled in me a certain measure of (if I say so myself) clinicism and conceptual virtuosity. (Or is that another name for good bullshit?) For example, "the maid" was overly blunt, cruel and inaccurate, whereas "babysitter" implied that I was a "baby" and was also inadequate to the scope of how Saint Anne and my family had become intertwined and interpenetrated. And while the words "my nanny," are today liable to roll effortlessly off the tongue of every black media-hipster brat in Park Slope, such affectations didn't exist for me in 1970s Queens, calling for a discussion of class, Haitian history, diaspora, exile and so on that I technically wouldn't be able to moderate until I was, predictably enough, at Yale. (Or, as I would put it for a few too many years, when I "went to school in New Haven.")
"My aunt" or (as the years rolled on) "my grandmother" was wrong but it did get me closer to a few useful ideas, like how my family in Haiti ran a bakery and has a congenital, self-serving tendency to blur the line between "relative" and "employee." This genre of answer, though, risked my interlocutor doing a quick phenotype check and bringing things back to the initial, foundational instability about what it was I "was." A real stumper, that. Just as my parents had cornered me exactly once to talk about sex, they had had exactly one conversation with me about race, this to rather mysteriously explain that I should NEVER let any white American talk down to me seeing how there were thousands of said white folk living in Appalachia with six fingers and six toes on each and every hand and foot. ("Primitives, really," my father would say, peering over his copy of Popular Science.)
My sister can keep me honest on this, but my super-light, Haitian exile parents arrived here with a foreign and largely inapplicable (to Queens) racial self-concept, so I've always fantasized that I was the one who contracted the local strain of "race" from the kids (black and white) on the conceptual mid-70s street and brought it home the flu, promptly infecting everyone else in our house. Everyone, of course, except for Saint Anne, whose very presence in our home suggested everyone at the address had survived earlier, un-discussed pandemics, that actually there was more at play at 116-68 227th than just immigrant ignorance about US racial history/hang-ups, like complicity, self-denial, desire and fantasy. A mass of completely native history and ideology and personal bullshit so huge (and so growing!) that eventually my schema had no choice but to fall in on itself, collapsing into a mixed-metaphor of such density and gravity and strangeness that it proceeded to eat my entire life, sure, but in the process also opened up, you know, wormholes, some of them leading to quite wonder-filled (and profitable) zones of thought and experience that I would never have had access to otherwise.
In so much as I have a (wackjob) thesis about race and identity in America, it's the product of the compression and fireworks that went off in my head every time the street/school-yard forced me to come up with answers about who I was in relationship to Saint Anne. Like I said, that answer that had to serve many, many masters and highest among them was, of course, Saint Anne herself. A good little Catholic boy to the core, I tended to become most desperately afraid of disappointing people precisely at the moment I was sure my choice would safely escape their notice, and, for simple reasons of scale, I was therefore constantly afraid of disappointing Saint Anne. The high hedges of age, language, nationality, immigration, temperament, literacy, class, color and so on meant that the zone of free will created away from Saint Anne (the zone where I would literally show my true colors) seemed to my child's eye to encompass the entire world of "American" people, places, ideas and things outside our home. I was a normal enough kid (meaning I did the expected share of dirt), but whenever I found myself explicitly pondering moral dilemmas "WWSAS?" (what would Saint Anne say?) was an early litmus test that has never failed me, fuck teachers, mentors, theorists, peers, therapists and so forth. I have espoused countless ideas precisely because I figured my parents would disapprove of them, but with exception of, well, vice (the proverbial drinkin', druggin' and fuckin') I can't think of a single thing I believe in or do that if sat down to talk to her about it would bring that sad look of disappointment into her eyes. (Well, when I was 11 or so I once pranked called the house from down the block and said I was immigration, but she recognized my voice.) Her pride in me has been so consistent, her belief that I will do the right thing so intrinsic (in that she has little lived connection with the particulars of much of what of I do, like make blackface charts) that all I can do is be humbled and grateful for her faith in me, make sure I carry my imagined sense of her take on things with me everywhere I go.
(WWSAS about say about blackfacing on blogs? "Don't you have something better to do with your time?" "Did somebody tell you to put all that stuff on your face or did you decide to do that on your own?")
And WWSAS also explains, I think, the difference between me and John McWhorter. I attack the McWhorters of the world for using the hatred of black people as a kind of horrific balm for the pain of completely banal and common childhood traumas, but I have to admit that underlying my disgust with them there has always an undercurrent of "there but for the grace of god (or at least grace of Saint Anne!) go I!" Because there was clearly no black angel of better nature perched on McWhorter's shoulder during that formative moment when he was attacked for "talking white," no one black-talking person to whom he was beholden and whose loving counterpoint could have given him a way out of his subsequent, lifelong spiral of shame and self-erasure. (WWSAS to John McWhorter about talking white? "Is that what you're talking? Because you see, I don't speak a lick of English so you are basically just flapping gums at me. But: have courage, my brother!") As a result of this condition of being Saint Anne-less, the poor, unhappy lonely boy that I imagine McWhorter must have been grew up to be a self-hating, mediocre, bought-and-paid-for liar who very simply loves white people and what they represent in the racial schema more than he loves anything in the world. Me, I had the Saint Anne and I can't begin to explain or enumerate how grateful I am to her for that, this even as I acknowledge that given her druthers, there may have been something else she'd have preferred to do than look after me.
(This is an aside, but unlike McWhorter, I'm also grateful to the 70s and 80s street that both hosted and forced the crises described above. Among the many things about himself that McWhorter hates is the popular culture of his era, which is why instead of running home after his ass whipping desperately quoting Conan the Barbarian - That which doesn't kill me makes me stronger! That which doesn't kill me makes me stronger! Hey! Who said that again? - he was instead blubbering about how awful and black those kids were, thereby ensuring he would never risk confronting them again without the full support of all of whiteness, never risk winning or losing or being stronger or forgiving or seducing or anything that might transform both their relationship or his to the issues that structured the encounter.)
If there is anyone I feel bad for, it is, of course, Saint Anne's real, biological son. Back in Haiti, Saint Anne had spent her entire life caring for my family's various yellow brats, invalids, dysfunctional households and so on, and when she was sent in middle age to care for one more, she left behind a boy of her own. When I was a kid, I always imagined her son as my dark Haitian twin, a feral child running wild, abandoned and deprived in Port-au-Prince while I sat fat, pale and soft in NYC. It turns out that he was already grown when she left, that he now lives in Canada, has children of his own, and seemingly spends very little of his day plotting any form of revenge. When I was a kid, though, I figured Saint Anne's son must by definition hate me, creating elaborate, Cape Fear-like scenarios where she died and I brought her body back to Haiti for burial and he ended up chasing me through the countryside like Rutger Hauer chasing Harrison Ford around at the end of Blade Runner, one replicant eager to give another (if you buy into that reading) a taste of what his life had been like. In some versions I survive, in other versions he kills me, claims my passport and my life, and in some versions our lifeless bodies fall together onto Saint Anne's coffin, our family finally together and at peace. But when he calls to check in (largely with my mother) the conversation is mostly to review his mother's condition and his non-revenge-related travel options. He has visa issues that might keep him in Canada. He might be able to swing a quick visit when she's alive but worries he might not be able to afford to come to her funeral. He is worried about timing. If he gets the call soon enough he thinks he might be able to catch her just before she dies, see her buried and be back up north in a week, tops.
("That's what happened with my father," I offer, helpfully. "I didn't get the call in time." He murmurs sympathy. We may yet be siblings after all.)
But if I was telling all this to Saint Anne she would have said "have courage, my brother!" a few thousand words ago, my cue to shut the fuck up already. I can think and I can think and I can think, tell stories and make connections, but none of it has anything to do with figuring out how to keep her heart beating until her son can get to her. I am the lucky one again, I made it in time and now I have the freedom to look at the life we lived together, I can write words about that life, develop and elaborate theories, feel sorry for someone not myself. But in the end all this yack about color and class and memory is just a way of denying this moment wherein I find myself forced to face losing her. It really is like my dad all over again. There is a hole burned into my memory where he should be, dead, me leaning over him, my tears cooling on his face. But I don't remember a thing about that specific moment, none of it at all. I just literally remember everything else.
January 14, 2007
happy birthday, mlk
what the headline said. Below is a speech delivered by MLK on April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City. (h/t Art McGee and the Black Radical Congress listserv). As Art pointed out (in 1999!), "this is the least well known of Dr. King's speeches among the masses, and it needs to be read by all."
Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence
By Rev. Martin Luther King
4 April 1967
I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: "A time comes when silence is betrayal." That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.
The truth of these words is beyond doubt but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one's own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.
Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation's history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement well and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.
Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don't mix, they say. Aren't you hurting the cause of your people, they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.
In the light of such tragic misunderstandings, I deem it of signal importance to try to state clearly, and I trust concisely, why I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church -- the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate -- leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.
I come to this platform tonight to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation. This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National Liberation Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia.
Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need for a collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam. Neither is it an attempt to make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front paragons of virtue, nor to overlook the role they can play in a successful resolution of the problem. While they both may have justifiable reason to be suspicious of the good faith of the United States, life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both sides.
Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the NLF, but rather to my fellow Americans, who, with me, bear the greatest responsibility in ending a conflict that has exacted a heavy price on both continents.
The Importance of Vietnam
Since I am a preacher by trade, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor -- both black and white -- through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.
Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.
My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettoes of the North over the last three years -- especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked -- and rightly so -- what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
For those who ask the question, "Aren't you a civil rights leader?" and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957 when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: "To save the soul of America." We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself unless the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear. In a way we were agreeing with Langston Hughes, that black bard of Harlem, who had written earlier:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!
Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.
As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission -- a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for "the brotherhood of man." This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men -- for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the "Vietcong" or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?
Finally, as I try to delineate for you and for myself the road that leads from Montgomery to this place I would have offered all that was most valid if I simply said that I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood, and because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned especially for his suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them.
This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation's self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.
And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond to compassion my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them too because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.
They must see Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1945 after a combined French and Japanese occupation, and before the Communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to support France in its reconquest of her former colony.
Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people were not "ready" for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long. With that tragic decision we rejected a revolutionary government seeking self-determination, and a government that had been established not by China (for whom the Vietnamese have no great love) but by clearly indigenous forces that included some Communists. For the peasants this new government meant real land reform, one of the most important needs in their lives.
For nine years following 1945 we denied the people of Vietnam the right of independence. For nine years we vigorously supported the French in their abortive effort to recolonize Vietnam.
Before the end of the war we were meeting eighty percent of the French war costs. Even before the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu, they began to despair of the reckless action, but we did not. We encouraged them with our huge financial and military supplies to continue the war even after they had lost the will. Soon we would be paying almost the full costs of this tragic attempt at recolonization.
After the French were defeated it looked as if independence and land reform would come again through the Geneva agreements. But instead there came the United States, determined that Ho should not unify the temporarily divided nation, and the peasants watched again as we supported one of the most vicious modern dictators -- our chosen man, Premier Diem. The peasants watched and cringed as Diem ruthlessly routed out all opposition, supported their extortionist landlords and refused even to discuss reunification with the north. The peasants watched as all this was presided over by U.S. influence and then by increasing numbers of U.S. troops who came to help quell the insurgency that Diem's methods had aroused. When Diem was overthrown they may have been happy, but the long line of military dictatorships seemed to offer no real change -- especially in terms of their need for land and peace.
The only change came from America as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept and without popular support. All the while the people read our leaflets and received regular promises of peace and democracy -- and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us -- not their fellow Vietnamese --the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move or be destroyed by our bombs. So they go -- primarily women and children and the aged.
They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals, with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one "Vietcong"-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them -- mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children, degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.
What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?
We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the crushing of the nation's only non-Communist revolutionary political force -- the unified Buddhist church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men. What liberators?
Now there is little left to build on -- save bitterness. Soon the only solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call fortified hamlets. The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new Vietnam on such grounds as these? Could we blame them for such thoughts? We must speak for them and raise the questions they cannot raise. These too are our brothers.
Perhaps the more difficult but no less necessary task is to speak for those who have been designated as our enemies. What of the National Liberation Front -- that strangely anonymous group we call VC or Communists? What must they think of us in America when they realize that we permitted the repression and cruelty of Diem which helped to bring them into being as a resistance group in the south? What do they think of our condoning the violence which led to their own taking up of arms? How can they believe in our integrity when now we speak of "aggression from the north" as if there were nothing more essential to the war? How can they trust us when now we charge them with violence after the murderous reign of Diem and charge them with violence while we pour every new weapon of death into their land? Surely we must understand their feelings even if we do not condone their actions. Surely we must see that the men we supported pressed them to their violence. Surely we must see that our own computerized plans of destruction simply dwarf their greatest acts.
How do they judge us when our officials know that their membership is less than twenty-five percent Communist and yet insist on giving them the blanket name? What must they be thinking when they know that we are aware of their control of major sections of Vietnam and yet we appear ready to allow national elections in which this highly organized political parallel government will have no part? They ask how we can speak of free elections when the Saigon press is censored and controlled by the military junta. And they are surely right to wonder what kind of new government we plan to help form without them -- the only party in real touch with the peasants. They question our political goals and they deny the reality of a peace settlement from which they will be excluded. Their questions are frighteningly relevant. Is our nation planning to build on political myth again and then shore it up with the power of new violence?
Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence when it helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.
So, too, with Hanoi. In the north, where our bombs now pummel the land, and our mines endanger the waterways, we are met by a deep but understandable mistrust. To speak for them is to explain this lack of confidence in Western words, and especially their distrust of American intentions now. In Hanoi are the men who led the nation to independence against the Japanese and the French, the men who sought membership in the French commonwealth and were betrayed by the weakness of Paris and the willfulness of the colonial armies. It was they who led a second struggle against French domination at tremendous costs, and then were persuaded to give up the land they controlled between the thirteenth and seventeenth parallel as a temporary measure at Geneva. After 1954 they watched us conspire with Diem to prevent elections which would have surely brought Ho Chi Minh to power over a united Vietnam, and they realized they had been betrayed again.
When we ask why they do not leap to negotiate, these things must be remembered. Also it must be clear that the leaders of Hanoi considered the presence of American troops in support of the Diem regime to have been the initial military breach of the Geneva agreements concerning foreign troops, and they remind us that they did not begin to send in any large number of supplies or men until American forces had moved into the tens of thousands.
Hanoi remembers how our leaders refused to tell us the truth about the earlier North Vietnamese overtures for peace, how the president claimed that none existed when they had clearly been made. Ho Chi Minh has watched as America has spoken of peace and built up its forces, and now he has surely heard of the increasing international rumors of American plans for an invasion of the north. He knows the bombing and shelling and mining we are doing are part of traditional pre-invasion strategy. Perhaps only his sense of humor and of irony can save him when he hears the most powerful nation of the world speaking of aggression as it drops thousands of bombs on a poor weak nation more than eight thousand miles away from its shores.
At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried in these last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless on Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called enemy, I am as deeply concerned about our troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create hell for the poor.
This Madness Must Cease
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.
This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam. Recently one of them wrote these words:
"Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism."
If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. It will become clear that our minimal expectation is to occupy it as an American colony and men will not refrain from thinking that our maximum hope is to goad China into a war so that we may bomb her nuclear installations. If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horribly clumsy and deadly game we have decided to play.
The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways.
In order to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war. I would like to suggest five concrete things that our government should do immediately to begin the long and difficult process of extricating ourselves from this nightmarish conflict:
1. End all bombing in North and South Vietnam.
2. Declare a unilateral cease-fire in the hope that such action will create the atmosphere for negotiation.
3. Take immediate steps to prevent other battlegrounds in Southeast Asia by curtailing our military buildup in Thailand and our interference in Laos.
4. Realistically accept the fact that the National Liberation Front has substantial support in South Vietnam and must thereby play a role in any meaningful negotiations and in any future Vietnam government.
5. Set a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam in accordance with the 1954 Geneva agreement.
Part of our ongoing commitment might well express itself in an offer to grant asylum to any Vietnamese who fears for his life under a new regime which included the Liberation Front. Then we must make what reparations we can for the damage we have done. We most provide the medical aid that is badly needed, making it available in this country if necessary.
Protesting The War
Meanwhile we in the churches and synagogues have a continuing task while we urge our government to disengage itself from a disgraceful commitment. We must continue to raise our voices if our nation persists in its perverse ways in Vietnam. We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative means of protest possible.
As we counsel young men concerning military service we must clarify for them our nation's role in Vietnam and challenge them with the alternative of conscientious objection. I am pleased to say that this is the path now being chosen by more than seventy students at my own alma mater, Morehouse College, and I recommend it to all who find the American course in Vietnam a dishonorable and unjust one. Moreover I would encourage all ministers of draft age to give up their ministerial exemptions and seek status as conscientious objectors. These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.
There is something seductively tempting about stopping there and sending us all off on what in some circles has become a popular crusade against the war in Vietnam. I say we must enter the struggle, but I wish to go on now to say something even more disturbing. The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy- and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. Such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.
In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which now has justified the presence of U.S. military "advisors" in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counter-revolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Colombia and why American napalm and green beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru. It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."
Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken -- the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.
I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. n the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.
This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism. War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and through their misguided passions urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not call everyone a Communist or an appeaser who advocates the seating of Red China in the United Nations and who recognizes that hate and hysteria are not the final answers to the problem of these turbulent days. We must not engage in a negative anti-communism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove thosse conditions of poverty, insecurity and injustice which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops.
The People Are Important
These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression and out of the wombs of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. "The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light." We in the West must support these revolutions. It is a sad fact that, because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has the revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgement against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when "every valley shall be exalted, and every moutain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain."
A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.
This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept -- so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force -- has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John:
Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.
Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says : "Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word."
We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The "tide in the affairs of men" does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out deperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: "Too late." There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. "The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on..." We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.
We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world -- a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.
Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter -- but beautiful -- struggle for a new world. This is the callling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.
As that noble bard of yesterday, James Russell Lowell, eloquently stated:
Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God's new Messiah,
Off'ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
Twixt that darkness and that light.
Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet 'tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong:
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow
Keeping watch above his own.
Posted by ebogjonson at 6:44 PM | Permalink
December 7, 2006
rips James Kim
I didn't know James Kim (or at least don't think I did), but I've learned from the forwarding tree that five or so folks I do know either went to Oberlin with Kim or worked with him on tech/gadget stuff. The story of his death - staying put and keeping his family warm, venturing out only once they had run out of fuel, dying a mile from where he started after walking though 8 miles of snow drifts in tennis shoes and street clothes - binds a world of inspirations, lessons and tragedies up into one singularly moving story. I can only hope that if I'm ever in an even fractionally similar spot I conduct myself as calmly, selflessly and bravely as he did.
Kim's ordeal of course brings to mind (my mind, at least) the 1999 disappearance of Joe Wood on Mount Ranier. I don't believe in a traditional afterlife, but if there is one I'd like to imagine that Joe (who was the first and best professional mentor I ever had) has been reading the papers and was there to welcome Kim, show him the angelic ropes.
December 6, 2006
now THIS is punk rock!
via email from mikev (who needs something I can link to)
Posted by ebogjonson at 10:50 AM | Permalink
December 4, 2006
the dreamlife of potted plants
If I knew more about music, I would say the above mash-up was be sung to the tune of Skrewdriver's "Prisoner of Peace." References to the Firedoglake quotes being paraphrased above can be found here, here and here.
Just for the stupids in the world, I want to say that I am in no way directly suggesting that any Firedoglake front-pager is a skinhead or Nazi. I'm just testing the limits of punk / photoshop communication on blogs. The point here isn't that anyone expects perfection from their bloggers. It's that if someone calls bullshit on you, try not to respond by offering up your ridiculous, delusional, fantasy alter-egos, this as if your schtick actually constituted some kind of aesthetic, political or programmatic rationale. No offense, but you guys ain't punk rock for shit, not even do-gooder SHARP punks. I'm not saying I am or was, but I ran into a few back in my youth and I kind of have a feeling they would think you're poseur idiots.
November 15, 2006
completely there and freaky
It's strange to think he is going to confess:
LOS ANGELES - In a new TV interview and book, O.J. Simpson discusses how he would have committed the slayings of his ex-wife and her friend "if I did it."
The two-part television interview, titled "O.J. Simpson: If I Did It, Here's How It Happened," will air Nov. 27 and Nov. 29 on Fox, the TV network said Tuesday.
"O.J. Simpson, in his own words, tells for the first time how he would have committed the murders if he were the one responsible for the crimes," the network said in a statement. "In the two-part event, Simpson describes how he would have carried out the murders he has vehemently denied committing for over a decade."
"This is an interview that no one thought would ever happen. Its the definitive last chapter in the Trial of the Century," Mike Darnell, executive vice president of alternative programming for Fox, said in a statement.
The interview, conducted with book publisher Judith Regan, will air days before Simpson's new book, "If I Did It," goes on sale Nov. 30. The book "hypothetically describes how the murders would have been committed," the network said.[full story]
I guess there are no double jeopardy issues here.
I don't recall celebrating the OJ verdict (anyone who was there can write in to correct me), although I do remember being amazed in a caffeinated, too-much-cable kind of way that he got off, and was also impressed by the skill Cochran and Co's displayed while getting the unlikely verdict. I think I might have tried to square various circles by declaring my belief in OJ's guilt while also pointing out that this was a highly anomalous outcome in terms of black men and the judicial system, talk that in retrospect strikes me as being in poor form. I definitely wasn't one of those people who vilified Cochran or his defense strategy. Those guys fulfilled the role given them to fulfill by the adversarial system; it's not their fault the prosecuters were chumps.
The most ignoble conversation I remember having about OJ was a drunken one wherein I polled people on the question of what they would do were they ever to wake up from a rage fugue covered in their blonde ex-trophy-wife's blood. Turn themselves in? What if they were reasonably sure it was a one-time lapse? What if they couldn't really remember what happened or how?
I don't really want to watch his confession, but I would be interested in looping extreme slow-mo of his face while he says or almost says or doesn't say "I did it," this just to track minute shifts in his facial expression and demeanor. I actually met OJ once in Las Vegas, bumped into him really in a doorway, and it turned out that one of my party had gone to school or something with his oldest son Jason. (Small black upper middle class + world.) OJ reached out to shake all our hands the way a father reaches out to shake the hand of any buddy of his son's, and us being (despite all appearances and later degeneracy) well-trained boys from nice homes, we all all instinctively reciprocated.
I wasn't the first to touch him but I remember him moving down our tiny little recieving line towards me and thinking: I'm about to shake the hand of a murderer. Was that the hand he used? Was that the one the bloody glove didn't fit on? The one he held up on television to the entire world? OJ's body was a wreck from what I imagined were football injuries, his shoulders and hip motion truncated and off, but the handshake was relatively firm and unembarrassed. He seemed excited at the chance to play the father running into (relative) kids in a foyer as opposed to his usual gig - racial footnote, punchline, double murderer. When I've told the story of "The OJ Handshake" I have on occasion claimed to have experienced Profiler-style flashes of the murder scene, but that's an exaggeration. What actually happened is that, while I had always claimed to believe he was guilty, I became finally and irrevocably sure of it when I touched him. His guilt was like a static discharge, completely there and freaky.
November 13, 2006
happy beautiful ed and patricia
Bradley was not married then. Or at least not to his widow Patricia Blanchet, a Haitian-American filmmaker, whom he seems to have married in 2004. The Aspen Times has a great article and picture of the two.[full link]
A great article and picture indeed. It's a small Haitian-American world, but I don't know Blanchet. My kreole is too rusty to offer a proper condolence, so I'll just say my thoughts go out to her and her family.
You can find the Aspen Times article here.
November 10, 2006
ed, some of us hardly knew ya
It's a little sad and curious to watch all the 60 Minutes and CBS News hands on TV memorializing Ed Bradley. I don't know much about the show's internal politics, but watching the talking heads yesterday and today you can tell who knew Bradley well, who didn't, who is genuinely remembering him and who seems most aware of being on camera.
Steve Kroft seems to have known him best, having known about Bradley's leukemia for over a year, while Bradley's boss, Don Hewitt, didn't know about the illness at all. (I've read reports of that Bradley and Hewitt had butted heads recently about his contract; hardly the time to inject a life-threatening illness.) That aside, though, Hewitt seems full of genuinely warm workplace memories, as does Andy Rooney. Rooney, as always, presents as a cranky oddball, but to his credit he's resisting the temptation to overclaim Bradley. He's upfront about knowing him in the office and chatting with him about food and sports and jazz, no giant shakes but a connection he seems to have appreciated.
Leslie Stahl had a great story about Bradley bringing all of them together during the show's self described darkest hour, when CBS caved to pressure and spiked Mike Wallace's 1995 skewering of a tobacco executive. Of all the 60 Minutes people, Wallace seems the most off. On Larry King he kept saying things about Bradley that needed to be corrected by Kroft, and even while eulogizing Bradley he seems to be policing the boundaries of his own legacy as 60 Minutes' greatest correspondent.
Most weird, though, is the fact that of all of them country cousin Bob Schieffer seems to be the only person talking about Bradley who has the slightest clue of the role race played in the man's life. Being black when and where he was obviously a key part of Bradley's life, but when the black dude on the news team dies that, by definition, leaves no one qualified to properly discuss the issue. Kroft seems to have known Bradley best, which might explain why, except for enthusing about Bradley's style, he knew to keep mum on the issue of race. That left it to corny old Schieffer to assert (in contradiction to the prevailing "he was a journalist first!" dodge) that being black was a key to understanding Bradley's work and personal life. Schieffer's line - "He didn't wear it on his sleeve, but it was always in his heart" - is a white cliche, but all things considered I think it was a fine thing for him to say.
Posted by ebogjonson at 11:00 AM | Permalink
November 9, 2006
Easy Ed Bradley passed away today. I had a chance to stand a few people away from him at an event many, many years ago and I remember thinking with no small measure of admiration that that was one classically cool older cat. I think the event was that certain kind of borderline-fake party for some or another buppie coffee-table book, and I have to admit to feeling a little out of place there - too much facial hair, locks that I purposefully kept relatively un-manicured, prickly alternative ambitions. Bradley and I didn't exchange a word or even a real look, but I extracted a sense of soothing, well, permission just from his being in the room, a feeling of kinship, largely imagined by me, I know, but that nonetheless made the scene more open and friendly.
I have to confess that it wasn't the funny persistence of his earring that put me at ease, or even the charming, royal boredom with which he attended to his duties as the most famous person in the room, Bradley clearly having taken accurate measure of the folks around him and yet still finding the grace to share a genuine laugh and hello with all comers. No, it was the fact that he was a master flirt that got me, how Bradley seemed to be one of those powerful
, married, older men (was Bradley married then? It had to have been '93) whose yen for women had not curdled into a creepy coveting of youth, but had instead ripened into a rakishly cool (that word again) playfulness - gently suggestive, sharp, expert, and completely harmless all at the same time. The way Bradley lived in his skin suggested to me that there were plenty of ways to go about being a successful and uncompromising black man in media, some of them great fun, some of them relevant to a nervous, yellow misfit like me.
Rips, Ed. I wish I'd come over and said hello and thank you that night.
October 13, 2006
Tamara Dobson aka Cleopatra Jones dead at 59.
A six foot-plus kung fu fighting model in a fur hat. What could be hotter than that.
It's strange to think to think that she was only 59. I am getting old enough myself to make gym and dining decisions that are largely intended to keep me relatively spry at that age.
Posted by ebogjonson at 12:20 PM | Permalink
September 11, 2006
September 11, 2001 (NYC)
I don't really have anything to say about 9/11 except that it was the one of the weirdest, most terrifying days of my life. I was living with a girlfriend I had recently broken up with (long, ugly story) and even as we were able to come together to get through the day, I spent 9/11 completely out of my head, cycling manically between fear, feelings of warm, encompassing forgiveness for my ex, and desperate prayers to god to please, please not let me die with that awful, despicable woman, don't let her be the last thing I ever see.
We were living in Brooklyn so we watched the whole thing on television or from a hill in Fort Green Park. My ex-girlfriend had a daughter and after the towers had fallen we decided to take her to the park. My ex was British and I attributed her desire to get out of the house to some gene acquired during the Blitz, some specific impulse to live one's life as one pleased when under horrific aerial assault. For a few minutes we were the only people outside. I felt a twinge of worry, a pang of social inappropriateness. Were we doing something wrong by laying a blanket out and reading to Joy while the world was coming down around us? A few minutes later the park was full of people talking, walking, crying and sitting. We hadn't been wrong at all, just a little early.
Even though we were both New Yorkers (me by birth and she by choice) and had been to the World Trade Center a dozen times, we didn't fully grasp the scale of what had happened until we went to the park and saw the plume of smoke with our own eyes. It was immense, it arced into the sky like a solid thing with structure and design as opposed to something insubstantial and windblown. Just before a friend called to urge us to put wet towels under our doors and to tape our windows against toxic fallout we had started to wonder if we could smell - what? A fire? Dust? Death? We went home, got lost in the details of making life as normal as possible for my ex's daughter. We joked about escaping to my family's in Haiti if civilization collapsed, and in darker moments I imagined, terrible, insane, selfish things, like taking Joy with me to safety and leaving her mother to just deserts - eaten by mutants, perhaps. I also imagined the two of us being bound together forever despite our mutual antipathy by the exigencies of post 9/11 parenting survival, and once or twice I imagined falling back in love, 9/11 transforming everything right down to the unstable molecules of our relationship. What happened instead is that we watched the news and a week later we took tentative steps back into the world. We did not have 9/11 sex. We retired to our separate bedrooms after Joy was asleep every night, our great ugly war temporarily in a state of externally imposed truce. We lay awake all night, vigilant, listening, alone.
I kept telling myself that I had escaped the worst of it, all of it really, until I had to take a subway for the first time. I was surprised to find I was terrified, that I could barely breathe. As I stood there pressed up against some or another stranger I stared at my feet trying to hold it together and stealing glances at the faces around me. I was looking at other people's eyes in hopes of being reassured by something there and what I mostly found were reflections. People were discretely looking at me, at everyone, all of us looking to be held down, looking for help in the suddenly pressing, endless work of maintaining our sanity, the work of not running screaming out onto the street at the next station. Even though it stood to reason it was strange and unexpected to discover that we all felt the same way. It was even stranger and more unexpected to realize we were all participating in the creation of a new class of American experience, something to do with inexplicably large horror and small, personal fear, with resolve and the willingness to share our literal vulnerability with our neighbors. In those first few days there was no one for us to kill in hopes of feeling any better, there was nothing for those most directly affected to do except survive and clean up, rebuild. To do the little things we did as a matter of course: go to work, go to school, sit in the park in the shade of a great cloud that may or may not be laced with death, reading to our children.
And that's it, really. It goes without saying that I believe that if the rest of the United States was like New York City we would not find ourselves in the predicament that we now face in Iraq, in Afghanistan, anywhere really. New York City is admittedly a liberal town, but I don't think it's a simple accident of place and political temperament that has the bulk of New Yorkers failing to see the relationship between what happened to them that day and the things our government and our countrymen have since done and said in the name of our unique losses. It's New York City; even as every passing year erases the array of textures and differences that make this far-flung nation unique, New Yorkers persist in living and understanding things a bit differently than our neighbors do, up to and including remembering what happened on September 11, 2001.
Posted by ebogjonson at 2:07 PM | Permalink
September 4, 2006
my father's house; mine once upon a time
Pictures taken at my father's house before we sold it in 2003. Happy Birthday, Dad. A flickr slideshow
August 3, 2006
biohazards in my lawn
JeepBastard a.k.a. John Lee has this bit up of 90s Brooklyn nostalgia up:
I can't possibly answer all the questions that this raises, but I was there and live through it. Ask anyone from Fort Greene who was here before the gentrification and they will tell you about the painful blood curdling screams that erupted every night from 80 Hanson Place, echoing down to 4th Avenue on a quiet night. Was Brooklyn home to a BioWarfare Lab? [full story]
I actually lived around the block from 80 Hanson Place on South Elliot Place for most of the early 90s, and I remember that stretch of block as always having a particularly odd vibe to it. John's posting recalls a day (what year?) when Hanson was blocked off on both ends by the cops, the better for some mysterious hazmat/biohazard/bomb squad hijinks to ensue. I don't recall this particular incident (not home? too high?) but the picture below could have been taken from my roof (provided, of course, that my brownstone was 10 stories taller.)
Wikipedia describes 80 Hanson as "a state facility for testing cocain abuse on rhesus monkeys," and although John is thinking outbreak the photos could also depict a bomb squad responding to some or another threat phoned in by an animal rights org.
The whole things does make me wonder about the garbage, though. A door or so down from 80 Hanson was a boarded up wreck inhabited (I thought) by various homeless, addicts and morlocks, and I wonder if they ever went dumpster-diving in the likely super-hazardous goop/refuse produced by 80 Hanson.
(What I'm really asking, is: If one were to eat or roast or somehow smoke the corpse of a crackhead rhesus, does one get high? Only Tony the King of the Fort Greene crackheads knows for sure.)
Posted by ebogjonson at 5:05 PM | Permalink
July 18, 2006
the dust and bones of youth
So, for TOP SECRET reasons related to a gig I may or may not be in the running for, I'm going to be posting a ton of old articles of mine into the garchival category of the ebog blog. These are portfolio items of limited contemporary interest, so don't feel obligated to read them, although I am (for the obvious reasons) inclined to believe there may be a few items of lasting value.
That's pretty much it re: these reposts, although I do feel strangely compelled to add that the basic reason I've been forced to build this archeological exhibit is that AOL has completely ethered and disappeared the entire Africana.com archive. None of the links to original Africana.com content (as opposed to Encyclopedia Africana entries) in google or anywhere else work anymore, meaning that AOL effectively disappeared the work of literally hundreds of black writers from the Internets. (Lets not even get into the disappearing of thousands of black things those writers wrote about that were never covered anywhere else.) Sure, there is google cache and the wayback machine, which is where I am pulling a lot of this stuff from. But a "fuck you" remains a "fuck you" in my mind even when there are ways for the clever among you to get around it.
Having managed Africana.com and built AOL Black Voices, I can tell you with some authority that this is an actual fuck you. There is no compelling technological, legal or copyright reason for AOL to have evaporated the archive so completely, making the act basically one of spite, that and disregard for the community of readers and writers associated with Africana. At some point or another, someone likely told the new AOL Black Voices staff that they had to get all the articles into some masterstroke AOL content management system, and no one on the new team felt inclined to do the heavy lifting to preserve the archive. Definitely their call and I'm really not sweating it. I'm just making sure I remember who it was that did what to who.
Posted by ebogjonson at 3:28 PM | Permalink
July 6, 2006
some bad news from Richard Prince's Journal-isms:
Indy Photog, 34, Collapses in Newsroom
July 5, 2006
Mpozi Tolbert -- Tall, Genial, Dreadlocked -- Mourned
"Mpozi Mshale Tolbert, 6 feet 6 inches tall with dreadlocks down to his waist, never blended in. You had to notice him. He stuck out -- almost always grinning, forever seeing the possibilities in life, chuckling at its foibles," Diana Penner wrote Tuesday in the Indianapolis Star.
"Monday, The Indianapolis Star photographer collapsed at work, at the photo desk where he was selecting the images to appear in today's newspaper. He was taken to Wishard Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead about an hour later. An award-winning photographer who came to The Star in November 1998, Tolbert, 34, was equally at ease at news and sporting events as he was in classrooms of schoolchildren who looked up in awe and curiosity as he towered over them, an assortment of cameras and lenses around his neck."
The story listed no cause of death. Editor Dennis R. Ryerson told Journal-isms today he had not been told whether there would be an autopsy, but understood that "when there is somebody this age who dies without a known cause, the coroner does an investigation" that would include an autopsy. The story was accompanied by a photo gallery featuring Tolbert's photographs. [full obit here][full Richard Prince item here]
Back during the mid-90s Mpozi was a semi-to-irregular running buddy in Brooklyn. We were actually connected through Valerie Burger, adding another layer of bitter to his sudden, abrupt loss.
I remember Pozi (his nickname at the time; could it be he was barely 21? 22?) coming into New York from Philly (his hometown?) on more than one occasion to shoot something or another - MCs, protests, funerals, street fairs, the view outside a window. Money was tight all around so he'd often crash on Valerie and her roommate Noelle's couch. He'd play Noelle's records and I can recall sitting around with him in a pre-gentrification Fort Greene Park in the middle of the August night a few times, all of us having been driven outdoors by the heat. In my head he is a soothing yet infectiously enthusiastic presence, a kind of camera-wielding, bedreadlocked, good-vibe giant. I remember he didn't much like Rudy Guiliani, how he was fearless photographing cops in ugly situations all up and down the city, how he could defuse almost any situation, any turn down the wrong corner.
Other things, though, are lost: Was he a vegetarian? Did he drink or smoke? Did he have a preferred camera or format? Was there a girl involved? Any of it could be true, really. My memories of that era have not faded so much as the years have added an energized, altering halo, a ring-shaped wave of corrective possibility (anti-nostalgia?) that threatens to contract at any moment, to rush in and fill the incomplete places and gaps, this even when said gaps and incompletenesses are the story's primary and lasting point of interest. New York City in the 90s really was that kind of magical, colored boho utopia, Fort Greene another kind of ground zero. It felt like a narrowly defined kind of anything could happen in that part of Brooklyn; to our credit almost all of it did.
A fair number of folks I love and respect nested with me in the warm, downy parts of that bygone fantasyland and we're all still numerous and spry enough that the loss of any of one under any circumstance can be hard to process. Pozi and Valerie were barely in their 30s (both younger than me) and both are gone in what feels like a nastily short stretch. But what kind of aging fool acts like there's something unique or new about that? As black cohorts go we are the luckiest of the lucky, no supposedly's or purportedly's about it. If there are two or three of five faces in the class picture staring back so vividly - Marpessa maybe, or Joe - that we forget they are gone there is a sense in which we can count ourselves a kind of fortunate. It could be half; it could be almost all.
A self-portrait by Mpozi Tolbert
June 10, 2006
[...] Been too preoccupied to post the last few week or so, mostly because I've been thinking about a friend who passed recently. No great revelations or observations in my head, just the usual questions and sadness.
[...] It's funny how you can be preoccupied by "thinking about something" and yet have a head full of holes and ellipses and unfinished sentences. Some things are get thought but remain unspoken, some are unspeakable, some you recognize as being pointless as utterance in that there is no real audience for them except (of course) for the missing one, who, as far as you can tell, can't get the message. (Can you?) So you sit and keep thinking, and if you are particularly attuned to your own rhythms and pitfalls you find something to do with your hands. Blogging was obviously not one of those things. Instead I've been running my mouth to folks on the phone, I've been playing videogames and going to the gym - completely mundane and banal. I think crazy things on the elliptical trainer, like how getting hit by a train is such and awful, gruesome way to die. I stare out the gym window at the LA skyline and shake my head, think what kind of crazy guts it takes to kill yourself that way. I listen to music and the words make all kinds of unexpected sense to me. I stop in the middle of a set, rewind for a second listen. I am desperately grateful for every chance to pay attention, connect.
[...] Everyone is avoiding the word "suicide" except when they are using it privately. But we don't know what happened, do we? When there is so much ambiguity about an event choosing one possibility over another says more about the chooser than the event we are purportedly trying to understand. So what is it about me that makes me keep turning to one point of view, one interpretation? What do I get out of it?
[...] I don't think I've ever fully gotten over the death of someone I have known in any kind of intimate, liminal way, but that's no unique pain; it's likely the same for everyone. The literal and figurative arms that have held you can be those of a lover or parent or child, or maybe just those of a favored dance partner or fondly remembered teacher or trusted co-worker, but no matter the connection these are people that for the rest of your life you could put a blindfold on and still ID - from their smell, from the characteristic hang of a hand around your neck, from the particular, tell-tale route their mind likes to take from point A to B . Their loss is a tragedy in-and-of-itself and then on top of everything it goes and cuts you off irrevocably from the parts of yourself that were forged in partnership with the lost/gone person. These parts of you - memories, places, songs, offices, apartments, streets, friends in common, whole years and biographical chapters - go not so much gone themselves but become hazy and unstable. How can they ever be trusted again, all these people, places and things whose were either made or verified in common?
[...] You lose someone you have known particularly and you rediscover the hard way that your brain is a social organ, that X% of its circuitry, maybe more, was wired collaboratively. Even if those circuits have been sitting dormant for decades there is a sense in which they are at peace with their quiescence as long as the other coder (partner in code?) is still there in the world, doing their thing. And then they're not in the world and besides the sadness and anger and guilt there is all this feedback, a buzzing in your ears that indicates a node in the network is missing.
[...] You lose someone you once knew particularly well (but not so well lately) and you sit around wishing everything was different. That you had been there more, that you had reached out or checked in more effectively. And then you're dumbstruck - yes, of course. Everything already is different, has been for years. You should have grieved a little the morning you woke up and it occurred to you that you had not spoken to them in months and months and months. You should have
[...] I want to write "rest in peace, Valerie" but I can't. The words feel a formal affectation concerned more with the problem of ending this post than with anything to do with my grief or her life. I guess I want out of this post in a way that actually means something, but that's a taller order than I feel up to now. So how about I just stop?
[...] But rest in peace, Valerie. I miss you. You really did have a great, gigantic laugh. It burst out of you and made everything it attended yours.
Posted by ebogjonson at 11:40 AM | Permalink
May 22, 2006
rips - Katherine Dunham
Her impressively long life was full of chapters, but Dunham's long association with Haiti - her fieldwork as an anthropologist and choreographer, her long residence and numerous philanthropic activities there - holds particular interest for me. I know a few Haitians (my father, for example) who always rolled their eyes at the mention of her name. She had never spoken out against the Duvaliers, Dad would complain; she glamorized the voodoo practice that in his doggedly materialist view kept poor, uneducated Haitians shrouded in superstition. Me, I've always been willing to forgive her getting along to get along (it's not like she was Duvalier's lawyer), and moreover, her interests dovetailed with concerns of my own.
Shortly before Dunham left Haiti, she experienced a personal crisis that revealed her ethical sensibility in matters of belief. She decided to perform a ceremony in which she would promise the loa to consummate the kanzo, or second voudun initiation, at a later date. She wanted to perform the kanzo rite itself before she departed, but Herskovits had written her warning against it; he had been cautious about tackling things that were beyond his reach while working in Dahomey--the place of origin of many of the voudun mysteries. After observing the kanzo several times, she felt uncertain about undergoing the trial by fire. She was concerned about her "moral position" in making promises for future initiations. Questioning her own motives, she asked, "Could Herskovits tell me, could Erich Fromm, could Téoline or DéGrasse tell me what part of me lived on the floor of the houngfor ... and what part stood to one side taking notes? Each moment lived in participation was real; still ... without conscious doing or planning or thinking I stayed outside the experience while being totally immersed in it." She longed for an indication of possession to prove to herself that she was sincere. [link]
My mother had occasion to meet Dunham in Haiti a few times, and her recollections of these passing encounters are always lit by the soft, warm, glowing light of vaguely abject gratitude, a kind of ambient halo-effect that middle class colonial subjects tend to project onto civilizing, uplifting visitors from the metropole. That the great Miss Dunham (American, ligh-skinned) would adopt her little, benighted island as second home reinforced my mother's fragile, complicated Haitian pride, and the reversibility of the equation - the question of Dunham's gratitudes to Haiti - was never much on my mother's mind.
Me, I wasn't born in Haiti, so my Haitian pride has an ocean in the middle of it (this when it's distinctly Haitian at all), and has to fully encompass empty leagues that my mother has at best only traversed. So instead of my mother's gratitude I feel a kind of anachronistic kinship with this African American artist looking across a gap at something that may or may not be a stand-in for her own, lost authentic blackness. Dunham's quest for unimpeachable proof of her own sincerity though possession brings to mind all the voudounistic, hipster Haitian ciphers I've lucked into in Brooklyn and Boston over the years and immediately begged off of, not out of any particular skepticism but out of fear: "I went to the hounfour and all I got was this lousy t-shirt." Which is to say I can imagine Dunham being devastated if she started a fateful initiation and the loa didn't bother to come calling or riding.
[photos from the Library of Congress's Katherine Dunham Collection.]
April 28, 2006
stop the madness nancy and whitney
Uh, this, my friends, is a 1985 anti-drug video starring Nancy Reagan and whole gang of future crack-heads, most notably Whitney Houston. Anybody remember it? (via Boing Boing)
Tim Ried (among other things, creator of Frank's Place) is credited as a writer/creator for the video, and if press your warm cheek against the cool surface of the screen, you can about feel his hopeful, good-vibration belief in the power of mass media to transform the inner life of a passively consuming viewer. So innocent! So gentle!
April 21, 2006
hand and eye of the father
right hand - Over the past year I've been having powerful urges to make stuff, as in with my hands make stuff. As luck would have it, there's an awful lot of easy to follow, maker-related media out there these days, meaning I'm either particularly attuned to changes in the aether or just another trend victim jocking today's iteration of the next.
I'm going to start my solid-state, open source kick small, with a homemade electric cat drinking fountain templated on nicrosin's hack pictured above. (Hat tip to the make blog.) I've actually owned two store-bought electric cat waterers. (Or did my cat own them?) The motor on the first one died and the second broke in transit from MA to LA. Complete ripoffs at 49 or so bucks twice, and me with no receipts. :(
I'll post photos when the thing gets a bit beyond the ideation stage.
left hand - This is likely a common chain of association, but the maker meme reminds me of my father.
Although he was born and raised in Haiti, Dad was a fairly typical American/home-ownerish type who believed in the powers of his own ingenuity and hammer. If something could be made from scratch, in his book it must be made from scratch. In his day he replaced car engines with salvage, hacked boilers, cobbled together roofs; he built carports, sheds and bathrooms. I was less than appreciative of his ways (I thought he could be unnecessarily frugal) but I went to the well gladly whenever I needed to, medalling in science fairs, for example, throughout junior high on the strength of his contraptions. My ambitions to, say, make bendable models of "spacetime" in the 7th grade (?!) found their perfect expression in an insight he had had (likely years before) about the properties of solder and thick copper wire, in his habit of buying odd things like magnets and lenses just in case he might need them later, for lord knows what.
His entire life, literally until the day he died, was one long, sisyphean work of home and auto improvement, our house and cars perpetual works in progress. Dad even managed to die with his tool-belt on: The stroke that killed him set in as a mild buzzing in the ears while he was picking up some obscure power tool at the home of a friend. The two discussed my father's worsening headache at some length in dude's garage, but instead of going to the emergency room (or, more plausibly just to bed, given his various anti-clerical temperments) Dad went to the hardware store, likely imagining that the fix for what ailed him might be found there. He bought a drill bit or some such, stopped for chinese, drove home and then promptly dropped dead in the driveway after perfectly parking his ancient, jury-rigged ride in his rigorously chosen, preferred spot.
(The location had something to do with a tree. It grew out of our sidewalk at on odd angle, and for thirty years my father had daily premonitions that it would fall.)
His orderly, suggestive exit aside, my dad's drive to make things was explicitly political. He was not much concerned with the environment as he was American hubris. As an involuntary immigrant he had ambivalent feelings about life in the land of plenty, saw connections between the grinding poverty in Haiti and the blithe excess here. He was a bit disconcerted by his hand in expanding evil in the world (like most Haitian men, he viewed his wife and children as extensions of himself, and my mother, sister and me are all inveterate consumers) and he took great pleasure in short-circuiting what he viewed as an top down directives to consume by making and reshaping existing products to his various needs. He had an analogue of the intuition part of the post-internet generation has come to, gassed as it is on its power to code lots of something out of literal nothing: even a world full of trash can be made anew. Shit, endless supplies of cheap trash might actually be a new-making pre-req.
Whenever my mother or I insisted on the freshly minted or new Dad would sneer that we were "making America beautiful," and it was in that crack that I found my own voice in opposition to him. I've clearly resconsidered my quarrel with my father on the question of making v. buying certain things (you wouldn't be reading this otherwise), but on the crucial question of aesthetics we will likely remain at loggerheads. My dear old dad, you see, did not much believe in beauty. For example, to my great chagrin he made my first bicyle out of a pile of parts he had collected at the no-joke, actual junkyard. The thing worked fine but was a mess to look at - seat, frame, spokes and handle-bars a mish-mash of styles and eras, states of disrepair and decay. I had to force him to put a new seat on (he was going to throw this crazy, gold-speckled banana seat he had found back in the junkpile), and it was another ordeal getting him to paint the thing a single color. I think he could have turned me on to the pleasures of symetrical ownership and sourcing sooner (i.e., pre-posthumously) if he had been less engineer and more artist, but therein lies the tale, right?
All of which is why you can bet that when I post my pics of my cat waterer there won't be tape on the walls like in the hack above. (Will that even stay on?) Part of the reason is that I don't want to mar my pretty walls and part of the reason is that all that tape seems unsafe. Dad would likely have also disapproved of nicrosin's design owing to some insistent disquiet about all that looping wire - just the thing a cat might pull down and chew and electrocute himself in a bowl of water. (Doh!) Now that I think about it, it seems that of the million things my father knew about jury-rigging and hacking and re-purposing, the only techniques he was at any particular pain to pass on concerned the right and wrong way to do potentially dangerous stuff - change a light switch, for example, or how to properly move cars on and off cinderblocks.
I always found his care on these topics somewhat insulting, like I struck him as some sort of moron or incompetent. The lessons took, though, and, if there's anything bitter at all at the bottom of this it's that while he had the eye that looked at left-over fish tank pumps and saw cat waterers, me, I got stuck with the vision that looks at a cat waterer and sees a kitty death trap. Which is to say, I got the evil, deconstructing eye, putting me somewhat at odds with the spirit of the age, after all.
Actually, it really does sting, all of it: the lost patrimony, the uninherited impulses, the need at this late stage for me to bend my knee north towards all those happy, shiny, optimistic, enterprising kids and websites, most of them in San Francisco, most of them very quite nice, just like James Murphy said. But you do what you have to, right? If you don't make your fresh lemonade out of the freely available lemons, you're just another consumer making America beautiful, just like dad said.
March 8, 2006
rips - gordon
Gordon Parks passes at 93.
I think between the Oscar win for Crash and the din of accolades for the impressive size and length of Tyler Perry's box office (some cynical, some credulous) Hollywood's first major black director had likely had enough of us.
Posted by ebogjonson at 7:46 PM | Permalink
February 27, 2006
rips - octavia
Octavia Butler passed away over the weekend in Seattle. From what I've been able to gather, she fell (from stroke?) and hit her head, suffering a massive hemorrhage.
Butler's books were always tantalizing and difficult for me, especially the Xenogenesis series. I was amazed by the trilogy's scope, marveled at how Butler could inscribe what felt like the entire dynamic of being black in the New World into a plausible, science-fictional arc. There is a world of great black sci-fi, but I think Butler's books are the texts that most fully fleshed out the core insight of what sci-fi heads like to call afrofuturistism. Afrofuturists believe (and it is a form of belief) that only the specific formal interventions of the speculative narrative genres can accurately capture the shifting states and conditions and, yes, powers of blackness. ("Abducted by aliens, forced into slavery, secreted to a strange land and forced to participate in bizarre genetic experiments" - is that the trailer for a new X-Files movie or a page from black history?) In Butler's work the Afrofuturistic insight became solid and nodal and true, as opposed to what it had been before she crafted her amazing powerful stories: a hunch, a shadowy premonition shared by a range of people about a disconnected series of works.
The difficult part about Butler (for me, at least), always concerned in the way she treated the genetic hybrids that sat at the core of her writing. Hybridity is, for reasons that don't bear outlining here, an obsession of mine (WHAT IS B.O.G.?) and Butler had a take on it that I always found disquieting. In so much as her work imagined and re-imagined the encounter between black and white as an encounter between human and alien, I found myself occasionally recoiling from how she handled bodies with mixed parentage. There are three distinct hybrid modalities deployed in Butler, one where her hybrids seem akin to African Americans, one where her mutts seem like Americans in general, and one where her hybrids are what we commonly describe today as "mixed race." Each one of those modalities has implications and politics for me, and as Butler deftly juggled each, at times according them a place of honor, at times depicting them like a newcomer predator ravaging an ecosystem, I found myself being challenged and pushed out of my various comfort zones, no small thing considering that my default setting about such matters (for those of you who don't know me) can be basically summed up as "smug prick." Butler forced me to evaluate and reevaluate how I was reading and thinking about race, where I was suturing myself into the story. There are hundreds of books out there that have changed me, that have been absorbed into my psychic code-base, but Xenogenesis has always been grit in my mind's gears, a substance (isotope?) whose resistance to assimilation and smooth digestion produced a rendering of my own inner workings. Except for foundational works that blew my mind and educated me as a kid, I can't really think of any other writer who had the power over my thinking.
For at least 10 years I have kept track of the instructor list at the Clarion Science Fiction Writing Workshops offered in Seattle and Ann Arbor, MI. It's been a fantasy of mine to take one the workshops, and in my mind there was a very short list of writers that always made me lean a little more forward in my chair, Samuel Delany, Nalo Hopkinson, Nancy Kress, Maureen Mchugh, and, of course, Octavia Butler. I never got around to applying, and it typically never occurred to me that there wouldn't be a next year for me and the vague objects of my literary affection, be it a writer like Butler or the long unrequited love affair I've long had with my own as-yet-unmade fiction writing.
Posted by ebogjonson at 2:20 PM | Permalink
January 31, 2006
Coretta Scott King passed away yesterday. Looking at the above picture of her (taken on the eve of her wedding to Martin?) I keep thinking how no one ever really knows where they'll end up or what will to them happen along the way. You can't imagine it, not even when (particularly when?) you've positioned yourself to live a life of import or achievement. The completed edifice of event and recollection that eventually comes to stand-in for the dead is always full of gaps, retains a persistent aura of mystery even when the record is laid out on CNN.com, the NYT, wikipedia.
I want to animate that pic of Coretta, ask it the question I always want to ask yearbook pictures: So what exactly are you looking at, Coretta? This particular style of portrait - the subject's vaguely existential, unsmiling gaze directing the viewer off the page - always strikes me as having been designed for posthumous, elegiac contemplation. Is she looking at Martin, canonized, dead, his FBI-documented infidelities always just an FOIA request away? Of course she is. The newly dead always look like they can see what's coming in their pictures, as if they pretty much know everything I know. You can diagram the whole thing, draw dotted lines that connect your eyes and hers and history. In this diagram, all the stuff that will go into the coming tallies of her life and death sits equidistant between you. You're looking right at her and it, and Coretta, with that other-directed gaze, is looking at something else entirely, the story of her own life just a flicker in her peripheral vision. That story is clearly unimportant to her now (then?), and the longer she's gone the more you will wonder: so what are you looking at?
History is written by the victors in so much as they are the ones around to do the talking and, even worse, our generation of victorious living honor the stories of those who are gone in direct proportion to their value. I mean value as literally and as crassly as possible here: Are they instructive, these stories? Can we sell them? Will they help us pass a class? Are we entertained? Will that story help me take another step (and ideally, one after that), this at a time that my strength seems otherwise exhausted and the sane/smart thing to do would be to lay down and rest? The stories of those who are gone are like a layer of thatched sticks bridging a ravine we find ourselves forced to cross. Depending on how confident we are in the story we either crawl or stride to the other side, and then the thing further surprises us by holding up or failing for reasons that strike us (if not "in the end," than just on the other side) as completely unexpected. The story gets us across the absence where the missing one used to be, and sometimes it's by falling into the hole that it most honors its purported subject. If we are lucky enough not to fall in the ravine with the story we stand on the ravine's edge and take our medicine: You should have waited, the wreckage says, should have collected more stick. You should have been truer to me.
January 16, 2006
Martin Luther King, Adult Swim, 2006
So, the day before MLK Day, 24 assassinates the first black president. Over on Adult Swim, the Boondocks envisions a great "What If?" fantasy of mine by bringing MLK back to life, only to proceed to (pretty much) flub the thing entirely.
Why flubbed? For starters, what's the news-flash in suggesting MLK would be disappointed in the state of the world and black America? I'm disappointed in the state of the world and black America and I'm just some guy. Of course MLK would come back against the war in Iraq and at extreme logger-heads with the cable TV war-entertainment complex. There's no new information or analysis in either, but by teasing those propositions out and turning them into sub-plots the show chooses cheap, easy cynicism over speculative, lucid dreaming. I mean, this is a cartoon on cable at 11pm doing a "What If?" riff. What more license does anyone involved need to go for imaginative broke than that?
Instead of lucid dreaming, last night's Boondocks settled for riffing on time-traveler agnosia. (All that rap and the giga-Ipods and the booty shaking! Oy!) The problem is that time travelers are always already shocked by future media, this even when their time machines are cardboard boxes. Remember Videodrome and the homeless shelter where hobos watch TV all day? The Boondocks moment where MLK and Huey stare aghast at BET is just a shaded, flipside echo of that imagining of TV as "the retina of the mind's eye." The untold story isn't in how the retina was detached. (That's the opening premise.) The real story is in the process of reattaching said retina, the big questions being how, through what means, to what end, does it hurt, and so on.
Or, put another way, last night's episode is a form of hero abuse. I'm all for deconstructing prevailing myths, but what's the upside in bringing MLK back only to write him as getting bullied by Bill O'Reilly? This is like imagining that Nelson Mandela got out of prison after 20 years only to wander around Johannesburg and stare melancholy through plate-glass windows of malls and McDonalds, all the while shaking his head at the deprivations of globalization. In so much as MLK comes back from the dead and interacts with O'Reilly at all, he comes back to (non-violently) destroy him, to make him obsolete, to out-point him in the ratings and so on. He comes back to end the ratings system altogether, to start his own cable company, bring back live mass rallies, whatever. These aren't science fictional, these are the questions and projects daily set before anyone engaged with media making or politics or just plain living in our particular kind of now. And sure, Cornell West's rap record was, like, lame. And Al Gore's cable station is a mite too earnest. But those dudes aren't responding the questions raised by the mass mediascape by submitting to bullying by idiots. Engaging the problem of the mass - the how, through what means, to what end, does it hurt, and so on - doesn't guarantee a positive result. (Like a good record, for example.) It does mean, though, that you were in the fight, and The Boondock's MLK was nowhere near it.
The moment in the episode in when MLK says fuck it and goes off to Canada feels right (in a self-immolated Buddhist monk kind of way), but mostly because his refusal to engage the bullshit is most immediately directed at his imprisonment in an episode of Boondocks in the first place. MLK's media implosion via n-word sets him free from the episode but only at the cost of his own existence and in the furtherance of the show's tendentious comedy-politricknal hijinks. That his exit speech somehow sparks a thoroughly pointless "revolution" is only insult to injury, as gassing all those thousands of pixellated nuccas on the White House lawn to install Oprah as POTUS is an Orwellian "victory is defeat" nightmare if there ever was one. I mean, Oprah?
So what could the episode coulda, woulda, shoulda looked like? How about an "Animal Man"-era Grant Morrison storyline? Or a Steve Erickson novel? The problem of a character's agency against the grain of his/her own imposed characterhood (up to and including war against their creator) is a staple of all those weirdo, meta "comics about comics." (Animal Man or Alan Moore's 1963, for example, or the various DC Marvel multiverse colonic series.) Imagining the return of MLK (i.e., imagining the return of "the movement") is always-already comic booky and science fictional, so why not fully deploy those genre's techniques to answer "What would MLK do?"
What does a dead hero do when he's brought back from the grave only to find himself used as a prop in another generations side argument? (In this case, the Boondock's ongoing rearguard defense of "nigga" as a kind of higher love.) What does a great speaker do when you take his words away and fill his mouth with silly and obvious things? (In this case the Coz's "Pound Cake Speech?") How does he respond when you reanimate him via the yuk-yuk straight-jacket of Murphian (as in Eddie) impersonation, as opposed to, say, an open-ended, loa-style, social-field-effect interpolation? (Imagine MLK hopping person-to-person like the devil does in Fallen. Who chases him? Who surrenders? Who catches MLK the way people catch cold?) When does this great leader resolve the question of being "this great leader?" When does he start peeling off from the narrative arc later/lesser minds have mapped out for him? When do his responses finally continue his own arc, which is to say, become completely unexpected?
December 10, 2005
rest in peace
Stir Crazy was the first movie my mother and I could agree upon. She took me twice without acting like I had dragged her there. It was almost like we were two friends out for the night. (Did it have an R-rating? I was 10 and I remember my mother being vaguely ratings conscious. Could it have gotten that strong an endorsement?)
My father, who always fell pointedly asleep in his recliner on any movie I imposed on the communal televison, once stayed up late to watch the entirety of Live on the Sunset Strip with me. He didn't exactly bust a gut laughing but he didn't turn away either. Besides his fascination with cars and lawns, it's the most American thing I can remember him doing in his entire life.
I've got ambivalence about heroes and such, but Richard Pryor goes on the short list, easy.
Posted by ebogjonson at 3:41 PM | Permalink
October 28, 2005
From the Village Voice:
Thanks to the Daily News' beyond-fabulous sepia-tone mug-shot memorial cover, Parks, the bespectacled seamstress-NAACP activist of 1955, is now officially a Thug Immortal, the original ride-or-die chick. So gangsta, so About The Black, she moved all the way to roughneck Detroit as Montgomery fast turned life-threatening. The News' cover choice has upset some in the cult-nat ranks, but I applaud it lest we forget the freedom road is paved with jailed revolutionaries and that liberation rhymes with incarceration when not death. Tain't but a hop, skip, and a jump from Parks to Angela and Assata on the FBI Most Wanted lists. And unlike the women of the Weather Underground who had to blow some shit up to get there, all these Black women had to do to register as threats to kracka supremacy was to make a federal case out of saying No.
What Greg Tate said.
Posted by ebogjonson at 12:11 PM | Permalink