The post from Dr Bernice King is a sobering reminder of her father’s assassination 52 years ago in Memphis Tennessee
There are three things that run through my head as I sit with that.
He died in solidarity with sanitation workers
The Memphis sanitation workers were on strike to protest inhumane working conditions — two fellow workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker had been crushed to death inside of a garbage truck.
Sanitation workers in your city are putting themselves at extraordinary risk providing key services while a pandemic is going on. Healthcare workers too. What are the conditions under which they work where you live? Do they have the right to strike for adequate pay and healthcare? Are they afforded the protections that they need to stay alive and well?
He died calling for an end to poverty
During 1967, Dr. King had focused attention on an idea called The Poor People’s Campaign. Among it’s objectives were to provide everyone with the right to a basic guaranteed income. The idea being that in crises, no one should be forced into poverty. No one should have to live in poverty. The idea being that a country in which inequality has become so extreme is simply unjust.
Why can’t the US still come to account for these disparities after 52 years?
He knew that the power really lay with the people
Martin Luther King and the thousands of others who struggled with him marched, took blows, and sometimes died for causes that the mainstream politicians of both US political parties disparaged. He was despised and the subject of contempt and harassment by leaders in both parties. This didn’t stop him.
There is more to the struggle for human dignity that presidential elections. He and others demonstrated the power of collective action, of non-violence, of persistent action in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
It is indeed a dark time. Right now the devastation in a fragile healthcare and social system expose the persistent inequalities that Dr King died fighting. As his daughter remarks, “The evils he opposed then still exist now”.
That he and others like him were able to make incredible strides gives me hope.
On the first morning of Black History Month, 2020, an infant’s stroller faces a towering obelisk erected a century ago by white supremacists. Over a hundred years ago in 1908, confederate army veterans had constructed this object to venerate the Confederate States of America and mark the ascendence of white supremacist state governments throughout the South.
Off to the side of the image, the child’s parents discuss a historic marker that explains the racist history of the statue. The statue dwarfs the marker. I heard the child’s mother explaining (perhaps to friends or parents) the point of the smaller counter marker off to the side. The child’s parents are white as are the group of their friends gathered around the marker.
I took the photo during a morning run two weeks ago. I’ve been struggling to come to terms with what this image says for two weeks.
Are you as shook by this image as I am?
Why does Georgia, the South, the US still feel the need to pollute its public spaces in this way?
Some context, in case you need it
Over a hundred years ago, the hard won freedoms of Black people across the U.S. lay in shambles. A Civil War had been fought, over half a million soldiers had died, the Confederate States economy based upon human trafficking and forced labor (i.e. slavery) had ended. In a brief period of no more than 20 years after the Civil War, African Americans had tasted self determination and been allowed a partial sample of democracy. Yet starting in the mid-1870’s, their former unapologetic enslavers had again regained control of government, and consolidated a hold on national political power in the U.S. that would be unchecked for another century. These reactionaries led campaigns of terror on African American communities with the approval of the U.S. government, denying Black folk access to basic human rights. This was the world into which by great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents had been born into. I sometimes think of my grandfather’s grandfather, a Black Civil War veteran who had witnessed this arc of terror: from enslavement, a struggle against tyranny, to freedom; only to end his life little more than a slave.
In an act of brazen self-affirmation, one of these terrorist organizations, a group of Confederate Veterans formed by Clement A Evans erected a monument to the lost cause (perhaps then not so lost) of a racial state. My mother used to speak of how the Klan would hold rallies near this artifact, on their way to rallies at Georgia’s Stone Mountain (site of another racist edifice).
Over the last ten years, there have been renewed efforts to remove the monuments to the white supremacy state, reinvigorated by the need to respond to the tragedies of the Charleston Church Massacre the Charlottesville Rally. Memorials like the National Memorial for Peace and Justice provide examples of what a reconciliation process would look like. But these efforts in the state of Georgia have hit a roadblock — state law prohibits the removal of Lost Cause monuments. The NAACP, the Atlanta History Center, and other organizations of conscience have responded with efforts to contextualize these structures.
The marker that is next to the obelisk is one of the first attempts by Black people in Georgia to contextualize the Civil War monuments so pervasive in the South.
What’s wrong with keeping confederate monuments — they’re history?
I struggle to understand why anyone would want to preserve a monument to white supremacy in a public space with significant Black population.
What do you think?
I’ve heard it said (even by Black folk) that these markers are “history”, and that removing them amounts to “erasing history”.
If you think about it, this monument and others like it are not markers that identify significant events in the Civil War, or regional history: there are markers around Atlanta that described the Civil War battles, markers where Black churches were burned, markers where student lead sit-ins de-segregated restaurants. Rather this one and others like it, venerate The Lost Cause — no not the prospect of the Falcons winning a Superbowl — but the notion that there was a redeeming value in the Confederate States of America, a government created for the express purpose of maintaining a racist economic system built upon the mass enslavement, exploitation, and dehumanization of African Americans. The Lost Cause formed the ideological basis for the Klu Klux Klan and other terrorist organizations as well as of the governments that ruled the South. If you think about it, this “monument” and others like amount to a huge dis-information campaign. It is not history, it is anti-history.
This marker and it’s protection feels like a cause for concern on several levels: it was created by early 20th century racists to venerate the racist government of the 19th century; and it continues to be protected by a 21st century state government, thus reifying the support of a racial power hierarchy. It is a monument to the persistence of the racial state.
But what does it mean today?
But Georgia is different now that it was 100 years ago.
The U.S. representative for this area is Black, the city council of Decatur is diverse. My aunt, who moved to Decatur in the 1970’s remarks on how amazing it is that the space is now truly multiracial, almost overwhelmed with joy that the confederate vestiges are now being challenged. Most of the police officers I encounter any given day near the monument are Black. How would the confederate generals react knowing that episodes of the HBO series The Watchmen — whose lead is a Black woman and whose plot references a white supremacist terror attack in Oklahoma — is filmed feet from the site of the statue? As I drop by son off to the school near the state capital complex, I see staff and legislators that are a diverse representation of a state in which Black and Brown people comprise 40% of the population. Atlanta ranks as the third in the U.S. in terms of population that self-identify as LGBTQ. Georgia is sixth in terms of undocumented people. It is a diverse state, and further a state in which people of color have a say in government — Stacy Abrams, a Black woman, lost the most recent governors race by 1% of the vote.
So, things are changing. Is it enough simply to let “things take their course”?
Imagining a space for truth and healing
The dialog that took place between the child’s parent and friends is critical to building a livable future. I wish that I had stopped and asked her:
As a white person looking at this, how do you feel? Do you feel outrage, shame, indifference? What should be done?
It is dialog that makes “memorials” like this pertinent, relevant. We need ways to address the pain inherited from the past; naming the problems that we face today; and a starting point for calling the future we want into being.
What other ways are there to move forward?
In public spaces like this, once dominated by racism and centering oppression, a few ideas have come to mind.
What if the guides giving tours of the city were taught how to reframe and refocus away from the white settler oriented perspective currently given?
What if the city provided a Land Acknowledgement template for conferences and conventions that paid homage to the Indigenous guardians and first people of the land?
What if we made possible barcodes that allowed visitors to understand how the labor of the enslaved had contributed to the building of the city?
That there are so many spaces in the South that are beginning to peel back the layers of pain and silence is encouraging. A space to hear the stories of the still living elders that experienced terror first hand, a space to talk and come to terms with a path forward. It will require imagination and courage.
Imagining a future for our children
It’s easy to imagine that the child sitting in the carriage will witness the removal of the Lost Cause monument and others like it. It’s easy to imagine a future in which this same child is taught history in grade school that centers the stories of the Indigenous, LatinX, and Black people that are so central to the history and future of this county.
This outcome is not inevitable. Countries come to terms with their past inequity through engagement with it — we cannot wish a world into existence, maintaining it once we have it will be difficult. The past is still present for Black people in persistent health, education, and economic disparities. The past is present in persistent anti-Black policing. The past is present not that far from my doorstep. We have fully not excised these ghosts in white sheets.
I want to gift build a world for that child in which they would hold the racially just society as fundamental as air; in which that child would understand the crimes of the past and see as fundamental to their humanity to guard against it. Georgia and the other states in the South could be a birthing ground for a generation for which anti-racism is life. This world will not come from silence.
Joyce Earl, my mother, left this world in her purple room at home surrounded by the people and things that she’d spent a lifetime building. Ultimately that is what we each aspire to — at the end of it all, a reminder of what our lives have meant.
The Color Purple was the last movie that I remember seeing on “the big screen” with her. I was reminded of that a few days ago as my family sat looking at reruns of Fresh Off the Boat. The music brought back memories — fuzzy at first and then like the opening scene of a movie, the memory went from an impressionist canvas to sharp focus.
I have been thinking of how the medical system treats Black women — no I have been enraged at how the medical system in the U.S. kills its most valuable, precious, dear, treasure — the Black women who have held the people of this land to account since their arrival. Calling out that crime demands its own essay, but the important thing here is that in The Color Purple, Alice Walker gives the main character, Celie these words
I curse you. Until you do right by me everything you think about is gonna crumble!
It took me until now to understand who Alice Walker was speaking to. It took me until now to put together as I saw the indifference my mother received from white doctors, nurses against the love and recognition that she received from Black nurses. The Color Purple, among other things is an indictment of a viciously corrupt system.
I was obsessed during those last days that she hold a flower. I brought her a purple orchid. My how she was able to make orchids bloom year to year.
At Automattic, I work in a group that frequently uses natural language processing (NLP) — a kind of artificial intelligence (AI) — that tries to understand text. We have used NLP for suggesting domain names, to tag some support interactions, and to understand the different verticals that our customers build sites for.
In the course of building these tools, we have often encountered and have had to work around gender and racial bias that gets baked into the machine learning models that we use for text analysis. This is an acknowledged problem confronting NLP and the solutions are not simple. Building fair and non-toxic NLP systems requires constant vigilance, and we are continuously auditing new platforms and models to make sure that the users of our systems are not adversely impacted.
In the course of these audits, I’ve found evidence of gender and racial bias in the sentiment analysis
Nelson Madela — affectionately known as Madiba — would have been 101 today. His impact on the world will be felt for generations to come and we can only guess how his life will ultimately guide our concept of leadership, the struggle for decency and humanity in the centuries to come. South Africa’s gift to humanity is that it is now a blueprint for what a multi-racial democracy should be. That it’s people was able to isolate and remove an anti-democracy president in the years since Madiba is a testament to how firmly it has taken root — the Economist ranks South Africa 40th in the world in terms of the health of democracy (another southern African country Mauritius scores significantly above the U.S.)
A year ago, we visited the Africa House in Havana, where there was an exhibit that explored Madiba’s connection to Cuba. I thought I would share some photos from our time there.
Today the United States is becoming again one of those countries spawns people like Madiba — people who are it’s soul, it’s children, it’s essence, for whom there is no alternative but to speak out, to act, to agitate, to transgress, to take back their humanity. Not because they hate it, because their life is the embodiment of the prayer and dream for what that place could be.
If you are a U.S. citizen and are Black, from Indian subcontinent, from the Caribbean, have ancestors who speak Spanish, are from the peoples who settled here 20,000 years ago, or one of the 100 million “marginalized” people of the country who are being told to “go back”, remember Madiba, remember Harriet Tubman, remember the Sudanese who are fearlessly standing up to bring freedom to their country. Remember that people like you were the reason that a semblance real democracy came to the United States in the first place. Remember that you birthed it in Wounded Knee and Selma. Be the beacon, be the light.
Lastly, there is something significant in Madiba’s structuring of the freedom struggle in South Africa as a collective movement of and for the people as opposed to a cult of personality centering the movement leader. It was hard not to think that through looking at the photo of Madiba and Fidel Castro. But it also is a lesson that freedom should not and cannot be delegated to a political party or it’s leaders, and that conversely tyranny is systemic (look beyond the MAGA hats). I end with a quote from Angela Davis
Even as Nelson Mandela always insisted that his accomplishments were collective—also achieved by the men and women who were his comrades—the media attempted to sanctify him as a heroic individual. A similar process has attempted to dissociate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from the vast numbers of women and men who constituted the very heart of the mid-twentieth-century US freedom movement. It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals in order for people today to recognize their potential agency as a part of an ever-expanding community of struggle.
I quote from Frederick Douglass‘s speech of July 5, 1852. In that day, freed Africans in America feared being out on July 4 as lynchings usually spiked then. Those Black folk that cared to celebrated on the 5th.
The featured image is of a map of the indigenous peoples of the U.S. made by Aaron Carapella over at Tribal Nations Maps. I’ll gladly send you a $25 map if you submit a comment on this post or make a contribution to Aaron’s Go Fund Me. Offer is to the first poster 🙂
The original keepers of this land are still fighting to protect their identity, land, and existence. In the last few years, we have witnessed the removal of the basic voting protections accorded by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It has been argued that this move has resulted in voter suppression and other actions to disenfranchise (again) African Americans and other marginalized groups. Most recently with the Supreme Court ruling that gerrymandering, even when it plainly dilutes the vote of marginalized communities, is ok and is in fact beyond the purview of the court. We are now witnessing a human rights crisis at the U.S. southern border in which internment camps for asylum seekers subject indigenous and LatinX men, women, and children to unlivable conditions — 24 persons having died in these facilities since the current administration took office.
All of these abuses and more call into question the vision of the U.S. that we are celebrating. There has always it feels been a tension between two visions. One is that of a republic that welcomes all and enables all to live the life they wish to their potential — in that vision, the language, religion, color, gender identity, physical ability of an individual are all strengths and part of the fabric that enables a unique society to flourish. The other vision is that of melting pot, a country for and by white Christian men. These are extreme caricatures, but you need only contrast Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” vision with tweets of the current administration.
It is hard to make sense of these polarities, but thinking it through, wrestling with this through reading, discussion, reflection, is essential to the existence of the country. As a start, I would challenge readers to take on the book Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram Kendi.
I sometimes wonder what staying in the British orbit would have meant for the people of color now living in the U.S. Would it just have meant another Canada? Canada, aside from being cold, isn’t so bad a place — a functional democracy. Britain ended slavery in 1833 with the Slavery Abolition Act. The U.K. has for several decades provided subsidized health care and education for all its citizens. On the other (bloody) hand, both Canada and Great Britain continue to grapple with the genocides of indigenous peoples. India, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa — the list of nations still dealing with the scars and trauma of racialized British imperialism spans the globe. Africa is still shedding the anti-LGBTQ legacy of British rule.
I think it’s a better mental effort to think through what living in government and societies created in concert with the protectors could have looked like, and what it could still be. Here’s a zoom in on the area of what would have been the United States as of 1783 (the year the U.S. actually came into existence).
There is an emerging approach to marketing called Marketing Science — a discipline which “transforms marketing efforts so that they are grounded in data and science”. My colleague Demet Dagdalen explains how she and Yanir Seroussi put science to use in building a machine learning pipeline for marketing campaigns.
The last week of May through the first week of June is an emotional Everest for our family. My wife lost her father, our beloved Nanu, six years ago June 5. My father passed away on the 31st of May thirty four years ago. June 5 is also my brother’s birthday, May 26th is my youngest son’s, and May 29th is mine. The day my father died feels like one continuous day encompassing my college graduation, my birthday and his passing.
We try to keep our fathers in memory my wife and I. It is difficult, but to lose those essential connections is unthinkable.
My father would sometimes recount to my siblings and I — in bits and pieces and partial stories — his memories of the second world war. Any given thing could bring out Daddy’s stories — a question we would ask, a documentary, a book one of us was reading, music on the radio, a rainy day at home.
The media obsession with the “D-Day” event and the particular narrative promoted, which persists in being white Anglo middle/upper class, brings his stories back to mind. The photo in this post is from a page from one of his journals, sometime in 1942/43.
My father was 18 when the event now known as “D-Day” occurred. He was a sailor aboard LST-400, a ship that transported soldiers and tanks and other material to some Normandy beach on the morning of June 6, 1944.
He was a Black man-child from Atlanta, one of nine children. He had enlisted in the Navy as a 15 year old. I always liked to think that it was partially just as a way out of the extreme racism and poverty that he found himself situated in. The Great Depression had barely subsided — or at least that is the history book mythology that I have accepted — I really doubt that he or my uncles and aunts experienced any dramatic improvement in their standard of living in the 1930s an 40s. Their father, also a veteran, had died in 1938 from the deep psychic wounds of the First World War.
My mother recounts that my father and a friend had hopped a freight train to Detroit and enlisted there. The Navy had sent my grandmother papers to verify that Daddy was a few years older than he really was (15). It seems that the U.S. had no problem taking child soldiers. I remember him talking about having to jump 100 feet into a tank of water. How was the basic training, what obstacles did he face? Who were his friends? How were Black sailors treated? Was it any better or worse than every day life in 1940s Atlanta?
What did he think as the ship sailed from Virginia across the Atlantic? He would talk about a battle off of the North African coast. How they had to pull badly burned sailors off of a sinking ship. I think that this was a landing in Tunisia called Operation Torch.
I know now from the ship muster rolls that there were Filipino sailors on LST-400 as well. What were there names? How did they spend the hours from one engagement to the next. How did they keep their mind away from the madness. Were they equally as young, conflicted in having to fight for one imperial power against another? Did they will themselves to see hope? Did they come with a dream of U.S. citizenship for their service, or was it simply enough for them to envision a Philippines free of Japanese or U.S. control?
He loved Billie Holiday. Did they allow him to play Billie and Duke aboard the ship? In his journal was an entry listing London clubs to visit — a place called the West Indian Club in London caught my eye. Was jazz played there? Did he spend evenings listening to local musicians playing a melange of jazz and Caribbean rhythms? What was Black London like in 1943?
He would talk about a landing, an invasion I suppose, that they made in Sicily. I looked at the ships logs from that operation recently. It was a small town named Gela, Sicily. According to the logs, other ships in their group had been badly damaged. They were strafed by Luftwaffe Messerschmitt aircraft and by the Italian air force. Their home port was Bizerte, Tunisia. Many of the Tunisians would I meet since his passing had the same toffee brown skin. Did he ever consider just slipping into the crowds headed to Tunis?
After the invasion, did they go ashore to Gela? Who did he meet in Italy, what did they say? He mentioned being involved in providing food and other basics to the people of that town. Were there conversations, encounters that made an impression, made him think differently, informed the compassionate person I knew?
He would tell us about how thick the sky was on June 6, 1944 with aircraft. About soldiers falling in the surf. I remember his stories of attending to starved German soldiers, most younger than him. Were those among his thoughts when he would look off into the distance at something I could not see?
He passed away 34 years ago. I lament that the images that we see as D-Day is “celebrated” (it is a strange word for a period in which 27,000 people were being murdered each day) do not capture what he experienced. Celebration is a strange word for a tragedy that was enabled and abetted by the inability of all countries involved to confront injustice head on. Like the Billie Holiday song, it was bitter fruit.
There are so many questions that remain with me:
What was it like to be a Black teenager thrust into adulthood on a ship, thousands of miles from home?
What did you do after those days after the landing? What did you fear, what did you hope for?
What were the things that gave you hope? What were the soul wounds that you had still to heal from?
My wife, children and I were in Paris during the “Victory in Europe” anniversary this year. I believe that is the day that when most of the savagery came to an end — but how does one ever leave the images and pain. I remember hearing bells ringing. I wonder if it occurred to him to stay, to just find a quiet, humble town in France to just be free.
What difficulties did you face getting the benefits to which you were entitled? The book “When Affirmative Action was White” details the discrimination that Black veterans faced in getting the home and business loans, healthcare, and other benefits provided to white sailors. Was the G.I. Bill just one of the many half-truths you faced? Who heard your frustrations, how did you reconcile them?
You never had a peaceful sleep all the days that I had with you. What were the visions that would not leave? Did anyone delve deeply into them and unlock and free you from the demons of having seen what you did? How does it feel to be free now?
So much of why I try to remember, to keep the questions in mind is simply that he not be erased.
I have over the last thirty years spoken to people who survived this period in forced labor camps, who were child soldiers in the German army, people whose parents lived in India, China, Russia. For many “war” was not a place you went, but a condition that knocked upon the door daily. None of their stories of this time seem to fit into the neat script. They all testify to loss and living with both hope, brokenness, kindness and acknowledgement that some wounds do not heal.
I just hope that the stories live and guide us so that the pain will not be repeated.
Should we end prisons? I have been thinking through this question since reading a recent New York Times article on Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s efforts to dismantle, if not slow the role of, the prison industrial complex. Her focus has been the California prison system and has a book you should check out called The Golden Gulag.
Whatever your views on the criminal justice system, you owe it to yourself and your community to read the article. Angela Davis has been talking about this for decades.
My current thinking is that the prison abolition movement is really about getting a dialog going to question our assumptions about prison. Even getting the prison population down to 1980 levels would be a positive step.
For example, the definition of what constitutes a crime itself is constantly in flux. A good deal of Nobel Prize winners were imprisoned, from Martin Luther King to Andrei Sakharov. People in Georgia serve prison sentences for selling marijuana, in Colorado and California marijuana sellers get venture capital. Missouri wants to imprison doctors for performing safe abortions. So even in the “nation of laws”, the laws are arbitrary, are not equally applied across race, gender, and class, and can change in an election. But the sentences are still extreme and rip apart families and communities.
I struggle with the issue of violent crime. I don’t think the people who stole my bike or car radio need to have their voting rights suspended or their families jacked up. I don’t feel that serial murderers need to be on the street. But most of the countries with low murder rates don’t lock up murderers indefinitely. Those countries seem to take rehabilitation seriously.
Let’s put it this way. Somehow, Germany, Rwanda, Cambodia, South Africa, and Liberia found a way to reintegrate people who’d committed unspeakable crimes. Surely if broken child soldiers can be put back together in poor countries, then there has to be a way to put back together the people that we now lock up and put away indefinitely in the “nation of laws”.
A dialog needs to happen.
As usual I’m on the hunt for data, particularly in Georgia.
Last night the, right-wing Austrian Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache resigned. He was allegedly videotaped asking a Russian citizen for donations in exchange for government contracts. It is a trope all too common in the democracy of my citizenship, tragically banal as mass shootings.
The impact in Austria was the apparent collapse of the current governing coalition of centrist+right parties. There were protests in Vienna, and the president has called for September elections. The people might need them sooner.
I hope that the elections bring about a political change that invokes the kind of open and forward thinking Austria, the kind of Europe even, that the world is desperately in need of.
Austria has no dearth of vision. The cover photo is of Ute Bock — a Vienna educator who worked on behalf of asylum seekers, especially with respect to educational opportunities, access to housing, and fairness in policing.
Bock’s legacy lives. When I arrived in Vienna, I encountered a poster featuring Katerina Anastasiou, top candidate of a coalition of the Green, Communist, and other leftist parties called KPÖ PLUS.
The agenda described on their website, emphasizes equal housing, job opportunities, and the dismantling of fascism. I’m too far removed for a subtle understanding of Austrian politics — I don’t even pretend to speak German — but the basic outline seems more in the line of public service than fascist money for favors.
To quote from one of Anastasiou’s recent speeches:
The Europe we want does not exist yet, but it lives in us!
So reminiscent of the last lines of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address
that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth
That the left is sounding a call for support of immigrants and access to housing is not surprising, I learned that they’ve been effective at it in Austria — Vienna at least since the early 20th century.
These are photos I took outside of the Karl Marx-Hof public housing complex, erected in the late 1920’s. To equate it with the oppressive housing complexes of the US is a sacrilege.
The day I visited, the grounds were vibrant. 20-somethings debated in the courtyard. In the steps leading to the entrance, the diversity of Vienna was on display, as Somalian, Bangladeshi, Middle Eastern, Turkish, Eastern- and Austrian-Europeans went about their way basking in the sun. Kebab vendors sold savories and outlined the veggie prospects to me.
As I entered the courtyard I encountered the following plaque
A testament to the 60 families, residents of the Marx-Hof, that had been executed by the Nazis in 1938 and 1939.
Austria’s gift to humanity is its ability to build from the memory of unspeakable horror. To help bring about that vision of the world to which we all aspire. I am with them as the continue the long march forward.