Summer Reading


IMG_3957Last year I joined Now Read This, the online bookclub sponsored by PBS and The New York Times.  Why did I join?  To expand my exposure to books I might not otherwise read, to learn, to explore, to interact with others reading the same books.

I rarely read fantasy or science fiction.  This summer has become an exception.  The June choice, The Fifth Season by Jemisin, won the Hugo in 2016.  The other two books in the trilogy won in 2017 and 2018.  I wanted to know what happened to the characters so I read them all.  The spine says Fantasy.  I think they are more science fiction.  Even people who claimed they did not like either fantasy or science fiction became like me and read them all.  This series tells a futuristic tale extremely applicable to events, both social and political, in the world today, how prejudice kills both overtly and covertly,  how fear of those who are different affect everyone, what it costs to live in a world where certain attitudes exist.

It took me two days to finish the July title even with chores, touchup house painting, all the things teachers attempt to do during summer break.  Although I had previously read at least three books by Luis Alberto Urrea, I had not read this one, The House of Broken Angels about a family who lives back and forth across the border–San Diego and Tijuana.  It is a tragic-comedy about the endurance, hopes, dreams, cooking, living of several generations.  His non-fiction book, The Devil’s Highway, is a must read for those who want to understand what occurs along the US-Mexico borderlands.

In the midst of all this, I went back and reread Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.  Wow, no wonder it caused a stir when it was published in the 1960s: a whole country where everyone switches back and forth between male and female and those who cannot do this are considered perverts.  Additionally, the main character is described as having very dark brown skin and those who do not behave exactly as they should or politically protest are sent off to a stark camp where they work in excessive cold and eventually die.

Then I read an article about Toni Morrison and authors who do not write for people based on a certain audience, e.g. black, white.  They write about what they know, what they feel, for a different purpose. One book listed was Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, a fantasy, all of which takes place in what we now think of as Nigeria. It has not one single white character in it.  I kept thinking, wow.  I read a lot of literature from Africa, Middle East, and Latin America.  Most of the time, for better or worse, characters from other cultures show up, usually European and usually for the worse.  Not in this one.  If you go to a book store looking for it, look in Young Adult.  Jemisin’s can be found in Adult Science Fiction/Fantasy.  When I mentioned to someone I could not tell why some are categorized one way and some another, I was told there is less graphic sex in YA.  Really?  I cannot tell the difference.

Next on my list?  I annually act as a judge in a literary contest.  Three novels arrived in yesterday’s mail.  Guess I need to get busy.

 

Blood Quantum: A Poem for Our Time


 

My grandson cuts himself into 16 equal pieces:

4/16 Urhobo from Africa

3/16 Spanish from Spain

4/16 European–two Swiss German great, great-grandfathers

(Werth and Kaiser), Irish, English and who knows what

3/16 Mexican–whatever mixtures that may be

2/16 Navaho

 

Who am I? What am I?

Who are you? What are you?

Do we really know?

Who sets the rules?

white men

black

Indian

Native American

Irish

English

German

from where and for whom?

 

He looks Navaho:

-blue black straight hair

-pale brown skin

-obsidian eyes.

One four year old girl asks him,

“Are you American Indian?”

His six year old self says nothing.

She repeats,

“Are you American Indian?”

He says, “It’s complicated.”

 

The Navaho won’t claim him, too little blood.

He needs 1/4, not 1/8.

Caddy and Fort Sill Apache allow 1/16, not Navahos.

1/4 blood is for

-Sioux

-Cheyenne

-Kiowa

-Navaho

1/8 works for Comanche and Pawnee.

Some Cherokees only want a Cherokee ancestor.

 

But he is none of those.

Is he Navaho?

Is he white?

The old South goes by the one drop rule:

one drop of Negro…

Is a person with 99/100 per cent white

and 1/100 black, black?

Who says?

Kids at school ask, “What are you?”

He tells them.

They say, “You’re lying.”

 

I only know specifically about two ancestors,

the Swiss Germans.

Another great grandfather disappeared during the Civil War.

I don’t even know his name.

Who am I?

Who are you?

I think I’ll get a DNA test.

Then I’ll know how many pieces I need to cut myself into.

 

Note:  This was originally published in my book “On the Rim of Wonder”.  I had a cousin send me 75 pages of ancestry information.  I looked up more myself.  That one great grandfather remains a mystery.  I had my DNA done.  It did not match what I expected from the ancestry work.

Blood quantum is the term the US government used to determine whether a person would be qualified as an Indian.  Now many Indian Nations use it to decide who can be on the tribal rolls and who cannot.

 

 

Whitney Plantation Visit


Whitney Plantation resides on the River Road about one hours drive from New Orleans.  A recent visit there provided much enlightening information about the slave trade, crops grown near New Orleans, and the history of this area. Tours can be scheduled all days of the week except Tuesday.  It is unique in that many different types of plantation buildings still exist there, including old slave cabins, a foundry,  and the outside kitchen.

A German immigrant started the plantation in the late 1700s.  At Habitation Haydel, its original name, he grew indigo.  After his death, his youngest son converted the main crop grown to sugar cane, which is still grown there today.  Both indigo and sugar cane required intensive labor for profitability.

Although, according to population data, only ten blacks lived in Louisiana in 1712, by the end of the century slavery was the main source of labor.  In 1795, there were 19,926 slaves in Louisiana.  Under Spanish rule the slave population steadily increased.  Although many were imported from Haiti, those from Africa came from what are now the countries of Senegal, Bissau, and Guinea.  After the initial importation of slaves, the United States imported few compared to islands in the West Indies and Latin America, e.g. Brazil.  The preferred method in the United States to obtain slaves was breeding.  Women and men were forced to breed.  Their owners specifically chose certain people to produce certain types of progeny just like in breeding livestock.  One woman complained of having 16 children by 16 different men.

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After leaving the visitor center, the first building on the tour is the church.  Inside the church are statues of various children who were the products of the breeding program at the plantation.

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The artist created these statues from specific information about the children.  The plantation owners maintained detailed inventories of all slaves and their value.  This particular plantation often owned as many as 100 slaves.

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From this inventory a memorial has been created with the names of the slaves.  Included are various statements made by the slaves themselves as recorded in slave narratives.

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The above tells the story of a child fathered by his owner and one of the slave women and how his father treated him.

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Even pregnant women could not escape beatings.

IMG_2735Because the area around New Orleans receives 60 inches of rain a year, the landscape everywhere is lush.  This is one of several pools at the plantation.

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These containers cooked the sugar cane.  Starting with the largest, the cane was boiled repeatedly until it cooked down and poured into increasingly smaller containers.  This was especially dangerous work due to the fires, the heat, and the boiling sugar cane. Sugar cane production was much more dangerous than cotton which was grown farther north in Louisiana.  The cane itself was cut with large machetes and the edges of the cane are also sharp.  Many people were severely injured.  The life expectancy of a sugar cane slave who worked in the fields or cooking the cane was approximately ten years from the time he or she went to work, often as young as ten. Although field slaves had a much harder life in terms of labor, they had less exposure to their owners and their families and therefore, in some ways, more freedom to talk and interact. House slaves were constantly watched and the women especially subject to sexual abuse.

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Slave cabins like this one contained four rooms.  Like the main plantation house, most buildings were built off the ground.  No levees existed then and the largest plantations were often built within sight of the Mississippi River and thus prone to flooding.

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This building housed the foundry.  Skilled slaves, like blacksmiths, were very valuable and received better treatment, e.g. enough food.  When the movie, “Django Unchained” was filmed, part of the movie was filmed here because the adjoining plantation did not have a blacksmith shop.  The branding portion was filmed at Whitney Plantation.

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The walkway, looking from the front of the main plantation house, is lined with giant oak trees.  Before the levees were built, the Mississippi River could be seen from the house.

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Originally, there was no first floor due to the flooding.  Later, after it will built and used for dining, an office, and a living area, whenever the floods came, the slaves were required to carry everything to the second floor until the water subsided. Then they would clean the first floor of mud and debris and return the furniture there.  Whitney Plantation possesses some unique characteristics, e.g. finely painted European style ceilings.

Cooking was not done inside the main house at any of the plantations due to the heat and fire danger. The cook, another skilled and valuable slave, was required to know how to cook various popular cuisines typical of the area, e.g. creole, European–French, Spanish.

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The various ferns and mosses growing from the limb of this large oak trees demonstrates the lushness and humidity typical of this area and why it is still used for sugar cane production.

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A short distance down the road is Evergreen Plantation where the main portion of “Django Unchained” was filmed.  It, too, still produces sugar cane and a family lives here.  Tours are available as well.

 

 

 

 

Make America Great Again?


Although few argue with the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, few look long and hard at the history and life then.  Unless you owned land, were male, were white, nothing for you.  Most of the founding fathers still held, tacitly or openly, to the old English class system.  Many owned slaves even when they claimed to dislike it.  Throughout United States history,  a small group of high status, white men have controlled the country.

More recently during WWII, we imprisoned Japanese Americans but not Germans.  The Japanese were often seen as ruthless, barbaric while the Aryan German remained quite close to the idealized, white, patriotic American ideal.

Today when people read about white men murdering large numbers of people, the news and the comments indicate that most think these people are abnormal, not like the rest of us.  This is a country fascinated with hate.  For many in the last couple of years this has taken the form of hatred of outsiders, refugees, dark people.  This has brought a new wave of tough on crime mentality.  People who think differently, more welcoming, more critical, are seen as subversive, anti-patriotic.  Much of the public sees certain groups, e.g. black men, as criminals, wicked, violent, groups to be feared.  Any research contrary to these prevalent views tends to be hidden, pushed away, unreported.  One example is a report by Homeland Security in 2009 which warned law enforcement agencies about the dangers of right-wing conservatism.  Certain conservative groups demanded the withdrawal of this report and succeeded.

Certain Christian groups push for a return to Christian values not realizing perhaps the origin of some of these values.  The word, evil, provides an excellent example.  This word goes back to Saint Augustine who defined it as a refusal to act morally, a refusal to do good.  While Hitler, the Holocaust, and Nazism have been associated with evil, interestingly fascism has not. Franco in Spain escaped the evil label probably because the Vatican, the US government, and US businesses supported him.  The word evil is rarely used to describe state sanctioned violence as in the US support of the Shah of Iran, Pinochet in Chile.  It appears we pick and choose the evil label to suit certain purposes.  Powerful groups are rarely labeled evil and therefore do not become targets of general hatred.

Fear relates to hate.  People hate what they fear.  Some media play on these fears to incite hate to suit their own goals and philosophies.  Certain talk radio hosts use their rants to further their goals in this manner.  They want people who do not think like they do to incite fear which leads to hate. These media can easily inflame the public fears about crime, refugees, drug usage.  They also rely on the often hidden preexisting prejudices that many deny they have, e.g. racism, fear of outsiders, fear of differences.

The ultimate end of these prejudices is war.  The often popular belief remains:  justice and goodness can be attained via violence, force.  We are good and everyone against us is evil and therefore to be hated.  The war vocabulary remains part of common everyday language:  War on Women, Drug War, War on Poverty.  Our language remains full of these types of communications.  It expresses a common worldview. Problems can be solved by force.  This continues in spite of enormous evidence that it does not work.  The War on Drugs never attained success, our economic and social problems remain.  Even efforts at containment frequently fail, e.g. the current opioid epidemic.  Many schools currently hire police officers and sometimes students are arrested for relatively minor infractions.  Often those arrested are students with certain types of disabilities or from certain minority groups.  Our prison population has increased by 500% over the last thirty years with the increased imprisonment of women double that of men, mainly due to drug related crimes.  Obviously, these “wars” are failing. Because of the “cult” of individuality and freedom, people in the US often see these failures as the result of individuals acting irresponsibly rather than societal failures.  Although these factors do not force an individual to behave in certain ways, they do affect a person’s psychological makeup, opportunities for betterment, and mental and physical health.

We have become a society possessed with fear and hatred caused by a profound mistrust of others.  Contrary to what many wish to believe this nation has a long history of obsession with perceived enemies and evil.  Some see threats everywhere, liberals hate conservatives and vice versa, some fear and hate those with different sexual orientations, the list seems endless.  Many see the solution as one form of war or another either through violence, incarceration, or laws.

Mass rallies on both sides further incite this sort of mass mentality.  History remains full of disastrous consequences of such behavior.  The Nazis came to power this way and killed millions of Jews via such strategies.  The genocide in Rwanda is another example. We see the perpetrators of such as monsters, but common, ordinary men and women made the Holocaust possible.  Good, decent people engage in horrible crimes.  The Ku Klux Klan continues with membership of otherwise ordinary, upstanding citizens. Doctors in Nazi Germany rationalized their help with exterminations and experimentations as part of German nationalism to save their country.

In the US racism is not the sole purview of white bigots.  Just recently someone commented to me about being colorblind.  Such is a form of denial.  When people see another person, they notice how they look, eyes, height, etc.  Most white people in the US today never choose to recall, if alive then, and acknowledge, if not,  the millions of black people (mostly men) lynched, most of whom were raped, tortured and castrated before they were killed.  When someone commits these types of atrocities today, we often refer to him as a monster.  We conveniently forget the long history of atrocities against all people of color in this country, atrocities deemed perfectly normal at the time.

As noted in the examples above, much of the violence and hatred and injustice currently seen in this country has a long history.  We have not been able to even come close to the ideals espoused in the Declaration of Independence. Instead of talking about Making American Great Again, we need to change the conversation into a future vision of making the US like the vision detailed in this document, a place where justice and the hope of equality can be attained by all, regardless of color, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, religion.

 

 

 

 

Note:  Recommended readings include “Considering Hate” by Kay Whitlock and Michael Bronski and “White Trash:  the 400-Year Untold History of Class in America” by Nancy Isenberg.

 

 

 

Blood Quantum


This poem is dedicated to Sherman Alexie whose poem, “13/16” begins with:

“I cut my self into sixteen equal pieces…”

My grandson cuts himself into 16 equal pieces:

4/16 Urhobo from Africa

4/16 Spanish from Spain

4/16 other European—two Swiss

German great great-grandfathers

(Werth and Kaiser), Irish, English

and who knows what

3/16 Mexican—whatever  mixtures that may be

1/16 Navaho

 

Who am I?  What am I?

Who are you? What are you?

Do we really know?

Who sets the rules?

-white men

-black

-Indian

-Native American

-Irish

-English

-German

from where and for whom?

He looks Navaho:

-blue black straight hair,

-pale brown skin,

-obsidian eyes.

One four year old girl asks him,

“Are you an American Indian?”

His six your old self says nothing.

She repeats,

“Are you an American Indian?”

He says, “It’s complicated.

The Navaho won’t claim him, too little blood.

He needs ¼ , not 1/16.

Caddo and Fort Sill Apache allow 1/16, not Navahos.

¼ blood is for

-Sioux

-Cheyenne

-Kiowa

-Navaho

1/8 works for Comanche and Pawnee.

Some Cherokees only want a Cherokee ancestor.

 

But he is none of those.

Is he Navaho?

Is he white?

The Old South goes by the one drop rule:

one drop of Negro…

Is a person with 99/100 percent white

and 1/100 black , black?

Who says?

Kids at school ask, What are you?”

He tells them.

They say, “You’re lying!”

 

I only know specifically about two ancestors,

the Swiss Germans.

Another great grandfather disappeared during the Civil War.

I don’t even know his name.

Who am I?

Who are you?

I think I’ll get a DNA test.

Then I’ll know how many pieces I need to cut myself into.