Tag Archives: racism

Uncomfortable Truth

Ugly. That’s not a word I use lightly. The phenomenon of racism is ugly. More than that, it’s insidious. I recently attended a community course on racism sponsored by the Central Jersey Community Coalition. Since our government won’t condemn racism our communities must. This five-hour course was an eye-opener for me. I had known that race was a social construct with no basis in biology or any kind of science. What I hadn’t realized is that race was invented as a means of maintaining “white” power. And it was done so deliberately. The course leaders outlined the history of the modern concept of race and showed how it is primarily an American phenomenon (not exclusively, but it was intentionally orchestrated here). The idea was to keep property in the hands of wealthy whites.

During the discussion many topics came to mind. The primary two, for me, were capitalism and the Bible. These strange bedfellows are far too comfortable with one another. Both can be made to participate in the racism narrative. Capitalism appeals to the basest and most vulgar aspects of being human. Greed and selfishness. Wanting more for me and less for you. As one participant put it, it’s a zero-sum game. Your loss is my gain. We support this system every time we buy into the myth that life is about consuming. Buying more. Contributing to the economy. That which is lost is mere humanity. This is the narrative our government has adopted. The election of one of the uber-wealthy has demonstrated that with a nuclear missile shot heard round the world.

And what of the Bible? As the story of the flood unfolds in the book of Genesis, Noah develops a drinking problem. Naked in his tent, his shame is seen by his son Ham. Hungover the next morning, the only righteous man alive curses his son’s progeny. Then after the tower of Babel story, those cursed races, in biblical geography, end up in Africa. Christian preachers long used this myth as the justification of slavery. Races, after all, were decreed by God at that very tower. The tower shows us for who we truly are. Human hubris led to divine folly. And now we have a nation of liberty built on the basic premise of inequality. Racism is beyond ugly. It’s evil. The Bible may be complicit, but we need to take over the narrative. Race does not exist. Scientifically there is no such thing. Although race doesn’t exist, racism most assuredly does. Like all evils we must bring it to the light to make it disappear.

Lovecraft Legacies

Although long fascinated by popular culture, I’ve not really been part of any fandom. I suppose this is because my interests tend to be quite broad, and finding one piece of pop culture over which to obsess is difficult. I might miss something somewhere else! While not really a “fan” of H. P. Lovecraft, I’ve read much of his writing and I’m amazed at how pervasive his cultural influence has been and continues to be. W. Scott Poole, who’s taken us into realms historians often shun, has done a great service to those interested in Providence’s most famous son. In the Mountains of Madness: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of H. P. Lovecraft is a thoughtful, honest, and in-depth consideration of both the man and his fiction. The basics of Lovecraft’s life are easily accessed, but the probing questions Poole puts to the evidence are thought-provoking and, in many respects, revelatory.

Perhaps the largest Lovecraft demon that Poole tackles is H. P.’s racism. There’s no secret about this, but fans often find ways of excusing it or explaining it away as being a product of his time. Those of us who write can understand that Lovecraft didn’t get out much. When he did get out he preferred it to be among people like himself. (Male, white, and gentrified.) It’s difficult to say what the origins of prejudice are, beyond the natural tendency to fear those who are different. Still, intelligent people can generally figure out that such biases are based on lack of experience or willingness to learn about other cultures. There are many, many cultures in the world and it’s often hard to think that yours isn’t the best. A large part of today’s political turmoil is based on this very thing.

An added benefit to reading Poole’s book was the realization that although Lovecraft really didn’t travel much (he didn’t live very long either, and the two are at least partially related) he did at one time visit the small town in New Jersey where I live. That came as a bit of a surprise. The last time I visited Providence, there wasn’t much in the way of signage or plaques to mark where Lovecraft had left his stamp. That may have changed in recent years as his literary star has continued to ascend. Still, to find out that he’d passed this way once upon a time was a nice little bonus in the investigation into who this man was. There’s a lot more to dig out of Poole’s book, and fan or not, if you’re interested in Lovecraft this is a must read.

Silverbacks

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It’s been decades since I’ve seen the original King Kong. A none-too-subtle racist and sexist flick it may be, but it stands as one of the original “horror” films of the early thirties and it has had a profound influence on movies ever since. King Kong wasn’t very nice to Fay Wray, and had to be euthanized by biplane, if I recall correctly. I work one block from the Empire State Building, and sometimes I subtly glance up, looking for the giant ape. There are more fearful sorts in New York these days. I can see Trump Tower, for instance, from the pantry at work where I keep my lunch. But I digress. For its day, King Kong was a violent movie. Like many films, however, it is also a parable.

Recent studies have shown that some 98 percent of mass murderers are male. Men deal out, by far, more than their share of death to others. Some have suggested that when women experience failure they look internally, blaming themselves. Men, on the other hand, go postal. They seek someone else to blame. In our culture—maybe in all “western” cultures—man are acculturated to think of themselves in terms of success. Quite often this means business success—affluence and its discontents. Do you have more money than your neighbors? Good for you! You have succeeded, and, for some warped perspectives, God has blessed you. In reality, the system we’ve constructed has set many people up for failure. This is no excuse, but men who have no other way of measuring self-worth may find comfort in firearms. After all, it’s society that should take the blame. Right?

Gun lobbies claim that collecting firearms is a harmless hobby. Like collecting stamps, only a little louder. A bit of psychology might go a long way here. Might we not stop and think what happens when you give arsonists matches to play with? I suppose if we took away these toys, boys would use baseball bats, or rocks, to take out their aggression. I can’t help but wonder, however, if the problem might not be the system that measures a man by his money. Could there be a better way? There have been those throughout history who’ve made such a claim. They often die violent deaths. Once King Kong has begun his ascent with lust and violence in his eyes, we should all cast a wary eye on the Empire State Building and wonder what it all means.

The Land of Who?

“Parochial” is a name we small-town types dread. Growing up with television, which gave us a magical view into New York and California, as well as other cosmopolitan locales, we could easily feel the accusations of being small-minded and unsophisticated. Although I never wanted to move to the New York City area, I did decide to get away to Boston, then Europe, to be educated. I didn’t want anyone accusing me of being an intellectually challenged rustic, just because of where I happen to have been born. People around my home town, however, aren’t as closed minded as portrayed. Well, not always. You see, apart from conferences where some institution or corporation foots the bills for hotels, I tend to stay in more reasonably priced places when I travel. Even on the road I can’t sleep in, so I find myself chomping at the bit for the breakfast area to open in the morning. Sometimes I’m the first one there.

On a visit to my hometown in the not too distant past, I happened into a breakfast conversation in media res. A local back in town for a holiday weekend was vociferating his views in stentorian tones that could be heard down the hall. The television in the breakfast room, as always, was on. Apparently a story had been shown that teed this old-timer off. His daddy had been a local policeman and he just couldn’t understand why blacks were rioting about unfair treatment at the hands of the police. I cringed as I filled my coffee cup. “They ought to be gassing them and reading their rights later,” he lamented. An older couple, also returning to the area from their home in Baltimore, seemed to agree. I tried to find a corner out of earshot. Unsuccessfully. I could barely hold in my indignation. We were all Caucasian here—what did any of us know of racial profiling, deep-seated prejudice, or being prisoner in our own country? “Why don’t they just stay home?” he said. Home, ironically, of the free.

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I could see that he was elderly and afraid. The media—likely Fox news—had instilled a kind of terror in him that could only be assuaged by reliance on force. The world his daddy knew. I was also reared here. It was pretty much a white town, but some of my best friends growing up were the few African-American kids in my school. My small-town mother taught me not to judge anyone by the color of their skin. The hotel I’m staying in is run by an Indian family. The local stores now reveal a healthier mix than that in which I grew up. I wanted to tell this fellow parochial patron that we need not be afraid if we only seek justice. The region in which I grew up has become more homogenized, and I believe we’re all healthier for it. Until, however, civil rights are truly rights for all, we need to stand with those who’ve been clearly wronged, even if at personal cost. That’s something I learned growing up in this small town.

42 Shots

Many of us were raised with the figure of a divine father who is ready to whip off the belt for any infraction we may make, intended or not. On a more human scale, our criminal justice system locks people in prison often on the basis of race rather than purely objective considerations. The infographic below demonstrates this clearly. African-Americans are disproportionately represented in the prison population in a society that is still reluctant to offer true justice to all citizens. When these numbers are wrenched from statistics and brought down to personal levels, the results are distressing indeed. I recently read of the case of a promising youth who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. His lawyer, a prominent African-American, pled with the judge for leniency for this young man who had great potential. Time in jail, even in one for youth, would probably scuttle this boy’s hopes for a productive future. Being an American, though, I had no hope that this might end well for the boy. Still I read on as the judge sentenced him to jail.

None of us likes to be reduced to statistics. At the same time, some social-justice disparities are easily overlooked until they are placed in such stark terms. Xenophobia is a normal human reaction. In fact, it is displayed in apes and other social animals as well as in people. Its biological function seems to be group cohesion and safety. We’ve evolved beyond that, however. The great promise of the New World was freedom. Unless you were imported as a slave. The Bible, being a document of its time, lent its voice to the approval of keeping slaves and those who wanted to justify their horrid treatment of fellow humans in the name of God relied heavily on the Good Book. We still put considerable roadblocks in the way of African-Americans and others of minority status, believing that we are somehow justified in the myth of Caucasian superiority. Humans are humans. Society benefits from the gifts that different traditions bring to the cultural table. And yet, we continue to lock up those who look different.

Justice shouldn’t be a distant dream. We know that for those who do commit crimes reformation is a possibility. Critics cite the expense, but I have to wonder whose bank account is being audited. As a society as a whole we could all benefit from some reform. The profession from which I have been repeatedly blocked is one of the few that has taken demographic configuration seriously. Some must pay the cost for others to be given an opportunity. Of course, opportunity itself is a rare commodity these days of hoarding and one-percenters. Perhaps those who build towers and remove themselves from the rest of society have put themselves in a kind of luxurious arrest. Until they are forced to share, however, those of us on the street level have to do our best to help each other out. Take a look at this infographic from arrestrecords.com and see if I’m right.

Loving Haiti

MomaLola Few religions are as routinely maligned as Vodou. I have to admit that my own interest was originally spurred in an uncouth manner—a combination of Live and Let Die and a sleepless night after watching The Believers. (I know, I know, The Believers was about Santeria, and not Vodou proper.) These sensationalist treatments nevertheless incubated a curiosity that broke the surface when I started to notice a book entitled, Moma Lola, a Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn in university bookstores. The author, Karen McCarthy Brown, took Moma Lola on as an anthropology research project and ultimately became friends with her subject. I was immediately chagrined to learn that much of the distaste towards Vodou (this is my own observation, not Brown’s) seems laced with, if not based upon, overt racism. Vodou is the faith of the descendants of African slaves living in the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. Those who adhere to it often live an existence that few would accept in a world awash in riches. The people in Moma Lola’s story are poor and deprived, and their nation is kept that way by complications of a past tied too intimately with slavery.

Although Brown is not a scholar of religion, her account is a very accessible introduction to the belief system of Vodou. Most adherents, it becomes clear, think of themselves as Catholic. They see no contradiction between the teachings of Rome and the activities of spirits (the “gods” of Vodou are in reality spirits that operate in a world where God is too busy to pay attention to everyone) who must be propitiated. The rituals associated with Vodou are common among peoples who believe in connections between things as they seem and things as they are. In fact, reading the accounts of possession that Brown provides, I was reminded very much of charismatic Protestant experiences of being “slain in the spirit.” Ironically, both traditions believe in the same god. Why anyone should fear Vodou, unless it is because they secretly harbor a deep-seated fear in the efficacy of magic, is baffling. Like most religions, it is moral and concerned with upholding good over evil.

Haiti has a unique history that has put it at the creative epicenter of religions forced into collision while being economically exploited by nations that putatively support democracy. Religion, as Karl Marx noted, is for the poor. Brown takes her readers through her own experiences with a religion few outsiders really know, introducing the “gods” of this intricate religion along the way. Moma Lola, a healer, tries to survive in New York City after a difficult life in Haiti, and rather than make her escape, she returns on occasion to help others. Even in the spiritual circus that the Big Apple represents, people are suspicious of Vodou (and Santeria), despite their common cause with other religions of the developed world. You can read the 400 pages of Brown’s Moma Lola with nary a mention of “voodoo dolls” or zombies. Instead you’ll find people—often women—working to survive in a hostile world. Untested attitudes toward other religions often bear their own dark secrets, and Vodou, as lived by Moma Lola, belies and exposes many hidden prejudices on the part of the affluent world.