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.

 

Plains Indian Artifacts–Beaded Moccasins


Last evening I attended a new exhibit at Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum.  The exhibit featured moccasins, paintings, and various artifacts made by different Great Plains tribes, including a headdress worn by Quanah Parker.  The exhibit also contains many old photographs.  A number of Comanches were present including a lady over 100 years old.

After I left the exhibit, I kept thinking about it and wondered how current Comanches might feel when they come to something like this which in many ways honors them but also displays a past that will never return.  While contemplating, I wrote this poem about what I saw.

Beaded moccasins,

moons of work.

Ceremonial beauty,

now encased in glass, labelled, dated by someone’s guess,

for strangers who believe in a strange god,

desecrate the land,

waste invaluable water,

kill bears for sport.

Weep

Wait

 

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Palo Duro Canyon, Comanche Country, where they made their last stand and were forced to go to a reservation in Oklahoma after federal troops killed over a thousand of their horses.

 

 

 

Quote for the day


Sadly, this quote seems appropriate given the events in Virginia.  I had hoped we were beyond this but apparently not.

 

“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you picking his pockets.  Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you”.  Lyndon Johnson, 1970.

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.

 

 

 

Ethiopian Journey–The Castles of Gondar


When my friend told me we were going to visit the Castles of Gondar, I thought he was kidding.  It sounded too much like a movie title, plus castles in Ethiopia?  Seriously.  Then I looked it up and sure enough, there are a lot of them, built by a series of kings, fathers and sons, and a queen.  Some remain in reasonably good repair at least on the outside.  Others crumble in the rain and humidity.  All are in a sort of compound arranged together.

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This castle is near the entrance and in rather good condition.  Restoration work is most complete here so it is safe to walk to the second floor.

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The view from a second floor window.  Because of the altitude and moisture–contrary to popular opinion, a large portion of Ethiopia is mountainous and green–especially during the rainy season, upkeep is not easy.

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The same castle, looking out the door onto the balcony which can be seen in the first photo.  The floors have been restored.

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Looking in the opposite direction from the first castle, several castles and the ruins of others show the layout of the compound.  Our hotel was near the top of the mountain in the distance. Many locals roamed around when we were here.  It is popular to take wedding, anniversary, etc. photos here.

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This photo shows the first castle–in the background–from another side.

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The style of some of the castles, like this one, is more intricate than others.

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This building housed the royal lions.  Tradition for keeping lions goes back several centuries.  The last Ethiopia emperor, Hailie Selassie, was often referred to as the Lion of Judah, the latter referring to the Ethiopia tradition of believing that they are descendants of Solomon and Sheba.  Ethiopian lions are a different sub-species than other African lions, smaller with darker, sometimes black, manes and tails.

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These castles provide a perfect venue for photography.  You can see my friends sitting on the stone wall.

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The royal stables obviously housed many horses.

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The royal dining hall currently receiving restoration work.

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The path to the exit.

The news the last couple of weeks from Gondar has not been pleasant.  Many people have been protesting the government which they view as tyrannical and favoring one ethnic group over the others.  More than ten protesters were killed during the first protest.  Just this past week thousands came out in another peaceful protest.

Gondar (sometimes spelled Gonder) is a business, commercial, and education center.  It is a main route for commerce between Ethiopia and Sudan.  For more detailed information about Gondar, the castles, and the surrounding area, see my blog posts from Aug-Sept. 2014.

 

 

Naked and Unafraid: Mahasveta Devi (1926-2016)


A powerful story of the power of woman and in this case of “right”.

03devi-obit-master768 Photo credit: The New York Times

Mahasveta Devi died last month at the age of 90 in Kolkata, India. A widely acclaimed Bengali writer, she identified as an activist first, clearly evident in her meticulously researched “fiction.” Most of her stories champion the cause of those living on the margins of society, particularly the Adivasis or original inhabitants of India; poor, unemployed and itinerant, they traditionally subsisted off the land, and continue to struggle against exploitative upper caste landowners.

I cannot claim to be an expert on Devi or her activism, but there is a story I read a few years ago, which never fails to haunt me, whether because of the rawness with which she describes the harsh reality faced by tribal people or because of what can be seen as the violent but ultimate triumph of its female protagonist, I cannot tell. Perhaps because of both, or because…

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Toxic Masculinity: “Masculinity Must Be Killed” by Carol P. Christ


Very thought provoking. I definitely will look for the pamphlet by Abdullah Ocalan.

Carol Molivos by Andrea Sarris 2A few days ago I watched the movie An Unfinished Life starring Morgan Freeman, Robert Redford, and Jennifer Lopez. Though it was recommended as a sensitive psychological drama, and though on the surface level it criticizes (male) violence against women and animals, on a deeper level, it confirms the association of masculinity with violence, suggesting that violence is the way men resolve their problems with each other.

At the beginning of the film, Robert Redford, who lives on a ranch in Montana, picks up his rifle with the intention of shooting a bear who mauled his friend Morgan Freeman. This act of violence is stopped by local authorities who arrive to capture the bear. However, the bear is not removed to a more remote area, but rather is given to a local make-shift zoo where it is kept in a small cage. At the end of the movie, Redford frees…

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Human Trafficking


Slaves today outnumber all the past,

more than thirty million.

Eleven year old girls,

locked in motel rooms, never see light,

told you’re a whore, worthless, until

they believe it.

Respectable hotels, brothels in disguise.

Senegalese boys chained in hovels, fake

madrassas, sent to beg on streets.

Texas parents of three daughters, forcing them

into prostitution for drugs. Everyone knows;

no one can catch them.

Famous men running sex slave rings, immune

from prosecution.

Young women who think all men watch

pornography; it’s normal.

Innocence promised, endlessly betrayed.

People as commodities.

 

 

 

 

 

The WT Swimming Pool, Stereotypes, and Africa


This afternoon I took three children aged eight and ten to the WTAMU (a local university) swimming pool, found myself a comfortable chair, opened my book, and proceeded to read.  When I looked up I saw this:

“This isn’t a democracy anymore.

It’s a Ricktatorship.”

These words boldly stood out in white on a black T-shirt.  For those not from Texas, the Rick to whom the statement refers is the governor of Texas where I live.  Between the two sentences was a photo of a cop with a gun pointed directly at me, the reader of the quotation.  Looking at the woman, young, unkept, no makeup, pimpled, overweight, I never would have expected her to adorn herself with this particular shirt especially in this intensely Republican part of Texas.  Then it hit me; I was stereotyping. I felt a bit horrified with myself.  How can you tell by the appearance of a person whether they are liberal, moderate, or conservative.  You can’t.

 

I went back to reading which was perhaps a mistake.  When it first became a rather famous book, I purchased Say You’re One Of Them by Uwem Akpan, a Nigerian writer-he is originally from Nigeria.  It contains five stories some quite short and some of novella length.  Why has it taken me so very long to get through this book?  These are not stories one can sit down and casually read.  This volume of searing, well written stories tells of immense horrors. The settings of the stories include various countries in West Africa, including Nigeria, and Rwanda, Kenya, and Ethiopia.  Today, I finally got around to reading the story from which the book gets its title.  Now I wonder how I can sleep tonight.  All the stories describe the lives of individuals brutalized by war, modern slavery, and ethnic and religious hatred.  All the stories are from the viewpoint of a child, the oldest of whom is sixteen.  Today’s story, the longest in the book, takes place in modern times in Nigeria.  If you do not already have some inkling as to Nigerian politics, the whys and wherefores of Boka Haram, the violence in the oil fields in the south, and the intensity of the rivalries and hatreds among the various tribal factions and Muslims and Christians, this story will both enlighten and horrify you.  The sixteen year old young man in the story is fleeing the north with many other refugees.  Although he is Muslim, his Muslim friends turn against him even though he had his hand chopped off for stealing a goat.  They think he is too moderate and does not hate Christians sufficiently.  The Christians with whom he is a refugee turn against him because he is Muslim.  His story is not uncommon.  Look at Syria, Iraq, the Congo.  The rest of the world needs to know.  Hatred and violence can occur anywhere.  What happens in a distant corner of our planet affects each and every one of us.

Amazon


His milk chocolate, heavy lidded eyes stare at me from the

front of the magazine.

His cheeks display charcoal tattoos, a criss cross

design, tiny Xs on top, stopping where his nostrils flare.

His straight hair barely touches his shoulders.

not the black I expected, but the color of mahogany.

His eyebrows grow thin and wide,

no visible eyelashes.

His skin, color of morning coffee with two teaspoons of milk,

looks clear, smooth.

His full lips only slightly darker than his skin

do not smile.

He, a Kayapo Indian, continues staring.

He lives in Kayapo Territory, Brazil, land the size of

Great Britain and Ireland.

He plans to save it from the rest of us.

He plans to save us from our own worst selves.

 

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The Kayapo and other indigenous Amerindians have lived in the rainforest for millennia.  They and most environmentalists view their rainforest as a priceless haven for biodiversity.  Their Amazon remains a major defense in the fight against global warming and habitat destruction.  Fifteen per cent of greenhouse emissions, more than all the trucks, cars, buses, and planes combined, come from deforestation.  Although Brazil has slowed the deforestation rate by 70 per cent in the last nine years, last year saw a reversal with an sudden increase of 30 per cent.  Brazil also began construction of a network of canals, dams, and a huge hydroelectric project on the Xingu River in the middle of Kayapo territory.  The Kayapo and other Amerindians defeated a larger project in the 1990s. They intend to defeat this one.

The chief of the Kayapo, Megaron, knows what is at stake, not only for his tribe, but also for the rest of us, long term survival.  One  National Geographic article noted, “It is one of the richest ironies of the Amazon that the supposedly civilized outsiders who spent five centuries evangelizing, exploiting, and exterminating aboriginal people are now turning to them to save ecosystems recognized as critical to the health of the planet–to defend essential tracts of land from the outside world’s insatiable appetite.”

Kayapo success can be attributed to their ability to embrace some of the best of the modern world while retaining a strong sense of identity, culture, and traditions, all of which come from the forest.  As Megaron notes, “Before the white man, we were always fighting other tribes.  Not anymore.  We stopped hitting each other over the head and united against a bigger threat.”  For our own long term health and success, we can support them and hope they succeed.