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 was already struggling with election anxiety and news cycles of unending madness and chaos.
From the upheaval at USPS at at time when mail-in voting is potentially life-preserving, to AG Barr’s desire to charge protesters and dissenters with sedition, to forced sterilisation of immigrant women in detention centres, to the non-stop lies and fabrications, to raging fires in both North America and Brazil, on top of a global pandemic as we head into winter, it’s too much, y’all. It’s simply too much.
And, then, Saturday dawns and the news of RBG‘s death greeted me as I scrolled through Twitter (fuck you, Mitch McConnell) whilst waiting for my coffee to brew.
This morning feels incredibly dangerous, not just for women’s rights and reproductive freedom, but for democracy in general. The fragility of the rule of law, immigrant rights, voting rights, environmental and labour justice and the simple idea that laws should not hinge upon the mad ramblings of an individual who would like to be king and a party that allows him to do so all feel just that much closer to disintegration. And the nightmare that is 2020 continues.
Yet, this isn’t some distant land; it’s happening in the United States. It’s just unreal and yet far, far too real.
At some point over the past year or so, I received a packet of 50 protest postcards to benefit the ACLU in a book hookup subscription from Strand Bookstore in NYC. Since my copy of Notorious RBG is currently with a friend, I flipped through those protest postcards looking for hope I suppose or something to give me solace as the tears flowed. I kept returning to this image:
For the next 50 days, I’ll be posting one of these images, primarily to remind myself what I’m fighting for. But, also, to remind us all that we must continue to fight for as long as we can, in whatever way we can and for as long as it takes to create a more perfect union for us all.
RBG provided us with a to-do list. That list is rather simple:
– Work for what you believe in – But pick your battles – Don’t burn your bridges – Don’t be afraid to take charge – Think about what you want, then do the work – But, then, enjoy what makes you happy – Bring along your crew – Have a sense of humour
from Notorious RBG
So, today, I’ll honour the gigantically iconic yet tiny in stature, courageous righteous, brilliant woman who dedicated her life to making ours better. Then, tomorrow, I’ll dry my eyes, suit up and fight like I’ve never fought before, for myself and everyone else who suffers injustice in whatever form it takes. And, for the country that I love even in these incredibly dark times.
I’m doing this for RBG. She fought for all of us her entire life. Now, it’s up to us to fight for the legacy she forged for us and our children.
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.
I’ve admired Trevor Noah because he’s funny AF and also speaks about and advocates for policies I myself support.
But, reading about his life in South Africa as a child born into a world where he embodied an actual crime by simply existing is immensely powerful and profound. And, I’m not sure that I could admire him any more now, particularly after reading the last chapter of this book.
Central to this little gem is the story of a mother and her son. But, the richness of that relationship and the context within which it is lived is more than worth anyone’s time. That it’s beautifully crafted is all the more rewarding. Moreover, it’s a story we would all do well to read carefully and consider thoroughly given the times we’re currently navigating and the reckoning these times call for.
It shouldn’t surprise me that I finished this book laughing through choked-back sobs. But, I did.
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.
Several weeks ago, a friend / colleague reminded me of a band I’d not listened to in ages, a band which several decades ago was often in my daily musical rotation.
It amazes me how relevant they still are today.
I spent the rest of that day revisiting that mighty, fat sound of revolution and sense of empowerment against the system that is Rage Against the Machine and marvelling at just how much things are the same, and yet not at all.
In the mid- to late 1990s as RATM emerged and as I was awakening to the power of my own voice and exercising it in elections and through protest and civil disobedience on occasion, it was still possible to have conversations with those who represented the polar opposite of my own views. Some of the conversations I’ve had, at least virtually, recently have scarcely resembled those previous debates, either in content or tone. Yet, echoes of the past, particularly on issues of racial injustice and unfair policing a la the clip above, have become even more relevant and more polarised it seems.
I find myself increasing thinking ‘I am not your enemy’ to strangers and those within my own social network, particularly to those with whom I share very little in terms of ideological leanings. Yes, some conversations have been productive and continue (even if I am woefully behind in my own correspondence). And, labels such as socialist and Marxist, don’t really bother me, just as liberal, progressive or left-winger seem rather silly even if lobbed in a way that suggests denigration or condemnation. But, the increasing frequency with which I see, read and hear individuals suggesting that anyone who seeks criminal justice reform, restraint in the face of ongoing BLM protests or is in any way critical of the current occupant of the White House as American-hating or intent on destroying the US leave me bereft and rather heartbroken.
I may not support the current administration and certainly lob my own harsh criticisms at him and many a Republican. But, it isn’t from any hatred or malice for my country.
I am proud to be from the United States, although admittedly perhaps less so at this particular moment given our current alienation from allies and how much we appear to be failing our own nation. As a living document and despite its inherent flaws, the US Constitution offers much to be proud of, as does the Declaration of Independence, two documents I revisit in my own act of patriotism each 4th of July. More than anything, I’d like to see the promises of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness equitably and equally available to every man, woman and child in my own country, a simple reality we have yet to achieve except largely for those born white, rich or male. I want to a better life for all in the US (and elsewhere), and I’d like to create a just space for all, without fear of financial ruin if one becomes ill or infirm or without fear of prosecution or persecution simply because of one’s outward appearance or being born into a particular position and station.
We have work to do, y’all. And that won’t be possible if you view me as your enemy simply because I am a progressive, liberal, far-left-leaning woman who thinks black lives matter and that wearing a mask or vaccines are sound public health policies. I can simultaneously love my country whilst also wanting to improve it. I can advocate for a Green New Deal and climate action, as well as Medicare for All / universal health care whilst simultaneously liking to shop (you have seen my Marimekko obsession, right?) and travel. I can be your ally whilst not agreeing with you on every single issue. I can be a decent human being whilst not believing in your god. I can be a crazy cat lady and still love dogs and playing with puppies.
But, I am not your enemy. And, don’t let the powers that be make me out to be. I’m fairly certain, that there is more that unite us than that which we allow to currently and persistently divide us.
In today’s world in particular, there are days when it seems as though we are drowning in information. Too much data. Too much ‘stuff’ to process and make sense of. That feeling is only partially true, however. Across various areas and arenas, we know far too little, particularly when we focus on issues surrounding health and human rights. All too often we take the absence of information or data or evidence as a sign that we may relax a bit.
We desperately need to shift that thinking. The Uncounted, by Sara ‘Meg’ Davis provides a road map for how we may begin to shift our thinking and perspectives in order to adjust how, amongst whom and what we collect data in a relatively simple way, and in a way which may pay huge dividends, particularly amongst those most in need and previously most neglected in policy planning and financing.
‘The Uncounted’ is a fantastic read, one which profoundly challenges the notion that in the absence of information or evidence we don’t need to worry about issue X. That is, if we carefully examine those variables for which we have no data or evidence, perhaps upon digging deeper and enlisting assistance from those more acutely and intimately aware than we are, we will find previously hidden information and data. And, that data and information are likely to radically shift how we design programmes or policies on various issues. We will no longer be able to simply dismiss an issue as unproblematic. Quite simply, ‘The Uncounted’ provides a profound argument for carefully considering how we examine and apply the absence of evidence as an indicator.
‘The Uncounted’ is rich in ethnographic descriptions, documenting the various assumptions made by multilateral agencies charged with dispersing funding to and establishing guidelines for countries in how they respond to HIV, tuberculosis and malaria (e.g., The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, UNAIDS, WHO, PEPFAR, etc) and local-level agencies and individuals best situated to argue for expanding programmes and funding schemes within communities. For those unfamiliar with such agencies, Dr Davis disentangles these various personalities and agencies rather neatly, making it clear who does what and whose voice is perhaps most necessary in deciding upon programmes and policies to address HIV in particular. Following the progress and steps necessary to count the uncounted within the Caribbean region provides evidence for how we can begin to shift our thinking and truly ensure full inclusion of all individuals affected by HIV and specifically those least likely to date to receive crucial services and support.
Reading ‘The Uncounted’ during a global pandemic proved rather surreal,not simply because some of its key characters are also playing a crucial role in current events vis-a-vis Covid-19. As our global health-related realities have been thrown into chaos this year with the emergence of Covid-19, I’m curious to see how various elements of Dr Davis’ careful and thorough work play out. Whilst focused primarily on HIV, and the very real oversights in counting typically hidden populations such as men who have sex with men, transgender people, sex workers and people who use drugs, certainly many individuals, and perhaps the most vulnerable, will go uncounted in the wake of Covid-19. Will health, social, and economic policy makers and planners at local, national, and international levels solicit the perspectives from those at the community levels most intimately associated with the epidemics and acutely aware of problems in providing treatment, care and support to those affected in order to understand who, what, why and where? Or will they rely on the absence of evidence as evidence of absence simply because individuals are not counted by the powers that be? How will key populations be accounted for? Will they?
My hope is that the powers that be across power structures would heed the advice and road maps provided by Dr Davis. The reality is that in some places, that advice and those road maps are not being considered. And, in those places it seems as those Covid-19 is raging unchallenged. [Insert heavy sigh here.]
‘The Uncounted’ provides this cynic with a bit of hope, however, particularly with regards to HIV. Hope that we expand our perspective ever so slightly, yet in a way which we can make a huge difference to communities and key populations who may have previously faced stigma, discrimination and institutional neglect, and who may finally receive the crucial support to transform structures that place them at the response to HIV. It won’t be easy, but it is necessary. And, to my mind, long overdue.
Clearly, we can no longer that that ‘absence of evidence as evidence of absence’.
Yesterday evening as a few fellow American friends and I gathered to simply enjoy in-person company after months of social distancing, we found ourselves reflecting upon current events in the US. It’s hard not to. We shared our frustrations and concerns, and also shared a bit about what we were reading and what has had a profound impact upon each of us. One friend mentioned the documentary film ‘The Color of Fear’, and how ten years later it resonated with her and made a profound impact upon her.
Please spend some time really taking in this powerful, emotional and brutally honest discussion from 1994 on race in the United States among men.
The conversations we need to have will not be easy. They will make us uncomfortable and force us each to confront realities about ourselves and one another which we honestly don’t want to. But once we do, we might also achieve a better understanding of one another, and an understanding of what we need to do in order to achieve equity and justice for all.
Along with acknowledging our own flaws and culpability in how we have consciously or unconsciously sustained a system of racial inequity and inequality along with systemic and institutional racism, we might understand what we can do to dismantle it. And along with that we might just begin to heal long-festering wounds left raw and untended. It is likely we will feel rage and anger, and there will be fear and there will be pain. But, unless we have those conversations, we will never clean out the rot and truly heal. We will not change ourselves or society. And, neither will those institutions.
I’m not sure that writing a review of this particular book is necessary. My first reaction can be summed up quite simply: Read this book. Now. Right now.
Given the long-overdue awakening taking place not just in the United States at this moment, but across many former colonisers and countries characterised by white privilege and power at the expense of everyone else, those of us who know nothing about the lived experiences of POC need to listen carefully and silently to their voices now. This book goes a long way in granting us at least one voice rather clearly and unapologetically. She is not angry, although she has every right and reason to be. She is not preachy or admonishing, although I’d certainly expect anyone writing a book like this to be. This book made me uncomfortable and angry, despair and cringe, and it made me mutter again and again, ‘what the fuck is wrong with people’?! Not POC, but those of us who have and know white privilege without ever accepting or acknowledging it.
The simple notion that history and institutions have made it difficult for those of us not lucky enough to have been born white is undeniable. Correcting it, let alone simply accepting it, shouldn’t be a matter of debate. And, yet, here we are in 2020 still wondering why a statue for a slave trader or Confederate general is so offensive to some.
As much as this book angered me, it oddly and rather refreshingly offered up doses of hope. I am a firm believer in knowledge being a powerful weapon if wielded properly. I suspect Reni Eddo-Lodge shares that old adage. She provided me with a bit more information about racism and racist institutions in the UK, and by doing so allowed me to gain a bit of objectivity on institutions which have parallels in my own country, the US. She also understands how we all need to be gentle with ourselves as we disentangle and make sense of atrocities from our historical past in order to do the hard and necessary work of dismantling them as we move forward. This is painful as a process and incredibly uncomfortable at times. As long as we, each of us, does something with the knowledge we gain and the awareness necessary to be and live as antiracists, those small steps collectively can help us to achieve our goals. Let’s move forward rather than stand still in our despair and anger and frustration.
I will read this book again. More so, I will continue to think about every bit of this tiny, powerful book, and how I can be the change and do something and do better every single day.
The video below provides an animated version of the Atlantic Slave Trade. For 2 minutes, dots of varying sizes indicating the number of black human beings transported from Africa to the Americas against their will move across the Atlantic Ocean from the Old World to the New.
If this isn’t horrific, I don’t know what is.
Today, 19 June, is Juneteenth, the day we should all celebrate as marking the end of a most horrific era in human history, the day when all black Americans learned that the ownership of other human beings (meaning, their ownership by their white masters) officially ended across the United States. Yet, few know that Juneteenth actually exists or what it specifically means and refers to. That lack of knowledge and skipped-over bit of history is problematic all on its own. It’s also emblematic of how far we still have to go in the United States and elsewhere in making racism and inequity and inequality a part of our past rather than current events so that we may truly claim freedom for all a reality.
That Juneteenth honours and remembers events from Galveston, Texas, when Major General Gordon Granger informed the people of Texas that all slaves were free, makes it all the more ironic if not outrageous to this particular Daughter of the Republic of Texas (yes, I am actually a member of the DRT). We are not taught this particular and incredibly important event in our ‘history’ courses. We are taught the history of white America, but not American history. Rather than being taught the history of Juneteenth in grade school or university history classes as a young girl or young woman, much as I learnt about the Emancipation Proclamation, I first heard the term Juneteenth within the last several years. Perhaps this is unsurprising given that most textbooks are written for and approved by the Texas Board of Education, an agency known to bend to the whims of political ideology and religious dogma at the expense of critical thinking or scientific knowledge and understanding of the world around us. At one point in time, before an outcry and complaints, one Texas textbook referred to slaves as involuntary ‘immigrants’ and workers. Talk about whitewashing history.
It’s shameful to me that in 2020 we are still woefully unaware of our own history. That history, whether we acknowledge it or not, shapes our lives today, and informs how we view and treat one another. From Juneteenth to the Tulsa race massacre and destruction of the Black Wall Street to the impact and legacy of Jim Crow laws to rewriting MLK and Malcom X as less threatening and more ‘peaceful’ to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Robert Fuller and today’s mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow, we need to revisit and rewrite history, making it less favourable to white America and more reflexive and inclusive of the voices and lived experiences of POC. It will be uncomfortable, and it will be difficult. But, it is necessary. And, it is right and just and honest and true, even if we find it horrific.
So, as a first step, let’s start today. Right now. Here’s to making Juneteenth a national holiday, celebrating freedom and a day of remembrance.