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.