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Who would choose to be black?
To have dark skin?
Dark brown eyes?
A wide nose?
Or yellow skin?
A round face?
Who would choose this?
If given a choice, if you could go to the store…
And pick out a kid?
Now remember, like every parent, you want your kid to have a happy life.
Successful, easy, fulfilled…
All those things.
So, don’t blonds have more fun?
OK, so those of you who bleach your hair,
Would you choose to have blond kids?
Skip the bleach?
Or, for those who bleach their skin…
Would you tweak your kid’s DNA to give them lighter skin?
Or a more narrow, acauline nose?
Thinner calves and longer legs?
Plumper lips and longer eyelashes?
Or double eye-lids?
An angular jawline?
Would you have a kid that looked like you?
Do you hate yourself so much that if given the choice,
Would you erase you?
There is a race for technology right now…
One that would allow gene editing,
And needless to say, I don’t mean ‘jean’ editing like painting your denim,
Or taking a pair of shears to them, trimming them in places, selectively poking holes in others…
Needless to say, I don’t mean that,
But, ‘genes’ as in genetics,
As in DNA editing.
And not just going to a doctor to choose to have a kid- or not.
And no, I don’t mean going to a medical professional and having them test you and your partner’s blood to see if you both carry the same deteriorating genes.
Did you know that
In some places, if you and your fiancé carry the gene for some diseases, then
The state won’t sanction your relationship.
And no, I don’t mean like your fiancé being of the so-called wrong religion or the same gender.
But what about so-called diseases like Huntington’s Disease?
There are literally a litany of diseases that require better research and funding just to save lives.
And they jailed that doctor in China who gene-edited HIV immunity.
Though clearly more people are willing to pay for a thinner nose than a Sickle Cell test.
But now we have designer babies: Eye color, intelligence and height?
Earwax stickiness can be selected in a lab.
Fertility clinics routinely remove cells from embryos to check for diseases, sex, eye-color…
But you can go to the shop on the corner now, and
Change your hair color, and
On the next corner, you can change boring brown eyes to blue, magenta, hazel…
Anything but boring brown of the majority of the planet, BTW.
I am black.
And in spite of my many other attributes – like my faith, my values or my politics –
These two singular characteristics have uniquely marked my life.
What if I could change these?
Being gay has caused me to doubt my own mother’s love,
Doubt my own allegiance to my community due to open homophobia towards me.
For many, now,
A gay foetus is NOT a viable foetus.
For them, gays are an ugly smear that must be erased.
Gay life is so abhorrent that they cause it harm at every turn…
Eschewing every opportunity god gives them to show compassion.
Would you edit us out of existence?
This Spoken word piece was inspired by watching the TV news with my aunt Shirley. Shout-out to Evelyn from the Internets, because I’m calling in Black tomorrow.
Audience/Reader: Hum, snap, step, clap, sing ‘Another One Bites the Dust’
Newsflash at dawn:
After several overnight reports of disturbances,
Police are on the lookout this morning for a smart negro male,
Accused of bringing up racism and angering the masses.
The suspect is considered armed with intelligence,
and other deadly weapons such as pen and paper.
9 0’clock morning News:
Police are on the lookout for a smart negro male,
Accused of bringing up racism and angering the masses.
Suspect is considered armed with intelligence and other deadly weapons.
The public is advised NOT to approach the suspect,
And notify authorities immediately…
So he can be shot.
News at noon.
Police are on the lookout for a smart negro male,
Accused of bringing up racism and angering the masses.
This station has obtained exclusive video of today’s deadly police shooting captured by a member of the public.
This exclusive footage posted to social media shows the suspect reading a book on colonization, before advising authorities who responded immediately…
When authorities arrived,
Suspect was found holding a book,
Defacing it with pens and markers as officers approached.
This exclusive video captured by several members of the public shows suspect refusing the officers’ orders to release the book.
Suspect is seen raising the book,
At which point officers fired 32 shots,
Twelve of which landed in the suspect’s head.
After anti-terrorist units spent several hours clearing the area of any potential radical activity,
Emergency services were allowed on the scene at which point the suspect was pronounced dead.
Evening news flash:
This station has new, exclusive CCTV footage from the Central Library where the suspect loitered for several hours.
The suspect is captured on several different cameras,
And can even be seen interacting with several members of the public.
An anonymous informant who works for the library claims that the suspect left several notes in the suggestion box, demanding the library, quote:
“…rectify the deafening void of Black autobiographies in the library’s Great American biographies collection.”
The anonymous library informant said that the suspect always sat at the same table near the ‘African-American literature’ section,
And had been seen furiously taking notes while going through stacks of books.
The anonymous informant says that the library received
“Several complaints about these disturbances.”
None of the complainants ever went on record.
News at 5!
This station’s investigations have also uncovered the Central library’s exclusive files on the suspect.
The suspect joined the library on September 11th of 1984 under a student account and a different name. That’s right.
We’ve obtained an exclusive ‘News at 5’ interview with the suspect’s fourth-grade teacher who initially helped the suspect set-up the library account.
The teacher describes the suspect as quote disruptive and “radical to the core,”
The teacher claims that during a history lesson, the suspect once referred to this nation’s founding fathers as “Unpatriotic, patriarchal, racist oligarchs with a God complex.”
Indeed, this suspect has a pattern of radical, anti-American sentiments.
While these troubling incidents were well before the terrible radical Islamic attacks of 9-11,
The pattern suggests early radicalization!
Authorities are still trying to understand why the suspect checked out a Koran,
And other books on Islam,
Just days after those terrible, Islamic attacks.
The suspect visited the library regularly and checked out biographies of other known negro Muslim radicals such as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.
Experts believe that reading these texts lead to the suspect’s radicalization.
From 2006 to 2007,
The suspect checked out every collection of essays by James Baldwin.
This triggered the FBI’s terrorist watch protocols.
Nightly news flash:
New evidence has surfaced regarding today’s tragic case of domestic terrorism.
Authorities have found that the suspect was quote very active
In the known radical hate group Black-and-Proud.
Our investigative reporters have uncovered proof that
The suspect was a key member of this radical hate-group.
Apparently, authorities had infiltrated Black-and-Proud’s on-line forum as early as 2006.
An anonymous police informant closely tied to the case believes that the suspect may have worked within an organized cell within Black-and-Proud.
Authorities are not calling it a terrorist plot,
But are calling on the public for any leads.
This station has obtained exclusive footage of Black-and-proud operatives conducting an indoctrination program for kids as young as five.
In this newly obtained footage from Black-and-Proud’s own website,
The suspect can be seen reading portions of the autobiography of Malcolm X to what looks like a negro kindergarten class.
Authorities are calling it a justified homicide.
Washington Post, July 2016
A Walk in the Park.
Yesterday I decided to go for a walk. The third-largest park in Hanoi sits just across the street from my flat, and by crossing I’d walk right into the central district., heading straight along one large avenue on the other side of the park, I’d hit the old town. Taking another avenue, I’d reach the famed Hoan Kiem Lake. I could even pass the luxury mall along the way, plenty of coffee shops, and a diversity of street-food stalls en route, too. That is how I’d planned to spend this Saturday. But, I got entangled in the park.
During the day there’s plenty of hustle and bustle in the park. As a backdrop, the grounds are meticulously maintained by a large team of workers. There are motorbike parking-lots just inside each entrance, where an attendant is stationed well into the night. Plus, there’s always some tidying up going on, such as blowing leaves, trimming trees, gathering rubbish, and planting. Each dawn and dusk the park fills with patrons doing an array of physical exercises, from running and walking to groups of ladies doing aerobics. There are people fishing, running, gyming, napping, skating, skate-boarding, dog-walking courting, gaming, etc. Periodically, there are a range of festivals in the park, including the vegan fest just a few weeks ago. Late nights, I’ve even seen large-scale fishing with huge nets dredged out by boats across the entire lake.
Two nights ago, I got to see my first Vietnamese chess match. Two older men played while hosts of folks looked on. Sat beneath one of the park’s large lamps, they used a canvas ‘board’ rolled out on the ground, and round chips of wood (plastic?) painted with Chinese characters to mark each position.
There are plenty of tea kiosks and stalls serving everything from fresh coffee and ice-tea to bottled drinks – including beer – and packaged snacks to charcoal roasted sweet potatoes. This only increases with moderate weather throughout the year.
During the day, there’s loads for kids of all ages. There are playground areas for different age groups from toddlers to adults. Heck, there’s an entire set of bright yellow outdoor gym equipment for adults bordering the huge sand playground for the smallest kids. Featured in the park’s online advertisements, there’s a merry-go-round, paddle-boating on the lake, bumper cars and a toy train around the park with stations named after each large Vietnamese city. Day or night, there are generally people wandering. Notably, however, there are always plenty of men and women walking in the park at night even late-night, including women walking alone – a sight I’ve rarely seen in most parts of the world. The park has its own sense of time and it don’t cost a dime.
This Saturday, it was already after 2 o’clock, and I had arranged to meet the B-boys at 7:30 in a corner of the big amphitheater at the center of the park. So, time was limited. It’s a large park and without thinking, I started along my regular walking route, as opposed to heading directly across through town. I was operating on autopilot from my regular after-dinner walks in the park, and turned left when I should have turned right. This detour lasted 4 hours.
My daily walks are awesome. I get to pass a plethora of healthy temptations as this park is an authentic site of sociality and physicality. Schools are closed due to Corona virus so the park was eerily empty the first few days at one point. Now, the park’s chock full of folks.
The first pause at the exercise areas so took a few moments to stretch. My muscles were all aching from my first B-boy tutorial the night before, so this was more of a compulsion. They have two parallel bars that are a great height for Barre. A dancer can’t pass up a good Barre. That lasted another half hour, then I was on the go. Just a few steps away from this exercise area are the hacky sack courts.
The courts were full, so I couldn’t resist catching a few matches. The game fills me with sheer wonder, not least of which due to the athleticism. When the area around the lake in the central district (Hoan Kiem) is pedestrianized on weekends, circles of hacky sackers form in the middle of the wide avenues. There’re typically teens of all ages going ‘round and round. In the park, however, there are courts painted on the ground at many of this park’s nooks and intersections, extending far beyond the biggest collection. The courts allow for a whole host of net games from badminton to volleyball, and of course hacky sack. Though none of the regular players I watch on my morning walks was around, the courts were filled with people of all ages playing doubles or triples. Age is no bar in this game!
After a few matches, I moved on towards town. Along the way, there is a long straight stretch of the park along a major avenue bordering the lake. Where this stretch finally bends, there is another outdoor theater area, complete with a raised stage. Between uses, the stage area houses giant animal sculptures made of plants, which decorate the park during Lunar New Year.
The animal figures are revived annually in rotation. A monkey, snake, rat, dragon, pig, tiger, giraffe and more all stand at least 3X3 meters. Their large bodies are often covered with ever-greens, while the faces and other features are filled in with different coloured/textured plants each year. The large, organic animal sculptures provide a wonderful backdrop for dancing on the stage, but also, they are evidently an apt obstacle course for drones.
Droning is incredible! There were both kids and adults practicing navigating drones using the Virtual Reality head-gear. It was mesmerizing, so I ended up sticking around for nearly an hour. One guy was practicing loops between the giraffe’s legs, then free-falling over the surrounding high canvas of trees. A little girl was using a visually controlled drone. Whew!
Time was ticking, so I decided to give it a go and at least make it to the nearest coffee shop to sit and write. I continued on my way along the shortest route towards town and along the way, were more courts, two large rectangles painted on the ground. In passing, I approached 3 boys playing badminton on another court. One of them, the shortest, approached me holding out a racket and birdie, as if to say: Wanna play? Why not, I thought, how often does one get the chance? Then, the little dude placed the racket on the bench atop the others and gestured towards them for me to choose. I hadn’t played this game in decades.
At first, the short dude and I played while the other two watched; after displaying my lack of skill, I gestured for the others to join in. We played doubles for a while, again, my first time in decades. What surprised me was the level of instruction each boy offered me. As we played, my teammate would call at me, then demonstrate different ways to serve. Our teams even swapped players, my new teammate offering more pointers. There were no rules and we didn’t keep score; the objective was to keep the birdie in play. We all laughed at each other’s mistakes and cheered at each one’s wins. When I passed a group of adults playing on the next court, I was reminded that I am a genuine amateur!
Badminton is a popular game here. At the very moment that I am writing, I am sitting on one of the concrete benches just eyeshot from my exit towards town. The benches encircle one of many large gazebos in the park, where a family has just shown up and set up a net. I didn’t even notice that there were three courts painted around the gazebo. Two older guys quickly get a match going, and on the other court two women get warmed up, while 4 kids play under the gazebo. Then, the older woman hits the birdie back-n-forth with the smallest kid, while on another court, the younger woman plays doubles with the other three kids. Now, a middle-aged man approaches with more rackets in tow. He quickly puts down his bag, strips off his jacket, grabs his racket and jumps in the match. Others filter in and eventually all the courts and benches are full.
By then, I was at another cross-roads. I had eaten up nearly all my time. How could I have spent the whole day in the park? Now, I barely had time to eat, as the B-boys said that I should do so at least 2 hours before practice. I headed home, had a beef Pho along the way, dropped off my backpack, and got changed to go back to the park and dance!
Outside of ecumenical discussions, far too little is said about the subject of happiness. This is a drawback of western secularism, as discussed below. In the world of work, Occupational Health and Leadership have taken up this mantle, yet still only manage to approximate happiness through measurable factors that contribute to increasing satisfaction and decreasing dissatisfaction (i.e. Herzberg’s 2-Factor Theory). Taking Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs into greater account, that understanding eventually incorporated terms such as wellbeing. Yet, again, outside of ‘continuing professional development’ aimed at improving workplace efficiency and effectiveness, far too few resources seem devoted to higher needs such as belonging, esteem and self-actualisation.
Those management terms all circle back to mindfulness, to personal empathy and the ability of both the individual and environment to foster dialogue in order to transform conflict. Be it conflicts or differences in needs/wants between co-workers – or across the bargaining table – the ability to communicate and find common ground is increasingly the skill that distinguishes human talents from Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Now, at least, there is a greater focus on developing so-called ‘soft skills’. This trend responds to our failure to contend with an increasing reliance on, and addiction to technology. What’s more, still, as technology increasingly supplants entire portfolios of routine management duties, how will future workplaces valorise empathy within known matrices?
How do we teach students the value of happiness, the practice of compassion and the skills for effective communication, negotiation and conflict resolution? In so far as leading culturally diverse workforces, the research is as clear as a prayer bell: Innovation requires dialogue – actual talk between equals. Innovation is therefore built on collaboration. Collaboration requires cooperation. Cooperation requires commitment. Commitment cultivates inclusion. Inclusion fosters commitment. Commitment depends on trust-building. Trust-building requires dialogue. Cooperation must be practiced and rehearsed, in addition to celebrated and applauded. We are effectively teaching how to work within a community. Those tools must play the greater part of management toolkit, over and well-over more punitive means of enforcing compliance to rules.
“I’m not here to be your friend.”
Those are words I hope no one would ever hear neither in the classroom from educators, nor in the workplace from managers. It implies the speaker’s inability to distinguish friendliness from being friends. It is indeed a thin line. Social media interactions with colleagues have virtually erased that line – at least re-drawn it. Irregardless – as we say in Kentucky for emphasis – kindness matters! I genuinely pity those who have not learned kindness at home or school; it’s traumatic.
In order to collaborate, to genuinely work together, requires some level of friendliness, beyond cordiality. It is irrational to lead through control and project the image of being in control through distant, dispassionate unfriendliness. BTW, the notion of dispassionate rationality and objectivity have been historically valorized academia even when it was clear.
I would not be the first university student to observe (though lacking the skills to explain): “The professors who prided themselves on their capacity to be objective were most often those who were directly affirmed in their caste, class, or status position” (hooks, 2003: 128). Their inability to connect, acknowledge and come to peace with their own emotionality and spirituality. “At times objectivism in academic settings is a smokescreen, masking disassociation (ibid: 129). Objectivity is a crutch:
“Denying the emotional presence and wholeness of students may help professors who are unable to connect focus more on the task of sharing information, facts, data, their interpretations, with no regard for listening to and hearing from students. (ibid: 129).”
The smoke and mirrors masks a pain so cutting so deep that skilled educators carve it out of their work, and further discourage it in peers and students. Sadly, I believe that managers have been taught to operate under the same logic. Hurt people hurt people.
Hurt people hurt people.
Today, we’re better able to acknowledge the maturity needed to reveal both one’s strengths and weaknesses – including with subordinates. The key skill is emotional flexibility and consequentially, the ability to seek and offer support. Failing to do so reduces opportunities for team members’ whole-hearted contributions of knowledge and skills. While it is still professional to keep some amount of distance between one’s private and personal lives, social media is a typical example of how those norms no longer apply. Yeah, it’s weird if you’re not Facebook friends with at least some of your colleagues.
What are responsible ways to use one’s public image that aligns with our own personal ambitions and goals? This was simply NOT an area of thinking in the classroom prior to social media. Yet, ‘bullying’ is a relatively modern concept brought to light by the LGBTQ community response to the suicide of a university student as a result of cyber-bullying because he was gay.
In 2010, Tyler Clementi, a first-year university student in America, was secretly filmed being intimate with another man by his roommate and a mutual friend, (or so he believed). The two colluded to threaten to out Clementi in what they all knew as a homophobic (university) environment. This resulted in Clementi’s suicide. Imagine such blackmail, bullying and harassment at work! What skills should the educational environments have provided Tyler and his roommates?
The response from the queer community was clear: Hope. For example, activist/journalist Dan Savage launched an internet campaign that encouraged LGBTQ+ youth, which was picked up by mainstream media outlets and entertainment. The #ItGetsBetter campaign quickly amasses hundreds of posts by celebrities of all flavors to combat anti-gay bullying. Things did get better. We put bullying on the map! Be it work or school, bullying is no longer tolerated…at least formally.
Yet, what of genuine happiness, not just survival? While I can’t speak for every faith, the notion of happiness if central to Buddhist philosophy. “The gratification of desire is not happiness,” writes Buddhist teacher Daisaku Ikeda in his 2017 essay collection, Hope is a Decision. What’s more, individual happiness is tied to our interconnectivity. The Soka Gaikkai, a global Buddhist organisation mentored by Ikeda, operates under the slogan “World peace through individual happiness” to acknowledge the interconnectivity of both humanity as a whole, and the place of happiness with the broader objective of peace.
Seen one way, happiness is neatly balanced at the tip of the pyramid of needs, and its inverse: wants and desires. For clarity: While adults may scoff when a teenager says they “need” the latest iPhone or they’ll ‘die’ we responsibly know that those youthful aches and pains are as real to them as any physical trauma one might suffer. We know that showing up at school with the latest cool gadget has as much to do with the higher-order needs for them as we may wish them to perceive their basic needs such as food, shelter and security. Hence, the parenting task becomes one of teaching skills to contextualise such desires and value delayed gratification.
These lessons are too often relegated to parenting due to the secularisation of schooling and workplaces in the west. Western secularism often fails to distinguish religion from spirituality, to the detriment of the latter since we remain staunchly Christian societies, especially to the extent of chauvinism when faced with an ‘other’. Any non-Christian in the west can see the secularism is superficial – even Stevie Wonder can see that. Echoing her own call for greater attention to spirituality in secular education bell hooks quotes HH Dalai Lama’s thoughts in the need for the distinction in the second installment of her seminal teaching trilogy:
Spirituality I take to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit—such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony—which brings happiness to both self and others. … (hooks, ‘Spirituality in Education’ in Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, 2003 pg. 157-164)
Makes place in and around the classroom. As a lecturer, I am a coach, guide, mentor, leader and have even befriended students (particularly after their graduations). One primary aim and source of satisfaction in the classroom is facilitating values-based dialogue across differences in perspectives. My role is not just to dump selective parts of my knowledge into students’ heads, nor simply to train certain skills. Nay, we’re always teaching how to live in a diverse community.
To get more in-formation:
- hooks, bell. Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.
- Ikeda, Daisaku (2017). Hope Is a Decision: Selected Essays. Middleway Press. ISBN 978-0-9779245-8-5.
In my Sabbatical year spent here in Vietnam, it would be disingenuous NOT to speak about the Coronavirus. Without being hyperbolic, this is a crisis of every proportion. Here are a few of my observations.
Today it was reported that the Whistle-blower, Dr. Li Wenliang, died of the virus. At the epicentre, Chinese health officials initially claimed the virus would peak and subside within a week’s time. There are claims that those predictions were made due to reticence to pass bad news up the political chain. Undoubtedly, we will celebrate him as a hero, for his efforts to alert the world while Corona was just an epidemic. For context: This same week, one of my state’s senators outed the whistle-blower who originally brought to light the massive corruption of the current White House occupant who was just acquitted. At the same time, in the middle of the (illegal) trade war between these two nations, Chinese health officials reference American health standards to legitimize their efforts to control this pandemic on the international stage – not the W.H.O. If my head weren’t spinning from all this news, then certainly even I am suspicious of my every cough or sneeze to the level of paranoia. Or, perhaps this pseudo-medical mask I am wearing is just rather annoyingly pinching my ears.
Sitting on the ground, people are handling it reasonably well. That is to say, no one is running around screaming or losing their heads. Logistically, the virus could hardly have come at a better time. The city was already emptied out by those who had returned home to celebrate the Lunar New year, known in Vietnam as Tet. The weekend folks were set to return, orders came from on high to close all educational institutions, due to the obvious fact that classrooms huddle groups of people into close, closed quarters – infection heaven. Heck, classrooms are built as fertile grounds! Morally, it’s the exact opposite: What an unsettling ending to the region’s most festive season!
Worse still, there is a travel ban from China, while estimating that “Chinese visitors comprised almost 30 percent of the approximate 15.5 million international travelers who arrived in either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City last year and translated into $30 billion from both the domestic and international market.” Who really can imagine the wider economic impact!?!
On my sabbatical, I am working in the language centre of a partner institution of my home university in the UK, which I got to know in my role as Senior Lecturer in International Business. Here, my desk is merely 15 feet away from the customer service desks where students come to register from the language classes, or any one of the ESL tests they must pass to graduate. Basically, at some point, every student at this university must come into this office. Additionally, we are a regional German-language testing centre, garnishing many folks from China (recall that travel ban!). While there are usually 6-7 ladies manning the kiosks, only two to three were called in the first few days to address students’ needs. Now, each day there is only one. Yesterday afternoon, it was announced again that all educational institutions would be closed for yet another week. Since I know that only a few of my colleagues are from Hanoi and are here with their parents, I suppose most of these ladies are home looking after their kids. I cannot imagine how other parents without grandparents nearby are dealing with this crisis.
A colleague told me last week that universities always reserve time within the term for such contingencies, but I imagine two full weeks of cancelled classes is a stretch. Certainly, my concerns have shifted towards the graduating seniors this term. Then, there are also the hourly-paid language teachers our/any centre hires. What about their labour? What’s more, our university is huge and sits next to at least 3 more universities, not to mention the 3 pre-schools I pass on my walk home. Again, all primary, secondary and tertiary schools are all closed for a second week after Tet. There are over 30,000 students, lecturers and staff. My husband has a similar gig down the road which boasts many, many more.
There are entire food and transportation economies woven around all these campuses. Most visibly, there are a host of corporate café chains, as well as typically Hanoian tea-stalls and street-food kiosks selling fast-food ranging from variations of noodle soups, to anything that can be deep-fried, steamed or cooked over a charcoal fire. Naturally, this Kentuckian spends way too much time at the grilled chicken lady. She does feet, as well as drumsticks and wings which she stretches out onto skewers and serves with hot sauce (so there’s no need to carry any in my bag). Most of these food outlets closed for Tet, but many simply have not re-opened since. The few that are open are virtually empty, save for the few pedestrians and commuters passing by, or the motorbike taxis that station themselves around each entrance to the campus alongside the tea-stalls. At least apparently, their persistence offers moral support, though it is possible that economically, there ain’t enough business between them. Enough?
Since the outbreak, I’ve regularly received text messages from the Ministry of Health, as has been widely reported in global media. The messages are in Vietnamese, which Google translates in 1-click just by copying the text. This is all –perhaps strangely- reassuring. No, it is very reassuring. The same messages are also sent straight to my phone via regionally popular chat programs such as Zalo. ‘Google Translate’ is integrated into that programme, too, like a virus. There, MoH’s chat messages include links to extended articles, especially details on how individuals can protect themselves, plus further info such as: “All hospitaliszation costs, medications, and testing costs for nCOV-positive patients are free.” There are layers of ways of spreading knowledge about the impact of potential outbreaks of disease, especially since SARS. It’s refreshing to see social media used so purposefully.
The streets are vacuous and quiet. Ordinarily, Hanoi is a loud, crowded, motorbike ridden city, so this peace is…(sigh)…morbid. Again, there are no visible signs of panic on the streets. It’s lunchtime here in the office. While I was engulfed in writing this blog-post, everyone else has quietly slipped away. This is the first time that I find myself alone in this building. All I hear are birds chirping outside, and a few horns blowing in the distance. The parking lot is empty. I’m going home.
Now that folks have returned to their normal lives, and the Christmas credit card bills have arrived, let’s reflect on the reason for the season. To get you in the mood, the writer suggests listening to Stevie Wonder’s Someday at Christmas alongside this read; lyrics included here.
Someday at Christmas men won’t be boys
Playing with bombs like kids play with toys
Today’s divisions are so profound, and illiberal tribalism runs so deep, that I believe only art can speak to them – they not hearing me when people like me speak. I’m clearly not an illiberal tribe member, and as soon as I open my mouth, my ‘proper’ American English is dismissed alongside the liberal elite media, Hollywood, etc. The tribe dismisses us, I surmise, due to our training and faith in the transformative power of critical thinking.
“If Republicans ran on their policy agenda alone,” clarifies one article from a prominent liberal magazine, “they would be at a disadvantage. So they have turned to a destructive politics of white identity, one that seeks a path to power by deliberately dividing the country along racial and sectarian lines.” This is lit-er-ally happening right now as the presidential impeachment hearings follows party-not-morality lines. Conservatives are voting along their tribe to support the so-called leader of the free world. Are they free?
Words like ‘diversity’ sound threatening to today’s illiberal thinkers. Those who tout PC-culture as going too far may as well go ahead and admit that they are anti-evolution! Those who denounce implicit racial bias have little to say about any form of racism, save for its so-called ‘reverse’. Those who would rather decry ‘feminism’ as man-hating have little to say about actual misogyny. Yet, it is the liberal candidate/leader/thinker who is held to a higher standard. Are we free?
Someday in a world where men are free
Maybe not in time for you and me
But someday at Christmastime
We are in an era of supreme conservative/illiberal tribalism. That’s the unique We are in an era of supreme conservative/illiberal tribalism. That’s the unique ties that bind America’s 45, to Britain’s BJ to Germany’s AFD, France’s infamous National Front (now in its second generation), Italy’s Lega Nord, Austria’s FPO– yes, the F is for ‘freedom’- all the way to India’s leading Islamaphobe. Let’s not forget Poland’s tiki-torch bearing PiS party that filthy-up the European Parliament joined by their brethren from Denmark to Estonia to Belgium and beyond.
Illiberal tribes are tricking masses of those inside cultures of power into voting against their own interests. This is not, as many commentators have noted, to suggest that their so-called liberal alternatives are virtuous. Of course not, but it’s clear that masses can be motivated through fear of the other, whereas organizing around widening the pool of cooperation and humane concern is simply not sexy.
Someday at Christmas there’ll be no tears
All men are equal and no men have fears
Today’s brand of conservatism is an entire illiberal ethic that clearly must be cultivated from birth. Either you get it, or you don’t. Imagine the folks they’re turning against, and tuning out in order to hold onto those values. Imagine the teacher, friend, colleague, schoolmate, neighbour of ‘foreign’ origin that a Brexiteer must wipe away from their consciousness in order to support the anti-EU migration that fueled the campaign. The ability to render folks as ‘other’ is not an instantaneous predicament. It’s well cultivated like a cash crop, say cotton, cane or tobacco! Going to the ballot box to support bigots can’t be an easy feat when we’re literally surrounded by the type of diversity we seek to eliminate.
Someday at Christmas man will not fail
Hate will be gone love will prevail
There are those who voted for Brexit under some false notion of British independence, despite clear and present evidence of British inter-dependence. Perhaps no nation has been more inter-dependent on its neighbors and former colonies than the British Isles. Yet this illiberal disease is global. Imagine the rich diversity of the Indian sub-continent, yet look squarely at the Hindu nationalism sweeping India right now (as if the Taj Mahal weren’t a global treasure that just happens to have a few mosques on board). Plus, I’m not the first to point out that the Jesus racists celebrate was Jewish and spent most of his life in what we now call the Arab world. No nativity scene without foreigners!
Maybe not in time for you and me
But someday at Christmastime
‘Someday at Christmas’ was written in 1967 for Stevie Wonder, then a 17-year-old bulwark of Motown. Wonder wasn’t yet writing all his songs, yet he was already introduced as the ‘Profit of Soul’. In 1980, he sang: “Why has there never been a holiday, yeah/Where peace is celebrated,” in a song aimed at getting Reagan to declare Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. Wonder won. Happy MLK day!
Naturally, looking back we have to wonder if one could have predicted the impact Wonder would soon have on American music. He’d dominate pop music once he set out on his own, set his fingers to funk instead of pop, and began to bare his soul.
Someday at Christmas we’ll see a Man
No hungry children, no empty hand
One happy morning people will share
Our world where people care
In the summer of ‘67, Wonder’d released another record, I Was Made to Love Her, featuring plenty of his infamous harmonica solos. ‘Someday at Christmas’ was released four years before the other most infamous Christmas message song, John Lennon’s War Is Over. SMH, I get goose-bumps hearing a kids’ chorus sing melancholically “War is over/If you want it.” Much of the world was at war then, struggling to comprehend the incomprehensible devastation meted out on the tiny southeast Asian nation of Vietnam, from where I pen this piece – a virtuoso clash of titans. It’s not surprising that those two troubadours began their careers in popcorn pop, yet had to leave the genre to deliver their most potent, fiercest messages.
Motown was decisively a Popular music machine, specifically crafted to appeal to the wider/whiter masses. Motown steered clear away from ‘message’ songs, a real keel in the heal of the likes of Stevie, Marvin Gaye and eventually Michael Jackson. Each of those Motown troubadours has penned plenty of songs of freedom and ecology, and the ethical interdependence between the two. Those guys must be liberals. Ugh!
Pt. 1: Somewhere Over the Rainbow
There’s country music blasting from the speakers in this restaurant, and the young woman serving me has such a twang, you’d think she’s about to sing…her own rendition of Achy Breaky Heart.
The waitress calls me ‘Sweetie’ though she’s clearly half my age.
I’d much rather be called ‘sweetie’ than sir, not that I’m ashamed of being middle-aged.
I appreciate coming back down south and feeling this cosy feeling from virtually everyone I meet. Plus she’s sincere, too. I can see that the staff here are mixed, and yet I have this burning feeling that there’s more here than meets the eye.
In this part of the country, we pride ourselves on our gentile ways. For years I’ve wondered if this is just how we southerners learned to cope with an excessively violent past.
My grandparents fled from here in the 40’s, just after the war, so terrorized were they of establishing a life of dignity outside the cotton fields they plucked as kids. Now, there is a localised justice initiative to mark the numerous racial hate crimes known as lynching.
The initiative has an eerie collection of jars filled with actual soil from (known) lynching sites. There’s at least one of these large pickle jars full-o-dirt from every county in this state alone. You know it’s Bama, too; there’s so much of that familiar chalky, red clay that’s still all around us. Dirt so red, you now wonder if it’s ferrous or blood!
Notoriously, lynching is NOT a practice of the antebellum south, for black labour was far too valuable to just maim, torture and burn up black bodies like what’s done in these heinous hate crimes then.
I know not every white person down here is a descendant of slave-holders, slave-drivers or slave-catchers. Many may have never owned a single slave, yet…
Yet, any white person down here benefits from white-skin-privilege. Even white immigrants have famously fallen into line, capitalising on the slave economy, commoditizing King Cotton in one way or another. Not only Stevie Wonder, but even Wikipedia can see that.
The Wiki history entry of the in-famous commodities firm Lehman Brothers’ opens dryly like this: “In 1844, 23-year-old Henry Lehman, the son of a Jewish cattle merchant, emigrated to the United States from Rimpar, Bavaria. He settled in Montgomery, Alabama, where he opened a dry-goods store…”
Henry’s brothers came over within a few years – legally, supposedly – and thus began the in-famous firm. The brothers quickly saw that the farmers were rich during harvest and broke when it came time to plant. The dry-goods store quickly began accepting raw cotton as a form of payment. They hoarded cotton when it was plentiful and cheap, selling it when stocks drew low; economics running counter-cyclical to farm life. Did it matter to the brothers that the cotton was produced by slaves?
The brothers opened their first branch in NYC in 1858. That’d be New Yawk ‘fore the Northern War of aggression, y’all. Their firm dug so deep into the commodities trading economy that the youngest Lehman brother’s son, Herbert, was eventually a senator, 4-time governor of New York, and among other accolades is quoted in the current US passports espousing the value of immigrants to the nation’s roots and success. Lehman Brothers’ 2008 bankruptcy has been called “the biggest corporate failure in history!”
Did you know there are entire regions of the United Kingdom that evolved on the back of King Kotton as a commodity? Manchester, “famed as the world’s first industrial city,” was nicknamed Cottonopolis. The Industrial Revolution was fuelled by slavery! Ironically, the liberation of one group of people depended upon the enslavement of another. His-story should tell both sides, else it’s a damn lie. Did you know those cotton mill workers were sent aid by the Union government when the Civil War curtailed these cheap exports?
But anyone down south was in one way or another entangled in the slave economy as much as all of us today can’t have a smartphone free of labour and land exploitation. The fact that I may never see a child mining tin in Indonesia, or set sights on bonded labourers toiling away for cobalt in the Congo, does not admonish me and my gadgetry from any responsibility to do better.
So, the pleasantries that we southerners find necessary are well-crafted ways of disarming one another from a past filled with mass artilleries in everyday life.
I am a Black son of the south.
Free from these chains, I hasten to think what life was like for my grandparents. Armed with their southern draws, having actually grown up cultivating the region’s cash crops, what life could they possibly have imagined for themselves as adults there?
What I do know, however, and I’ve heard this from my own elders, is that while they couldn’t imagine a future there for themselves, they did dream of that vision for us.
And so, here I am living my life…somewhere. Over the rainbow.
“The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy”
bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom.
Many of my students have never felt safe at school. I know because I ask. Early in my career, this thread of inquiry was prompted by students’ guardedness and/or surprise that I encourage dialogue, including debate and dissent. I insist that we all listen and endeavor to appreciate our distinct voices. I demonstrate that personal experience is as valuable as ‘book knowledge’ when both are subjected to criticality. This is distinct from the conventional objectiveness and alleged neutrality that we now know as universalising whiteness, maleness, bourgeois values (e.g. hooks, 1994: 16). If they hadn’t known, my students quickly learn what it means to bring the whole self into the classroom.
Many fellow educators have never known a classroom where teachers build a community of “mutual engagement,” through what bell hooks calls “radical openness” (1994: 205). I am frustrated that rather than transform, they opt to re-instantiate the dominance/subordination of conventional pedagogy. This dynamic “often creates a context where the student is present in the classroom to serve the will of the professor, meeting his or her needs, whether it be the need for an audience… or the need to assert dominance over subordinated students” (hooks, 2003: 91). This is intellectual sadomasochism (hooks, 2000: 165).
Unsurprisingly, that conventional banking’ model “where students are regarded merely as passive consumers” still receives credence in bureaucratic institutions worldwide (hooks, 1994: 40). Like abused children, many are eager to uphold that status quo due to “their cathected feelings for those adults” who were otherwise meant to care (hooks, 2000: 49).
Safe(r) in school
I have always liked school. From the memories I (now) select to represent the institution to me, it has always been a safe space of ‘radical openness’. The irony, of course, is that to love a place with integrity, one must know its opposite: I have experienced both love and terror within the classroom. I knew both by the time I was 6.
I continue to teach because I earnestly believe the classroom is the most radical space on the planet. It is the one space where there seems universal agreement that humans must grow. There is universal agreement that classrooms SHOULD be safe, though clearly there is no agreement on how that safety should be met. For example, I first realised I was gay inside a classroom, accepted it in another, and understood both its potential destructive and transformative implications in yet others.
In first grade, I had a crush on a guy named Freddie and a girl named Renée. In retrospect, I realised I wanted Freddie to like me the way that all the boys seemed to like Renée – the lightest-skinned black girl with the longest, bone-straight hair. Gay, right?
In 7th grade, when I was 12, I had two clear epiphanies during two separate chorus classes. First, an older classmate mocked my speech pattern as ‘gay’ to which I retorted: “Just because I talk proper doesn’t mean I’m gay.” He was one of the star basketballers on our school’s team; everyone looked up to him and laughed at his jokes. At that moment, it was hurtful and confusing. Crucially, however, that same classmate seamlessly continued to treat me like a little brother, and we grew even closer over the years. Teasing was his only means of discussing alternate masculinities. Typical jock, right?
Shortly thereafter, when our beloved chorus teacher went on maternity leave, her replacement was an effeminate Black man – what Brits call ‘camp’. Unlike our other teachers, he never said anything about his life outside the classroom – this was the Bible Belt in the 80’s. Yet, there was an immediate cathartic sense of identification that still warms me. I distinctly recall working out in my 12-year-old head that not only my school, but my state’s school system had to have approved of this individual. I was for the first time seeing someone like me ‘in the world’. Years later when I bumped into him at ‘the club’ I thanked him for his service. Representation matters!
That summer I participated in an enrichment program on the university campus where my parents and godparents all met one another. During one class, the guest speaker concluded his motivational talk by mocking an effeminate man who’d come to meet him after another talk. It was unclear why campiness had suddenly become the topic, so I asked a question to quickly change the subject. As the speaker began his response, another student muttered loudly “you’re talking to one right now”. No one came to my defense, including me. I couldn’t believe that a room full of kids and adults had allowed such a hateful slur. I felt terrified, yet held my tears for the bus ride home.
Such incidents at 12 years old convinced me of two things: 1) The classroom is the safest space for radical openness, and 2) I had to leave Kentucky, as George Michael sang in Flawless: “You know you’re wasted here, wasted here/And there ain’t no miracles happening any time soon.”
I am an exile, yet at home everywhere else in the world where there is a classroom. Students generally appreciate my honesty and willing openness about my life’s journey. As educators, we tend to forget that unless challenged, students somehow believe that we were born like this – as fully formed teachers. Share your journey; it allows them to map their own.
For more inFormation
– (1994) Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.
– (2000) All About Love: New Visions. New York: William Marrow and Co.
– (2003) Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Routledge.