Friday, August 6, 2010

The Killings in Connecticut

I have been thinking a lot about the black man who killed eight people and himself at the company in Conn. In response there have been the usual expressions of bewilderment and incomprehension that someone would do such a thing. There have been expressions of innocence by the company as well as the denials of racism by the family and friends of the eight white people who were murdered. Both the company and the union said that Omar Thornton had not filed a complaint about racism with either of them. I think I understand why he did not file a complaint and why he killed eight people. And I will add that to understand his actions is not to approve of them, because I do not.

More than half a century ago, Ralph Ellison wrote a novel called Invisible Man in which he described the status of blacks in this country as being invisible to the white majority. I don't think blacks are invisible any longer, especially after Obama's election.

However being black still carries with it an element of unreality, meaning that when we leave our homes and go into the white world - schools, jobs, shopping, etc., it is very hard for us to know what is real. I envy white people because they do not have to ask what is real. Let me give an example of something that happens to blacks daily. We are in the check out line at a store, and the cashier is rude. If I were white I would think, "She's having a bad day." But because I am black, I do not know if she is having a bad day or if she doesn't like black people.

That may sound foolish, but it isn't foolish if you've stood in the checkout lane and heard the cashier say hello and how are you to the person in front of me, but when you stand before the cashier you are not greeted or asked about your day. Or the variation on that experience: to take advantage of discounts and sales at many stores, you must have a store card to get the savings. What am I to believe when the cashier asks the person in front of me if he has a card, but doesn't ask me. Now perhaps I'm supposed to assume that I heard the cashier ask the person in front of me for her card so there's no necessity to ask me for mine. But what having to live with racism does to you is that when you're in public you question yourself about the impersonal contacts with whites. Was that person being racist? Did I imagine he looked at me in a certain way?

Many white people think racism is limited to using the n---- word, or as Thornton claimed, drawing that word and a noose on a bathroom wall. But racism is far, far more subtle than that. I believe that Omar Thornton had experiences as I've described above, but he did not have the words to articulate the unreality he was feeling trapped in. The incidents that he considered racist were so small, so insignificant to the white person who offended him that he knew he would appear as hypersensitive if he said something to the person, as looking for racism where none existed or was intended if he filed a complaint. He probably felt he would be laughed at if he filed a grievance against someone who never smiled at him but did so whites, who had an edge in her voice when she spoke to him but not when she spoke to a white co-worker. There was no one at the company he could talk to who would truly understand. And what could be done anyway? Tell someone to smile when she saw him? Tell someone to speak as pleasantly to him as this person did to whites?

The essential element in human interactions is to feel in the hearts of others an echo of our own heart, its yearnings and aspirations, its sorrows and its pains. If such does not happen often enough, we lose touch with the reality of ourselves and thus, the reality of others. And then it seems logical and morally right to pick up a gun and kill some of those you feel are responsible for your unreality.

I think I understand Omar Thornton because I've had more than one day when I have wanted to do what he did. But I know how to use words. Omar Thornton only knew how to use a gun.

© Julius Lester 2010

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Sherrod Debacle

It has been a long time since I've written here, not because I haven't had things I wanted to write about, but because I didn't want to take the time away from other things I was doing. However, I cannot be silent after the administration's allowing itself to be baited by the right wing deliberate falsifying of the taped speech Ms. Sherrod gave to the NAACP in March. And although President Obama was not directly involved, his efforts to change the tone of politics in the nation have led to an administration that goes out of its way to placate the right wing, and in so doing, gives the right wing more power. And it was this fear of the right wing that led the Secretary of Agriculture to fire Ms. Shirley Sherrod for something she did not say.

What is so appalling in this incident is the utter disrespect the Secretary of Agriculture showed Ms. Sherrod. A doctored tape of her speech is shown over and over on the Fox network, and the Secretary reacted like a Pavlovian dog. Indeed, all the media outlets reacted like Pavlovian dogs. And no one, no one had the decency to ask Ms. Sherrod directly what she said, or ask for a copy of the speech, or a copy of the videotape.

While the administration has apologized and Ms. Sherrod has been offered a promotion, that is insufficient. The president should ask for the Secretary of Agriculture's resignation for his violation of a fundamental tenet of our democracy; a person is innocent until proven guilty.

I do not understand how Democrats allow themselves to be defined by the right wing time and time again. John Kerry did not take the Swift Boaters seriously and they defined his service in Vietnam and him as a liar. The right wing came close to undermining Obama's candidacy by associating him with Bill Ayers, a Sixties radical. And now we have the teabaggers and Sarah Palin who will say anything, like defining a consultation between a doctor and a patient about end of life care a death panel. President Obama does not seem to understand that the right wing has no integrity, knows that if they repeat a lie often enough it will become the truth in the minds of millions, and, above all, it counts on the Democratic Party not to be as passionate about what it believes as the right wing is passionate about what it believes. The president does not seem to under understand that there is nothing he can do that the right wing will approve of. NOTHING!! It takes two to change the tone of politics in the nation, and it is not in the right wing's interest to make that change. Meanwhile, Obama ignores his constituency, those of us who got him elected, in favor of trying to work with people who would rather die than work with him.

I voted for Obama for many reasons, but one was his passion. That passion has been in short supply since he entered the White House. And because he has been afraid to be passionate, he has set a tone in his administration in which the only passion many of his subordinates show is weakness. I hold Obama responsible for the Secretary of Agriculture's firing of Ms. Sherrod, and I will be disappointed if he does not request the Secretary's resignation. Such poor judgment as the Secretary showed leaves me with no confidence in any decision he has made or will make.

I remember election night and the million people in Grant Park in Chicago with tears in their eyes, the millions of us in our homes looking at our televisions with tears in our eyes, and how much we believed that things were going to be different now.

If someone had told me that night that I would write what I'm about to write, I would've thought they were crazy.

I'm beginning to be sorry that Hillary didn't win the nomination.

And now I'm going to make me a soda with cream soda and vanilla ice cream, and get back to The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.

© 2010 by Julius Lester

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Two Things On My Mind

Tiger Woods is making an announcement tomorrow (2/19). Whatever else he says, I hope he says he will not play golf for the next year, that he will use the time to become better acquainted with himself as a human being, that he will apply the same focus and intensity to the health of his soul that he has applied to golf. I am not morally condemning him. To do so I would have to stand in moral judgment on myself. But I know what it is to separate one's creative life from one's personal life to such an extent that the two scarcely know each other. It is extremely difficult and painful to "know thyself", but not nearly as painful as ignorance of one's self. My wish for Tiger Woods is that his life become as beautiful and awe inspiring as his golf game.


One of my current pet peeves is the pervasive use of the word "boob" as a substitute for breast. I am especially peeved when women use "boob", a word devoid of dignity. However, given how breast-fixated America is, perhaps the wide use of "boob" is an unconscious effort to combat that fixation. But I think it has much more to do with America's discomfort with talking about anything related to sex. A few years ago, a high school in this area (western Massachusetts) found itself under attack when it was learned that the school was going to put on a performance of "The Vagina Monologues". The reaction could not have been stronger if the play had been titled "The Pussy Monologues". On the other hand, it is interesting that words have such power for some Americans that the mere mention of the word "vagina" sends many people into a rage. If only these people would take seriously and be enraged by words like war, poverty, homelessness. If only.

© 2010 by Julius Lester

Friday, January 22, 2010

Bold Words, Timid Actions: Obama, Year One

On January 20, 2009, an estimated one million people stood on the Mall in Washington, D.C. to witness the inauguration of Barak Obama. Untold millions around the world watched on television screens. Never in American history had so many witnessed the inauguration of a U.S. president. Never had so many felt so hopeful about the future of this nation.

On the day of Obama’s inauguration I was ecstatic to be done with the reactionary and divisive politics of George Bush, to be done with the self-righteousness of the right wing. At long last the U.S. government would function with a sense of caring for the well-being of those who did not have the means to insure their own well-being.

On January 19, 2010, My wife and I drove to the high school about a mile from our house to cast our vote in the special election of a senator to replace Ted Kennedy. As we drove up the hill to the polling place in the high school gym, we both noticed that there were a number of political signs bordering the road, and they all said “Vote for Brown”. We looked in vain for a sign saying “Vote for Coakley”. We knew that did not portend good for the outcome.

We cast our votes for Coakley, but all day there was a sick feeling in both of our stomachs. That sick feeling only intensified when the results we’d been dreading came in. Massachusetts, one of the most liberal states in the country, was sending a Republican to fill the remaining two years of Ted Kennedy’s terms. How could the mood of a nation change so radically in a mere 52 weeks?

I think the responsibility lies with the man in the Oval Office. It is as if the man who filled us with hope and enthusiasm, the man who vowed to bring change we could believe in was kidnaped, and in his place, someone substituted a person who looked like him but was far more timid in his actions.

This doppelgänger courted the Republican opposition, not understanding that the Republicans would never agree with him, that it was not in their self-interest to work amicably with him, that their vocabulary consisted of “No” and “Boo!” But the false Obama did not want to believe that a political party could be so wedded to negativity and scare tactics.

Even worse, however, is that the false Obama completely forgot the people who had been so enthused by his campaign and his election. He seemed to take for granted the millions and millions whose hopes he had kindled into dancing flames of warmth. When political right-wingers began holding a rallies around the country attacking the false Obama’s citizenship, when the “tea baggers” harassed Democratic congressmen at public meetings, the false Obama and the Democratic Party dismissed them as crazies, as people not worthy of serious consideration.

What he and his party failed to recognize was the passion the “tea baggers” embodied, the passion that George Bush had for his causes - the right to life, the war in Iraq, the opposition to research using stem cells, etc., etc. Regardless of how repugnant Bush’s politics were to me, he was not afraid to speak passionately about his beliefs.

A lack of passion has been the Democratic Party’s Achilles’ heel for decades now. When Al Gore debated George Bush, I cringed every time he droned, “I have a plan.…” When John Kerry debated George Bush I cringed every time he droned, “I have a plan.” Why doesn’t the Democratic Party understand that voters don’t care about plans? What people need to know about a candidate for office is what do you care about, and, are you able to make listeners feel how much you care?

Barak Obama-the-candidate was not timid about showing us his passion and caring. But then, the doppelgänger was substituted for the real Obama. When Congress began deliberating on how to reform health care, the real Obama would have gone around the country repeatedly exhorting us to put pressure on Congress, to protest at the offices of insurance companies. Not only did the false Obama do nothing, he did what Democrats always do; he let the Republicans define the issue. And, Republicans being Republicans did what Republicans do best - scared people by talking about death panels and that the government would kill your grandmother, that medical premiums would go up, that people would no longer be able to choose their own doctors.

The real Obama would have traveled the country speaking passionately about compassion, about our obligation to care about those among us who are ill and are dying because they cannot afford medical care, as did the real Obama’s mother. He would have shown us passionately that he cared, and in doing so, would have reignited that passion in us for a government that is compassionate. And, many of those in Congress who were wavering, and those who were opposed to reforming medical care would have been made to appear callous and unfeeling, and some would have stopped wavering and become supporters while others would have been shamed into silence -- maybe even the self-righteous and arrogant Joe Lieberman.

The real Obama would not have waited until two days before the special election in Massachusetts to ask for people’s support. By coming two days before the election, he appeared as nothing more than a desperate politician in trouble. Frequent trips to campaign on Coakley’s behalf would have sent a message that the President cared abut what happened in Massachusetts, that he believed in Martha Coakley.

Alas, as much as I would love to believe that a doppelgänger was substituted for the real Obama. I can’t, because the disappointment I feel is a response to Obama’s performance as president. I was aware that during his campaign he raised our hopes too high, that he could not meet them. I did not expect that he would abandon those hopes. I did not expect that he would involve himself in a contretemps between a Cambridge, Mass., police officer and a black Harvard professor, and invite them to the White House “for a beer”. He was the PRESIDENT, not a therapist.

I have written here earlier about being glad that Obama was a pragmatist, not an ideologue. I have also written here about my support of his receiving the Nobel Prize. What I did not write about, however, were my misgivings - that he seemed a little too cocky, too confident, that he seemed overwhelmed by the demands of being president, that, maybe, just maybe, God forbid, Hillary Clinton and John McCain had been right: he was too inexperienced.

All I know now, a mere year after his inauguration, is that I am disappointed, that I feel used, that there has not been change I could believe in, and I am heartbroken.. I hope the president finds the Obama I voted for - a man of passion, a man who would fight for what he believed in, a man who would see that he has become a puppet manipulated by the Republican, a man who understands that the moral climate of the nation is the responsibility of the person in the Oval Office, who understands that people who are energized by the moral challenges a president calls us to face can turn more Congressional votes toward his programs than he and his aides can by courting votes on the Hill..

Obama has three more years. Hopefully, at this time next year, the Obama I voted for will have returned from wherever he is now. I liked feeling hopeful about the future of my country.

© 2010 by Julius Lester