Reflections: America Divided against Itself

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I am no stranger to divisive racist politics. My lived experience as a former British subject in what was then British Guiana provides the setting for my debut novel, Under the Tamarind Tree. I witnessed the effectiveness of divisiveness as a weapon for maintaining minority control of a population. When deployed across a nation, it threatens and destroys our relationships with co-workers, neighbors, friends, and even family members. It is now happening within my own nuclear family.

We the people are led—perhaps, brainwashed would be a better word—to believe that our differences as individuals are liabilities for the well-being of our nation. A homogeneous population—in our case, preferably white—would make America great again. What we are never told is that our capitalist economic system thrives on the subjugation of black bodies and those of women, of all colors, making the black woman doubly oppressed.

Of greater import is capital’s subjugation of non-human life—caught and sold, cut and re-shaped and sold, habitats burned for expansion, killed to extinction. Mother Nature is now under great stress; breakdown across numerous ecosystems is underway. Even the overheated heavens lash out with fire and fury.

Bloated from insatiable greed with the spoils of nations worldwide, now depleted, and struggling to breathe, capital returns home for its last stand. Those standing in the way of its recovery must be silenced or crushed. Divisiveness works well as a vaccine to subdue growing opposition to capital’s lethal venom and demands for equality and justice for all.

Capital does not care about our financial distress, pain, and losses. Capital does not care that we are losing our loved ones in the battle against the coronavirus. Capital only cares about its own survival. Capital never concedes. “Liberate the economy!” is its call to arms.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I give thanks to my American brothers and sisters who risk their lives on the frontlines to care for our loved ones infected with Covid-19. While we the people are divided about the sacrifices essential to combat this invisible enemy, those on the frontlines are battered and exhausted, physically and emotionally. Many have lost their lives.

May your Thanksgiving Day be the best it can be during a pandemic.

“Mother, the Great Stones Got to Move” – Poem by Jamaica’s Poet Laureate Lorna Goodison

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Jamaica’s Poet Laureate Lorna Goodison (2017-2020)
Photo Credit: Pan American World Magazine (Photo by Hugh Wright)

My Poetry Corner November 2020 features the poem “Mother, the Great Stones Got to Move” from the 1995 poetry collection, To Us, All Flowers Are Roses, by Jamaica’s second Poet Laureate Lorna Goodison (2017-2020) and the first female to receive this honor. The eight of nine children, six boys and three girls, she was born in 1947 in Kingston, capital of the Caribbean island nation of Jamaica. She grew up in a lower-middle-class family on a noisy street with concrete yards. No roses grew in the neighborhood gardens of potted plants, so the people gave the name roses to all their flowers.

The hymns the young Lorna sang during Sunday Mass at the Anglican Church laid the foundation for her poetry. In her interview with Pádraig Ó Tuama for the Image Journal, Goodison recalled that her mother sung hymns as she did her household chores. “In the Jamaica I grew up in,” she told him, “it seemed to me that women sang hymns all the time—washing, doing chores, working—so it was all around me, that language.”

That language of the great composers of Anglican hymns shines through in the opening poem of her third book of poetry, Heartease (1988), in which the persona declares:

 I shall light a candle of understanding in thine heart
 which shall not be put out.
 […]
 By the illumination of that candle
 exit death and fear and doubt
 here love and possibility
 within a lit heart, shining out. 

Goodison’s trips in her youth to the lush rural landscapes, to visit her extended family, shaped her imagination for the rest of her life. Though she began writing poems from seven or eight years old, she kept them a secret. Growing up in the shadow of her oldest sister who excelled in writing, she questioned her poetic gift and opted instead to focus on painting, her other passion. Then, at fifteen years old, tragedy struck. Her father, who had brought humor and laughter into their lives, passed away.

“It was terrible watching him die of stomach cancer, and maybe brought on a loss of faith, but that was when I really turned to painting and reading and writing poetry,” Goodison told Tuama. “So I guess the arts became my religion, and I’d consider that good religion because I felt connected, I felt cleansed and healed by poetry and painting and music.”

On completing high school, she worked for a year as a bookmobile trainee librarian with the Jamaica Library Service. She traveled deep into rural areas, where small humble places like Heartease, became mythic and real, strengthening her connection with place that runs through her poetry. Deciding to pursue a career in art, she studied painting at the Jamaica School of Art (1967-1968), and then moved to New York City to attend the Art Students’ League (1968-1969).

Her poem “Who Was the Mother of Jamaican Art?” from her 2005 poetry collection, Controlling the Silver, was inspired by an article about enslaved women making carvings of human figures representing their children sold to other plantation slave owners.

 She was the first nameless woman who created
 images of her children sold away from her.
 She suspended those wood babies from a rope
 round her neck, before she ate she fed them,
 touched bits of pounded yam and plantains
 to sealed lips; always urged them to sip water.
 She carved them of heartwood, teeth and nails
 were her first tools, later she wielded a blunt blade.
 Her spit cleaned face and limbs, the pitch oil
 of her skin burnished. When the woodworms
 bored into their bellies, she warmed castor oil;
 they purged. She learned her art by breaking
 hard rockstones. She did not sign her work. 

While Goodison considered herself as an artist, she never stopped writing poetry. But poetry chose her. “It’s a dominating, intrusive tyrant,” she said in an interview for the Guardian newspaper, as quoted in The Walrus Magazine. “It’s something I have to do—a wicked force.”

Many of Goodison’s poems speak of ordinary women, their struggles and the many roles they play. Her country’s traumatic past of colonialism and slavery permeates the people and the landscape. The featured poem “Mother, the Great Stones Got to Move” addresses Jamaica’s violence and poverty, legacy of empire. In the first of her six-stanza poem, the poet invokes the untold stories of slavery, kept hidden by empire, that need to be told.

 Mother, one stone is wedged across the hole in our history
 and sealed with blood wax.
 In this hole is our side of the story, exact figures,
 headcounts, burial artifacts, documents, lists, maps
 showing our way up through the stars; lockets of brass
 containing all textures of hair clippings.
 It is the half that has never been told,
 and some of us must tell it. 

These untold stories, she writes in the second stanza, live on through generations, like the stone on the hearts of some women and men, preventing the small / dreamers of this earth from healing. But there is yet another obstacle destroying their future, raised in the third stanza, that mothers want removed as we think of our children and the stones upon their future. In the following fourth stanza, the poet describes the poisonous stone, born of hunger, that drives the violence in their communities and kill their children.

 
 For the year going out came in fat at first
 but toward the harvest it grew lean,
 and many mouth corners gathered white
 and another kind of poison, powdered white
 was brought in to replace what was green,
 And death sells it with one hand
 and with the other death palms a gun
 then death gets death’s picture
 in the paper’s asking
 “where does all this death come from?” 

Driven by the drug trade, death comes to a people already broken by the legacy of slavery and colonialism. As the poet notes in the fifth stanza, narcotics become the soup and meat for its users, leaving the homeless to sleep on concrete sheets. In her call to action in the final stanza, the poet links the great stones of the past with the present and the future.

 
 Mother, the great stones over mankind got to move,
 It’s been ten thousand years we’ve been watching them now
 from various points in the universe.
 From the time of our birth as points of light
 in the eternal coiled workings of the cosmos.
 Roll away stone of poisoned powders come
 to blot out the hope of our young.
 Move stones of the sacrificial lives we breed
 to feed to suicide god of tribalism.
 From across the pathway to mount morning
 site of the rose quartz fountain
 brimming anise and star water
 bright fragrant for our children’s future
 Mother these great stones got to move. 

Poverty, drug addiction, gang violence, and homelessness are not just the scourges of the Jamaican people. They afflict all humans worldwide. For the sake of our children’s future, mothers must remain vigilant and work tirelessly to remove these scourges from our communities.  

To read the complete featured poem and learn more about the work of Lorna Goodison, go to my Poetry Corner November 2020.

Time to Heal

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Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Our differences
magnified & distorted
warped realities.

Fear hate & despair
weaken the foundations of
our democracy.

Let’s cooperate
together we can achieve
a great life for all.

Let’s take down the walls
separating you and me
now it’s time to heal.

A Message from the Future II: The Years of Repair

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If you have ever achieved a goal or a dream, you know that the first step to success was in visualizing or verbalizing what you had hoped to achieve. To imagine a desirable future outcome is key to its realization. The animated short film A Message from the Future II: The Years of Repair dares to imagine a better world in which no one is sacrificed; a world in which everyone is essential.

About a month into the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, Naomi Klein and her husband Avi Lewis, co-founders of The Leap, together with award-winning artist Molly Crabapple and Opal Tometi, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, started a conversation about the role of futurism when so much is at stake. They concurred that to defeat Trump was not enough to fend off naked authoritarianism in the White House. Many other intersecting crises, they noted, are bearing down on America and the world: climate collapse, surging white supremacy, or widespread famine.

In shaping their “Message from the Future,” they could not ignore our burning cities and forests, as well as the global pandemic. Moreover, they could not imagine achieving a safe and humane future without escalating and winning street battles and general strikes. Their call to repair a deep brokenness provided a framework for encompassing the interlocking crises in our social, economic, political, informational, and ecological spheres.

The protagonists of their futuristic animated film are rank-and-file organizers and activists. Disparate movements get on board: organized labor, Black liberation, climate, disabled, feminist, Indigenous, migrant, worker cooperatives, and more. Covid-19 acts as a catalyst for moving humanity forward. As Naomi Klein notes in her article of October 1, 2020, on the premier of the film: “In forcing all of us to confront the porousness of our own bodies in relationship to the vast web of other bodies that sustain us and the people we love—caregivers, farmers, supermarket clerks, street cleaners, and more—the coronavirus instantly exploded the cherished, market-manufactured myth of the individual as self-made island.”

I invite you to watch the animated short film (duration 8:57 minutes) A Message from the Future II: The Years of Repair produced by The Intercept in partnership with The Leap.

“Going Out of Business” by American Poet Minnie Bruce Pratt

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Lesbian-feminist American Poet Minnie Bruce Pratt with Family Photos
Photo Credit: Official Website (Photo by Ellen M Blalock)

My Poetry Corner October 2020 features the poem “Going Out of Business” from the poetry collection Inside the Money Machine (2011) by Minnie Bruce Pratt, a lesbian-feminist award-winning poet, educator, and activist. The following excerpts of poems are all sourced from this collection. Born in 1946 in Selma, Alabama, Pratt grew up in Centreville. She earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Alabama in 1968, where she met her ex-husband. In 1979, she took her Ph.D. in English Literature at the University of North Carolina.

After her ten-year-old marriage, Pratt divorced her husband in 1975 to live as a lesbian, upending her life as a privileged white heterosexual woman. Living in Fayetteville, North Carolina, at the time, she lost custody of her two sons under the state’s “Crime Against Nature” law. Her loss and grief shaped her morality and led her to a life of activism for women’s rights and specifically lesbian rights. When she shared her emotional journey through shame and anger in her poetry collection, Crime Against Nature, published in 1990, her sons were too old for their father or the law to prevent them from being a part of her life.

After thirty years of adjunct teaching, punctuated by several stints of standing in unemployment lines, Pratt joined the faculty of New York’s Syracuse University in 2005 where she played a key role in launching their LGBT Studies Program. She retired in February 2015.

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Thought for Today: The unsettling truth of American Christianity and white supremacy

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The historical record of lived Christianity in America reveals that Christian theology and institutions have been the central cultural tent pole holding up the very idea of white supremacy. And the genetic imprint of this legacy remains present and measurable in contemporary white Christianity, not only among evangelicals in the South but also among mainline Protestants in the Midwest and Catholics in the Northeast.” [p.6]

We white Christians must find the courage to face the fact that the version of Christianity that our ancestors built—“the faith of our fathers,” as the hymn celebrates it—was a cultural force that, by design, protected and propagated white supremacy…. But if we want to root out an insidious white supremacy from our institutions, our religion, and our psyches, we will have to move beyond the forgetfulness and silence that have allowed it to flourish for so long. Importantly, as white Americans find the courage to embark on this journey of transformation, we will discover that the beneficiaries are not only our country and our fellow nonwhite and non-Christian Americans, but also ourselves, as we slowly recover from the disorienting madness of white supremacy.” [pp. 234-235]

Excerpts from White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity by Robert P. Jones, published by Simon & Schuster, New York, USA, 2020.


Robert P. Jones is the CEO and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and a leading scholar and commentator on religion and politics. Jones writes a column on politics, culture, and religion for The Atlantic online. He is frequently featured in major national media, such as CNN, MSNBC, NPR, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others. He holds a PhD in religion from Emory University and an MDiv from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of The End of White Christian America, which won the 2019 Grawemeyer Award in Religion.

Peace of Mind in a Moment of Catastrophic Thoughts

We can overcome the anxieties and fears that assail us daily during these uncertain times. As Dr. Gerald Stein, a retired psychotherapist from Chicago, reminds us: “We are the descendants of those who [have endured and surmounted misfortune] again and again for thousands of years.”

Dr. Gerald Stein

If the political-pandemical moment has lit your hair on fire, I offer a suggestion. Get into the shower. But since I can’t personally help with this remedy, let me provide some calming words.

We must begin here: many people fear the worst outcome in the U.S. election come November.

Some ask me for my opinion, my prediction, my reassurance.

I tell them I have enough trust in the good sense of the majority of my fellow-citizens to save the democratic republic. Hope and experience sustain me. I do what a concerned citizen can do. I will vote and, until events are past, take modest political action via the phone, the mail, and contributions to candidates I support.

These thoughts and efforts, however, do not dominate my time or my life.

Yes, potential chaos and catastrophe loom, but few souls profit by submerging themselves in disastrous scenarios. They are instead immobilized…

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“Begin Again” by Brazilian Poet Bráulio Bessa

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Brazilian Poet Bráulio Bessa
Photo Credit: Official Website of Bráulio Bessa

My Poetry Corner September 2020 features the poem “Begin Again” (Recomece) from the poetry collection Poetry that Transforms (Poesia que Transforma) by Bráulio Bessa, a Brazilian poet and motivational speaker. The poet was born in 1985 in Alto Santo, a city of an estimated 17,000 people located in the semi-arid interior region of the State of Ceará in Northeast Brazil.

At fourteen years old, Bráulio began writing poetry in high school after learning about the work of Patativa do Assaré (1909-2002), a popular oral poet and son of poor peasant farmers who were also from Ceará’s impoverished hinterlands.

“When I had contact with [Patativa’s] poetry, I perceived that a poet with very simple language was capable of speaking about that which is most complex in the world, of passion, and of forgiveness,” Bráulio Bessa told Katy Navarro during an interview on TV Brasil in August 2019. “I put it in my head that I wanted to be a poet and started writing. The most beautiful thing in this was to feel the transforming power of literature, education, and art in my life. I realized that it was possible to also be an agent of transformation in the lives of other people.”

Filled with great dreams, Bessa took a college course in computer systems analysis which motivated him to promote his poetry on the Internet. During the TV Globo program, Encontro com Fátima Bernardes, in August 2018, he spoke about his journey to fulfilling his dream of becoming a poet.

“Living in a small city, I had this sensibility of understanding that a popular Northeastern poet generally goes to the local city market to recite poems as loud as possible to get people’s attention, and I looked at the Internet and said: This here is the world’s largest market, with all kinds of people, never closes, and doesn’t have borders. I began recording videos of poems, covering such themes as fear, prejudice, love, depression, and identity, and published them on the Internet.”

In 2012, Bessa’s videos gained national attention with over 250 million views. His “Northeast Nation,” launched on Facebook, promoting the culture of Brazil’s Northeast Region, has more than a million fans, earning him the nickname “Ambassador of the Northeast.” With his trademark Cearense accent and inseparable hat, and down-to-earth poetry, he enchanted the hearts of viewers.

The poet’s Facebook fame caught the attention of TV Globo, Brazil’s largest television network. Beginning in 2015, Bessa became a weekly participant on their TV program Encontro com Fátima Bernardes to speak about Brazil’s Northeast Culture with a poetic outlook.

The featured poem “Begin Again” is probably Bessa’s best-known poem. Inspiration for this nine-verse poem came from the tragic story of Laura Beatriz. In 2010, at eight years old, Laura lost her entire family in a landslide in Niterói, Rio de Janeiro. He speaks to her about hope, faith, and strength to begin again despite her adverse situation.

Every day is a day to begin again, no matter the magnitude of our problem. Cited below are verses 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, and 9 from Bessa’s poem “Begin Again.”

When life hits hard
and your soul bleeds,
when this overbearing world
hurts you, crushes you…
It is time to start over.
Begin TO FIGHT again.

When everything is dark
and nothing illuminates,
when everything is uncertain
and you only have doubts…
It is time to start over.
Begin TO BELIEVE again.

[…]

When evil is evident
and love conceals itself,
when the heart is empty,
when the hug is missing…
It is time to start over.
Begin TO LOVE again.

When you fall
and no one catches you,
when the force of what is bad
succeeds in knocking you down…
It is time to start over.
Begin TO RISE again.

When hopelessness
decides to whip you,
if everything that is real
is hard to bear…
It is time to start over.
Begin TO DREAM again.

[…]

Begin again, redo yourself,
remember what was good,
rebuild each dream,
rediscover some talent,
relearn when you make mistakes,
shake the hips when dancing,
and if one day, way ahead,
life gives a reverse,
recover your faith
and BEGIN AGAIN anew.

To read the complete featured poem and to learn more about the work of Bráulio Bessa, go to my Poetry Corner September 2020.

Thought for Today: The lie that corrupts American life

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Americans must walk through the ruins, toward the terror and fear, and lay bare the trauma that we all carry with us. So much of American culture and politics today is bound up with the banal fact of racism in our daily lives and our willful refusal to acknowledge who benefits and suffers from it. Underneath it all is the lie that corrupts American life. It corrupts how we imagine governance; how we think about our private lives (constraining even who we can love); and how we imagine community and the broader public good. The lie is the lifeblood of Trumpism. Anything that does not corroborate its reality is dismissed as “fake news.” Anyone who doesn’t fit the view of America as a white nation or refuses to submit to it is cast as a traitor or as someone who hates America.

Excerpt from the Conclusion (p. 211) of Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude Jr., published by Crown, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, USA, 2020.

Eddie S. Glaude Jr., born in 1968 in Mississippi/USA, is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. His most well-known books are Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul (2016) and In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America (2007).

Climate Crisis Update: Reasons for Hope in 2020

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Stop Sign Extreme Heat Warning – Death Valley – California – USA

It is hot here in California. On August 16th, a heat wave sent temperatures soaring in Death Valley to 130℉ (54.4℃), believed to be the highest temperature recorded on Earth in over a century. With a historic wildfire season threatening life and property, Governor Gavin Newson has declared a state of emergency. On August 24th, as reported by Cal Fire, the state has had 7,002 fires this year, burning over 1.4 million acres…and growing. At the same time last year, 4,292 fires had burned 56,000 acres.

Depending upon where you live, you are probably facing your own extreme weather-related danger. Given our climate crisis, this is our new reality as inhabitants on Earth. Though the COVID-19 global pandemic may have forced our climate activists off the streets worldwide, they continue to press for urgent action.

On July 28, 2020, The Climate Reality Project released a message of hope amidst all the chaos going on around us. Their article, “9 Reasons to Have Climate Hope in 2020,” outlines why we should be optimistic about attaining a just, sustainable clean energy future.

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