Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Fidel Castro

Photograph and text ©2007 by Julius Lester

Last Thursday, July 26, there was a photograph on the front page of the New York Times of Raul Castro, brother of Fidel, speaking at the annual July 26 rally. With a start I realized that on July 26, 1967, I had been sitting on that same stage listening to Fidel Castro gave a two hour talk.

I had been invited to Cuba to participate in a festival of protest songwriters and singers. (From 1961-68 I was a folk singer and protest song writer and recorded two albums for Vanguard in 1966 and 1967. The albums show up periodically on eBay. A cd of songs from both albums was issued last summer by Ace Records in England. The cd is available on iTunes). The day after I arrived in Cuba Stokely Carmichael arrived, and I moved into his suite on the top floor of the Havana Libre Hotel. (Stokely was head of SNCC - Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and he had put the organization on the front pages of practically every newspaper in the world with the cry for Black Power. I had been working for SNCC as a photographer out of its Atlanta office since the summer of 1966, and that was how I knew Stokely.) Only because I was with him did I end up meeting and traveling for three days with Fidel Castro through the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

I first saw Fidel at the July Twenty-Sixth rally. Having read in the American press about his long speeches, “harangues,” the press called them, I was surprised that the reality was far different. I heard him speak on three separate occasions. On this day he talked about the Cuban Revolution and its goals. The third time was a two hour talk on Marxist economics to a packed auditorium in Havana. The second time I describe below. On each occasion my experience was that Fidel was a master teacher. His speeches were more like conversations in which he was able to make you feel that he was speaking only with you.

The photograph above was taken in a small town in the mountains where Fidel gave the second speech, a speech about the artificial insemination of cows. He spoke as a peasant to peasants about increasing cattle production. He talked glowingly about a massive bull the government had recently purchased, of how much semen the bull would produce, and how many cows could be impregnated in how many years. He also spoke of efforts by the CIA to prevent Cuba from buying the bull and of subsequent CIA efforts to kill it.

The next morning Stokely and I met Fidel at breakfast. What was supposed to be a three-hour ride back to Santiago turned into a three-day expedition, whose itinerary was created at any junction where Fidel remembered an agricultural cooperative he wanted to visit, a friend he had not seen in awhile, a hospital he wanted to check on, or a youth camp where he stopped to play basketball.

During those three days and a final visit with Fidel shortly before Stokely and I left Cuba, I found him to be a man without pretense, very personable, down-to-earth, an extraordinary teacher, and a man who cared deeply about the poor. Yes, Cuba was poor, but no one was going without the basics. The same could not be said of the good ol' U.S.A.

Regrettably Fidel will die without Americans having the chance to evaluate for themselves whether he was the demon the U.S. painted him as. Neither was he a saint, and I do not defend the absence of dissent, and civil and artistic freedom in Cuba. Cuban socialism trades civil rights for taking care of people's basic needs. American democracy exchanges tending to people's basic needs for civil liberties. I do not understand why either country can't do both.

Because Castro placed basic needs over satisfying the greed of sugar plantation owners and Mafia families, the U.S. has maintained a boycott of the country for almost fifty years.

Who's to say that we might have learned things of value from Fidel, and he from us. But that did not happen, and when he dies, the Cuban population of Miami and south Florida will dance in the streets.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Odds and Ends

Text ©2007 Julius Lester

1. In my last blog I contrasted the widespread protests against the war in Vietnam in the Sixties and the absence of protests against the war in Iraq now. Nancy Ewart of San Francisco e-mailed me to say that she thinks “that the protests have migrated to the Internet and to a lot of political organizing - some effective, some not. Here in SF, there are weekly protests in front of the Federal Building - mostly by Quakers but also by other church groups as well. I know that there have been huge marches against the war, both in the US and world wide. I know that they have been ineffective in stopping it but I hope (perhaps foolishly) that each march helps educate people a little bit more.”

This is good to know, and I don’t think we should judge protests by their effectiveness in achieving a desired end. There is a Jewish legend about the Just Man who goes into a village and begins preaching about the wrongs in society and what should be done. At first people come and listen, but after a few days, no one is listening. Yet each day the Just Man goes to the marketplace and preaches. One day a child asked him, “Why do you keep on talking when no one is listening?” The Just Man squatted down and looked into the child’s eyes and said, “When I began I was preaching to change them. Now I preach to keep them from changing me.”

2. This year the United States will spend 70 billion dollars on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States will spend 2 billion dollars or less on climate change research.

3. The page at the top is from the July 4 issue of Paris Match. One photo is the famous one of the napalmed Vietnamese girl from the war in Vietnam. The other is of Paris Hilton crying in the back of the sheriff's car as was being taken back to jail.

The connection between the two? Well, it turns out that on June 8, 1972, Vietnamese photographer, Nick Ut, took the photograph of the Vietnamese girl. This year, thirty-five years later, on the same date, June 8, Nick Ut took the photograph of the crying Paris Hilton being returned to jail.

Paris Match considers each photograph to represent “une certaine 'idée' dérangeante de l’Amérique,”-- a certain troubling American idea. (And yes, I did want to translate “dérangeante” as “deranged, crazy, insane,” but with my meager French it was best to go with the dictionary definition.) Of course, Paris Match is conveniently forgetting that France held Vietnam as a colonial territory from 1874-1954 and committed its share of atrocities against the Vietnamese.

Paris Match claims the two photographs are “les plus représentatifs de leur époque” – the most representative of their time. That is certainly true of Ut’s photograph of the Vietnamese girl. The one of Paris? Do we equate the tears of a 9 year old girl running down a road screaming, “I’m burning! I’m burning!”to those of a wealthy heiress whose pain ended when she left jail? Can one person’s pain be compared with another’s? The Vietnamese girl underwent 17 operations to repair the injuries inflicted on her by napalm dropped from South Vietnamese Air Force planes. Paris? She went from jail to a beach in Hawaii.

Incidentally, after taking the picture of the Vietnamese girl, Nick Ut poured water on her burning skin, drove with her for an hour to a hospital in Saigon, and stayed with her until the doctors began to operate. He continues to be in close touch with her. The girl, Kim Phuc, is married, lives in Toronto, and is the mother of two boys. In 1997 she was named an ambassador for UNESCO.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A Photograph - 1966

Photograph and text ©2007 by Julius Lester

Almost every evening I sit at my computer scanning negatives from the late 1960s into Photoshop and making prints. Only now, thirty or so years after taking a photograph do I have the time to finally make prints. I am becoming reacquainted with who I was in those years. I'm also looking back on what those years were like. Some photographs evoke strong and mixed emotions, like the one above which I printed last night for the first time.

I have no memory of taking it, but that is so with most of the images from that time. But I do remember the anger so many of us shared about the war in Vietnam. Looking at this photograph, however, I was sad. Change “Johnson” to “Bush” and “Vietnam” to “Iraq”, and nothing has changed.

We are a nation led by men who do not read, men who are, for the most part, uneducated (and having a degree from Yale does not automatically make one an educated man.) We are a nation led by men who are not reflective, who do not think, who do not engage in thoughtful, probing discussions with people who disagree with them. So, here we are, 40 years later, involved in another war of our own making, a futile, stupid war in which thousands of people, not only American soldiers, are dying stupid, senseless deaths.

But there is a difference between then and now. In 1967 there were massive demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. In 2007 there are none. In 1967 there was a palpable anger throughout the country against the war in Vietnam. In 2007 there is disapproval of the president’s policies and performance, but I don’t sense a great anger.

But in 1967 the sons of middle-class Americans were being sent to Vietnam to kill and die, (though our president and vice-president managed to evade their patriotic duties). Now it is the sons and daughters of the poor - blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and whites - who are volunteering to go because many have no other options. Others fighting are the sons and daughters of men and women who are patriotic in the conventional sense of waving flags, people who believe that when one's country calls it is your duty to respond, that when the president speaks he is telling the truth. These men and women started out as supporters of the war in Iraq, but they, too, have become disillusioned with the arrogant ignorance that passes for policy in the minds of Bush and Chaney.

What is sad is that the people who were angry in 1967 are not angry now because their sons and daughters are no longer drafted into the Army. But why can’t these people be angry now? Are we only capable of being angry when we and our children are personally threatened? Are we so without empathy that we weep only when it is our children killing and being killed in a stupid war?

I get the feeling that the country is simply biding its time, waiting for the elections next year and a Democratic president. Don’t be sure that Hilary or Obama or John Edwards can make that much a difference. Getting involved in a war is somewhat like getting married. It’s a lot easier to go into a marriage than it is to get out.

But looking back at 1967, Johnson was not impeached; the war in Vietnam did not end until 1975, and while our angry protests played a role, it was the Vietnamese military that deserves the credit for forcing American troops out of their country.

At least we protested in 1967.

Today we line up to buy iPhones and Harry Potter.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Photography In Our Time

Text ©2007 by Julius Lester

Photo Caption: “Les badauds photographient le corps mutilé de Samil al-Madhum avec leurs portables. Leader des Brigades des martyrs d’Al-Aqsa, proche du Fatah, il a été exécuté par les hommes du Hamas et traîné dans les rues.” Paris Match, 27 Juin 2007

(“Onlookers photographed the mutilated body of Samil al-Madhum
with their cell phones. Leader of the Al-Aksa Brigade, a group close to Fatah,
he was executed by men of Hamas and dragged through the streets.”
Paris Match, June 27, 2007)

I don’t know what is more shocking in the above photograph -- the bloody, mutilated body, or the men taking pictures of it with their cell phones. (I counted six men with phones. There could be others. And is the right leg of the man in the blue shirt resting on the left leg of the corpse?). The expressions on their faces are so intent, so serious, and indifferent to the bloody corpse at their feet. What is important is whether the pictures they are taking are in focus.

The photograph reminded me of an almost forgotten strain that courses through American history from after the Civil War to the mid-sixties. I refer to the practice of mob violence in which black men, primarily, were hanged, their bodies mutilated for crimes they were often innocent of, for rapes of white women they had often not committed. This practice was called lynching, and it was not confined to the South. Of the lower 48 states, only Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island never had a lynching. Blacks were not the only victims, as Chinese, Italians, Jews, Mexicans, and white males were also victims of mob “justice”.

Part of the ritual of lynching was having one's picture taken in front of the hanging, mutilated body. Taken by professional photographers, the photographs were made into postcards and sold. Such postcards were then mailed to friends and relatives. A few years ago an exhibit of lynching postcards was held in New York, and other cities. A book of the exhibit, Without Sanctuary, has been published.

When I saw the above photograph in Paris Match, I thought of the photographs of lynchings, as well as the pictures U.S. soldiers took at Abu Ghraib of the torture of Iraqi prisoners. I was also reminded of Susan Sontag’s book, On Photography, where she writes of the desensitizing effect photography can have on our emotions.

As I look at the photograph above, and especially at the facial expressions, the fact that a dead man lies at their feet is not important. What is important is that they have proof that they were present at this event which others will be talking about. However, by taking pictures, they are also able to distance themselves emotionally from the horror at their feet.

That is the danger of photography, whether we are taking a picture or looking at one in a newspaper or magazine. Do we allow ourselves to be vulnerable to the horror depicted, or do we create an emotional distance?

During the Vietnam war, photographs were instrumental in creating anti-war sentiment in this country. Who can forget the photograph of the South Vietnamese general, pistol in his outstretched hand, shooting a civilian in the head? Who can forget the photograph of the naked, nine year old Vietnamese girl running along a road, her back burning from a napalm attack, her mouth open in a scream we could hear, though a photograph has no sound?

In a French photography magazine I subscribe to, I saw photographs from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina that no U.S. newspaper or magazine published. In Paris Match I see photographs of the environmental disasters taking place in Africa and Asia, as well as photographs from the war in Iraq that U.S. publications do not publish because they are considered to be too violent and explicit.

Obviously the Bush administration knows how dangerous such photographs would be to its execution of this obscene war which is why the Defense Department does not allow photographs of the flag-draped caskets returning to American soil. But photography also poses a danger to us who have cameras in our cell phones, whose lives are surrounded by images every waking moment.

Do we force ourselves to make our hearts vulnerable to the atrocities of our time, or do we simply point our cell phone cameras and make sure the pictures are in sharp focus?

In other words, what is our relationship to the suffering of others?

Friday, July 20, 2007

Racism & Health - 2

Photographic Art and text©2007 by Julius Lester

I had not intended to write a follow-up to the previous web log, but another article in the Boston Globe (Fri., 7/20/07) prompts me to do so.

“Tests of ER trainees find signs of race bias in care” is the headline,” and the first sentence reads, “Deeply imbedded attitudes about race influence the way doctors care for their African-American patients, according to a Harvard study that for the first time details how unconscious bias contributes to inferior care.”

The study involved “trainee doctors in Boston and Atlanta” who were given “a 20-minute computer survey designed to detect overt and implicit prejudice.” The doctors were also given a “hypothetical case of a 50-year-old man” who had sharp chest pain. “In some scenarios the man was white, while in others he was black.”

The lead author of the study, Dr, Alexander R. Green of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, found that doctors had “unconscious biases against blacks” which led them to not giving black patients “clot-busting treatment” which could be life-saving. However Dr. Green contends that “It’s not a matter of you being a racist. It’s really a matter of the way your brain processes information is influenced by things you’ve seen, you’ve experienced, the way media has presented things.” These last two sentences demonstrate that Dr. Green's understanding of racism is inadequate.

Racism is thought of as being, in this instance, the attitudes of whites toward blacks. But how whites define blacks flows naturally from how whites think of themselves. Thus, the statement above would be more accurate if it read that doctors have “unconscious biases in favor of whites”. It is this bias which leads to unconscious biases against blacks, (a bias which, sadly, black doctors also hold. “The small number of African-American physicians in the study were as likely to show bias against blacks as against whites.”)

The study found that “Black patients in the course of having a heart attack are only half as likely as whites to get clot-busting medication, and they are much less likely to undergo open-heart surgery. African-American women receive breast cancer screenings at a rate substantially lower than white women. Fewer black babies live to celebrate their first birthdays in Massachusetts: the mortality rate for black infants is more than double the rate for white babies.”

Dr. Alexander Green does not seem to fully understand his own words, namely that “the way your brain processes information is influenced by things you’ve seen, things you’ve experienced, the way media has presented things.” Yes, and this is how unconscious biases are formed. The way we treat others is determined by primarily personal experiences, which is why the range of our personal experiences have to be expanded to include the experiences of others who are not of our particular group, race, or religion. And this is as true for blacks as it is for whites.(You may recall my blog on 6/17/07 on same-sex marriages in Massachusetts in which I reported that key legislators who had been opposed to these marriages changed their minds after spending time with gay couples.) The sad fact is that many people are unable to abstract from their experiences to a general principle, namely, do not do to others as you do not want done to yourself, as it is phrased in the Jewish version of the "golden rule".

What the study demonstrates and is afraid to acknowledge is that doctors, black and white, value the lives of white people more than the lives of blacks.

However, that the study was done and its results made public is an important step in the process of learning to value life, no matter the color or culture in which that life presents itself.


“What if we discover that our present way of life is irreconcilable with our vocation to become fully human?”

Paulo Freire


Liplabour - Action of the lips without concurrence of the mind, e.g. “I hope the report on racism in the ER isn’t a lot of liplabour.”

From The Word Museum by Jeffrey Kacirk


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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Racism & Health

Photograph and text ©2007 by Julius Lester

It is an assumed medical fact that black people are more likely to have high blood pressure than whites. For decades it has also been assumed that this
tendency to high blood pressure had a physiologic or genetic base.Amazingly it had not occurred to anyone in the medical profession that the cause of black people’s high blood pressure might be, duh, white people.

According to the Boston Globe (Sunday, July 15), there is, at long last, data to confirm what blacks have known for decades, namely that the health of blacks is effected by racism.

A study of 334 midlife women “examined links between different kinds of stress and risk factors for heart disease and stroke.” Those black women who identified “racism as a source of stress in their lives” had more “plaque in their carotid arteries – an early sign of heart disease – than black women who didn’t.” This was the first study "to link hardening of the arteries to racial discrimination.”

Since 2000 there have been more than 100 studies that “document the effects of racial discrimination on physical health. Some link blood pressure to recollected encounters with bigotry. Others record the cardiovascular reactions of volunteers subject to racist imagery in a lab.”

Although many medical professionals are not ready to accept such studies as definitive, “the findings could profoundly change the way we look at both racism and health. It could unmask racism as bona fide public health problem,” just as child abuse and marital violence have come to be seen as “public health concerns.”

Researchers have noted that “pregnant women in California with Arabic names were suddenly more likely than any other group to deliver low birth-weight babies in the six months after 9/11.” Studies are being done, not only in the U.S. but “from Finland and Ireland to South Africa and New Zealand", and these studies are also finding “connections between racism and physical health in”, among others, Afro-Brazilians, "and black women in the Netherlands.”

Of course if Western medical thought had not been devoted to the ridiculous notion that there was no interaction between mind and body, the relationship between racism and health would have been known decades ago. Having grown up in the Midwest and the South of the 1940s and 1950s, I grew up with racial segregation. Even now, at age 68, I am aware that the wounds still pulsate. I try to walk two miles everyday. This involves walking a mile from my house along the semi-rural road where I live up to the railroad tracks (one mile) and back. There isn’t much traffic on the road, but not a day goes by, not a car goes past me that I don’t half-expect to hear a voice from one of those vehicles yell, “Nigger!” at me. One of the reasons I walk every day is to keep my blood pressure down. Ironically, expecting to having a pejorative shouted at me might be having the opposite effect. (Fear of racist pejoratives is the best excuse I've come up with to get out of exercising.)

Some medical professionals point out that even if racism is identified as having a negative impact on the health of blacks, there is nothing a doctor could do about it. That’s not so. If doctors took racism into account as an important factor in, say, high blood pressure among blacks, perhaps doctors would be less apt to place the entire responsibility for such health problems on us.

Having whites acknowledge that racism can effect the health of blacks would make us feel that we haven’t been overreacting just because we couldn’t prove that racism had negative effects on our health. Having whites acknowledge that racism can have a negative effect on our health blacks would make us feel less alone alone in the world. And that by itself would probably have a mitigating effect on a whole host of health problems.


Atlanta, Georgia, 1966


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Friday, July 6, 2007

More on Buddhist Compassion and Bugs

Photograph and text ©2007 by Julius Lester

Since posting “Buddhist Compassion and Bugs” (June 3, 2007), I’ve continued to think about why the Dalai Lama says we should not kill any creatures, not even mosquitoes.

I’ve been observing myself. Whenever a flying or crawling insect comes near me, my automatic and unthinking response is WHAM! I do not stop and ask myself if the insect could do me harm, if it was a potential threat to my physical well-being like ticks, for example. I see it and I want to kill it.

I am beginning to realize that the Dalai Lama’s words may not be only about insects. His words are also aimed at stopping my Pavlovian response of annoyance and violence. His words are asking me to consider my actions before I act, to separate myself from an instinctive response and to exercise the capacity of reflection, a capacity an insect does not have.

His words also compel me to consider that an insect represents life as surely as I do. If I can reach a place of revering such a miniscule form of life as an insect’s, I will also begin to revere the lives of other people.

The key to world peace may reside in reverence for insects.


Cogito ergo boom.

Susan Sontag


Road-proud: “Crops which look well from the road but are not as good as they look.” From The Word Museum by Jeffrey Kacirk.

Could also be applied to a lot of people.


A Bee.

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Monday, July 2, 2007

The Media & Paris Hilton

Photograph and text ©2007 by Julius Lester

During the 1960s people in the business of deciding what was and was not news knew that President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., were not models of marital fidelity. But the prevailing attitude was that what these men did in their private lives was precisely that – private. Even when then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sent photos to news outlets of Dr. King with women, not one released the information to the public. However, since then, the media has obliterated the line between private and public to the detriment of us all.

While I think Paris Hilton is a sad, immature twenty-six year old child who needs media attention to know she exists, I was appalled and frightened by the lynch mob atmosphere instigated by the media when the sheriff released her from jail to serve out her sentence at home. The nation was outraged! Paris was getting a break because she comes from a wealthy family. Al Sharpton, who has never seen a camera of any kind that he didn’t like, called a press conference to decry the favoritism shown to Paris. When a screaming, crying, hysterical Paris Hilton was sent back to jail, the media and the nation were obscenely exultant.

Only after she was once again incarcerated did the media begin to look more deeply into her situation and discovered that the majority of people in Los Angeles arrested for driving with a suspended license and violating probation on alcohol related driving charges served no jail time or as little as one-tenth of the sentence, which in Paris’s case would have been four days.

So when Paris Hilton was taken out of the courtroom screaming, “Mom! Mom! It’s not fair!”, she was right. It wasn’t fair. But the initial reporting led the nation to believe that the sheriff’s release of Hilton was an injustice. In fact, the sheriff acted justly. Indeed, it was discovered that the wife of Hilton’s prosecutor had been arrested for driving with a suspended license and had not been sent to jail.

The media is intent on the “public’s right to know,” a “right” I haven’t found in the Constitution. Well, if the public has a “right” to know about the private lives of politicians and celebrities, does not the public also have a ”right” to know about the private lives of those who report on others’ private lives?

If people in the media had to publicly reveal their sins, I wonder if the character of what passes for news these days would change. If people in the media were required to relinquish their privacy, I wonder if that line between public and private would be redrawn. If people in the media were subjected to the same scrutiny as they subject others, I think the media would concentrate its energies on the issues and ideas of our time rather than the behavior of millionaire, adolescent, high school dropouts who live as if it does not matter that hundreds of millions of people around the world live in squalor and hunger through no fault of their own.

But there is no institution in our society that scrutinizes the media the way peers into the private lives of others. We are dependent on the media to recognize and curb its own excesses and self-righteousness.

Thus the coarsening of our society will continue.


“The press is ferocious. It forgives nothing, it only hunts for mistakes.”

Diana, Princess of Wales


Medium – from medius, middle. “A middle quality, degree, or condition.”


Window, New York City, 1966

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