I listen to podcasts pretty much daily when I take my walk. During the months of all-COVID-all-the-time, it seemed like nothing would ever supplant the reports on searching for a vaccine and further treatment, rising death tolls, countries who are handling the situation well vs. those that aren’t, and the daily shenanigans of various confused governments.
And yet, here we are. I never imagined that the new topic would be systemic racism, but then again, I never have imagined pretty much anything that’s happened this year—at least, not beyond the shallowest of surfaces. Yet now I’m hearing the phrase “systemic racism” spoken on a semi-regular basis—sometimes mockingly, but mostly just in confusion—by the white folks who make up 95% of my contacts.
Life surprises you.
The Current Moment: Education Begins
I’m a nerd. I love research. Before I go to any foreign location, I read books and newspapers, watch movies, pretty much whatever I can find so that I can embark on my journey with at least a little bit of knowledge under my virtual travel belt. Because I don’t wear a real travel belt. Those things are, like, totally frumpy.
Well, high time I did that in my own damn country. And specifically around the issue of black lives.
One of my favorite ways to get good reading lists is to see if there’s a syllabus including literature, essays, poems, etc. Of course, there are thousands for African-American Literature courses, which are taught in pretty much every college in the nation. So I’ll be spending some time delving into one particular syllabus that I’ve found to be pretty awesome.
But First, One of Two Excellent Books
However, prior to that, I’ve discovered two outstanding books on systemic racism through Scribd, an online library of audio and ebooks, as well as articles, magazines, and sheet music. For someone whose true north is the library, Scribd has been a godsend during lockdown. They are not a sponsor, so I get nothing if you click on the link and subscribe. That’s how much I like it.
Searching for White Fragility, a book that a lot of people are reading but isn’t currently available on Scribd, I came across So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. (Click on that link to buy directly from a non-Amazon vendor and get a discount.)
Nigerian-American, Oluo writes in a warm conversational tone about her many discussions—many of them admittedly awkward, some ugly, all exhausting—with co-workers, friends (some of who become ex-friends), and even her own white mother about racism. She quickly cuts through the bullshit that so many people subscribe to: that turning the tide on racism is about a hearts and minds campaign. Kinda like that movie The Green Book, which basically says, see? If racists would just become friends with some nice black person, they’d find out they’re not racist at all. They just thought they were! Racism would stop! Wouldn’t it?
Um. Actually, no.
Addressing systemic racism is not about white people feeling good that we’re not racists and being mad at the ones who we know are racists, who are incidentally never us or our friends. Addressing systemic racism is about looking into the systems woven into the fabric that clothes this very complicated country, working hard to understand them, and then working even harder, hand in hand with other people, to change them.
I’m really liking how Oluo teaches readers to listen better and find opportunities that go beyond saying, “I’m going to call out that racist! Do I get a pat on the back now?” I’ll just quote her directly here:
Instead of posting on Facebook, ‘This teacher shouted a racial slur at a Hispanic kid and should be fired!,’ you can say all that, and then add, ‘This behavior is linked to the increased suspension, expulsion, and detention of Hispanic youth in our schools and sets an example of behavior for the children witnessing the teacher’s racism that will influence the way these children are treated by their peers, and as adults.’So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo, 2018 Seal Press/imprint of Hachette
It takes a lot of work and discipline to do some research, and to not knee-jerk yourself into a self-righteous fit where you pat your own damn back for being so woke. Well, we’re just not. Maybe if we take our indignant responses on social media down a notch and bolster them with a little fact-finding, we’ll at least provide others something to think about and have a chance to start a conversation that’s way overdue.
The Second Excellent Book
The other book, reco’d via a Scribd antiracism reading list, is Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in American History, by Ibram X. Kendi. It’s an audiobook, never my first choice just because of the time commitment. But yeah, I can give 18 hours to this; at half an hour or so a day, I’ll be done in a month. (I’ve also managed to rustle up a pdf version. So I may pop back and forth between audio and visual.)
Kendi, based on the introduction—which is all I’ve listened to so far—has a great strategy for telling this story. He’s chosen five voices who have been central to the issue of racism in the US from its beginnings: Cotton Mather, the Puritan crackpot; Thomas Jefferson, moral cipher; William Lloyd Garrison, abolitionist and newspaper publisher; W.E.B. DuBois, scholar and founder of the NAACP, which James Baldwin accuses of “class-based elitism” in the superb I Am Not Your Negro; and Angela Davis, whom Nixon deemed a “dangerous terrorist.”
What are you reading these days to understand US history, particularly in regard to systemic issues? Leave a comment below or drop me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
A New Take on An Old Song
Ok, I promised you a syllabus. The one that I found is available from this website: academia.edu. You have to sign up, and then you can get all kinds of stuff to thrill your nerd heart.
I snagged the African American Lit syllabus taught by Dr. Jesse Zuba at Delaware State University. And Dr. Zuba starts out with African-American songs.
The first, “Stand By Me,” is one pretty much everyone knows. For me, “Stand By Me” has always been an easy, pretty song that people slow dance to or that calls to mind a bunch of nerdy young white boys looking for a dead body in a forest. But after recent events, and particularly in this version by non-famous artists (at least beyond the reach of their communities), nearly all of them people of color, it hit me pretty hard. This song is neither easy, nor pretty. This song is powerful, beautiful, and reminds you that you need to step up, be brave, and weather the storm.
This version, sung by musicians from around the world, was put together by Keb Mo and his collective Playing for Change. Their slogan: “Re-imagine a world connected by music.”
Feeling a whole different vibe from the song, I decided to do a little research. I owe my findings to this page from Smooth Radio, which has a lot more info if you want to pop by. Here are a few highlight in one place.
Ben E. King wrote and recorded the iconic version of the song, along with songwriting team Lieber and Stoller. But the song is based on one called “Stand by Me Father.” Here it is, from the Soul Stirrers.
That song, in turn, is based on a verse from the Psalms of David, 46:2:
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea…
This extraordinary version was performed at Harry and Meghan’s wedding by The Kingdom Choir, led by Karen Gibson. Ms. Gibson and her singers are clearly emissaries direct from paradise.
BTW, just in case you thought that maybe Camilla Parker-Bowles has a heart that can be moved—well, the cut to her and Chazzy Boy in the audience should pretty much put that little illusion to bed once and for all. I mean, if this doesn’t have you all teary-eyed and chilly, you may want to check your own pulse.
…there can be no artistic breakthrough or social progress without some form of crisis in civilization—a crisis usually generated by organizations or collectivities that convince ordinary people to put their bodies and lives on the line. There is, of course, no guarantee that such pressure will yield the result one wants, but there is a guarantee that the status quo will remain or regress if no pressure is applied at all.Cornell West, The New Cultural Politics of Difference, 1990
We have a crisis convergence, folks. We have a choice. Let’s try to start getting it right for a change.
The Marcus Aurelius Moment* for 22-June, 2020
From Dr. Irvin Green, former pastor of Memorial Christian Church in Ann Arbor, that we have to do our work. Nobody else can walk for us, eat for us, speak for us. We have to do it for ourselves. It’s not easy. Quit whining.
*In the first part of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman ruler details what various people in his life have taught him. To read the full intro to why I care about Marcus Aurelius, click here.