Beloved Author

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The first time I read Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel Beloved, I didn’t really understand it. The figure that haunts Sethe, the main character, is omnipresent yet mysterious. It took a second reading many years later for me to capture the import of this seminal work of American literature.

Toni Morrison’s death at age 88 has had many readers reminiscing and reflecting on her greatness. The first black woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature, Morrison wrote with such power and lyricism that her works almost literally vibrated. Despite how puzzling I found Beloved, I followed up by reading some of her earlier works: Sula and The Bluest Eye.

As a woman, I identified with some of the emotions and the powerlessness felt by the female protagonists of Morrison’s fiction. Feelings of uncertainty and of not being good enough in the eyes of others are issues that have always faced “the second sex.” The sacrifices mothers make for their children is another universal theme Morrison explored in works such as Beloved and A Mercy, one of her later works. After I became a mother myself, I could relate to the pain and helplessness these women felt in trying to protect their children.

But what really affected me about Toni Morrison’s work was the window it opened into the world of blacks, particularly black women. Morrison’s unflinching depictions of the horrors of slavery were hard to read. The goings-on at the ironically named Sweet Home of Beloved and the D’Ortega plantation in A Mercy show the devastating effects of whites’ willingness to dehumanize black men and women. Morrison’s writing forces whites to see the evil legacy of slavery, and it refuses to let us look away.

Toni Morrison opened up American literature to the black female voice. Her success even led to the rediscovery of Zora Neale Hurston, a gifted writer from the 1920s. Americans will be forever indebted to her for championing the artistic efforts of other black women authors, as well as for her own deep and beautiful body of work.

A few years ago, I had the great good fortune to see Toni Morrison in person. She was in town to receive the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s annual Carl Sandburg Literary Award at a benefit dinner to which I was invited. She was a formidable presence on the stage, but when she autographed my copy of Beloved, she gave me a warm smile. I am still grateful for that close encounter with her literary greatness as well as her graciousness. Her presence in our world will be sorely missed.

 

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I Know You Are, But What Am I?

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Donald Trump’s entire strategy for defending himself against any charges is to go on the offensive. Essentially, he lobs at his critics the playground retort, “I know you are, but what am I?”

In the past few weeks, the president has actually told U.S. citizens of color to go back where they came from. More recently, he decided to attack his critic Rep. Elijah Cummings by denouncing Cummings’ district as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” The comment was akin to his description of certain African nations as “shithole countries.” The more blatantly racial Trump’s attacks become, the quicker he is to label his critics as racist or un-American.

And instead of calling on the president to refrain from such remarks, his apologists get into a dissection of the victims. First they analyzed and called into question every statement made by the four Congresswomen who were the subject of Trump’s vitriol: women of color, all of them U.S. citizens and only one of them born outside the U.S. And as pundits pointed out, even that naturalized citizen had been a U.S. citizen longer than Trump’s own wife, Melania.

In the case of Trump’s attack on Baltimore, Rep. Cummings’ home turf, pundits started in on the Democratic failures to solve endemic poverty in big cities. Again, all this serves as a dodge to avoid confronting the fact that they support a small-minded racist.

The Trump strategy of counterattack is a brazen and shameless one. Despite the fact that there is ample evidence he obstructed justice in his attempt to derail the Mueller investigation, Trump has managed to turn the investigation against itself, demanding that U.S. justice and intelligence agencies be investigated for pro-Hillary/anti-Trump bias.

Aside from the fact that the “I know you are, but what am I?” tactic is the mark of a man with stunted emotional maturity, the repeated attempts on the right to distract the American people from legitimate concern and criticism of this president are disturbing and dangerous. It seems clear that the Republicans in power, their media mouthpieces, and Trump’s diehard base will ignore any level of impropriety, dishonesty, and meanness from this president.

It’s up to the rest of us to keep focused on what we see right in front of us: a divisive, mean-spirited, and narcissistic bully who must be called to account – in 2020, if not sooner.

Normalizing Hate

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Twitter has done at least one beneficial thing since its inception: given us a glimpse into the mind and heart of our current president. And it’s not a pretty picture. The president’s latest tweet attacked four women of color, all U.S. citizens, with the admonition to go back where they came from. The House of Representatives rightly voted to condemn this racist and xenophobic rant on the part of our country’s supposed leader.

The president has done everything in his power to attack and marginalize immigrants of color. Muslim travel bans, cruel treatment of Latin American migrants, labeling them criminals and rapists: This is classic scapegoating. It’s wrong, it’s dangerous, and it must not be normalized.

I know I’m not supposed to haul out Nazi Germany as a comparison, but the same tactics were used to victimize and ultimately exterminate millions of Jews during World War II. First they were attacked for being dishonest and mercenary. Cartoon depictions of Jews made them seem less than human. These tactics made it easier for ordinary citizens to stand by while Jewish people’s possessions were taken away and ultimately they themselves were rounded up.

I used to be opposed to going through the trauma of impeachment proceedings against our current president. It’s not that I don’t think there is ample cause for impeachment. I just felt that Democrats needed to focus their efforts on defeating the man in 2020. However, allowing this president to spew vitriol and hate for another year and half is unacceptable and runs the risk of normalizing such attitudes. The Congresswomen cited in the latest hateful tweets have been dealing with death threats. Let’s not wait for someone to make good on such a threat before we take action.

The American people must not allow hatred against certain religious or ethnic groups to take hold in our national psyche. It goes against everything our great nation stands for. Let’s not normalize hate but condemn it whenever and wherever we find it, even at the highest echelons of our government.

 

More Than One Thing

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lastblackman1.0The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a quiet movie that is playing at only a handful of select theaters. Most critical reviews are focused on its treatment of San Francisco and the woes of long-time residents displaced by gentrification. But I took something else away from the film.

In a scene towards the end of the movie, the main character Jimmie Fails gets up to speak at a showing of his best friend’s improvisational play that has turned into a de facto memorial service for a neighbor recently shot dead. In describing his complicated relationship with the man, Kofi, Jimmie says, “Everybody is not just one thing.” That line stayed with me long after the movie ended.

Everybody is not just one thing. We tend to categorize people and judge them by superficial characteristics: looks, clothing, manner, speech. In Last Black Man, a group of young men in the neighborhood stand around swearing and insulting each other, pushing each other around, acting the tough guy. But when Kofi dies, the most belligerent of the group collapses into the arms of the very same man (Jimmie’s best friend) whom he has relentlessly mocked in the past.

In our increasingly polarized society, we need to remember that people are complex. Take Donald Trump, for instance. I myself have had very little good to say about our current president. And I don’t feel like he’s a good man. But I do not know Donald Trump personally. He may be a loving husband and father. He may be a good friend. His public persona is not the whole of Mr. Trump or of any of us. So it would behoove us to think carefully about labeling and name calling and ascribing hateful titles to people, something that, ironically, Mr. Trump does on a regular basis.

We should also hesitate to paint all members of a group with the same broad brush, whether they be Wall Street bankers or migrants at our border.

All of us are afflicted with the same infuriating, confusing, and glorious infirmity: the human condition. The Last Black Man in San Francisco portrays this reality beautifully. There are no clear villains or heroes in the movie. Instead, we get an up close portrait of a friendship and of the life of two young men navigating the new realities of their beloved city and trying to find their own place in it.

Let’s remember that we are all many things and afford each other the respect deserved by all human beings.

FOMO Foments Prejudice

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Social Media GraphicsMy kids use a lot of texting abbreviations that it has taken me a while to figure out. One of them is FOMO: fear of missing out. In the social life of young people, fear of missing out is what keeps them tied to their smartphones, scrolling through Instagram to see what their peers are doing at any given moment.

But FOMO is also a dangerous human tendency. In times of economic insecurity, people worry that they won’t get their share of resources. Often they project their lack on others they perceive as taking what is rightfully theirs.

Donald Trump has exploited this insecurity by pitting Americans against Hispanic immigrants coming across the border “to get our jobs.” He has increasingly favored protectionist trade policies because he perceives other countries – particularly Mexico, Canada, and China – as having taken unfair advantage of America. And these policies have effects. Yesterday the Dow plummeted in the face of China’s retaliatory trade tariffs.

Throughout the history of the United States, particular racial, ethnic, or religious groups were used as scapegoats for citizens’ insecurities and fears about not having enough. Many of us have ancestors of Italian, Irish, German, or Polish descent who recounted stories of discrimination and hatred when they began arriving on the shores of America. Japanese and Chinese immigrants faced even worse persecution, as did blacks whose ancestors were slaves and those who immigrated more recently from the African continent and the Caribbean.

Sadly, the human condition has not changed much over the centuries. Nowadays, people of Middle Eastern descent, especially Muslims, are targets of hatred and fear for many Americans. Jews are still being targeted for hate crimes and stereotyped as money hungry connivers who are trying to take over all aspects of American commerce. Even “model minorities” from East Asia, such as Koreans, Chinese, and Indians, are being met more and more with resistance on the part of Americans who feel they are making too many inroads into our prosperous society.

A case in point is the story of a bus company in Champaign, Illinois, called Suburban Express. Suburban Express conveyed students to and from the University of Illinois campus for years. However, in recent years, the company came under fire for discriminatory advertising and business practices. For instance, the company sent out an email ad that promised, “Passengers like you. You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses.” Furthermore, according to the Champaign News Gazette,

Suburban Express allegedly denied credit cards from ZIP codes with high Jewish populations, instructed employees to avoid handing out coupons to certain students who appeared not to speak English well and recorded a YouTube video in a UI dorm while complaining about the lack of English speakers and mocking Asian accents by saying “No Engrish.” (“Suburban Express Shuts Down,” News Gazette, May 7, 2019)

Suburban Express ceased operations after it was sued by the Illinois Attorney General, and a consent decree cost the company $100,000. The unrepentant owner declared he was shutting down because running the business wasn’t fun any more. I guess it’s no fun if you can’t publicly mock minorities.

As the mother of a Chinese American daughter, this attitude sickens me. Even before the blatantly racist actions of the bus company came to light, I would sometimes hear complaints from friends and acquaintances about the large numbers of Chinese nationals attending the University of Illinois. They seemed to feel that the Chinese students were making it harder for their own children to gain access to the state’s premier public university.

I don’t think it’s racist to argue about how many out of state students should be allowed to attend a university partly subsidized by the taxpayers of that state. In fact, about a decade ago, Illinois residents decried a dramatic increase in out of state acceptances, and the university backed down, keeping the numbers of Illinois residents attending U of I at a large majority.

However, I can’t help feeling that this animosity toward Asian-born students in particular is tinged with racism. I doubt there would be much hue and cry if German or Swedish nationals started descending on the Illinois university system in large numbers. Because Asians are so readily identifiable and less likely to speak mellifluous English, they are unfairly singled out for scorn and discrimination.

Our society is stronger when we welcome and accept people of all different persuasions. Instead of looking for scapegoats for our societal ills, we should be addressing issues such as underemployment and unequal education head on. Let’s not use our FOMO as an excuse to deny the humanity and dignity of others.

The Pendulum Swings

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The Waitrose candy company has had to apologize for releasing a dark chocolate Easter duck called “Ugly.” People took to Twitter to complain about the name for one of a trio of candy ducklings, the others being named “Fluffy” and “Crispy.” (Jack Guy, “Store withdraws chocolate ducklings over racism complaint,” cnn.com, April 9, 2019) Such is the state of race relations in modern society.

For literally hundreds of years, people of color have had to fight against the perception that their skin color makes them less than: less intelligent, less moral, less human. Blacks who could “pass” for white used their skin color to their advantage while at the same time feeling they were betraying their own people. In the Sixties, the slogan “Black is beautiful” began to reclaim the dignity and power of African-Americans. The Civil Rights movement made great strides towards equality for people of color, but racism continues to persist.

In recent years, the Black Lives Matter movement has shed light on continuing racial bias, particularly in the area of law enforcement. The shooting of black suspects, the mass incarceration of minorities and differential sentencing based on skin color have all rightly been the targets of vociferous protest. But increasingly, litmus tests to determine how “woke” a person is threaten to trivialize the very real threats that racism still poses in our society.

Social norms are like a pendulum that veers wildly from right to left. In the bad old days, African-Americans were called “colored,” expected to be nothing more than servants or laughable minstrels. It was considered funny, not appalling, to don blackface. I recently listened to a Malcolm Gladwell podcast about the entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr., and how he had to swallow so much casual racism just to make it in the world of entertainment. Gladwell includes a snippet of a Shriners Club roast given to Sammy. His so-called friend Dean Martin rattles off a series of horribly racist jokes at Sammy’s expense: references to watermelon-eating and even lynching. And the worst part? Sammy has to laugh at it all to be part of the club.

Today the pendulum is arcing far to the left, and every instance that might potentially be seen as racist is put under the microscope and dissected on social media. Does the hapless naming of a candy duck indicate a deep-seated prejudice towards dark skin? It might. I do think that little things – habits of speech in particular – affect the way in which we perceive the world around us. If the references to the ducks had been sexist, I would have been annoyed. But I worry that focusing on these minor issues will create a backlash and hamper progress in social justice.

Let’s hope the swinging of the pendulum begins to slow and that people of all ethnicities, social classes, and skin colors can feel equally valued and respected in our culture.

 

Trump Can’t Lead Without Moral Compass

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President Trump chose to mark the loss of 11 lives due to white nationalist terrorism by traveling to Southern Illinois for another political rally. His visit was ostensibly to campaign for other Republicans, but really it was just to talk about himself and take jabs at Democrats and Hillary Clinton. These are not the actions of a leader.

Sure, Trump made a few remarks about his supposed intolerance for anti-Semitism. But in the days since the devastating attack on Jewish members of a Pittsburgh synagogue, the President of the United States has managed to do what he does best: make it all about him. He even complained that he was probably attacked more than anyone. Gee, Mr. Trump. Is that how you plan to comfort the loved ones of the deceased?

In the past two weeks, we have seen a series of attacks on the part of disgruntled white men who love everything Donald Trump stands for. First, law enforcement officials arrested the man accused of sending pipe bombs in the mail to prominent Democrats. He was a white nationalist whose actions gelled around his support for Trump and the politics of hate. Trump used the arrest not to appeal for peace and understanding, but to call for a renewed use of the death penalty.

Now we have one of the worst anti-Semitic attacks committed on U.S. soil in decades. But far from being able to rely on our president to lead us away from such violence, we have one who calls white nationalists “fine people” and uses dog whistle politics to appeal to their racism. Besides, he has to get back to his relentless attack on the caravan of undesirables heading for the U.S. border. It’s the only way to get Republicans elected these days apparently.

That Donald Trump has no sense of decency was revealed way back in 2015 when he started to campaign for president by claiming that the current one was an African-born Muslim. Throughout the campaign, he hurled insults and slurs, fomented white rage, and even suggested he’d hit on his own daughter if they weren’t related. He bragged about paying no taxes and grabbing women’s genitalia. Did we really expect him to get in office and suddenly start acting “presidential”?

Donald Trump even mocks the notion of being presidential by imitating a robot and garnering a few laughs at his omnipresent political rallies. No, we can’t expect leadership from a man who lives in a moral vacuum. And our country is much the worse for it.