Saturday, October 07, 2017

Rollie (Rawlings) B. 2007 (or 2009) - 10/6/17

I feel like I just said goodbye to Mac yesterday, and already, I am saying goodbye to Rollie.

I barely posted about Rollie here because I quit the internet for a large part of his life with me, and then when I was here, mostly wrote my book reports. When I adopted him, I was looking for a dog. Just a dog. I loved Mac SO much that I couldn't imagine having a dog that was really special to me. I wanted something very specific: a small, male, stable pit bull. Those were pretty much my only criteria.

I went to just about every shelter in the Bay Area. I was still doing animals (though not for much longer), and had an idea of what I'd find and where I'd find it. I spent some time online before I went shelter-hopping and just didn't see anything I wanted. My last stop was Berkeley Animal Care Services (BACS), the same shelter I got Mac from. They hadn't yet moved to their new shelter. Rollie was in almost the same cage Mac had been in 10 years before. I almost didn't pull him out of the cage. He's broken, T said. He's a puppy, I said. He demand barks, we both said. We pulled him out anyway.

He wasn't a puppy- it was clear from his teeth that he was somewhere between three and five years old. But the way he moved his body and personality were very puppy like. He ran into the yard (pictured- my first picture of him) and play-bowed at his toy, then laid down and gummed it. He also had a totally janky body with a strange back end and was clearly partially blind. T reminded me again that he was broken. I told her that a healthy body wasn't on my list of criteria. He was totally stable.  He was small (40lbs), and male. He was adorable. I introduced him to everyone involved, including Stella (my then-boyfriend's dog). She tried to eat him. He was not phased, and totally appropriate in response. They became best friends.

When I took him out of the shelter, he hopped in R's car and fell asleep. I felt like, but never knew, that this dog was someone's dog before- someone's well-loved and well-trained dog. He never tried to do anything inappropriate. There was no transition period- he didn't shit in the house, he pulled a little, but not a lot, on the leash, and he was totally appropriate with everyone. He LOVED kids- his tail wagged whenever they came near and he seemed to know just to stand there and not do anything so they could do their thing at their speed. He was gentle with everything- even his toys (that first gumming of toys was a harbinger of things to come). He was the anti-Mac.

I didn't like him much, and that was okay. My dad suggested (okay, said), that he didn't have any personality. I was a little miffed, but honestly, I didn't care if he had any personality or not. Mac had So Much personality and had been a full time job. I let other people walk Rollie. I left him alone overnight. I went on vacations and trusted people with Rollie- I breathed when other dogs walked by- he was the easiest dog ever. And slowly I fell in love with him and couldn't imagine not having him.

He was the Prince of my neighborhood. C and I were a bit sloppy about closing the gate- I became a normal pet owner- because dude was blind and didn't seem to know there WAS a gate. One time the Radio Shak on the corner found him. Another time someone at Safeway called because he was literally shopping for groceries. Don't worry, we fixed the latch and started closing the gate. I took him everywhere and- gasp- tied him up outside. He went to the library, Peet's and every day, 7-11. When he eventually had a dog walker, they took him to the vet (on our corner) every single day for treats. I asked the vet if this was really okay, because it seemed kind of disruptive, but the staff insisted they loved it. He carried toys on his walk- the more realistic ones made people gasp, but people would laugh at the teddy bear and the alligator that he always carried by the butt and dragged on the ground, or the tennis ball that went in the side of his mouth and that C named his "'baccy" like a wad of chew.

Besides kids, Rollie loved dogs. Everyone and their mother thinks their dog wants another dog. While I was still in animal welfare, I did my best to disabuse them of this notion. Dogs don't keep other dogs busy and entertained, and most of the time, the dog just wants you. Rollie is literally the first dog I've ever seen that actually turned into an (even) happier dog around other dogs.
I even let him off the leash sometimes around other dogs! Most dogs liked him, some dogs loved him, and other dogs hated him. His cousin, Kona (left), and others, just tolerated him. Being stepped on isn't that fun, but when you're blind, even a white dog is invisible. Other dogs figured out that even though he acted like a puppy and was an older dog, he meant no harm, and running in the opposite way was 100% guaranteed to get you away from him. Rollie would figure out a dog was nearby, get blissfully happy and then bound joyfully in the wrong direction. A dog could choose to stay and play, and Rollie could be a really playmate.

I worked on getting him a dog. I tried one dog who ended up really not liking him. Rollie loved him because he brought him sticks and tennis balls and toys, but Batman (now Archer) didn't like being a canine toy dispenser- who could blame him? Archer now lives his best life with his mom and does amazing sports. Catfish lived with us for awhile before I showed her some mercy and let her go rest. We fostered a few dogs with no intention of keeping them- the GSD puppy who pulled a Rollie on Rollie, a tiny terrier that K carried in a bag, and a boxer that walked on Rollie. He didn't mind it, but come on, there was an entire house and sidewalk for her to walk on, but his head was the only place she wanted to place her feet. I bought him a bulldog because she was perfect, and that turned into a different story, and then T's dog Pocket (not pictured here, but one of the trio) came to live with us. For his last six months, Rollie was in heaven, and Pocket seemed pretty happy, too. They certainly didn't play, because no self-respecting 14 year old female chihuahua is going to play with Rollie, but he was thrilled and they had their moments of adorableness where I suspect even she would have admitted she liked him. 

Rollie scared a lot of people and dogs, because he was LOUD. He had a lot to say. He barked when he was happy. He barked when he wanted a dog to find him and play with him. He barked when he was playing. He barked when he wanted to talk to the closet or the TV (even if it was off). He just barked. And he had a loud bark. He did sometimes bark out of reactivity, but mostly he was just yelling out of joy. But try to tell someone that your pit bull with the weird eyes is barking because he's happy. It doesn't always go so well. Here is proof that the barking was benign. This is my dog barking in the closet because who doesn't bark at the closet?

And this is my dog play-bowing and barking at maybe his bone or maybe nothing, because that's just what he did. Tell me this dog didn't have personality. I ended up teaching him that I wouldn't open the door until he stuck his head in a basket of tennis balls and picked one up, thus muffling the bark.

When I got home from my last trip to Hawaii, a little less than two full weeks ago, I noticed a lump behind his back knee. I know dog lumps. It wasn't a good lump. I felt his other back knee and didn't feel anything. I had been noticing him panting for a couple months on and off, and sometimes a distended belly, but hadn't really thought much of it. His eyes had gone from his normal glowy green to kind of cloudy. I'll never really know if any of that was symptoms, but I suspect the panting was. The vet felt his neck and felt what I missed- all of his glands were giant hard rocks. He had lymphoma. It's a weird disease- it isn't painful really, but it makes them tired. He was so tired, and slow. He was always slow- we called him USS Rollie, because watching him try to change directions was like watching a steamship change course. But this was different. The joy was gone in Mudville. He had a great day after we started the Prednisone, and a couple of great hours each day. But really, the life was sucked out of him very quickly.

I might share some other anecdotes and pictures another time- there are lots and I don't think I've gotten his story just right. The night before I put him down, we got skunked, in my house. I don't know how it happened. But it reminded me of when Rollie really got skunked. Sometimes he would charge out of my house at night after some animal. 99.99% of the time the animal would just stand there- my urban zoo all knows that Rollie would run in the wrong direction. I've seen cats stand 5 feet away and watch him pee while he looks "at" them. Birds didn't fly away when he sunbathed. He literally had no idea where they were. But this skunk stood his ground and sprayed him in the mouth. It was awful. My house and my dog smelled for 6 months. But I brought him into the bathtub and scrubbed him with some god-awful concoction. The dog fell asleep with his head in my hand while I rubbed and scrubbed and rinsed. It wasn't that he liked being bathed, it was just that he was an easy-going, trusting soul. Do what you want with me, lady, I gotcha. 

People always told me (and keep telling me now that he's dead) that I gave him a great life- that I saved him- who would want a blind pit bull? But they're wrong. Rollie wasn't going to get put down. He was at one of the most pit bull-friendly shelters in the country. He was only partially blind then, as whatever was going on with his eyes was degenerative. He looked like a puppy, but had the maturity of an adult. He was perfect. He would have made any family the best pet ever.

The truth is, he gave ME a great life. He was exactly what I needed after 10 years with a wonderful, but very tricky dog. He was easy. He was hilarious. He gummed toys for goodness sake! He gummed toys at me. He ate kibble and never got sick. He never had any of the pit bull delicateness that all pit bull fans know to expect- no skin itchiness, no tummy aches, no torn ligaments. We taught humane education to hundreds and hundreds of children- I really could not have done that without him. He came anywhere I wanted with me- protests, big events, my parent's house, the car, the bookstore, 7-11 (every day), whatever. He did whatever I needed him to do, with no training. He was not clingy but he was definitely my dog. He made me laugh and smile. He was the dictionary definition of joie de vivre.

I will miss you, Rollie. You snuck into my heart, and pretty much, the hearts of everyone who was close to you. Thank you for being the best little buddy a girl could hope for. There is another bucket of tennis balls waiting for you when we meet again.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Patrick Phillips: Blood at the Root

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What it is: In 1912, white people chased all (really, all) of the black people out of Forsyth County, Georgia. They have not "let" them back into Forsyth County yet. 'Blood at the Root' is the history of an extreme place but also the story of America where white people decide who lives where because of bigotry, misplaced fear and ongoing hatred.

Why you should read it: This is a timely book. Want to know where we came from? Read the book. President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) was all about Jim Crow. As Phillips writes, "Have such a man in the White House emboldened white supremacists across the nation and particularly in the South, which Wilson had once called home." He quotes the director of the IRS in Atlanta: "The are no Government positions for Negroes in the South... A Negro's place is in the cornfield." Sound familiar?

The rest of the book is going to sound familiar, too, if not in the details. The history of Forsyth county is a specific story, and it needs to be told: America's shameful details need to be known: we need to know our history in the fight to move forward.

My "aha" moment:  My mother and I recently took an "Israel/Palestine 101" class through Jewish Voices for Peace (something I recommend if it's available to you).  One of the concepts that I knew about but couldn't previously name was the Nabka- the historical and ongoing displacement of Palestinians. This reign of terror allowed Israelis to seize more and more land and force more and more Palestinians into smaller and smaller discontinuous, crappy, chunks of land. They had no more access to their farms, no more access to water, no access to their families. It is a methodical and intentional process by the state. 

'Blood at the Root' describes a similar, hyperlocal version of white southerners displacing Black people from one county, but it hit me: this is a historical and ongoing process of displacement that happens here, too. The "night riders" in Forsyth county physically forced Black people out of Forsyth, but also terrified them psychologically. These are both tactics in Palestine. And white people made Forsyth unwelcoming for any people of color thinking about coming back, resorting to physical and psychological violence even in recent memory to strangers who had no idea of the history. Black people in Forsyth lost their property (the key image often used in Palestine refers to Palestinians who were forced out of their homes and keep the house keys in the belief that they can return) and pushed into neighboring counties like so many refugees. Their legally owned properties and farms were taken over through extralegal means and are now housing tracts: "with the racial ban still violently enforced, whites could feel confident that black owners would never appear and try to reclaim the land they had left behind."

Maybe it's not surprising to hear that law enforcement in Forsyth was part of the problem. The Sheriff was part of making the (legal) hanging of two black men convicted of a (probably didn't happen) crime into a spectacle (against the instructions of a judge). Later, he would be involved in an illegal racially motivated kidnapping and lynching. The governor was pissed off at the Sheriff, but mostly because the Sheriff was embarrassing: Georgia's reputation was on the line here.

This is not just Forsyth. I think of the gentrification in my own city. In the 1980s, the 980 freeway destroyed West Oakland- tearing apart and decimating the neighborhoods there. The project removed 503 homes, 22 businesses, four churches and 155 trees (see Mercury News). I think about the techbros coming from San Francisco and making Oakland one of the most expensive places to live in the country. Where will the black and brown people whose houses they are buying go? I think of the historical redlining and the subprime mortgages that have already displaced so many of my neighbors. The first was government-sanctioned, but can we really say that the second wasn't? Can we really call Oakland so different than Forsyth or Palestine? There aren't people in hoods chasing out black people, and I'm grateful for that. But over and over, in different eras and in different ways, black and brown people are getting forced out. Do we really think that banks and white people who are now sitting on millions in wealth will turn over their ill-gotten homes?

And I think about the law enforcement situation here. Does Oakland (both the City and the population) *really want police reform? Or are we concerned about how people think of us nationally? Do we really care about crime or just statistics? Do Black lives really matter or is this about getting out of a settlement agreement because it's expensive and annoying? 

Rating: I didn't love this book. Even though it's a short book, I kind of slogged through it. But it's important, and awful. Library material, and worth your time.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Timothy Tyson: The Blood of Emmett Till

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Lately, every time I read or see something historical about race in this country, I feel like I could be reading the story of the modern times. About a year ago, the Oakland Museum of California put out an exhibit about the Black Panthers. I read a lot about the Panthers, and know the history a bit. The history is, of course very tied to the history of Oakland. What the exhibit made very clear is just how close the history is to today's present. The police brutality might look a little different, but ultimately, police violence is still very real. And a disturbing map of Oakland hung on the wall that still haunts me. It looked something like this. If you know Oakland at all, you know that the redlined areas are exactly the most poor and, not at all coincidentally, black and brown neighborhoods. Timothy Tyson's "The Blood of Emmett Till" is just this kind of book. Emmett Till was lynched in 1955 and he died at the hands at racist white men. His story started a movement. Does this sound familiar? 

What it is: Emmett Till was a 14 year old black kid murdered in Mississippi in 1955 by an unknown number of white men. He was pulled out of the house where he was sleeping, driven around, tortured and beaten to death. The men were tried (unusual for the time) and found (not unusual for the time) not guilty. The events occurred because Till spoke in an "inappropriate" manner to a white woman, though Tyson opens his book with the now elderly white woman admitting that she exaggerated about just how "inappropriate" Till was. 

After the murder, Till's mother Mamie Till, had his horribly mutilated body shipped back to Chicago and held a funeral with an open casket. Thousands came to see what white "justice" looked like in the South. The book is also this story: the story of the civil rights groups that came after the lynching, and their organizing for justice. 

Why you should read it: I was familiar with the story of Emmett Till, but the details and context that this book brings really are important. I didn't know about the Citizens' Councils- the "civilized" versions of the KKK that white people used as cover in the South, especially Mississippi, to basically terrorize black people. A white supremacist group, they remind me much of the people who enabled Trump to get elected and to give the Republican power structure plausible deniability when the "riff raff" do the dirty work of hate crimes, "free speech" protests and the like. Here's a quote from a Citizens' Council member in a town debating pool desegregation in the 50s: "I figure any time one of them gets near the pool, we can let some redneck take care of him for us."

My "aha" moment:  The story of Emmett Till isn't over. What's great about Tyson's book is that it contextualizes Till's lynching both in its time and place and in the present. And even when Tyson isn't doing it explicitly, it's pretty hard to miss. Tell me this doesn't sound familiar, if with some less liberal usage of the N word. One of the Till's killers: 

Just as long as I can live and can do anything about it, n--- are going to stay in their place. N-- ain't gonna vote where I live. If they did, they'd control the government. They ain't gonna go to school with my kids.
Or, in the words of a judge at the time, scared of the possible harm that would come from school desegregation (and if this doesn't make you think of Betsy DeVos and the war on drugs, you're not paying attention):
Brady's prescription included the abolition of public schools, if necessary; the intimidation of rebellious African Americans by economic reprisals; and the institution of special courts to try and punish "all undesirables, perjurers, subversives, saboteurs and traitors."
Tyson spends some time discussing the difference between a lynching and a murder. Till's death qualifies as a lynching because his killers "presumed they were acting in service to race, justice, tradition, and widely held values of their community."  It wasn't a spectacle- Till wasn't hung from a tree. But it was a lynching that was meant to be known far and wide: "a matter of local gossip and lore, a badge of honor among the faithful." The men did not kill the boy in secret. They drove him around in the back of a truck. But they didn't win: Till became a famous person, and a spark to a movement.

The name I have not written yet, but that was in my head while I read this book, is, of course, Trayvon Martin. I think his murder too, by this standard, was a lynching. And the book is evocative of so many deaths (Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, etc.) at the hands of modern day Citizens' Councils. In 1952, the Secretary of State Dean Acheson wrote "Racial discrimination in the United States remains a source of constant embarrassment to this Government in the day-to-day conduct of its foreign relations." I think about the deported veterans and Trump's decision to proudly call his Muslim ban a "ban" again. Hate crimes and terror attacks in white cities. And always, black lives that don't really seem to matter. Emmett Till died in 1955 in Mississippi. Near the end of the book, Tyson asks why we blame the white "redneck monsters" in the South, or Emmett Till, or a million other people. "The problem is why we blame them. We blame them to avoid seeing that the lynching of Emmett Till was caused by the nature and history of America itself and by a social system that has changed over the decades but not as much as we pretend."

Rating: You've gotta read it.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Jeff Hobbs: The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League

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This is not a woke review. This is the opposite of a woke review.

You’ve probably heard about the Dana Shutz painting of Emmett Till that the Whitney hung, and the ensuing (and I think justified) uproar. A white lady painted a picture that explicitly depicted and capitalized on black suffering. I’m not sure if she acknowledged this or not (and frankly, I don’t really care), and then a famous and influential museum hung it, catapulting her to even more fame. Should she have painted the painting? Sure, we should all write and paint what we want. Should she have hung the painting? Meh, I’m not sure, without context and appreciation for what exactly she was doing vis a vis appropriating the very real pain of both individual and group pain of people of color. Should the Whitney have hung the painting? No.

But this isn’t a piece about Shutz and a painting. It’s a piece about “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” by Jeff Hobbs. You can probably guess from the title that Robert Peace died young (no spoilers here), and you tell from the picture that he’s a black man, and you can tell from the subtitle “A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League” that this is a story of a person of color who had and lost a “promising” life. What you learn not far into this book is that it’s written by Peace’s Yale roommate- a privileged white man who is essentially pulling a Shutz. I can’t count how many times he says that his writing was stalling out- his first novel didn’t sell well and his second novel didn’t find a home at all. He is even more blatant (but perhaps even less self-aware) than Shutz that he is literally profiting from black suffering.

I’m mad about this book on so many levels. On a personal level, I find the premise infuriating. Rob Peace was, in Hobbs’ account, a genius. He worked very hard, and his parents worked very hard, to make sure that his intelligence was nourished, not stifled, in very hard circumstances. He went to Yale. And then, after Yale, he didn’t “do anything” with his life. He travelled. He went home. He tried various schemes. He dealt drugs (which he did in college, too). I didn’t go to Yale. I went to a nearby private school. But I spent a lot of time at Yale, and I understand why Hobbs sees this particular narrative as a tragedy: a YALE life was wasted. A Yaley went to school, wasted a rich white man’s resources (a private citizen financed his time there), was a good friend to many, and then just didn’t do anything with his life. He didn’t become a doctor, he didn’t write books, he didn’t pursue his science interests. How dare he? He was a Yaley! After detailing Peace’s life basically from birth, this is such a shortsighted narrative that I can’t believe Hobbs couldn’t see past how the four years of Peace’s life were the only four that mattered, but I can: I was there, and I was at an elite private school, and an elite university, and I scooped poop for 10 years. I was happy with my life, and I understood there was more than six figure salaries. But Hobbs is stuck in that mentality.

On another level, Hobbs, while detailing the minutia of Peace’s day to day (often in a style that sounds like he’s just stringing together quotes from interviews), misses the big picture context entirely. Yes, he explains the poverty in Newark and East Orange. Yes, he notes the turning points in Peace’s life, including his father going to jail, and eventually dying there. He follows his mom through 16 hour workdays and 20,000 salaries. But there is no tying this together, no sense that this is all systemic. No societal awareness of why Peace’s life is not tragic, but amazing. That the fact that Peace actually lived out his father’s life (Hobbs never mentions the parallels, which is a stark omission) falls into a statistical bell curve: Rob may have gotten out for Yale, but the societal injustices that pulled him right back into New Jersey are left out, and key to this story. Why wasn’t Rob prepared for “life after Yale” (the only way Hobbs can see Rob’s life)? Why were drugs the default money making scheme for Rob? Maybe Hobbs is trying to avoid seeming racist by avoiding what might seem trite, but in doing so, he removes any sense of understanding about systemic racism, of how poverty affects a person, of the criminal justice system, etc. This is a biography more of Hobbs’ privilege than of Rob’s life and and death.

Do not read this book. And when reading books about people of color (or looking at art works about them), think critically about their origin. The creators certainly have a right to create these works, but the works might not have the insight we would grant the works on first reading.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Heather Ann Thompson: Blood in the Water

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What it is: A number of books on my list lately have come from Public Books' updated version of the Chronicle of Higher Education's Trump Syllabus. Basically, the Chronicle put out a mock syllabus of things we should know to understand Trump. The idea was funny, even important, but it was definitely one of those dead white men things. The AAIHS (African American Intellectual History Society) called them out on this, and a new syllabus was born. I haven't even gotten to the post-election syllabus yet, as a) there are ton of amazing books on this list and b) "Blood in the Water" 600 dense (and very worthwhile) pages. If you need a good, meaningful book, the Trump Syllabus is highly recommended.

"Blood in the Water" is the story of the 1971 Attica prison uprising. It's also the story of over 30 years after that: I had heard of the revolt and cruel end to the uprising in the prison, but I had no idea how long it took for the prisoners and others to get any type of closure. The last trial that Heather Ann Thompson covers in this book literally took place in 2005. Unless you are an expert on Attica, I'm going to guess that the reality of the situation is worse than anything you thought. Prisoners were tortured. Witnesses were coerced. Evidence was hidden. Law enforcement was shoddily trained and sent into a situation set up for failure that would include shooting other members of law enforcement. Politicians planned from the get-go for a coverup. Evidence was intentionally destroyed. Prisoners continued to be tortured and denied medical treatments. Wives and families of law enforcement were kept in the dark and tricked out of compensation. Literally, if this situation were not meticulously researched and documented by Thompson, you might think it happened in a third world country. Or New York in the '70s.

On the other hand, she also meticulously documents how a group of prisoners came together peacefully and eloquently for their rights. During the few days that they occupied the prison, they had some hostages. They carefully worked to protect them. The prisoners worked together to get observers in, to come up with articulate and reasonable goals. The prison functioned better with them in charge than with the white, racist guards in charge. She talks about the group of lawyers who worked for years alongside the former prisoners to get compensation and recognition for their suffering. There is a touch of the tragic beauty here, of the "what could have been," if only we could all work in this kind of way. It's both very '70s (Black Panthers and other groups were both working with and models for the organizing) and utopian, the way it happened. It could not happen now.

Why you should read it: What happened at Attica is part of the history of prisons in this country. It's also not over. Although the book was really really long, I wish Thompson's epilogue explaining the direct effects of Attica on the current prison system had been longer. Some of the things that have actually gone backwards for prisoners as a direct or indirect result of Attica include the PLRA (Prison Litigation Reform Act). This act makes it harder for prisoners to protect themselves legally, which "Blood in the Water" makes tragically clear is a basic human right. As we know, mass incarceration of black people is steadily increasing. One of the factors in the revolt at Attica was overcrowding. The wars on drugs and crime actually led to New York's prisons to double in numbers by 1982.  And while the government initially realized that the Attica prisoners were making reasonable demands (more programming, better parole requirements, less time in "the hole," etc.), by 1982, these were all rolled back in a vicious backlash. "Forty years after the uprising of 1971, conditions at Attica were worse than they had ever been." In other words, we're talking about now. And the conditions that caused the Attica uprising were terrible. As Thompson says, 
It is both tragic and deeply ironic that new levels of brutality against America's prisoners have been, at least so far, the most obvious and lasting legacy of the 1971 Attica uprising. Even though the extraordinary violence that took place in 1971 was overwhelmingly perpetrated by members of law enforcement, not the prisoners, American voters ultimately did not respond to this prison uprising by demanding that states rein in police power. Instead they demanded that police be given even more support and even more punitive laws to enforce.

My "aha" moment:  The government worked very carefully along with the media (who also took off with the story) to spin a story that was not only sensational, but false. Does this sound familiar? The black prisoners were spun as monsters, torturing and mutilating the white guards held hostage in the prison. Although completely false, it seems like only the activists who joined the prisoner's cause ever seemed to understand that no, the prisoners had not decapitated anyone or slit their throats, and yes, the prison guards had shot scores of prisoners at close range and, after the prison had been retaken, made them crawl in glass, naked, or beaten them, or stabbed them in their anuses with with screwdrivers. The white media ran with the anti-black story, and that was what the public ate up: "The inflammatory stories of prisoner depravity reported by New York state officials found their way onto the front pages of the nation's most hardly regarded newspapers... Thanks to the Associated Press service, the story of prisoner barbarism made headline news in the local newspapers of almost every midsized city and small town in America."

Rating: Buy this book. (Partly because if you don't, you'll accrue so many fines at the library from taking so long to read it.) Absorb it. Help fix the VERY broken criminal justice and prison industrial complex. Let me know if you need a starting point. Think about how racism sends so many black and brown people to prison. Read this book.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah

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What it is: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's 2013 novel won the National Book Critics Circle Fiction award, and I can see why. I've seen 'Americanah' a love story, but it's much more than that. The book is an honest, and sometimes scathing, look at race in the white-people friendly format of fiction. I'm not trying to say that Adichie wrote this book for white people, but rather that even those white people who might not read a book that centers discussions of race can read this page-turner, and I'm not sure how anyone could read it and not take home some seriously important insights.

Why you should read it: See above. First of all, it's a wonderful book. I don't read a lot of fiction, and am always pleased when I find a book that I can't put down. 'Americanah' is about Nigeria, Nigerians and their time abroad. The Nigerians experience the US (and Britain) differently than what the protagonist, Ifemelu, calls American Blacks. The protaganist's experience of the global west is colored (!) by race in a way that startles them, and Adichie's book is thus unique: normally we read about race through the American lens- American people of color looking at race issues, or white people realizing that race exists (wow!). This time, we're seeing it through a third party: Ifemelu is lumped by white Americans, and even sometimes, Black Americans, into "Black," but her lived experience is not that that of African Americans. We read her blog- sample title: "Understanding America for the Non-American Black: American Tribalism," hear her discussions with her Nigerian friends, and watch her move through both America and Nigeria (before and after her 15 years in America).

My "aha" moment:  There are some amazing discussions of hair in this book. Obviously, white people talking and thinking (and selling and fetishizing, etc) about black hair is a complex topic. I read 'Americanah' with some relief.  Imefulu writes in her blog (post title: "A Michelle Obama Shout-Out Plus Hair as Race Metaphor"), 
So the other day I say to [my friend]- I wonder if Michelle Obama has a weave, her hair looks fuller today, and all that heat every day must damage it. And she says- you mean her hair doesn't grow like that? So is it me or is that the perfect metaphor for race in America right there? Hair.
Here's why I'm relieved by this: the book has no problem pointing out how dense we white people can be, and also treats Imefulu's hair like what it is- a beautiful and important part of her life. It's part of the story. I have a chance to learn from this book, and revel in the beauty and pain of Imefulu's experience of treating and not treating her hair. And this book has been rewarded by the mainstream press, not marginalized for being "too black." 

Rating: If you like fiction, buy it. Support (Non American) Black women authors. If you're fiction skeptical, rejoice because your library probably has a copy and you won't have to wait for a year for a copy (not that that usually happens to me). 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Jacobo Timerman: Prisoner without a Name, Cell Without a Number

What it is: Jacobo Timerman was a journalist in Argentina during the Dirty Wars. I know very little about Argentina's history, although it sounds very familiar to me- like something I knew and forgot and should still know. You can read a very short version of what happened, especially to Argentinian Jews here:

Timerman was imprisoned for years and wrote a memoir of his time in prison that also includes the backstory of the country, the political situation, and the lives of those around him. He was in secret prisons, along with thousands of others. Black sites- no one knew where he was, and he writes of specific cruelty by guards who singled out Jews for the fact of being Jewish.

Why you should read itJournalists, outspoken people and Jews were targeted during the Dirty Wars. If this is sounding familiar, like Nazi Germany, you're not alone: Timerman makes this connection throughout his memoir. But if it's sounding a little too close to home in this new Trump era, you might also not be alone. I'm not falling into the "Jews are victims" cohort yet (I'm Jewish, I get to say that!), but I think you can substitute Muslims and see where this country might be going. Being Muslim may not be an official crime (yet), but it certainly singles folks out for special (bad) treatment. And I don't think it's far fetched to say that hate crimes against Jews are up- even USA Today is reporting on it.

My "aha" moment: Near the end of the book, Timerman writes that he believes "that all this could have been prevented. By the Jews themselves, by the Christians. But it was not. But it was not. And remembering what happened in Europe, uniting the two experiences, the German one of the 1930s and the Argentine one of the 1970s, it is difficult to find consolation. There is no possible consolation." 

World War II was less than 40 years before the Argentinian Dirty Wars, and yet history was allowed to repeat in Argentina because people forgot. We are now 80 years away, and very few survivors are left: there is little living memory. Instead we have people who want to revive the hatred, and people who deny the Holocaust altogether. Do millenials even know what the Holocaust was? If we forget, it makes it that much easier for the Dirty Wars can happen here- whether to Jews or to Muslims. Maybe the wars have already started- by means of the prison industrial complex and the travel bans. We have an obligation to remember (especially the Jews- Timerman is particularly hard on his own people who are acquiescent out of fear).

Rating: I'm not sure I can recommend this book. It was really hard to read, but also really powerful. The writing is stilted, probably partly because of the translation. 

Monday, February 27, 2017

Dorothy Hughes: The Expendable Man

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I can't remember exactly how this book got on my list, because I rarely read mysteries, but really, it's such a great, important read. Like so many things lately, it's one of those books that, even though it was written in 1963 and takes place in the 1940s or 1950s, could take place today. (This happened to me recently at the OCMA exhibit about the Black Panthers with a map of discriminatory bank loans that mapped almost exactly to current poor, black neighborhoods, and when I saw "I Am Not Your Negro."

What it is: Dorothy Hughes was a mystery writer who started writing mysteries in her 40s. The story is superficially obvious: guy gets conned by sketchy girl, girl dies, cops decide guy did it and [won't spoil the ending]. But the terror comes with the part Hughes doesn't reveal right away, and that white readers won't pick up right away (I didn't): guy is a patsy because he is black. And, as I keep reminding myself to keep in mind: one of the privileges of whiteness is the ability to be innocent in the face of police. Being white means every encounter with the police is not a potential life and death situation. Being white means teaching your kids to respect the police as benevolent authority figures, not as menacing, potentially lethal actors who can strip you of your very humanity.

Why you should read it: First, it's a great read, even if, like me, you're just not that into mysteries. But the humanity and the cruelty in Dr Hugh Densmore's story almost brought me to tears. Dr Densmore could be any person of color today standing in for the white man that the police don't want to or can't find. He could be any of the innocent men on death row that Bryan Stevenson advocates for. The police in the book may be more honestly vocal about their racism than the police that we deal with (at least in California) now, but the way they act in the book doesn't seem too far off.

My "aha" moment: The first fifty or so pages of the book flow along a little oddly- strange things happen to Dr Densmore, but they could happen to anyone. He's jumpy and a little nervous, but maybe he's just in a rush. He picks up a teenage girl and spends hours in the car regretting it. Maybe he thinks it's just not seemly? How could I have missed it that he's jumpy because he's black? Because I'm white. Because whiteness comes with the privilege of invisibility. Later, when the police are closing in, Dr Densmore spends much of his time in Arizona trying to find places which are either safe because they're in public, so his enemies won't feel comfortable assaulting him, or safe for him to eat at (there aren't any Jim Crow laws, but he knows that he isn't really safe in most establishments), or safe because no one will see him. His body is literally not safe. He cannot be invisible. The giant shiny white Cadillac he has borrowed from his mother is the story's metaphor for sticking out, but really, it is his skin. 

Rating: Library, but tell your friends, especially those who don't/won't read nonfiction. This is hard-hitting. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Bryan Stevenson: Just Mercy

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'Just Mercy' has been on my list for awhile. Bryan Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, which works for the end of unjust incarceration and for racial justice. He works tirelessly to get people off of death row, or to stay their executions, or to get their sentences to match their crimes- the disgusting penalties children receive are one of his projects.

What it is:  'Just Mercy' tells the story of Stevenson's career framed by the story Walter McMillian- a man sentenced to death for a crime he couldn't have committed. A white teenage girl was killed in a small Alabama town while McMillian, a well-known local black character, was at a fish-fry with much of the black community. The local law enforcement community hadn't been able to solve the crime, so they figured out how to pin the crime on McMillian, complete with a lying witness. The crime was considered so heinous that McMillian was housed on death row, even before the trial. The jury sentenced him to life in prison, and the judge overruled the sentence and sentenced him to death. It seems heinous because it is.

Why you should read it: This kind of miscarriage of justice is not unique to McMillian's case. Stevenson has dedicated his life to overturning this kind of injustice, especially in Alabama and the south. "In Alabama, even though 65 percent of all homicide victims were black, nearly 80 percent of the people on death row were there for crimes against victims who were white. Black defendant and white victim pairings increased the likelihood of a death sentence even more." As he writes, "Some victims are more protected and values than others." As Jill Levoy argued in Ghettoside, some victims don't matter to the system: their homicides are never investigated. On the other hand, some victims matter so much to the system that people are unfairly persecuted.

My "aha" moment: Jail is the solution to white people's complacency. I've been thinking a lot about white complacency lately. It's easy to look at Trump and neo-Nazis and conservative racism, but a lot harder to look at liberal racism. We benefit off of systemic racism just like everyone else. Stevenson describes Southern racism like this: "For a hundred years, any sign of black progress in the South could trigger a white reaction that would invariably invoke Confederate symbols and talk of resistance." Now we deal have mass incarceration of black men, women, children and the mentally ill. But it's okay, because crime.

Rating:  Buy it, or get it at the library then donate the cost of the book to EJI.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Carla Power: If the Oceans were Ink

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I admit to knowing not very much about Islam (bad religion major!). Carla Power has written an insightful book that not only educated me about Islam, but also allowed me to challenge my perceptions of how white Westerners think of Muslims among them. I've read plenty of books about the Middle East, Muslim countries, etc, but this book fits right in with the time-to-educate-yourself theme.

What it is: Carla Power was already a journalist on Islamic culture and politics but realized she wanted to know more about the Koran proper and the spirituality behind the religion. So she spent a year with an Islamic scholar, Mohammad Akram Nadwi- following him, reading the Koran with him, attending his lectures, etc. Nadwi has written biographies of thousands of women, which leads to fascinating discussions of women's roles in the religion.

Why you should read it: What you think you know about women in Islam, what you've been told about women in Islam, what you want to believe, etc., will really be shaken up by reading this book, and Power is right there with you thinking this through. She takes a no-nonsense, honest-with-herself approach, which is welcome.

My "aha" moment: Nadwi's feelings about hijab, which actually means barrier, or separation, are beautiful. The idea of covering oneself in simple, modest clothing (men included) before God, is lovely. It's not the misogynist "elbows are too sexy and distracting" of Orthodox Jews (my people), and something that gets totally lost in the discussions of who should be able (secular countries) or required (Muslim countries) to wear hijab or burka.

Rating: Library. I'll be honest, I didn't love the writing. But this book really made me think, and showed me a huge hole in my knowledge.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Jeff Chang: We Gon' Be Alright

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I read a lot of books. I recently heard Michael Eric Dyson speak about his new book, Tears We Cannot Stop, in which, among other things, he speaks about white ignorance. Whenever white people are afraid, he argues, they plead ignorance. Slavery? What slavery? The Civil War was about economics. It is our job to learn about, and intentionally overcome this ignorance. So I decided to start blogging the books I read again. Trump is terrible, but he didn't become the Great Pumpkin in a vacuum. He was elected by people who forget that they are part of a false racial binary, that they are where they are because America is built on a false idea of racial superiority. White America spends too much of its time intentionally ignoring the opportunities to humbly listen to what is going on around them to pay attention to the havoc the system causes to black and brown people. Instead we call on black and brown people to teach us, to explain to us what they mean by systemic racism, or why they are harmed by oppressive police tactics. That's messed up. So I'm going to share what I read, and maybe others can learn a little bit, or will be inspired to pick up some of these books themselves, or to have a dialogue. I'm gonna try out a new format to make this easy to digest.

 What it is: We Gon' Be Alright is a short (168 small pages) book of essays by Jeff Chang, prolific author. The essays are very current- Trump hadn't been inaugurated, but he was about to be president. There's an essay on Beyonce's Lemonade and #blacklives matter, with an emphasis on Ferguson
Why you should read it: The subtitle of Chang's book, "Notes on Race and Resegration," tells it all. You want to know why we are where we are? White flight or gentrification- what happens when black and brown people are forced to the suburbs, and what does it mean that the news writes stories about the tragic tale of no more kids in San Francisco? This is the book.
My "aha" moment: Diversity really is for white people. The first essay, "Is Diversity for White People?" was the most moving, in my opinion. Chang walks the reader through this history of the words and meanings of "diversity" and "affirmative action," and convincingly argues that diversity is not really for people of color at all, but for the benefit of white people. Admissions departments at universities, mayors of diverse cities (Oakland), etc., all use diversity as marketing tools to attract people. As Chang writes, "The appearance of diversity signaled excellence, and the appearance of excellence signaled diversity." What a joke: diversity has become a tool for white people to feel better about ourselves, not a true indicator that things are working.
Rating: Library, or read the essays online. If you buy it, pass it around! Easy to read for your not-that-into-reading friends.