Yes, I read. A lot. It opens me up to other worlds and perspectives. I embrace that possibility, particularly since travelling over the past few years has been impossible and in my own life rather limited over the last decade or so.
Reni Eddo-Lodge‘s book, ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race‘, is still one of the most important books I’ve read in the last few years. One of my students recommended it to me long before the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. I bought it shortly after that recommendation and it sat on my shelf until the summer of 2020. Whilst focused on race history and racism in Britain / the UK, there are so many parallels to our history in the US, a painful yet important-to-understand history if we have any hope of ever truly creating a society based on justice and equity.
As inspiring as the summer of 2020 was, 2022 feels rather disappointing given … well… everything. From additional book bans and a paranoia around CRT to the House GOP voting together to not support efforts to root out white nationalists and Nazis from the military and police forces, it’s depressing in many ways.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to spend a rather intimate few hours at a reception for one of my writing heroes, Colson Whitehead. A quote of his was mentioned in the conversation from an interview he did with the Helsinki Sanomat, something to the effect that he viewed his place as a writer as not so much able to change attitudes or the world [I’m paraphrasing and likely butchering the conversation]. It struck me as odd, since I have found so much of his writing as well as the writing of others fundamentally shift my world and my perspective. And, historic events unknown previously to some after being fictionalised became known to others. Perhaps it isn’t for me to say how any one author’s works affect the broader public. But, I do feel like whether through random musings and social commentary or fictionalised worlds created, writers all have the power and ability to make us think and perhaps think in ways different to what we’ve always ‘known’. That ain’t nothing.
Following Reni’s lead, I am inclined to rely on the words of another writing hero, James Baldwin, a man long dead, but still painfully and rather chillingly seemingly more relevant now:
“The bottom line is this,” James Baldwin told the New York Times in 1979. “You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. In some way, your aspirations and concern for a single man in fact do begin to change the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimetre, the way a person looks or people look at reality, then you can change it.”
This book resonated with me on so many levels. I hope that everyone I know, particularly those who think of migrants / immigrants as individuals to fear, reads it. With an open mind and an open heart.
This week marks the beginning of the twenty-third year I’ve lived in a country other than my home country. And, I would not change a thing. Perhaps that is why I read it both with a sense of hope and a longing for my own home.
I am and always will be a citizen and product of the United States, and I remain steadfast in my hope for her future as a country and for her people, whether they’ve lived there for millennia or recently arrived. But, I also understand that as much, as I love her as a nation, both her troubled and horrific as well as impossibly hopeful history, that we as a people have much to learn from others and that we must look at ourselves not as exceptional but as one of many people who share this big beautiful blue planet.
I can only speak of my experiences as an American living abroad. I view the wealth of our nation in skewed terms these days given my own personal lens. Whilst migrants exist everywhere, those seeking a life in the US occupy a central position within this book.
Our richness as a nation does not come from simple monetary wealth, but in the richness of the various people who arrive on her shores in search of something better and brighter for themselves and their children. To me, the diversity of our people offers glimpses into the richness of us as a species. Our ways of life. Our traditions. Our glorious, luscious, delicious foods. And, this melding of ideas and ideologies as well as cuisines offers us bits and pieces we may both carry onward and leave aside or savour so completely and fully.
Yes, I am an American. But, I am also one of millions of migrants in this world. My circumstances are my own, but the reality of being a migrant — both setting up and creating a new home whilst missing that which I left — is a reality I share with every other migrant in this world. All we ever hope to find is a place of peace and acceptance, and an opportunity to flourish and survive. Not as outcasts or others, but as valued and valuable members of the communities we now choose to call home.
I did not intend on sitting down and ploughing through the remaining two-thirds of Masha Gessen‘s latest book, Surviving Autocracy, yesterday evening. But, that’s precisely what I did.
I regret nothing. (Although I did completely lose track of time and miss my weekly Ashtanga Zoom class, damnit. Let’s talk about white privilege and first-world problems a bit later, eh?)
It’s incredible to me how much of the past four-plus years have faded into our distant, collective memory. So, so much happened during the Trump administration, so many things which are frankly unimaginable, and so, so many things frankly made infinitely worse during the pandemic.
And, yet, so many of those atrocities were normalised rather efficiently and easily, as we moved from one insanity to another at a breakneck, mind-numbing and soul-crushing speed during his presidency (and seem to be continuing in his post-presidency period). It seems only fitting that now, just a week after his reign of terror (and I chose the word specifically) has ended officially he will also be tried in the Senate for a Second Impeachment. [It is not entirely lost on me or many that 45 Senators whose lives were also put in harm’s way during the Capitol siege voted to not proceed with that Impeachment trial because of course they did. I’m looking at you, Senator McConnell. Directly at you.]
Congratulations, asshole. You truly are the best at impeachments. No one single president has more, and you have 50% of them all to yourself. Well done.
Masha Gessen lays out with surgical precision just how utterly dangerous and quickly all of this has happened. And, I’m guessing, somewhat unintentionally provides sufficient evidence for why we are not quite out of danger of succumbing to Trumpism or quelling full-fledged and inescapable autocracy just yet. Chapter after eye- and wound-opening chapter, and in each of the three primary sections, Gessen provides more than ample evidence that we are in the midst of surviving autocracy.
Years of gaslighting, some of which predates Trump’s ascension, and more than 30,000 lies — not tiny embellishments or repeated falsehoods, but full on lies — and we are still dealing with those untruths, thanking no longer from his Twitter account. But, they are there. And, they continue, perhaps articulated a bit more eloquently and in a better package from a more polished messenger. But, those lies and the gaslighting continue. And, so many lap them up all for individuals so reckless, so vile and so callous and with a blatant disregard for lives of others in their charge.
But, this book is not a pity party or focused entirely on the rage-inducing history we are living. There is hope in between the despair. For instance, Masha applauds the civil society institutions and those with the moral authority who continually and unabashedly stood up to the injustices and atrocities and crimes these last four-plus years. Those institutions, sadly and surgically decimated in Putin’s Russia before they really had an opportunity to flourish and gain a foothold in Russian society and so precious to our own American experiment both at home and abroad, largely saved us. Yet, even they are exhausted and battered and bruised after four-plus years of battle. This final year, specifically, the final moments of mayhem notwithstanding, it’s a wonder any of those civil society agencies or agents still exist. But, resistance is a long war, not a single battle. And, that continued, tireless and sustained pushback has helped us perhaps prevented us from sliding in to complete autocracy. We still have far to go, however, and we can’t forget that more than 400,000 individuals have now lost their lives to Covid-19 in the USb alone from the inactions and lies spun by a White House and administration who cared not about us, but a great deal about themselves and holding on to power by any means necessary.
Since Masha finished this book in April of 2020, they did not have the opportunity to add their reflections on the protests that sprung up nationally and globally following the 8-minute live-lynching of George Floyd or the slaughter of Breonna Taylor of the hunting down and slaughtering of Ahmaud Arbery. Nor did they have an opportunity to fold into their book the genuine attempted to coup in the wake of the November elections and the siege of the Capitol as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ wins were verified, albeit somewhat delayed by those who sought to undermine free and fair(ish) elections in the US. Both of those broader events and the administration’s role in them are incredibly relevant to Surviving Autocracy. I’ll be looking for those reflections.
To me, the power of this book lies not just in Gessen’s arguments and the weaving together of a narrative that fits these last four-plus years flawlessly alongside the brutal realties of autocratic leaders elsewhere in the world. The power lies in Masha’s own history. Maybe it takes an individual who stood up to and faced Putin to rip off the mask of ugliness in a second homeland for us all, showing us those parallels we often think of as ‘other’, when in fact it is ‘us’ in this specific moment. That is, it takes the clarity of hindsight after witnessing an autocratic takeover of your homeland once to lay it all out for those who are too naïve or too hopeful or too optimistic and blindly faithful to an idea to realise that it is already happening to them in your second home.
But, we have survived (most of us), and we must endure and ensure that this never happens again. First, however, we really must stop the autocratic designs being laid out so carefully from taking a firmer hold over us and over those institutions we trust to prevail and protect us.
It might take all of us. But, we can survive autocracy.
I wasn’t expecting to plough through a book this morning before sitting down to work, but that’s precisely what I did.
What an incredibly important, thought-provoking, emotional, heart-breaking and yet hope-filled gem of a novel.
I cannot imagine what it is like to be a young, black man in today’s world. But, this book certainly does much to help me to understand the unreal expectations and choices, the absurd stereotypes they must respond to and attempt to dispel, and the unending pain and confusion and frustration and anger as well as joys tempered by bullshit that they face every minute of every single day.
Damn…. What a profoundly important and beautiful book. I need to sit with this for a while.
In the past few years, I’ve been rereading much of the writings from the civil rights era in the US. Familiar names like Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis along with the works of James Baldwin, Angela Davis and Malcom X and histories detailing the lives of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers have featured amongst my reading lists.
It’s crazy how relevant those works are today despite being 50 or more years old. Many of these writings could have just as easily been written today. We still need to make further progress vis-à-vis racial equality, basic rights and justice, particularly in making right generations and centuries of oppression and injustice along with a fair amount of racial violence.
Granting further for others does not intimidate me nor leave me fearful that my own rights will be somehow diminished or limited. More rights for you means I will not enjoy a benefit or privilege based simply on my race or class or standing granted by birth within a particular category. Understanding my own privileges helps me understand what systemic changes are necessary in order to achieve equity and in order to right historical wrongs, whether perpetrated by myself or my ancestors. Generational pain is real and persistent. Understanding that helps me do better and helps my communities become more inclusive and more just.
I’m thankful for a new generation of writers like Ta-nehisi Coates and Ibram X Kendi and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’m enormously grateful to the many writers and activists who share their histories and their guidance on how we can be better allies and antiracists.
But, I’d be even happier if such works highlighting our need to continually work towards a more just society were unnecessary.
I’m a bit behind — work and rest both kept me from posting a daily protest postcard here. [In my defence, I’ve done so elsewhere!]
In our house, we live by each of these phrases, particularly the phrase in the middle.
We are not threatened by equality; we embrace and work towards it. And, those individuals who strive towards equality are truly quality folks we’d like in our circle.
We seek to ensure that all human rights are honoured, particularly amongst and for women and girls.
Black lives matter. Full fucking stop.
Love is love, and it is a thing to behold and celebrate. The day marriage equality became a reality for all in the US was an incredibly happy day for us.
And humans can never be illegal. Their reasons for being undocumented are varied and complex, and largely depend on bureaucracies just as difficult to navigate as their journeys and attempts to escape unnamed or unknown horrors.
Standing up for any one of these principles doesn’t negate us or any of our own struggles nor does it diminish our own worth. In fact, standing up for the rights of others strengthens rights for all and helps to enshrine these principles into our society and community. And, that renders each of us more valuable and our communities more just and inclusive.
Does the intersectionality of race, gender and sexuality really need further explanation?
Spend five minutes on social media and it’s clear that it does.
Perhaps it’s the anthropologist in me, or just a matter of my personality. I’ve long been interested in the interconnection between things, particularly the social constructs we humans use to inform our realities and world views. Specifically, how we decide who represents us versus who we view as them fascinates — and, at times, horrifies — me. But, those intersections and interconnections between categories, which place each us in various positions of privilege or groups to which discrimination and stigma are directed, are also used to divide us by the powers that be.
If we’re fighting one another, we cannot fight them. Hell, we might just miss what exactly they are doing to begin with.
My feminism is one which examines those intersections and attempts to empower those with the least power. It gives voice to the voiceless. Makes visible the invisible. Accepts the unacceptable.
I cannot divorce my ethnicity from my class from my gender from my sexuality. In my world, no one should need to. But, I can and try as much as possible to recognise where I fall along the intersectionality continuum. And, I attempt to work towards minimising the distance between categories along that scale for those less advantaged whilst aiming for the creation of an equitable, just and empowering society for all.
I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticise her perpetually.’
― James Baldwin
On 28 August 1955, a 14-year-old black boy wrongfully accused of ‘offending’ a white woman was abducted and brutally murdered in Mississippi. ‘Offending’ in that instance merely meant ‘flirting’ or ‘whistling’ at a white woman, an offence later recanted by the would-be accuser. Unfortunately, that recantation came too late for Emmett Till.
Emmett Till was beaten and mutilated, shot in the head and then thrown in the river by those who brutalised him. An all-white jury found the white men who killed Emmett not guilty. Those men later admitted, rather proudly, that they had indeed killed Emmett Till.
Emmett Till was 14. He was lynched, for the ‘crime’ of daring to speak to a white woman.
In 2020, we can now add to the list of names of far, far too many black bodies killed or brutalised first with questions only following later. Their crimes may not involve simply speaking to a white woman in rural Jim Crow Mississippi, but they are largely no less shocking: walking with Skittles in a pocket through a gated (read: white) community. Playing with a toy gun. Driving while black. Running while black. Sleeping in your own bed. Paying for groceries with a counterfeit $20 bill. Selling single ciggies on a street corner. Breaking up a brawl between two women.
A black man who *may* have a knife is shot in the back seven times a fate deemed justifiable because he seemed *threatening*, whilst a white boy carrying an AR-15 through the streets can shoot three people, killing two, is given the benefit of the doubt and granted the justification of ‘self-defence’.
For black bodies, there is no due process. There is no justice. And, there is certainly no peace. But, what sort of self-defence exists for them? They can scream with what little breathe remains, ‘I can’t breathe!’, and still they are choked and prevented the most basic of needs: air to breathe.
What’s worse, those who perpetrate those murders and far too many contemporary brutalities are emboldened by badges and guns or the simple cloak of their whiteness despite being sworn into duty to serve and protect.
Who are they serving? Who are they protecting?
At times, it feels to me like we have progressed so very little from 1955, or that any progress we have made is cosmetic rather than lasting, enduring or systemic. Systemic racism and racial injustice and inequity appear to be more institutionalised rather than less, primarily because we refuse to open our eyes and see the realities lived by those who are not born white.
If we ever hope to be truly free or peaceful or just, these atrocities must be acknowledged and we must accept our collective responsibility for the continued and persistent systemic racism that is woven into the very fabric from which our flags are sewn.
Bernardine Evaristo offers an a masterful example of storytelling at its absolute finest. Each character was painted and shaped so carefully that you feel as though you’re drifting in and out of individual lives rather than chapters, akin to making the rounds rather than sitting and reading about them.
Some characters I loved and wanted to linger with a little longer; others I’d like to have thrown a cream pie in their face to simply snap them out of their own myopia and selfishness; some made me consider realities I never completely imagined or gave much time to, and challenged me to shift my own perceptions a bit or wildly. The challenges posed were welcome and natural rather frightening and threatening.
And, all of this written in a form that alarmed me a bit at first, but made sense along the way.
John Lewis, who literally fought like hell to ensure black Americans (and all Americans) could secure the same rights, not least the right to vote, that you and I have, will be laid to rest today in Atlanta. He fought his entire life for justice and to ensure that those who had no voice were not forgotten and would be heard. And, his work and legacy are far from complete.
I have a confession.
I took voting for granted for a long while. I voted regularly and researched the candidates I’d be voting for to ensure they reflected my own vision for my community. But, I also occasionally missed a local election or voted straight ticket out of laziness or simple complacency. I voted, but… I could have done better.
It wasn’t until I watched my husband—Cuban by birth and to the core, and an exile from his own country because he dared think outside the state-sanctioned box—vote the first time we were eligible to vote in Finland, our home by default. He was in his 50s at that time, as we left our neighbourhood polling station. He looked at me, and told me it was the first time in his life that he knew definitively that his vote mattered and would be counted. And, that he felt heard and seen.
I no longer to take voting for granted. I think of my husband’s words each time I sort through the details of ensuring I can vote overseas now. It matters. And, not everyone enjoys the same rights that we do to exercise our voices freely.
Please, check your voter registration details (and register if you haven’t) to make sure everything from the spelling of your name to your address is correct and up-to-date. If you plan to vote by absentee ballot, request your ballot now and know what you need to research and how you’ll vote (scroll down to ‘Know Your State’) before your ballot arrives. And, given Covid and issues with United States and other Postal Services, make sure you send your ballot with sufficient time to ensure it arrives in time to be counted.
If you have done as much of the above as you can, pour yourself your favourite beverage and spread the word to your friends and family. (Hell, you can just share this post, if you want, although, just sharing the link vote.org is fine, too.)
If you are healthy and feel confident enough to volunteer as a poll worker in your community, do so. So many poll workers are retired and they are at an increased risk for Covid. Do a quick Google search to see what the rules are in your state / community. And, if you have teenage kids and want them to understand the importance of civic duty, even if they cannot vote, they may be able to work the polls.
There are so many ways you can help make this specific election matter. But, it requires doing something. So, let’s do some good and do something.
John Lewis fought for all of us and shed his own blood on that bridge in Selma so that we and others wouldn’t need to. He got into good, necessary trouble his entire life so that our voices would be heard and counted. Now, it’s up to us. The best simplest sort of good, necessary trouble we can get into and perhaps the most patriotic act is the simple act of voting.