In the line of duty

When I was a journalism student many years ago, my college profs encouraged me and my fellow classmates to think about ethics in every class. History of the Press, Newswriting and Reporting, Critical and Editorial Writing, Layout and Design… each course introduced us to discussions about what was ethical, what responsibilities we had as journalists, and what our role was in the telling of an objective story. Should we get involved if we saw someone getting hurt? How do we blow the whistle, if that becomes necessary? What would make it necessary? Should we, truly, report just the facts and not interfere? If we did, how large an impact would/could/should we leave?

That one was hard for me; at times I thought journalists should absolutely intervene although they didn’t. Other times, I saw them do so at great risk. And in still other discussions, the focus of which I can’t recall now, I remember thinking it’s definitely not a reporter’s duty to step in.

In the years since I started having those discussions, I have thought about them regularly. I read The New York Times every day, and I read The Argus Leader, my “local” rag as much as I can (there’s only so much high school sports coverage a person needs). I see how other writers are doing this, or not, in their work. When I teach, I think about responsbility and ethics and “truth” from a literary perspective now too. And in the DEI work I currently do as a full-time gig, I’m always thinking about how the truth is shaped and curated and the questions and answers we leave out and what kind of impact that has on “the story.”

Today as I was reading the Argus I thought about a journalist’s responsibility and my (still) murky feelings on how much to be involved, or how to get involved, in the telling of the news. And I thought about how a skilled journalist can help steer a story. However, even as I write this post, thinking as I do now, I’m not sure if a journalist “should” steer a story, and yet in this case it’s hard not to think that.

Maybe you’ll help me see more angles here?

The article I read details a new $5000 incentive being offered by my local police force to draw people to law enforcement. The reporter touches on the realities of workforce challenges for all employers, notes that law enforcement is facing those issues and provides some background on previous incentives and where staffing sits currently for our local PD. The chief of police is quoted (from a previous interview) but the article draws heavily on police spokesperson Sam Clemens. Finally, the article ends by noting that the department is trying to bolster diversity.

It was a fine enough article, and I agree that being a cop has probably always been hard and probably isn’t any easier today than it’s ever been. I agree any workforce suffers when it isn’t running at full capacity. And I definitely don’t believe “all cops are bad.” So I’m sympathetic to the outcomes the PD hopes for and what this article could have done for those needs. But where the article lost me, and where I began wondering if the reporter could have/should have done something different boiled out at me in the eighth paragraph (of 17).

“In a perfect world, you’d have an unlimited number of cops, but the realistic side of that is, there’s a cost that comes with that,” Clemens added. “So the chief works closely with the mayor and the city council and trying to find that balance of what that number of employee is provided.”

“In a perfect world, you’d have an unlimited number of cops…”

The line burned in my brain, and with it came a set of questions: In whose perfect world? Unlimited? Why wouldn’t you have unlimited mental health support, or translators, or afforable housing? Or addiction and rehab services?

I knew Trent Abrego, the writer, was just doing his job, quoting Clemens. But in the paragraphs that followed, which focused on the importance the PD places on diversity, I did not feel like things were matching up. I knew, logically and practically speaking, the PD rep was saying that in ideal circumstances, there would be enough officers so that no one would have to work too many shifts back to back, and that more patrols might mean safer streets, and that all employees feel better when their teams have enough people to do the work.

But given the nature of who’s envisioning a “perfect world” with “unlimited cops” and who we often see behind bars and why, this line felt to me at best like a bit of an injustice to the police department and more starkly, a totally tone deaf statement issued by the person hired to speak on behalf of the force.

But who’s job is it to make sure optics and output match up? Is it the reporter’s? No. Is it Clemens’? He certainly works for the police department, whether or not he’s a cop. It’s more his job than Abrego’s to make sure things sound the way the PD needs them to. But had Abrego asked for clarity or a rephraseing of that statement, might I have finished the article without feeling hot over it? Might he have asked some other questions, such as, “what if it’s not unliminted cops we need, but other resources?” He might have put down his pen or stopped his recorder and said “Dude, do you realize how bad that sounds, after you just spent 20 minutes telling me you want to do a better job supporting diversity?”

But that’s not his job, either.

Curated: IRC’s “Five ways Disney’s ‘Encanto’ celebrates refugees”

As the daughter of a Colombian immigrant, I’m deeply interested in the ways immigrants and refugees are displayed in the news, and one of the organizations I follow for multiple perspectives is the International Rescue Committee. This nonprofit was convened at the urging of Albert Einstein, and today it supports more than 40 countries in crisis, helping more than 31.5 million people in these countries.

I was reading some news on their site tonight and stumbled across an article about Disney’s Encanto, the delightful and poignant movie about the Madrigal family and their whimsical gifts. Set in Colombia, the movie make me cry every time I watch it because of all the little details they got right about the country, big and small.

I’ll be touching down in Bogota, the country’s capital in two weeks, and I can’t wait to see family. My versions of Casita, the magical house that comes alive in the movie, are all long gone, but memories of my own abuela live on. Whatever her traumas may have been (I wrote about my perception of some of them in a poem published in this 2022 anthology by Flowersong Press) my abuela did her best for her family and encouraged all her kids to find their own glow. My mom’s immigration story is not one of seeking refuge in the way that move is prompted for so many others, but it has its own lasting impacts, bad and good and almost always mystical.

I loved reading the article “Five ways Disney’s ‘Encanto’ celebrates refugees” on the IRC website tonight, and I hope you will too.

The sweetest season

It’s that time of year again: apple season. Living on a farm that supports around 2000 apple trees, it always feels like apple TREE time, but in the fall when those growing trunks bear their fruit, my sentiments shift and I am reminded that the trees are actually doing things for us, too.

Our trees are young, ranging from five years in our ground/7 years old to trees we planted this year to replace trees lost. This means we don’t get a lot of our own fruit, but we do get just enough to have it feel like we get something special out of all the time and money that goes into these trees.

I enjoy seeing the trees grow and giving tours and walking past the spot where we planted our baby’s placenta while planting the orchard a week after he was born. That spot is at the entrance to the orchard and always feels special.

But what’s fun for me this time of year is when we pick up apples from our friend Chuck Nystrom at Ocheda orchard. He runs a commercial orchard and within it a trial orchard, meaning he’s got thousands of trees he’s grown from seed, just to see what they end up tasting like. He’s still planting seeds today, knowing he may never know if the promise of that seed came to fruition and leads to a popular new apple.

This isn’t how the apples you eat or know are grown; the Golden Delicious or Pinata you eat are not grown from a tree planted as a seed. Yes, that cultivar started as a seed at one point, but once they hit the commercial market, those apples are grafted from a tree and the fruit is basically guaranteed to stay the same over time.

Growing an apple from seed takes a lot of time and it doesn’t guarantee any worthy results. But every year Chuck lets us wander around and find some apples that taste good. These are apples named things like “N-125.” This establishes the row and the tree’s place in the row. Every now and then, Chuck finds that one of his unknown little trees yields a real winner, and he sells that apple and the marketing process begins. This is how Honeycrisp came about (not in his orchard but at the U of M) and how other cultivars are bred, “found” and developed for mass markets.

My partner and I are not trying to develop the next great apple, but we do have fun walking up and down Chuck’s rows, pulling a red orb from a tree, taking a bite and tossing the fruit to the ground in hopes the next one will be better. Like a whiskey, wine or cider tasting, getting just a swish of flavor is key so that we don’t load up before sampling the bounty before us.

I didn’t get to go on the apple run to Chuck’s this year, but tonight Sean and I sat on the couch and sampled the best of what he brought back to the farm. Yellow apples, pink-fleshed apples, Russet potato-textured apples, an apple so snappy and bitey that my jaw felt like it was on auto-chew and couldn’t stop. I choose my apples on taste over texture, and the texture of that one was fun but the flavor was flat.

These were the best of the best for us this year, but not good enough that Chuck is going to market with them. He does have a few hundred potential winners in the works right now, so maybe that’ll be something I can write about in another year, sharing a logo and zippy name like Zestar or SugarBee –which started out as B-51 in his orchard.

Apples are such an essential part of history and lore in so many ways, from Biblical myths to the Americana that is Johnny Appleseed that being a part of this process in some small way feels as sweet as that first, cold bite of a fresh apple.

Beware the evils of Trunk or Treat

I was in fourth grade the first time I read Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree, a novel that takes a group of kids on a swirling adventure through space and time to find and save a friend during the spookiest of nights. It told, like many of the books I read then, a story bigger than my young mind could fully grasp. Even then, though, I could tell Bradbury’s craft was something mystical and enchanting, even if I didn’t quite know I wasn’t seeing all there was to see.

A couple years later, my friends and I watched movies like Candyman, Troll I and Troll II (NOT the Trolls movies you’re thinking of) during sleepovers at my house, and my poor parents put up with us chanting at midnight “Candyman, Candyman” in the bathroom mirror next to their bedroom a couple times before screaming and retreating to the basement, over and over.

Bless them, my parents, for letting me read whatever I wanted and for renting movies with creepy sleeves they couldn’t be bothered to read. And bless them, for driving me through snow drifts and for miles to get an orange plastic pumpkin’s worth of Halloween candy. Homemade popcorn balls, homemade caramels and other homemade oddities from the “neighbors” we lived miles apart from in rural, rural Nebraska were still safe back then, in those halcyon Children of the Corn days. They allowed spooky season to be all that it could be, enough to scare me within healthy limits and feel fearless (for better or worse) as I grew older and had to confront real fears.

Thirty+ years later, I am now an adult and parent, and I’ve gone trick-or-treating with my four-year-old twice, if we name the real act of trick-or-treating as such. His first year was a simple Trunk-or-Treat, the carefully curated events where people stand by a car trunk full of candy and hand you one piece in the setting glow of the sun. That was not trick or treating.

His second year was a walk down main street, also a fun but sterile and crowded Trunk-or-Treat. Years three and four have been actual walk around the block trick-or-treating. And he has loved it. This year he dressed up as a “skeleton swamp zombie,” and he made the whole mile loop without getting too cold.

I liked Trunk or Treat during year one, when he couldn’t do anything by drool, and during year two it was fun to see him waddling around in his dinosaur costume in broad daylight. Last year, his first year of trying to remember to say “Trick or treat” dressed as Tigger, was super cute.

This year, Trunk or Treat took over the rural Minnesota town I live outside of, and there were hardly any other kids out on the street. The people sharing their candy and some laughs with us (and even a couple of adult beverages!) commented on how they received few kiddos. In the online mom groups I’m part of (can you believe it?), so many moms commented on how much they loved the expansion of Trunk or Treat this year, how safe and organized and clean it was.

And this demise of trick or treating and the rise of the Trunk or Treat has made me sad. Little kids aren’t going to get the exposure, the spookiness, the slight chills of encountering someone dressed in a costume on the street in the dark on this night once trick or treating proper goes away. Are we a society so afraid of things that go bump in the night that we’re losing any ability we had to be safely curious about those bumps?

As Bradbury showed us (time and again), as any good horror movie illuminates for us, fear plays a role in shaping us, our societies and our points in time. I understand that this particular point in time IS a scary one in so many real, heavy ways. And maybe I’m just old, approaching 40. But the fear I’m worried about is that we’ll become so untrusting and so weary of our neighbors that we won’t engage in a tradition that has often allowed us to look at something other than, at something scary, and things misshapen and odd in an appreciative way and now see them instead as yet more bogeymen from which we need to protect our children.

The buzz of being done

Last week, after two years of writing and revising an essay about beekeeping, post-partum depression and acceptance, I was able to let the process go: The piece was published on the website Lion’s Roar, in conjunction with the Buddhist Justice Reporter. Lion’s Roar is an in-print and online magazine devoted to exploration of meditation practice and Buddhism. Other topics find their home here, too: stories about skater culture and Buddhism or the Disney movie Encanto bring new perspectives to both topics and hopefully inspire people to contemplate things in a new way.

That was one of the goals of my essay, to push others to think in new ways, as all the articles in Lion’s Roar inspire readers to do.

The idea of writing about Buddhism and beekeeping came to me in 2019, when I got my first hive of bees and the small creatures stung my right hand seven times. I was so lost in the changes of motherhood that I mostly felt sorrow that summer, sorrow and depression with little pops of joy.

The day the bees stung me, I was transferring them from their “nuc box” (a small, cardboard travel box) to their permanent hive on my farm. I was wearing a pair of thin fabric work gloves and picking up and moving frames loaded with bees, larvae and honey. The bees were slightly agitated, and when I felt the first sting, I tensed. It was a hard way to come into my body, which had felt so foreign, so not mine, for the past year, and yet at the same time, the zing of pain felt good. It was MY body I was feeling. Then another sting came, and another. I stopped moving the frames and stood in place, watching the bees on my hand lower their rear ends into the glove and administer melittin, an acidic venom. I could feel the pierce of the stinger, and then the burn of the venom, and then a slow heat radiating out from each puncture.

It felt magical, like the first time I understood Buddhist philosophy and its promise that there’s a way to move past suffering in any moment. It also felt magical because I imagine being zapped in the hand by a magic wand would make one’s hand feel warm and thick and full of some other energy force.

In those moments, finding Buddhism or being stung, life slowed down and came into hard relief. Being pulled so completely into anything sometimes leaves me so focused I can’t see a way out of the thing–for good or bad–and Buddhist philosophy and meditation have given me a way to try and remind myself that this moment, any moment, will pass and something new will come.

I’m excited to have a byline in Lion’s Roar, but it’s also cool to have this piece featured in the Buddhist Justice Reporter, which publishes writing seeking to answer a complex question: How do and how can the values of truth, awakening, compassion, wisdom, skillful means, lovingkindness, joy, and equanimity manifest in these times?

The Reporter came about to explore the horrors and events surrounding the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Today, the publication has expanded beyond that moment in time to covering “Buddhist perspectives on justice” so that practitioners can “become skillful agents of social change in the interest of compassion and wisdom.”

I’m grateful for the opportunity to be part of the discussion about justice and Buddhism and “moving on,” even as I know that this too, shall pass.

Keeping bees with Sylvia Plath

I began beekeeping in 2018, the same year my son was born.

I’d been fascinated by honeybees for years before his birth, but that happened to be the year I committed and got bees of my own. He was just two weeks old when my first bees arrived, and the day I transferred them from their “nuc,” or nucleus housing to their actual hive, I got stung seven times.

Those seven stings felt so amazing, taking me away from the pain and depression of being a new, tired mom who saw her life fading away as her boy came more and more into the world. Those stings pulled me out of my body and dropped me squarely in the middle of some non-time, non-space existence. Those stings felt like the pure, non-corporeal enlightenment I’d been seeking all my life.

Those first bees did not make it through their first winter, and some of my second bees have made it thus far through their first winter. I’ve got my 2021 order of bees in place, and I’m looking forward to another year of beekeeping. My son has survived his first few years, and the week I get my 2021 bees, my boy will turn three.

Becoming responsible for another human life has been hard, and much of the past three years has left me in a state of suspended existence unlike the existence I felt the day I got those seven stings. The past three years have been filled with joy and laughter as much as they have with tears and sadness and depression, but the hard stuff always feels harder than the good stuff feels good.

To get through some of these times, I’ve been putting together ideas for a collection of essays that explores beekeeping, motherhood and post-partum depression. My first essay is almost ready to be sent out to the world, hopefully finding a home before May (I know, I know, that’s not much lead time in the publishing world!), but yesterday, I came across something that has me itching to get working on some research and another essay: Sylvia Plath’s poem “Stings.”

Although I really enjoy Plath, I don’t know her body of work well. I know what most people do: “Lady Lazarus,” “The Colossus,” “Daddy” and The Bell Jar. I know she married the poet Ted Hughes, they had a couple of kids and she put her head in an oven to end her life. I know she was brilliant but troubled. And as a mom who has wanted not to put my head in an oven but find an end in other easier ways plenty of times in the last three years, I have a newfound compassion for what I once thought was just crazy selfishness.

And with my introduction to Plath’s poem “Stings,” and the revisions housed by Smith College, I have a newfound curiosity for Plath and her work. Beyond that, I feel this sense that perhaps my ideas to explore beekeeping, motherhood and post-partum depression aren’t so weird after all, that the confluence of the three things isn’t something that speaks to just my moment on this planet.

It’s hard to feel the promise of Spring and new life when I look out my window to falling snow, but I know it’s there, like the promise of a new idea bubbling under the surface.

Honoring Zitkala-Sa

Let’s face it, Google has changed the world in a very big, bold, permanent way. The way it gave us search navigation capacities isn’t an ongoing change, but I’d like to think perhaps Google can still change the world in other ways. One of the opportunities to do so is through the Google doodle, the image featured above the search bar.

Google doodle Feb. 22, 2021

Today’s Google doodle features South Dakota writer, musician and activist Zitkala-Sa, and I hope people click into it and learn something new and wonderful by learning about this writer.

I first encountered her in Pierre, SD as a kid on a fishing trip. No, she wasn’t fishing Oahe or the Missouri River; she died in 1938 in Washington, D.C. But in the way literature brings people and places to life, when I found her book Old Indian Legends at DakotaMart, a whole world came to life for me. Zitkala-Sa became a female writer I could look up to in the way I looked up to Mari Sandoz. These writers from the middle of nowhere drew on the places and stories they knew and shared them with the world.

And I wanted to do that. Well, maybe I didn’t really want to write about Nebraska where I grew up, but I did want to tell stories, and I wanted to get away from that part of the world.

The beings I encountered in Old Indian Legends enchanted me. Itkomi, a spirit come alive in the form of a man-spider, delighted me in his craftiness and intrigue, and I was forever trying to figure out if he was man, spider or spirit.

IKTOMI is a spider fairy. He wears brown deerskin leggins with long soft fringes on either side, and tiny beaded moccasins on his feet. His long black hair is parted in the middle and wrapped with red, red bands. Each round braid hangs over a small brown ear and falls forward over his shoulders.

Zitkala-Sa, “Iktomi and the Ducks,” Old Indian Legends.

This opening from “Iktomi and the Ducks,” the first story in the collection, introduces readers to Iktomi and his world. We spend a lot of time with him in this book, but we also meet a badger, a bear, mice, a frog, a rabbit and other creatures. And of course, through these critters we encounter humanity and its various characteristics and foibles.

But Zitkala-Sa didn’t just retell her people’s myths and creation stories and bring them to others. Born on South Dakota’s Yankton Indian Reservation in 1876, this woman experienced the impact of Christian missionaries when she was eight and went away to Indiana to attend school. She was christened (oh, the poignancy of that phrase here) Gertrude Simmons and wrote about these experiences in The School Days of an Indian Girl. Through this, one can see the roots of her activism. Readers of her nonfiction can also see how these events led her to a place of duality as she grew older. She loved her heritage and culture, but she had been removed from it as a child and was educated and lived in white society.

This struggle is one I related to in my own way as I got older, and it allowed me to see her in a a new light and as a model in new ways. From telling her people’s myth stories to advocating for her people, she exemplifies writing as activism.

Google is celebrating her today, her birthday, but she is worth celebrating every day.

Project Gutenberg has Old Indian Legends available for download, and if you’ve never read it, I highly recommend it.

Header image credit:

My dog’s bone cancer was in his kidney

One month ago today, I dropped off my 8-year-old baby, Loki, at Best Care Pet Hospital in Sioux Falls, SD, and told him goodbye for what I thought might be the last time. He had a large mass growing on his kidney and the surgeon was going to try and save him by removing it and the kidney.

Mid-sized dog held by woman in wedding dress.
Loki was my plus-one at my wedding!

Loki had been sick for two months — red, weepy eyes, fever, shakes and diminished appetite — but blood work looked good and pancreatitis tests came back negative. Antibiotics knocked everything down every couple of weeks, but then when he ran out, all the symptoms would come back. His regular vet was baffled. And I was out of town for part of the time, so a friend took him to her vet. They too were baffled, but did an x-ray and found a mass in his stomach. It was diagnosable, though, and that vet suggested I consider hospice for my dog. It was the worst feeling, hearing my dog was dying while I was hundreds of miles away from home. When I returned to Minnesota, where I live, we finally got a definitive answer on January 15. A CT scan showed that a large mass attached to his kidney was filling his abdomen.

Loki barely made it to Jan. 21, but he did, and he came through surgery like a champ. A month later, he feels great. But the vet we saw on the 15th did not want to biopsy for fear of rupturing what looked like an otherwise stable mass. A post-surgery biopsy of the kidney revealed cancer, though — osteosarcoma, or bone cancer. It’s pretty much a death sentence in most dogs, but I’m hoping my fur baby can be a rare one who makes it a long, healthy time.

Dog reclining in the sun next to a chair.
Sweet pup posing in the sun.

You see, this type of extraskeletal bone cancer is rare. There’s only been one documented case of extraskeletal osteosarcoma presenting in the kidney in a dog, so Loki’s case has been of interest and discussion to oncologists and pathologists outside of the specialist we have been seeing in South Dakota. Although he was met free for the CT scan, meaning the cancer had not spread/taken hold elsewhere at that time, the vet suggested we do pre-emptive chemo to try and knock out any cancerous cells floating around. I have not wanted to do chemo for a number of reasons:

  • Loki now has one kidney, and although it is healthy, I worry chemo will harm it
  • Chemo is not as hard on most dogs as it is on humans, but it can make them feel crummy
  • Expense
  • What if he doesn’t need it?

I’ve been doing as much research as I can, looking for credible, alternative treatments. I’ve learned about what is referred to as The Yale Vaccine, an immunotherapy treatment that stimulates the dog’s immune system and cells and teaches them what to look for and attack in cancer cells. It was in clinical trials from 2016 to 2020 and I have heard that people anticipate it being on the market sometime this year.

Dog with a chicken foot in its mouth.
The bestest good boy gets himself a chicken leg during our poultry harvest in 2020.

I’ve learned about Immunocidin, another immunotherapy treatment that encourages the dog’s immune system to attack cancer. In some cases, it has eradicated tumors.

Tonight, I learned about another trial, this one exploring the ways a dog’s biome impacts osteosarcoma. I’ve reached out to the lead researcher and hope to hear back as soon as Monday.

I’m learning as much as I can because knowledge is power. It’s also super fucking scary, but I want to know as much as I can to help my pup. And beyond that, I’ve learned that osteosarcoma affects humans too, mostly children.

Survival rates are higher for humans, about 70% at the five-year mark, but it’s still a scary concept. When I learn about trials in dogs and horses, I feel hopeful for the animals in the trials, and hopeful they are going to generate data that will some day perhaps help humans use these therapies. I hope Loki remains healthy until the Yale Vaccine becomes available. I hope the other things I’m doing, like cutting sugar and limiting carbs are helpful. In the meantime, we’ve done one dose of carboplatin, a type of chemo that is easier on kidneys than others. Loki is a good candidate for an Immunocidin trial, and I’m leaning toward doing it. But to be enrolled, he must forego chemo, and that’s about as scary a prospect as his receiving chemo.

My biggest concern in all of this is that Loki remains comfortable and as happy as he can as time passes. He’s happy, healthy, playful and eating well right now. The Immunocidin trial requires weekly visits at the start, and Loki hates the vet. I am weighing the benefits and downfalls of this. Because Loki’s form of OS is so rare, we are running in the dark here. But my pupper remains surefooted and steady, so I’m enjoying lots of love and snuggles and hoping for the best.

Baldwin’s America: A challenge and a lesson

There are books that leave me so dazzled by the setting and scene and characters I can easily think of them as candidates for “favorite book” when someone asks what my favorite book is. These books don’t discuss craft, but are craft at its finest, moments of pure magic that come together through voice and imagery and emotion.

There are books that teach me and guide me as a writer or an educator, and those books stick with me for different reasons. Often those reasons have more to do with how I view the reality I live in and how I help craft it in my writing. Sometimes they have to do with craft, which is a neat meta trick. I recently completed Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.’s Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, and it is a book that does all these things.

Glaude is the James S. Milton distinguished professor of African American Studies at Princeton University; in this biography and piece of social criticism, he is also a guide for the tumultuous times in which we live. This is fitting, as the book works to unpack the vison of another guide: James Baldwin. Glaude’s mix of Black history, Baldwin and “where do we go from here” thinking makes this book shine brightly from each of its many facets.

I first encountered Baldwin in grad school, through his short story “Sonny’s Blues.” Published in 1957, the story takes readers to Harlem and provides a peek into the life of a teacher and his brother, Sonny, who is a passionate musician, veteran and heroin addict. Reading it in my 20s, the music and the drugs appeared to me as realities that just go hand-in-hand with living in the big city, for anyone.

Of course I was just seeing Sonny’s experience through my own lens; today I know it was music and drugs that spoke to me then. But it is Baldwin’s compassionate treatment of Sonny and the empathy we feel for him and even his judgmental brother that is the hallmark of this story. Today I know that what I saw as part of city life is actually part of a complex history for Black people, a history that is more nuanced than any shallow understanding I could have had in my 20s And Baldwin’s fierce compassion is what I see now, when I engage with him. It’s what I see in “Staggerlee Wonders,” a poem as sharp and biting as a blade.

I read Part I of the poem to students in my Literature of Revolution class, and it gives us so much to discuss: wars, both domestic and foreign, external and internal and those that are not recognized. We get to talk about history, who “the natives” are–who they really are– and how Baldwin’s bite is so carefully crafted here. We also, of course, get to talk about the real life “Stagger Lee” and the violence perpetuated on people like him.

In these contexts, I’ve felt like I have a good understanding of what makes Baldwin’s work so powerful. Its the way he holds his loved ones close and his enemies closer, and how they are one and the same in America. But I am not a scholar of Baldwin, and I only know enough about Harlem and history and Black History to introduce my students to these topics and guide them through it with the voices of the real experts, the writers I draw on, to help lead me. Reading Glaude’s book took me through Black America of the 50s into the 80s, and in doing so, it illustrated white America, too, and the ugliness, hatred and shame that this country has borne since its founding.

Glaude introduced me to Stokely Carmicheal, as I wrote in another post; he introduced me to Dorothy Counts, a 15-year-old girl who tried to end segregation in Charlotte, North Carolina when she was the first black student to integrate into Harding High School in 1957 (same year of “Sonny’s Blues”). There are several other figures and moments vividly detailed in Begin Again, but I think the most powerful comes toward the end of the book, when Glaude goes south to Alabama and visits some of the memorials to fallen civil rights leaders and those who died by lynching. Between Caroline street and Holcombe Street in Montgomery, he finds the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, describes it as “a monument to our dead and to the countrymen who killed them,” and describes his walk into what is sometimes called “The Lynching Memorial.”

As I walked into the memorial, I saw walls featuring text blocks that told the story of the violence…my eyes turned to the Nkyinkyim Installation…a haunting sculptural representation of slaves chained together in agony, defiance, and unimaginable grief. The sculpture stands on the side of the path that leads you up an ascending walkway to the monument, the physical structures that commemorate the dead. With each step you make your way up the hill…you can see lined up across the lawn duplicate monuments that can be claimed by the individiaul counties where the lynchings occurred.

Glaude, Eddie S. Jr, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons For Our Own.

Glaude is overcome by grief as he looks at these 800 monuments, and then again as he focuses on the monuments that list multiple lynchings in one county. He continues with what is for me the most chilling passage of the book.

As I kept walking, the floor slanted downward, but the monuments remained level. Before long their bottoms were above my head. As I looked up at them, it was if I were witnessing bodies swaying from poplar trees–except these were stiff.

He recalls Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and in sharing that moment with him, I am reminded that music and politics come together as complexities of the Black experience in a way I could never know, but a way that Baldwin sought to get at through Sonny.

Glaude continues with the memorial and describes the death sentences on the monuments before him: “One man was murdered for having a photo of a white woman in his hat; another had been falsely accused of peeping at a white woman through a peephole; another refused to buy seed from a white man.”

He concludes the passage by noting the monument from Jackson County Mississippi, his childhood home: Eight names. Eight men lynched. Eight men he’d never heard of until that moment. His own experience of what it is to be born a Black man in the South has suddenly shifted, and readers are able to shift along with him.

For much of this book, Glaude asks what it means to be an American, not just what does it mean to be Black in America, or white in America, but what does it mean to exist in a country bound and also separated by a great lie. He seeks to hold those in power accountable for what they’ve done to fail people of color– Blacks, Latinos and Indigenous populations– but he also asks us to wrestle with how we more forward. And because he wrote this book during Trump’s presidency, he also condemns that excuse of a man and all that “Trumpism” has done to set our country at odds. This book is a collection of anecdotes, quotes and their contextual background, history and hope. But it is also a prescriptive guide to how we now must move forward as a country.

“…[O]ur task, then, is not to save Trump voters–it isn’t to convince them to give up their views that white people out to matter more than others. Our task is to build a world where such a view has no place or quarter to breathe. I am aware that this is a radical, some may even say, dangerous claim. It amounts to “throwing away” a large portion of the country, many of whom are willing to defent their positions with violence. But we cannot give in to these people. We know what the result will be, and I cannot watch another generation of black children bear the burden of that choice.”

Featured image: James Baldwin, featured on the US Embassay & Consulates in Turkey websiteBook

Encountering new (to me) voices

In my last post, I wrote about literacy and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, one of the Black authors I teach in my literature class. Her works inspire my students and give us a glimpse into a time period and a way of life we can’t even imagine. Like so many of the long-gone authors one reads in a Lit class, Harper’s words make real for us a past we haven’t fully learned about.

Another Black voice my students get to hear is that of James Baldwin, a writer whose discussions of race, sexuality and justice in the 50s and 60s played a key role in raising awareness on these topics in both the US and Europe.

I’ve been reading a new book about Baldwin this week, and through it I am learning not just about Baldwin but a time period and a group of activists I am not familiar with or have never heard of. This includes Stokely Carmichael, someone who defined a movement with a simple phrase. I’m reading the book to learn more about Baldwin, who I think of as well known, but as I learn about other important figures, I see how my education has not been very robust when it comes to activism and activists, and I see how I need to step up my own game even more.

I’ll write about this book when it’s done; for now, back to Carmichael.

”When I first heard about the Negroes sitting in at lunch counters down South,” he told Gordon Parks in Life magazine in 1967, ”I thought they were just a bunch of publicity hounds. But one night when I saw those young kids on TV, getting back up on the lunch counter stools after being knocked off them, sugar in their eyes, ketchup in their hair — well, something happened to me. Suddenly I was burning.”

Stokely carmichael, as quoted in the new york times

Stokely Carmichael coined the phrase “Black power” in 1966. As a student at Howard University, he worked to promote Dr. King’s ideas of nonviolence, serving on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a group created by King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference to represent and drive youth.

Carmichael participated in various sit-ins to end segregation, excelled as a student and eventually moved from supporting King’s work promoting nonviolence to a position of advocating for “self-defense.” Politically motivated, Carmichael worked tirelessly in Alabama to get more Black people to vote; in 1965 he “managed to raise the number of registered black voters from 70 to 2,600 300 more than the number of registered white voters in the county.”

I realize that educators can’t cover every activist, and news sources can’t write about every amazing human. But as we’ve been hearing so much about Stacey Abrams doing this same thing in Georgia, I wonder why we haven’t heard anything about Carmichael’s work, which took place decades earlier.

Arrested dozens of times, Carmichael’s push for Black power and pride continued to set him at odds with powerful whites, who didn’t like what they perceived as a desire to make Blacks “rise up” against white systems. He eventually gave up on America and moved to Guinea. In 1998, at the age of 57, he died of prostate cancer.

As I read about Carmichael’s life and legacy, in the Baldwin book and in other sources, I see that he was just too “powerful” and too “dangerous” to be championed by mainstream (meaning white) historians, educators and resources. His belief that Black pride and Black power should be championed is a belief we see squelched today. Because so many of the people in power are still afraid of what it would mean for someone else to actually have pride in their people and draw on its power to help build a way of life, his ideas continue to be “revolutionary”– to some, in the scariest form of that word.