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.

 

Afternoon at the Library


Usually at the library I checkout and return books. Because my grandson is taking art classes at a nearby college for three hours in the afternoons, I go to read and observe.  The same older men show up everyday.  Some, acquaintances or friends, quietly chat. They look scruffy with dirty, stringy hair.  Are they homeless?  Does the library provide an air conditioned refuge?  They read, look at magazines.

One man in a tan Alaska cap takes notes from a large book.  He appears well groomed, clean, with a sculpted, small beard. Another alternates reading and checking his cell phone.  At a separate round oak table a man sits in a dark heavy coat–it said 102 on my car temperature gage when I arrived.  He never looks up, concentrates on the black laptop in front of him. The white earbuds stand out against his heavy dark beard.  His fingernails are dirty.  A white haired man approaches the round table I occupy and asks if he can sit there.  I reply, “Sure.”  His dark skin shows the heavy creases of outside work and age.  His fingernails are clean. He focuses on filling out an application for a commercial driver’s license.

In the several days I have stayed here to read and wait, I have seen only one woman where they allow adults to sit.  Do these men, day after day, come here because they have no place else to go?

White Trash and Rednecks


Nearly everyone lies about an important aspect of US history even historians. School history books avoid the discussion totally, this significant part of US history, much of which explains past and current racism.

Americans pretend that social class does not matter, that anyone can rise to the top given enough effort.  This myth depends on the continuation of a very selective historical memory, indeed, a lie.

It began with the British and those who intentionally left there to come here.  Even colonists divided the classes with poor people and criminals at the bottom–whores, discharged English soldiers, robbers, highwaymen; the saddest of the lot were the orphans, rounded up, loaded on ships bound for America, sold as indentured servants. Often these contracts were repeatedly resold with no routes for the individuals to escape.  The rigid English class conditions continued here.  People of higher classes in the colonies referred to the poor as waste, rubbish, and trash.

John Locke, often considered the father of constitutional government, favored slavery and aristocratic society.  He endorsed an aristocratic constitutional government and called the poor, landless, lazy lubbers. Because the southern colonies lacked sufficient land lubbers and land owners believed Africans more suitable for hot, humid swamp clearance, they petitioned for slaves–previously illegal in Georgia, for example.  These wealthy landowners also viewed poor whites as too lazy to work.

Even the esteemed Ben Franklin believed in the concept of class as inevitable.  Both he and Jefferson saw expansion westward as the solution to potential class conflict.  Franklin thought the new colonies needed more people and advocated for the freedom of slave women who bred many children and for white women to be allowed to gain property rights for the same.  More people would move west and alleviate class conflict. Franklin was not an advocate for the poor, whom he considered lazy, slothful.  He even endorsed their forced migration westward and referred to them as “the meaner Sort, i.e. the Mob, or the Rable”.

If this sounds shocking, Jefferson went even further, calling the poor, “rubbish”.  He did feel they could improve, given land and education.  He did not include slaves in this theory.

If you ever wondered about the origin of the term “cracker”, look back to the era of Andrew Jackson, the era of “squatters” in a log cabin in the thickly forested frontier, people who squatted on land they did not even own.  Many saw them in both positive and negative terms:  half strong, hard working pioneers and half robbers.  Two terms applied to these people, “cracker” and “squatter”, none of whom legally owned the land where they lived, troublemakers with no hope of upward mobility, people who championed crudity, distrust of civil society and city dwellers, and held on to a kind of crude arrogance.  Both terms came from England where such people were considered lazy vagrants.  The more educated and “civilized” viewed them as degenerate, low class fornicators.  These squatters saw Andrew Jackson as their champion and Davy Crockett as their hero.

The phrase “white trash” became common in the 1860s and after.  These were the southern poor with dirty faces, ragged clothing, distended bellies without possibility of improvement, who for a brief time were viewed as even lower than slaves.  Southern aristocrats pushed the concept of bloodlines for people as well as livestock.  They advocated a criteria for human as well as livestock breeding to justify slavery and Anglo-Saxon superiority.  Native Indians were a biologically inferior, degraded race, doomed to extinction.  Later Texans used similar arguments to deter intermarriage with Mexicans.  Sam Houston championed this cause apparently ignoring his own personal history.  He had lived with Natives and married two of them.  In the long run these beliefs did not help poor whites or raise their status.  They lived off the worst land and were continually referred to in derogatory terms, e.g. white trash, sand eaters.

Just before the Civil War some elite Southerners advocated to keep certain classes ignorant.  They defended the planter class as having the best bloodlines, whose destiny was to rule over poor whites and black slaves. When they realized they needed poor white support to secede, and that many did not support them, they convinced them the war was necessary to save them from a state worse than slavery.  Some were promised land and other rewards.  Since most were illiterate, they remained unaware that they were referred to as “perfect drones”, “the swinish multitude”, and other pejorative terms; and that some saw them as trash who contaminated whatever they touched. It was not the Southern elite who died in masses during the Civil War; it was the poor, recruited with Davis’ rhetoric about the superiority of the white race.

Later, during Reconstruction, William Percy wrote a description of poor whites as those who lynch Negroes, lack intelligence, attend religious revivals then fornicate in the bushes afterwards.  He also explicitly referred to them as Anglo-Saxons.  Teddy Roosevelt saw this a bit differently.  He wanted Anglo-Saxons to work, to join the military, and breed, but he excluded poor whites from this group and his plan.

The term “rednecks” came into use in the South during the 1890s.  It referred to people who lived in the swamps and mill towns, wore overalls, heckled at political rallies.

The Great Depression exacerbated the situation for poor whites and increased their numbers dramatically.  Those who had never been considered white trash joined the ranks of the poor.  Many Southern writers went back to discussions about the Civil War and argued about the current poverty and how to solve the problem.  One, Jonathan Daniels, even wrote that Rebel pride blindfolded all classes.

Later, one way to overcome the prejudices against the poor was through music and TV shows, e.g. Elvis Presley and “The Beverly Hillbillies”.  It allowed the country to feel better about prejudices and pretend they did not exist.

Today this manifests itself through politicians who “pretend” to be white trash and rednecks to gain votes, but in reality live the lifestyle of the upper class.

 

Note:  For those who wish to read more about class and the writings of the individuals mentioned above here is a partial list.

 

Writings and speeches of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson

Sherwood Anderson’s “Poor White”

Writings of John Locke

Works of James Agee

“White Trash:  The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America”

Speeches of Jefferson Davis

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Why Teachers Suck …


I was going to write a nice little poem for my blog post today but instead decided this was more important to post. As I teacher, I can verify the veracity of this post. In some ways it may be a little easier for me because I teach mostly seniors in high school who are somewhat self sufficient but many still get free or reduced lunches, some are homeless or drift from one friend to another since thrown out of their own house, some work so late they can barely stay awake in class, some self medicate because no one can afford the meds they need. Most graduate in spite of this. How? Because the school and teachers go to great lengths doing everything imaginable to help them succeed, e.g. online programs, extra time, alternative assignments. Why do I continue to teach? I love teenagers; I never have a boring day; I work hard to make a difference; I think public education is the foundation for a working republic, for this country to flourish and succeed.

Bert Fulks

A friend and I were grousing about ignorance run amok.

“Americans get their information from internet memes,” I laughed.  “And in the true spirit of democracy, dullards who have never cracked a book will cancel the votes of people who actually have a clue. What could go wrong?”

“You know what the problem is?” Tim challenged.  “Our country’s a mess because teachers suck.”

teacher2I bristled.

Although I’ve been out of the classroom for a number of years, once a teacher, always a teacher.  Plus, I have family and friends still slugging it out in the trenches.  I know their battles and the wounds they carry.

“Dude, do you know what teachers endure on a daily basis?” I asked Tim.  I found that, no, he didn’t.  I fear most Americans might be as clueless.

I emailed a former colleague (she’s two years from retirement) and asked one question:  “How has education…

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Blank, white paper


Blank, white paper

stares at me,

sitting here eating a

left over Subway sandwich,

reading Sky Bridge by

Laura Pritchett,

avoiding my writing commitment.

This book surprises me,

makes me think of my students,

some poor, trailer housed,

gun toting, hard scrabble,

simultaneously smart and ignorant.

Their idea of rich includes

any house over 2000 square feet,

stylish, elegant clothes, land.

My brain swirls thoughts, images:

What can it all mean, this life?

Joy, a hurting beauty?

Looking out the windows,

listening to the West Texas wind,

I ask myself again:

What can it all mean?