history’s definition of ghetto

What makes the Central District different (special?) is that for a number of decades at least until the early 1970s it was a black ghetto, meaning most of the people who lived there were not allowed to freely live elsewhere in the city.
– Quintard Taylor

Reading the words of Quintard Taylor this morning, I am reminded that what primarily defines a ghetto is exclusion.

Ghetto is about denying people the right to move freely. It is not defined by the constitution or composition of the people living within it. Nowadays, our language and the common usage of the term suggest that the word is more about the people who live within a ghetto not the social forces denying that group of people the autonomy to move, to live, to work or to go to school beyond a confined area. Taylor’s description of Central District as a Black ghetto in Seattle mirror the ghettos trapping Jewish families and communities in Poland and Germany.

This is what history teaches us. And how casual and sloppy use of language shifts blame and blurs who has power and who does not.

Justice, dignity and freedom

Two days ago, my partner, Brinda, said how

he changed what it meant to be African. He changed what it meant to be African American

as we sat with the news that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had passed earlier on Thursday, December 5, 2013.

Indeed, Madiba changed what it meant to be human. He dignified the whites who had been systematically privileged by apartheid, he dignified the ruling National Party that was the final white-led political party in final years of apartheid in the early ’90s. And he ushered the transition from a violent, white-minority government to a multiracial democracy. Mandela’s tact and approach was unique in that he did not diminish the Black masses, the poor and the oppressed when dealing with the powers that be. He was unapologetic as the figure head and public face for the political party, the labor unions, the youth movement and the social movements that brought about apartheid’s end.

In the 72 hours since his passing, I have been reminded that violence may be a necessity when every other means or resort has been exhausted. I have been reminded that a leader or elected official does not need to relent in their systemic critique of the status quo once they have been elected. I have been reminded

I lived in Swaziland from 1991 through 1994. It was a pivotal time as neighboring South Africa transitioned from an exclusively white-governed nation to a multiracial democracy. I recall one weekend in 1992 when my mixed race family went to Pretoria for the weekend. Our car broke down, so we had to spend one extra night, on a Sunday, in one of Pretoria’s upper class neighborhoods. The two reasons that we could be there, were that as a diplomat and his family we were bestowed with a level of privilege, which was further eased by the fact that in the early 1990s, Black South Africans had begun to live in neighborhoods that had been historically white.

Because our car broke down, I would miss school on Monday at Waterford Kamhlaba. Yet, it was not just any Monday, but the day of the Referendum asking white South Africans if they wanted to vote to end apartheid by granting Blacks and Coloreds the right to vote. To my 13 year old sensibilities on the night before, a race war seemed all but inevitable. I do not know how many stories of widespread race-based violence had been forecast on television nor how many newspapers had written about the possibilities of political violence. I went to bed on Sunday terrified by what would happen in the streets of Pretoria and throughout the country the following day.

Yet, nothing of the sort occurred. There were a few skirmishes fomented (or even staged) by the white nationalist organization, AWB (who’s name in Afrikaans, I never could remember). Otherwise, peace and calm was so widespread that by dusk, I was clipping the posters of various political parties as my mom drove me around the predominantly white, middle- and upper-class neighborhood that we were staying in. I would run up to a streetlamp and cut the twine in two places before tossing the posters either in the trunk or backseat of the car that we were in. I cannot remember, but we gathered at least a dozen, if not 20, posters. A few were those of the rulling National Party that said either “Yes” or “Ya” (the equivalent term in Afrikaans). We encountered few No posters, that we still chose to cut and compile. The one that is most emblazoned in my psyche, even 21 years later, was a caricature of FW de Klerk, the President and leader of the National Party, on his knees bowing before a standing Nelson Mandela. Off in one of the corners is the shape of a red, stop sign were the three letters — Nee — asking that voters refuse to grant the majority of adults in the country the right to vote.

***

It was a magical phase in my life. As a mixed-raced, teenager from the United States attending a middle and high school, Waterford, with a legacy of being a place for Black, white, Colored, and Indian South Africans to send their children to a mixed race school environment. It was a school where I shared classrooms, meals and sports fields with the children (and grandchildren) of the freedom struggles of Mozambique, Zambia and other countries. It was a school where Walter Sisulu came and spoke to the students. I learned a few political anthems and songs, such as N’khosi Sikhelele Afrika (which literally translates as God Bless Africa, and is now the national anthem since apartheid ended in South Africa), that instilled a sense of pride and defiance in the face of a racist history that was slowly receding just across the Swazi-South African borders. I learned from close friends, from numerous countries in Southern and East Africa, about the role that their federal governments played by offering safety and safe passage for the anti-apartheid leaders of the ANC and other banned parties, as well as granted refuge or resources to train soldiers in military combat. In the late ’90s, I would learn more about the instrumental role of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the African National Congress, as I read Mandela’s autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom.

The three years in Swaziland were a time when dinner conversations between my parents at home revealed to me that certain elements in the US government preferred that the National Party or another white political party win the free elections in 1994. There was not a chance of it happening, considering that millions of people lined up and stood and waited for hours for the one time in their life that they could vote for Nelson Mandela. He was one of more than 20 (or more) candidates for president. It was a ballot so long that it had to be printed on a piece of paper as long or longer than legal size. And the faces of each candidate and the unique, colorful logo of their respective political party was included next to their names on the ballot to assist illiterate adults to be able to vote. These were some of the little yet profound aspects of what it meant to live in such proximity to freedom.

These were some of the moments as a 13, 14 and 15 year old living in Mbabane, Swaziland. After two years and ten months in South Africa, Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as President a month or two before we left and I would return to New Mexico and the US. It was overcast in Mbabane, the morning of the inauguration. I sat in the tv room of our house, owned by the American Embassy, with my mother, Lena, Louis and one other domestic worker, who’s name I have forgotten. Lena was partially blind in one eye because she could not afford or had not been able to access necessary health services when she was younger. Louis sat and recognized nearly every foreign leader and dignitary who was shown on tv, able to say their name and their home country before the commentators on the South African Broadcasting Channel (or Corporation) could. The five of us sitting, largely in silence, as we witnessed the enormity of the day’s activities and the history happening a few hundred kilometers across the border.

***

Mandela’s life is an anamoly to my psyche and my sense of history. He lived to be a very old man when so many indicators meant that he should not have. In fact, all his time imprisoned in South Africa’s prison systems was one factor that resulted in his long life. He was a severe enough threat to the apartheid country that they would have attempted to assassinate him in the streets of London, Nairobi or some other foreign city had he been free to live abroad. Yet, exile was not a part of the path in the life of Nelson Mandela. And as I sit and remember the touchstones of my life, I recall that Chris Hani and Steve Biko and thousands of other political activists in South Africa and the world have had their lives brought to a premature end. Violence and fear being tools to kill and end the lives of individuals and social movements seeking justice, dignity and freedom.

***

South Africa’s post-apartheid Constitution is a truly radical political document. It protected the rights of sexual minorities when no other nation on the planet was doing so. Rather than be mired in vengeance and animosity, South Africa took steps to practice democracy in the months and years immediately after a majority of people gained freedom.

Mandela’s passing is a teachable moment. A chance to recognize that this is what it feels like to live history, to be a part of the history that is being made today. We tend to diminish the small actions, unseen moments that constitute so many days in our lives. Yet, when we recognize our own connection to the prophets that live among us, the bigness of history is mirrored back to us. It is not just the history of Mandela or MLK, but all of us who were participants or bystanders to the social movements that they are connected to.

the failure of “I’m busy”

Note: an old post (circa 2012) that never uploaded to the cloud from my local network. So today, I try again.
_____________

Choice is a powerful thing. As I find ways to slow down, I am amazed each time that I hear someone state: I’m so busy. So stressed, exhausted.

It is easy to fall into a state of hyper-activity. It is the norm in this day and age. An addiction that cuts across classes, generations, nations. There is a strong gale force wind at our backs bombarding the seemingly few hours in a day, a wind that feels unwelcome and stress-inducing. A wind that causes people to feel that 24 hours is just not enough. Such a feeling and attitude makes inadequacy inevitable.

Yet, we can live big lives. Honor the enormity of our souls. Grant ourselves the grace, the benefit of the doubt of what it is to be imperfect. Thus, embrace the bigness of our lives where so much happens in a 24 hour period.

At this time, I live in such a way that I have the time to write. As I write, I am making the time to observe the use of language. The quirks of what arises and what is repeated and common by people around me. Growing up with a father who I referred to as “a walking dictionary” I placed value on correct spelling; though I have been less concerned with correct definitions for certain words.

One recent list has been my list of words that I refrain from using, scratching from my vocabulary. Among the first to make this list with the accompanying feeling and reasoning why it is on my vocab non grata was:

I’m busy | being busy is a choice. a choice to mirror the hyperactive, over-committed, lacking sleep cultural dominance of these times. there’s no time like now to drop some old burdensome, time-consuming deadweight in your life.

I used to feel like my days were frantic. Where all of the phone calls, emails or things to do tomorrow corroded my ability to sleep the night before. I would wake up exhausted because I had tossed around between 3 and 5 a.m. Where it would be 6:00 pm, and I hadn’t known what happened to my day. Where I was squeezing text messages in at red lights or as I walked down the street. I once ran into the car in front of me, at a red light, by texting wiht my fingers while removing my right foot from the brake pedal. I had multiple too-close-for-comfort shoulder brushes with other pedestrians unable to avoid me because they were tapping out a text, too.

Now, I find a red light a welcome respite. Most times that I hear a horn honking, I note how urgent, speedy or rushed the person is who must be late. Who feels late, even though they may not be. At least, not from where I stand.

So much of what has changed has been my perspective and my own views of myself, which has altered my views of others. My perspectives about past/present/future are less pressurized because I spend much less time trapped in the past or preoccupied about the future. As a result, I get to feel and sense what it is like to think about the present. The present that is this moment-by-moment. Doing so has offered me a way to feel how each moment is different from the previous and the next. Where I am not struggling, attempting to keep things as they were just a moment ago, because living organisms are forever changing.

I am not responsible for keeping something just as it was.

Just like the ‘river that flows by itself,’ the cells in my eyes, capillaries, toes and throughout my body are constantly in flux.
Our bodies as people. Our bodies of water. Our bodies of dogs, chameleons and amoeba.
I spend more time outside. This requires and results in me spending less time in front of a computer screen.
I make fewer phone calls, trusting that I will call upon friends when the timing is just right.

There are a few phrases that we use at home. That we choose at home:

  • – In the nick of time.
  • – Just at the right time.
  • – Moment-by-moment.

I began to say “moment-by-moment” two years ago, when I realized that I was feeling a moment-by-moment sort of love. Where I had no idea of what love would be or feel like in a few weeks, but that was irrelevant. In that very instance, I had the power of love emanating from deep in my chest.

The most recent addition to this list of the fluidity of time and timing is:

  • – Before/After.

When exactly something occurred is less significant. Rather than getting consumed with the specificity of it, just acknowledging that it was some time before. Similarly, that something else happened or will happen after.

——-

This talk of time, and the perceived impacts of the pressure and constraints that it places upon us reminds me of a reprinted book of a 1920s era book by Florence Schovel Schinn (sp?). The moral of that story was captured in a single line of prose:

God provides all the time that we need.

walking along a revolutionary road

I am watching the epic and tragic and brilliant story of Revolutionary Road again this weekend. I have a great appreciation for the intensity of the movie (as I have been told that I am an intense being) as it touches upon fundamental issues of life, purpose, and meaning. Each of these have profound reverberations on the people around us, too. This is where there is beauty in life when acted upon, or loss and dismay as is the case for Kate Winslet’s and Leonardo DiCaprio’s characters in the movie.

On the surface it is a love tragedy. Yet, wrapped in layers and layers, the movie is an illustration of walking the road less traveled (as M. Scott Peck calls it. A book that I would like to revisit this year, after more than a decade of being untouched). It is when stories of love, family, work, career, art, travel, journeys, passion arise. So many factors that they can cause a lump in a throat because they are too much to comprehend. Yet, it is not about the comprehension but the ability to act or decisively choose (in such a way that choosing sometimes feels like plunging) in spite of all the unknowns. In our hyper-intellectualized time and the delusion of logic, we attempt to know everything before acting. This set up is an impossibility. As we cannot know all that we need to know (nor can we know all that there is to know). To wait until all information is adequately known results in paralysis.

This delay of choosing, or inaction, at pivotal moments in life is what resonates for me in Revolutionary Road. Contrary to the revulsion or sadness that many others felt about the movie, I was drawn to it. I appreciated the darkness. It is a stark telling of what is far more common than I believe is acknowledged. Furthermore, it is an indictment of what happens when the pursuit of professional success trumps personal relationship.

***

The road less traveled requires walking through a doorway of choices, of choosing the less common, less appreciated and less understood choice(s) especially when these lesser knowns are frowned up or objected to by society, writ large or one’s inner circle. Every day there are moments when we have to choose (what are called choice points). Even when we decide to not act, we still make a choice. Life is chock full of possible choices and our choices impact not only other people and circumstances around us, but impact the remainder of our life.

Too often, we cower to the pressures of what is normal, what is acceptable or tolerable to family, friends, coworkers or to other people we perceive as being in our same social order. Perception is a dicey thing because it is our individual ideas of who we consider as being like us and being with us. Yet these we can trap ourselves and deny life-giving choices because of what the very same people want. Sometimes it is that we accurately see others as they are, and correctly understand what choice they want us to make; there are other times where our perception is mistaken and the very people we care about and care about us wish for us to make decisions that are more freeing. However, we may not because we cannot see (or hear or understand)) that that is what they, too, want for us. These are some of the ways of how we can trip ourselves up and become trapped. A paradox about being social beings is that we defer to others even when that is not in alignment with our inner self. When we repeatedly do so, we establish a pattern that can make it harder and harder to listen to the inner wisdom of intuition because we seek the counsel of others’ voices, even when it drowns our own voice.

For six years of the last decade, I waited for others’ permission to make choices that were mine alone to make. I come from two strands of families, where masculinity was defined as fitting within certain social structures and social orders. The lives of both of my grandfathers looked very different, yet each created families and built professions that placed them in contexts where their choices affected others — at work, in their home, in their extended families. While I cannot know what it was like to be fathers in their time, I reflect upon what their lives were and how they have profound reverberations two generations later.

***

Part of my attraction to this movie is that I was on a path that mimicked the path/s of the primary protagonists. For five years, I had limped along my path, stumbling. My feelings of being unseen and unheard were reaching a peak when I watched this movie. I could see a version of the movie’s storyline playing out in facets of friends’ lives and relationships more easily than in my own life. Yet, it was a story that resonated with me because it was foreboding — even when placed in an entirely different time and place than my own life.

I remember not being able to situate the movie setting the first time I watched the movie. The clothes and cars offered some glimpses, but it was not until I was far into the movie that I understood that this resonated deeply with me even though it was placed some 50 years earlier.

By placing Revolutionary Road in (what I believe is) the 1950s, I am reminded that the midcentury American Dream was not working for plenty of people at that time. Even for the people purportedly benefitting from that Dream, according to the dominant social narratives, which in this story is a white, middle-class, suburban family. The challenges shown in the movie — of responsibility, success, love — are timeless. The pressures to conform span generations; some conditions change with time yet the existential nature of life transcends decades.

At the time, I could not see the parallels to my life (circa 2008 or 2009) when I first saw it. In hindsight, i believe that I could feel a resonance, though. Years later, I now suppose that there will repeatedly be phases in life that can mimic this storyline. We may forever be on a path where forks in the path require that I choose one or the other. There are innumerable instances where I could choose something contrary to my inner self because of collapsing to social (or familial, professional, cultural) pressures. Grappling with the path that I am on and the choices to make may cease only when becoming free.

***

Despite the patterns and shaping that comes with repeating the same action over and over again, I have a delight that a different choice can be made.

One definition of what it means to be human: to suddenly choose something contrary to all the things that one has been prior to now.

For years, I have been astounded by attempts to simplify and therefore deaden what it means to be human. There have been formidable professional and economic pressures that choose systematization over spontaneity. It is core to the economic tenet of specialization, that long term partner of the endless growth demanded by capitalism. This growth is also a reckless growth as it prizes growth over wellbeing. In other terms, it chooses quantity over quality. Such brutal force is not nurturing to countries (pushed to focus on a few cash crops or a few products for export) nor individuals (pushed to repeat the same motion in manufacturing, or to do a segmented piece of work in services of white collar industries). The end result of a forced, narrow focus is the opposite of fulfillment and meaning.

Such brutal force, when seen through an economic lens, would be better described as abuse than specialization. It depletes life, denies flavor, substance and diversity. It trumpets homogeneity in a world that depends on heterogeneity. It squashes life when confining humans to repeated action even though evolving relationships and learning are fundamental to who we are.

Similar pressures and delusions have consumed educational institutions by placing greater value on testing than on learning. This, too, chokes the life out of students, out of learning, and pedagogy. Rather than investing in what gives life and causes us to flourish as humans, policy and budgets are correlated to metrics even though we are not machines. In our attempts to understand and to prove progress, certain elements have chosen false proxies as a way to define who we are and our experience.

Choices are the doorway to liberty.