Kids learn from what they see. The possible is limited and the limits are removed by what’s before their eyes. Imagination is born from the creativity and creations that they encounter. On a stormy Boston Friday, beautiful images like these produce such thoughts. At the same time, I celebrate that my son’s school has just finished a large effort to commemorate Dr. Seuss’s birthday. The result has been a week of him reading and drawing. I cannot ask for more.
This is the story of winning on the field, but losing things that are far more important. Like so many other aspects of what is quintessentially from the US, it is about something that was born in the tensions of race relations provoked by those who pushed white supremacy. It is a story told within the confines of coddled elites needing to prove their manliness and a man who fervently believed in the equality of races while also acting upon a sharp vision of his cultural background being superior to another. It is about that man eradicating a people’s heritage in the name of saving them and, ultimately, uniting with his victims in such a way that together they created the sport of American football as we understand it today. Indeed, as we deconstruct the latest exciting iteration of the Super Bowl, it is worth reflecting on the sport’s history and how it -like so many other things typically “American”- was the product of whites needing to reinforce a sense of superiority over someone else.
The story is related through the following fine Radio Lab production. Somehow I fear that with its wonderful telling and the presence of colorful characters like Pop Warner, it is possible that people will hear it and find a justification to continue calling the DC football team the “Redskins”. To do that would be to purposely overlook the role white supremacy played in the development of our country and one of its most beloved sports.
I hope that you enjoy this story of the ivy-league elite meeting the country’s most persecuted and marginalized on a field dictated by white supremacy. The marginalized proved that they did indeed deserve respect, but the victory was pyrrhic because as they triumphed on the football field, their culture was slowly extinguished by that of those they vanquished.
Almost a year ago I was fortunate to watch Raoul Peck’s film I Am Not Your Negro on the day of its premiere. At the time, I wrote a blog post about how the film is the cinematographic adaptation of James Baldwin’s notes for a book he never finished. The book’s working title was Remember This House and it was meant to tell the story of Baldwin’s relationships with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. Peck’s telling only uses Baldwin’s own words -thanks to recordings of the author and readings by Samuel L. Jackson- combined with a mix of present day and past images.
Fortunately PBS is currently offering free streaming of the film. You can find it by clicking on this image. It will be there until January 30th.
As the semester begins, I’ve struggled to find time to write a longer post about the history missing from Trump’s “shithole countries” remark. Indeed, the immediate reaction to these comments has condemned the racism and ignorance that produced them. It is difficult to agree more. At the same time, it is essential to discuss the racism upon which centuries of US foreign policy was designed and the influence those policies had on many of the countries that today send immigrants to the US. To form an opinion about the immigrants within our borders, it is important to understand what we’ve advocated within the borders of others.
Here is a short Washington Post piece that focuses on Haiti. There is so much more.
It is common to associate Mexico with calacas. These are the often marigold-adorned skeletons with indigenous roots that are used to decorate Día de muertos celebrations in Mexico and wherever Mexicans are living. There is something poetic in the tension of embracing life through the celebration of its opposite. It strikes me as healthier than the seemingly increasing need here in the US to push the reality of death further and further to the fringes of society. Ignoring death’s presence is cowardly and this act can negatively influence how we treat the limited time that we possess.
The Spanish considered Mexico’s relationship with skull imagery to be pagan. Their efforts to belittle it and to make it socially unacceptable found a natural response in the nineteenth century when the independence-minded embraced the skeletons in a gesture of Mexican-ness. Born thirty-one years after independence, José Guadalupe Posada is arguably the modern artist most responsible for the skeleton in popular Mexican imagination. With a long history of political cartoons, engraving, and lithography, his art earned particular attention during the Mexican Revolution. Because much of this creation was political in nature, its passage from historical context has meant that Guadalupe Posada’s name is relatively unknown outside Mexico. Nevertheless, his creation of the Calavera Catrina character -a satirical criticism of the upper-class’s lifestyle during Porfirio Díaz’s government- is arguably his most enduring contribution. In fact, the more internationally-known artist Diego Rivera gave her a place of prominence in his mural Sueño de una tarde dominical en la alameda central. In the painting, Rivera painted Guadalupe Posada at one of Catrina’s sides and, in a tip of the hat that placed himself as the next link in the continuation of a tradition, included a self-portrait of a young Rivera holding her other hand.
This year, the calacas seem to have completed the circle. The evolution from socially unacceptable to popular image of a culture reached a new level in October with the Mexican premier of Pixar’s Coco. Correctly released right before the holiday and a month before it entered theaters in the rest of the world, Mexico embraced this latest representation of their culture. If ticket sales -that very Catrina-esque measure of value- are a good yard stick, then it was a success as Mexicans transformed it not only into the highest grossing animated film in the country’s history, but the biggest earner of any film, ever. Seeing its many skeletons during this holiday period strikes me as a great way to celebrate family and life.
In 2009 Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run changed how people look at running. Through observation of the Tarhumara indigenous group in northern Mexico, McDougall reached the conclusion that instead of protecting us, the cushioned running shoes used by most people are actually more likely to cause injury. The reason for this is that they force us to run differently from the way that evolution has chosen for us. Instead, argues McDougall, we should imitate the Tarhumara, who run distances greater than one hundred miles barefoot or on thin sandals. With limited or no footwear, McDougall believes, we harken back to our ancestors who used endurance running to move across savannahs and to hunt by running their prey to exhaustion. McDougall’s book was controversial, but nevertheless was influential in the creation of more reduced shoes and barefoot racers.
I don’t know if Jorge Drexler is a runner. That said, as he describes in the video below, he saw a natural connection between his song “Movimiento” and a particular runner from the Tarhumara. Lorena Ramírez is a Rarámuri runner who has competed in various ultramarathons, including winning the 100-kilometer race Los Cañones de Guachochi in July 2017. Said simply, for me it is amazing when anyone runs such a distance. That understood, it is more impressive that she did it faster than people who have dedicated their lives to the sport and enjoy the benefits of support teams and expensive equipment.
Yet, that is just the thing: As Drexler points out, running for Ms. Ramírez is not a sport or an exercise, but instead it is an act of culture. Drexler argues that the Tarhumara move to keep their culture alive. It is thanks to their running that they can survive in a remote place. They live in that place to distance themselves from influence and other forces that otherwise would destroy what they are. Or, as Drexler describes the impetus in the context of his music:
Para mantener viva una cultura, tenía que desplazarse. [...] Necesitaba moverse para sobrevivir.
In this sense -similar to how McDougall describes- Ms. Ramírez is a connection between us and another way of life. She meets people from outside her culture on the paths of an ultramarathon and, in doing so, she teaches us all a lesson about living. For Drexler that lesson seems to be one about the movement of people around the world. Without moving, we die and it is thanks to movement that cultures survive. In the end, similar to Ms. Ramírez bringing her cultural traditions to an ultramarathon, our cultural identity is an amalgamation. Drexler’s music seems to reflect this as he incorporates influences from around the world. It is interesting that his focus on an indigenous woman seems to conclude with the idea that instead of being from a place, all of us are the product of many cultures that are in a constant state of exchange. From the song’s lyrics:
Estamos vivos porque estamos en movimiento. [...] Yo no soy de aquí, pero tú tampoco. [...] De ningún lado todo, de todos los lados, un poco.
The following video is Drexler describing the thought process that connected “Movimiento” to Ms. Ramírez. At the end of his description, you’ll find the music video that was the result of the collaboration. It is at once beautiful while also capable of making you ask yourself what you were born to do.
What is literature’s political role? Should it offer solutions or just point out problems? As a product of language, is it a way for the marginalized to make themselves heard? It seems to me that it is meant to participate; to add another -hopefully, carefully constructed- voice to the conversation. In the best of cases it will inject succinctness, clarity, and provide the language that we need to push dialog somewhere closer to solutions to problems. After all, often issues become thorny because they are difficult to discuss. This resistance to opening our mouths results in underdevelopment of the words needed to discuss something in a fluid, multifaceted conversation. Lacking words means silence and instead of exorcising problems, silence ingrains them.
According to the 2010 census, the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts has a population of 76,377. Of those, 73.8% -or 56,366 people- self identified Hispanic or Latino. In the 1970 census, the city’s total population was 66,916 and 4% -or 2,677 people- identified as Hispanic. This demographic data shows a city in transition. Waves of immigration transformed Lawrence’s ethnic and racial identity in a relatively short period of time.
When a minority becomes a strong majority in this way, it should not be surprising to see social tensions. This is what happened in 1984 as groups of white youth clashed with Hispanics or Latinos in the city’s Lower Tower Hill neighborhood. The final balance saw several buildings burned by arson, a multi-day curfew, as well as over 300 arrested. A New York Times article from the time included quotes from people on both sides of the racial divide. First, the words of some of the whites who obviously felt race was the problem and who were ready for a fight:
None of the white youths would give his name. They said the rioting had nothing to do with any family feud but was “strictly racial,” and they said they hoped there would be more trouble.
Next, despite the large exaggerations in his data (Lawrence’s unemployment rate at the time was 7.4%, about the same as the rest of Massachusetts), another man had low opinions of his new neighbors’ work ethic:
The feelings of residents against the Hispanic newcomers run remarkably high in some quarters. One businessman in his 60’s, who chose not to be named, said of the violence: “It had to come. This used to be a good city but you get all these Spanish people in here and 90 percent of them don’t work. I think they’re pushy people.” He mentioned daily crowds of Hispanic people outside the welfare office on Lawrence Street. “You never see a white person there,” he asserted.
The issue of employment was also on the mind of one of the city’s Hispanic leaders as she gave voice to the community’s general problems:
One Hispanic leader, Isabel Melendez, who works for the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council, said of her community, “There are a lot of frustrations: lack of housing, people unprepared to join the job market, poverty.”
In the midst of these tensions was the poet Martín Espada. His poem “Toque de queda: Curfew in Lawrence” is at once a reaction and a testimony. Like Ms. Melendez quoted above, Espada’s voice elucidates the Hispanic community’s frustrations. However, unlike the quotes of Ms. Melendez whose words are relegated to newspaper dust, Espada’s poetry is anthologized and read by people far from Lawrence and 1984. Perhaps this is what people are talking about when they say that literature can transport the reader to another place or time. The news provides historians with voices, but literature breathes air, scent, and feeling into that past. Taken together, they can help us to understand the many ways that the past exercises its influence on the present.
Colin Campbell. “Two Nights of Rioting Bring a Curfew to Lawrence, MASS.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 Aug. 1984,
Years ago, when living abroad, a well-intentioned study abroad site director organized Thanksgiving dinner for US-based students. She wanted to honor our traditions and to make us feel at home. It was a generous and thoughtful gesture. However, there was something about it that made the foreignness of the experience feel that much more present and the distance from home that much greater.
Holidays are complex times. It’s well known that incidents of domestic violence are more likely during these periods. It’s like the days that are supposed to be special somehow function like mirrors through which we can see ourselves clearly. Sometimes we don’t like what we see and those of us who are closer to crisis need little for tightly bottled tensions to spill. Most of us, however, live less extreme holidays. Nevertheless, these times when we’re supposed to celebrate something still serve to heighten a sense of our own particular situation at a given moment. If we’re riding high, then the high feels lighter still. If we’re sinking, then the surface can seem unreachable.
With the holidays’ intensity in mind, one of my classes is reading Richard Blanco’s poem “América”. Wonderfully, titled in Spanish, but written mostly in English, it is about an immigrant boy pushing his Cuban family living far from their island to partake in Thanksgiving traditions. It is the desire for a young man to have the experience that, I imagine, he had learned about through friends and school. His family humors him, but the result is to throw their foreignness into all of their faces.
The young boy does, of course, belong in some sense. In the poem he demonstrates his investment in US mythologization of history. He knows what food to make and where to find the recipe. You can almost feel him thinking that it was his family that held him back. Yet for both him and his family, Thanksgiving proves a disappointment. It is one more of the many reminders that they aren’t in Cuba; that the Cuba they knew no longer exists; that while they do belong to the US in some senses, they also do not pertain at the same time.
You can find both the text of the poem and a recording of Blanco reciting it, by using this link.
Whether you’re reading from the US or not, I hope the long gaze into the mirror of holidays, family, and friends is honest for you, but not harsh. I also hope that you get time to read more poetry, less tweets, and enjoy warm conversations.
There is a statistic floating around the internet about marathons. I don’t know if it’s true, but it claims that 0.5% of people in the US have finished one. Living in Boston -a city with a well-established reputation for running, despite the winter- perhaps leaves me with a skewed perception, but does this number seem real? To me, it feels low.
Running is a large part of my life. This began six years ago. During the intervening time, its importance has grown. When asked the inevitable by people, I steal a friend’s joke and say that I do it because I want to continue to be able to eat whatever I want. There is partial truth in this. Mostly, however, I run because it makes me happy. While not necessarily happy in the moment or when it hurts, the benefits to body, mind, and sense of self are well known. There is a lot to be said for short-term lows exchanged for long-term and general highs.
In the past, I have blogged about how running teaches lessons about being an individual who is at once part of a group. Also, there is an entry on where running crosses with another passion, literature. Lastly, there is one from last year which focused on what I was thinking before running my first marathon.
Today, on a rainy, windy, and very muddy course, I finished the last race that I’ll run this year. My legs are sore and my shoes squish, but seeing my son playing with the finisher’s medal is amazing. It has been a year with both running defeats and achievements, but taken collectively, it was a success.
A friend and I are already talking about goals for next year and it looks like we might try to push each other to newly reach beyond 26 miles. Mostly I run alone, but this is more due to busy lives than wanting to be solitary. Hopefully, the new year will bring more community and stronger miles.
In the short term, winter looms and it’s important to overcome the dark and the cold. One foot has to be put before the other. Here’s hoping you’ve found a place where temporary pain is the price for lasting headspace.
The fact of the matter is that we know. The data is there. It is clear and, as upsetting as it might be, it has been known for a long time. The real question is, why don’t we do something? The answer to this question -a frightening one- is that our society is satisfied to leave the issue untouched. Even if the cost is high for some, we’ve made the calculation that avoiding disruption to our lives makes that price worthwhile.
A documentary made in 2016 has been making some noise. Its argument begins in 1865. Ratified at the conclusion of the Civil War, the 13th amendment of the US Constitution is celebrated as slavery’s end. Its text reads:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Parting from this language, the premise for the film 13th is that hiding within these important words is a poison pill. Specifically, the argument is that the codification of the exception -made in the name of punishing a crime- has resulted in the transformation of our legal system into a modern iteration of slavery.
Indeed, a brief look at any statistics related to the issue supports the idea that law and order is a euphemism for the systematic marginalization of African Americans: The US is less than five percent of the world’s population, yet 25% of the people imprisoned in the world are in the US. African Americans are 12-13% of the US population, but they are 35% of jail inmates and 37% of prison inmates.
A 2012 study by Bryan Warde summarized the situation:
There is irrefutable evidence that relative to their numbers in the USA, black men, particularly those from economically disadvantaged urban communities, are disproportionately represented at all levels of the criminal justice system
Warde continues with a detailed breakdown of the numbers in regard to African American males:
[T]hough only 6% of population, they accounted for 28% of all arrests and 40% of all men held in prison and jail in 2008. In addition, they comprised 9% of those men who were on either probation or parole in 2008. Indeed, as of 2010, one in three black men was under the supervision of the criminal justice system. Further, one in seven is permanently or temporarily unable to vote because of a felony conviction. Such has been the extent of the disproportionality over the last 30 years that without some abatement in these trends, one in three black males born in the USA today can expect to spend time in prison, compared to one in six Hispanic males and one in 17 white males
These are the facts. Ava DuVernay’s film does not reveal new information. It does, however, challenge us. 13th pushes the issue into the country’s face. To ignore the situation up until now has been criminal. To continue to do so after seeing the film is worse. Is the US capable of looking into this mirror?
Warde, Bryan. “Black Male Disproportionality in the Criminal Justice Systems of the USA, Canada, and England: a Comparative Analysis of Incarceration.” Journal of African American Studies, vol. 17, no. 4, Nov. 2012, pp. 461–479.