Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat?

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There are situations in the world one wishes one could un-know and pictures one wishes one could un-see.

But once known and once seen, a person becomes, in a sense, morally responsible for the situation depicted and described.

While red states rush to pass “heartbeat” bills and draconian abortion bans, there are children all over the world whose heartbeats are becoming fainter and fainter.

The child in this featured image is most likely already dead. There comes a point in the starvation process when it cannot be reversed. The Telegraph, which printed this picture, reports that more than 5,000,000,000 children in Yemen are at risk for the same fate.

Yet Republican politicians don’t seem to have any interest in holding those responsible for causing these deaths, neither the president who sells weapons to Mohammad Bin Salman  to continue making war on that benighted country nor on MbS himself, who we already know is  murdered a US journalist, one who had a heartbeat. Shrapnel raining down on schoolchildren has been directly linked to bombs made in the US.

Neither do they seem to care about the heartbeats of black and brown babies once they’re born or white babies who are born into poverty.

Or the heartbeats of rape victims who are forced to carry their rapist’s child.

Or the heartbeats of children born in any of the so-called shithole countries.

Or the heartbeats of women who could die if they go through a full-term pregnancy.

Or the heartbeats of men, women, and children fleeing violence such as we can’t imagine and seeking asylum in the US.

Or the heartbeats of the likes of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, and so, so many more.

I sometimes wish I believed in hell so I could imagine on which rung of the inferno these morally bankrupt, mostly white, men and women would receive their comeuppance.

I see and I know. Time to get to work. Pictures of this child will come to Washington, DC, with me in a couple of weeks and will be, if all goes according to plan, brought into a Congressional hearing, where they will be held up. Others will be, with luck, taped to the White House fence. Others will be distributed on the Capitol steps. I invite you to download and print out the picture and also make use of it to confront your state’s politicians with what they are ignoring, especially if you live in a state that has recently passed a so-called-heartbeat bill.

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Novelists Explore Internalized Racism

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I recently read two books in a row by African-American authors that address the state of internalized racism in America through deep satire.

Paul Beatty’s book, The Sellout, was written in 2015; Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s book came out earlier this year.

We often think of satire as having a humorous element, but in both of these books, I found that every time I was tempted to laugh, something pulled me back as I reflected on the reality behind the author’s words.

The Sellout is about an unnamed California man who owns a farm in a small town called Dickens on the outskirts of Los Angeles. He was home-schooled by his radical sociologist father, but it’s not your average home schooling. Hearing gun shots while having tokens of white supremacy put in your bassinet is traumatic, but certainly teaches a lesson.

Paul Beatty

Paul Beatty

Yet, as an adult, the narrator agrees to take on Hominy, Buckwheat’s understudy in The Little Rascals, as a slave. Yup, Hominy – after a youth spent being filmed portraying all the worst stereotypes of white audiences – insists on being enslaved, and the narrator obliges. He goes further and, with a little help from his friends, decides to re-create segregation in order to attract white people with money back to his hometown, which has been taken off the maps.

He winds up being arrested for violating every civil rights amendment and law and his case goes to the Supreme Court.

In his 2015 New York Times review, Dwight Garner calls the first 100 pages of the book “caustic and . . . badass.”

“What I mean,” he writes, “is that the first third of The Sellout reads like the most concussive monologues and interviews of Chris Rock, Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle wrapped in a satirical yet surprisingly delicate literary and historical sensibility.”

We Cast a Shadow, Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s satire, is more on the order of Key and Peele at their best and also more poignant to me. Again, we meet an unnamed man in a not-too-distant New Orleans who has married a white woman. Their son is very light-skinned and could pass for white except for patches of dark skin on various parts of his body. The father is obsessed with his son having all the advantages of being white to the point of subjecting him to various “demelanization” treatments, which the boy does not want and finds painful.

Maurice Carlos Ruffin

Maurice Carlos Ruffin

The narrator himself could be called a sellout. He has separated himself from his roots to the extent that he dresses “white” and does everything he can to align himself with the white higher-ups in his law firm in order to win a promotion and the bonus that will help him pay for his son’s whitening treatments.

How much of what he does is for love of his son or hatred of himself? He has father issues himself, as his father is serving a life sentence for assaulting a police officer who assaulted the narrator’s mother. He blames his father for resisting, even though they live in a project that is being more ghettoized every day and eventually is cordoned off from the rest of the city. In the next state over, presumably Mississippi, African-Americans have to wear tracking devices, so the narrator’s fears are very real.

All of it, however, comes down to white supremacy and the expectation by even liberal whites that black people just need to “get over” slavery. Just “get over” the fact that they’re only barely American citizens now because of what their ancestors endured in the Middle Passage and on the farms and plantations and building sites of the territory that eventually became the United States of America.

I noted above that every time I was tempted to laugh while reading either of the books, something held me back. More to the point, I had to wonder whether I, as a bleeding-heart liberal white woman, had a right to laugh. In Ruffin’s book, in particular, there were more moments where I was tempted to cry.

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah ends his NYT review of Ruffin’s book this way:

“How does racism shape our ability to love?

We Cast a Shadow churns fresh beauty from old ugliness. What injustices have we as a culture come to accept as normal? What are the pitfalls of our complacency? And how can anyone survive this? These questions are essential to America’s growth, but rarely do we see them posed so sharply. Read this book, and ask yourself: Is this the world you want?”

Fear is a Jealous God

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“Fact, we all like our video doorbells,” says one of the Property Brothers with self-assurance that he is speaking for a large percentage of the viewership.

In another commercial for home security devices, a woman under a dryer at the salon looks at her phone and yells, “Get off my property, you creeps.”

In yet another, a man at work spends time making sure his doors at home are locked and the security alarm on via his cellphone.

Meanwhile, other people in commercials are worrying about their investments, the medicines they take, and whether they’ll have to walk five yards further to get to their rental car.

Is it me, or does it seem as if in the last few years fear itself has become a sellable commodity?

Okay, I’m fortunate. I’ve never owned anything except pets that I would fear losing to a burglar. I’ve often never even had to lock my door at night. I’m pretty healthy and I intend to stay that way. I don’t have investments.

But in conjunction with the fear-mongering that began four years ago when a certain someone descended a golden escalator, and what we have seen happen since including murders of people trying to hold back the white supremacist tide, it just seems to me as if someone is promoting the fear factor.

We all know that fear is one of the most primal instincts in human beings. We also know that, evolutionarily, it was a damned important instinct; without it, the species probably wouldn’t have survived long enough for us to be here.

As the world became more sophisticated (I won’t say civilized), there were far fewer things to fear in much of the world. But fear is a jealous god, and wants to hold people to itself. The voice in the brain went from, “Psst, there’s a sabre-tooth tiger about to pounce on you” to “Psst, that person over there owns more than you do” or “Psst, you might have that nasty disease” or “Psst, those people don’t look like you; get rid of them.”

War is fear, usually of boundaries. Racism is fear of others who don’t look like us or speak in the same language. Selfishness is fear that we will lose our toys. Injustice is fear that we can’t control others.

It is comes down to fear, that jealous god that wants us to live in a continuous state of anxiety so we won’t worship any other god.

One might say that the notion of Satan came about as the embodiment of fear.

I’m not saying that one shouldn’t feel secure in one’s home. I’m not saying that sick people shouldn’t seek medical help. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t invest their money.

I am saying that if we let fear rule our lives, we have sold our souls to Satan, and we will become the people in whom the consequences of fear – cruelty, lies, amorality – will become normal.

There is a plague of fear in this country, and it is spreading like a red tide. In ancient humans, the fear instinct evolved into the fight or flight response. Are we going to run away from this plague, or are we going to fight it?

Michelle Obama – She Became

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I usually listen to nonfiction because for some reason I understand it better when I hear it even though I can’t highlight and underline.

There was never a question that I would listen to Michelle Obama’s Becoming once I learned that she narrated it herself.

It is no exaggeration to say that the sound of her voice stating her truths – defiant, tender, exasperated, joyful, determined, awed – was one of the most powerful literary experiences I’ve had in a long time.

I don’t know what I expected. Perhaps that this would be a glossy, triumphant statement of the first African-American woman to be the First Lady and perhaps the most admired woman in the world.

michelle 1

There is already a determined look in that face.

It wasn’t. Ms. Obama holds no punches as she talks about the hard-earned victories of her life that were won against the odds of being black in America. She was an ambitious child from the get-go, funny and creative and imaginative as she grew up in a lower middle class family on the South Side of Chicago.

Her ambitions took her to an Ivy League college and on to a position in a prestigious law firm in Chicago (through which she met her future husband) and high-level positions with nonprofits. She makes no apologies for living the good life once she was making the good money. Even so, she continued to live at home with her loving parents, who encouraged her to be the person God dreamt her to be.

The tears started early on in her description of her relationship with her father. Although stricken with multiple sclerosis, he never missed a day of work until came the inevitable. Her relationship with her practical mother is also revelatory and predicts the extremely strong family bonds she and her husband created as his political career grew.

Ms. Obama did not want to be a political wife. She doesn’t hide the disappointments of playing not only second fiddle, but second fiddle to the first African-American to run for President, with all the pain and anger that brought with it. They had struggled for years to have children and finally resorted to in vitro fertilization. With the arrival of Malia and a few years later Sasha, she never wanted to stop working but she also wanted her little family to herself, safe and secure.

Still, there was an abiding sense that being President what God had dreamed him to be, so she carved out a place for herself in his campaign, insisted on having staff for herself, and learned to relate to people of all colors and contexts around the country.

The media was hot on her trail, waiting, it seemed, for her to make slips and for the right-wing media to translate anything she said into fear for white people. The conspiracy theories, the birtherism calumny led by one Donald Trump, all of it could have broken her spirit. Instead, with each new challenge, she adjusted herself to finding a way to act within the framework of that challenge and, as she famously said, “When they go low, we go high.”

When she described President Obama’s first election to the Presidency, I cried again, thinking of that night when I had decided that I wanted to hear the news, good or bad, from Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. The news came surprisingly early, and as Jon Stewart announced with tears in his own eyes, “I have the privilege of telling you that Barack Obama is the next President of the United States,” I wept for joy and called my sister and we wept together.

The next eight years were never particularly easy for Ms. Obama, with two growing girls, her husband often away, threats coming in, and the eternal presence of Secret Service agents for herself and her family. But she persisted in carving out a way to live as a family and a way to make her own mark on the Presidency, particularly in regard to children’s nutrition and veterans and military families. As her husband did, she applied herself to making a difference, and she did.

I could go on, but I’d rather you read it – or better yet, heard it – for yourself, if you haven’t already. This is a remarkable portrait of a remarkable woman of whom I’ve no doubt we will continue to hear. You will weep with her and rejoice with her, be angry on her behalf and be proud of her accomplishments. It took courage to write this particular book at this particular time, and you will applaud that courage and even feel as if you knew her well.

Atlanta’s First African-American Cops

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In the accompanying photograph, the first African-American policement in Atlanta are, from left in the front: Henry Hooks, Claude Dixon, Ernest H. Lyons; back: Robert McKibbens, Willard Strickland, Willie T. Elkins, Johnnie P. Jones, and John Sanders.

I recently read Georgia author Thomas Mullen’s first in a series of mysteries featuring the first African-American policemen in Atlanta.

After the first book, Darktown, appeared in 2016, he wrote an article for the Atlanta magazine about the history of the eight men who took the great risk of doing a job neither white people nor many African-Americans wanted them to do.

The second book in the series, Lightning Men, is newly released.

Mayor William Hartsfield was perhaps not considered progressive, but he was looking to bring Atlanta into compliance with mid-20th century civil rights laws. He met with religious leaders, including Martin Luther King Sr., about ways in which African-Americans could progress in their native city. He and Police Chief Herbert Jenkins (himself a member of the Klan) initiated the young men into the police force on April 3, 1948.

In his speech that day, Mayor Hartsfield acknowledged that 95% of the white police did not agree with the idea of having African-Americans on the force. That 95% would make life very difficult for the black officers in the years to come. In fact, they were not allowed to work out of the white police headquarters, but were consigned to a basement in the Butler Street YMCA for five years.

They were also not allowed to arrest white people, drive squad cars, or wear their uniforms to and from the Butler St. Y. Their beat was the Sweet Auburn area, consisting of black middle class and underclass neighborhoods. The area was called “Darktown” by white folks, and God help the black cop who tried to do anything to solve a crime that would take him out of that neighborhood.

Darktown fictionalizes two of those first recruits. Lucius Boggs is the son of a respected minister. He has a college degree and had lived a fairly privileged life for an African-American until World War II when he enlisted and was kept at the South Carolina training camp for the entire war because of superiors not wanting to send men overseas who might be inclined to tell foreigners what being black in the US was really like.

Boggs’s partner, Tommy Smith, comes from the underclass neighborhood of Sweet Auburn. He was on active duty during the war, in a tank division. He is muscled and has never been able to afford the sensitivities that define his partner.

One night they see a white man hit a lamppost on their beat. When they go to investigate, they find a young black woman with him. She has a bruise on her jaw. A couple of days later, they are called to the scene where her body has been disposed of, a bullet through her heart.

It is clear that the white force couldn’t care less about who had murdered her. Boggs takes it upon himself to investigate and begins to break every rule laid down by white supremacy of what he can and can’t do as a “Negro” police officer.

Thus begins a harrowing tale of the injustices heaped upon the African-American community of Atlanta by Klansmen in the police force, of ex-cops who form a group called the Rust Division who come in to help out the white cops when things need to be cleaned up, of the efforts by the white cops to undermine their African-American colleagues, and the almost superhuman effort by the black cops to continue in their jobs when they realize what they’re facing.

Mullen, who is white, started his research in 2012. He says in his article, “I learned of these officers when I read former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Gary Pomerantz’s 1996 history of Atlanta, Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn. He devotes just four pages of his 545-page epic to the city’s first black cops, whose swearing-in prefaced the coming victories of the civil rights movement. But I wanted to know more. As black people in the Jim Crow South, they were second-class citizens, barred from the front of buses, most restaurants, and public parks, and constantly at risk of state-sanctioned or mob-rule violence. Yet they were also authority figures, charged with enforcing laws that often oppressed them and their families.”

A transplant from Rhode Island to, eventually, Decatur, Mullen was fascinated by this bit of history. He saw it as a vehicle for depicting larger social conflicts. At the time of his research, Michael Brown and so many others were still alive, but Trayvon Martin had been murdered by George Zimmerman and a united effort to undermine the first African-American President had begun. Police violence against African-Americans was not yet country-wide news, yet certainly those in Atlanta knew only too well what police violence was like.

Mr. Mullen also acknowledges that, as a transplant from Rhode Island, might seem to be trying to muscle in on the work of native Southern writers. But, he said, “My past work has wrestled with what it means to be American and how the various tangled threads of our past have combined to weave us into who we are today. To write about American identity in the South means writing about race.”

The full article can be read here: Thomas Mullen talks about Darktown

The eight men came from a variety of backgrounds. Ernest H. Lyons had seen a woman stabbed when he was 7 years old. No police came to help. The incident made him want to be a cop. John H. Sanders was the salutatorian of his graduating class at Booker T. Washington High School, but he could only find work as a janitor. When they plus Claude Dixon, Willie T. Elkins, Johnnie P. Jones, Henry Hooks, Robert McKibbens, and Willard Strickland began active duty, they were called “YMCA cops” by some black people who resented their authority. White cops made false reports of wrongdoing by the black policemen and even tried to run them over as they crossed the street.

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Officer Claude Mundy (far right), the first black officer killed in the line of duty, in front of the Butler Street YMCA.

Mullen’s novel is well-written and certainly atmospheric, to the point where I could say it should probably not be read by everyone. For me, as a white woman, I read such books in order to bear witness to the victims of racial violence wherever and whenever it occurs. It’s often not easy for me. There were many times while reading Darktown that I had to close the book because of its relentless realism.

But if reading such a book is painful to me, I have to always remind myself of the pain suffered by the victims themselves, throughout our tortured history. It is, in part, my way of atoning for America’s original sin.

Benjamin Lay: Abolition’s Prophet

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When I hear people try to excuse historical acts of racism by saying, “That’s how people were then,” I get apoplectic. I think of people who throughout history have clearly demonstrated they knew right from wrong, no matter what the prevailing society was like.

Now I have another weapon in my arsenal: Benjamin Lay (1682-1759) of Abington Township, PA.

Thanks to Marcus Rediker, the general public can know more about this fierce warrior for emancipation through his book, The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became First Revolutionary Abolitionist.

In 1738, Benjamin Lay walked 20 miles to attend the annual Quaker’s Philadelphia meeting, according to Mr. Rediker. Keep in mind that it wasn’t until 1758 that the Quakers outlawed slave-holding among the brethren. Lay carried with him a hollowed-out book containing an animal bladder filled with red pokeberry juice. When it came his turn to speak,

“Throwing the overcoat aside, he spoke his prophecy: ‘Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures.’ He raised the book above his head and plunged the sword through it. . . .He then splattered (the red juice) on the heads and bodies of the slave keepers.”

He was expelled from the meeting.

Lay was not a single-issue prophet, though. It wasn’t just his views on emancipation that caused people to disparage him. He truly believed and tried to bring forth a Utopia where everyone was equal and would live simply by growing their own food and making their own clothes and respecting nature. He himself lived in a cave, subsisting only on fruits and vegetables because of his belief in animal rights, and he refused to use anything that existed because of slave labor.

Mr. Rediker posits that Lay isn’t well known today because was not a “gentleman saint” like William Wilberforce, who led the British abolition movement. Lay was “wild and confrontational, militant and uncompromising.” Sounds like a great many prophets.

Being a little person as well as having a hunched back made people think he was “deformed in both body and mind.” It could be that his own “otherness” contributed to his strong feelings about slavery, but it is obvious that his main inspiration is from his understanding of Scripture and what was revealed to him.

According to Joe Lockard of the Antislavery Literature Project at Arizona State University, Lay also was known to perform what might be considered “guerilla” street theater to try to get people to confront the evil of slavery. He even kidnapped a fellow Quaker’s son to show the pain that enslaved families endured when slave-holders broke those families up.

The one book that Lay wrote, which was published by Benjamin Franklin, is available online at:  https://antislavery.eserver.org/religious/allslavekeepersfinal/allslavekeepersfinal The book is titled All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates. It looks as if it will take some effort to read, but may be well worth the fortitude to understand Benjamin Lay’s devotion to the cause.

Lay must have felt well vindicated when the Society of Friends in Philadelphia did decide to discipline and/or turn slave-holders out of the community. He died a year later.

Mr. Rediker’s book is available in audible form as well as hard-cover and paperback. He is Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh and Senior Research Fellow at the Collège d’études mondiales in Paris. He is the author of numerous prize-winning books, including The Many-Headed Hydra (with Peter Linebaugh), The Slave Ship, and The Amistad Rebellion. He produced the award-winning documentary film “Ghosts of Amistad” (Tony Buba, director), about the popular memory of the Amistad rebellion of 1839 in contemporary Sierra Leone.

An essay from his book appeared in The New York Times last year and the last paragraph is relevant to our times:

“In his time Lay may have been the most radical person on the planet. He helps us to understand what was politically and morally possible in the first half of the 18th century – and what may be possible now. It is more than we think.”

Crimes Against Humanity

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Do you believe the regime when it says that it has reunited all “eligible” children with their parents?

I don’t, but when I saw that volunteer civilians were involved in the work of reuniting families, I felt much better about it. Knowing that neither the ACLU, nor the judge overseeing the lawsuit against the regime, is letting go until every last child is with its parent(s) helps as well.

What bothers me more is the term “eligible.” What a useful term for the government to use. “Eligible,” as if each child had ticked off the right boxes or come up with the right number or fulfilled some other benign requirement.

What “eligible” really means is that the government can’t return hundreds of “ineligible” children because it deported the parents and doesn’t have the will or the care to find them.

Then there’s the children who’ve been sexually abused while in detention and the ICE agents who have told them things such as, “Your mother doesn’t want you anymore.” That’s because they deported Mom and made her sign a complicated form that says she would give up her child without telling her that she had a right to legal counsel to determine whether she would leave her child with relatives in the US and go back to face the horrors of her own country alone.

Of all the scenes of hell that our national nightmare has introduced us to in the past year and a half, surely this one is the most “eligible” to be called a crime against humanity. Since it involves more than one country, I say this crime should be prosecuted in the Hague. Stephen Miller, from whose Satanic mind it was birthed, and Kiersjten Nielsen, who oversaw the program, should be the first defendants.

The attorney general belongs in the dock for avowing that this was a “law” that needs to be upheld. No, it wasn’t a law; it was a policy change that never saw the light of day in Congress and never saw any repudiation by the GOP. So perhaps international lawyers should be questioning Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell as well.

And when they all cry “I was just following orders!”, time for the head of the regime to take his turn in the dock.