“How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee?” (J. S. Bach)

Warm-fuzzy North Park Center

Warm-fuzzy North Park Center




I had a couple of problems this morning.

First, I wanted to look at my copy of the piano-vocal score in (a stultified) English translation of the J.S. Bach Christmas Oratorio. I can’t find it. It’s on a shelf or in a box or in some other place I put it for safe keeping when I moved to this apartment 11 years ago. I probably have not looked at it since then.

I wanted the English words of the 5th movement of the first section. I could reconstruct them from memory except the 5th and 6th lines. I must have looked at 20 websites before I found the words. I found one recording of a (not professional) choir singing it in English, but I can’t make out the words as they sing.

Searching for the score did accomplish one thing for me. I put a whole bunch (more) CDs and DVDs of operas, extended musical works, and movies (the complete Godfather, for example) into boxes to take out of here. Any such recording I have not listened to or watched since I moved here 11 years ago is going! I obviously don’t need them.

The words of that chorus of the Christmas Oratorio are warm-fuzzy words about Christmas, particularly about the faithful’s response to the birth of the Baby Jesus.

How shall I fitly meet Thee
And give Thee welcome due?
The nations long to greet Thee,
And I would greet Thee, too.
O Fount of light, shine brightly
Upon my darkened heart,
That I may serve Thee rightly
And know Thee as Thou art.

Lovely Christmas sentiment, No? Yes, of course. The words have been sung from the 17th century onward to a lovely and sweetly introspective tune by Johann Crüger. Similar to “Away in the Manger.”

Aye, there’s the rub, as Hamlet might say.

Bach used a different tune. The tune everyone in America who uses a church hymnal knows as “O Sacred Head, now Wounded,” by Hans Leo Hassler, contemporaneous with Crüger.

Black Friday, greeting him

Black Friday, meeting him?

These words traditionally go with that tune—or some similar translation.

O sacred head, now wounded,
defiled and put to scorn;
O kingly head surrounded
with mocking crown of thorn:
What sorrow mars thy grandeur?
Can death thy bloom deflower?
O countenance whose splendor
the hosts of heaven adore!

My guess is 99% of the people who attend a performance of the Bach Christmas Oratorio in the next two or three weeks will think the tune is just lovely, a nice way to sing about the Baby Jesus. Even those who recognize the tune will not be jarred by it. How could J.S. Bach compose anything other than grandeur and elegance?

So it’s not jarring to sing about meeting the baby to the tune most of us know for words about the baby’s eventual murder?

Let’s not belittle Bach’s power as thinker and composer. I don’t know if he was the first composer to marry those sentimental words with that gruesome tune, but I know that to anyone listening with anything other than their most uncritical and unconscious ears and mind, that movement of the Christmas Oratorio is shocking. Just shocking.

Who sings songs about an unjust execution as a lullaby to their children?

The other problem I had earlier today was the news that Kourtney Kardashian had a baby. Who gives a (insert your own word here) that Kourtney Kardashian had a baby? Well, there, I’ve cheapened whatever argument I was making. And what does it say about us that anyone other than her family even knows her blessed news?

And now I wish I were a philosopher or a great preacher or theology professor or even one of those people who gets to speak ad infinitum helping PBS raise money. Or perhaps a TED speaker. I want to preach. If I had standing to do so, I’d say something like this.

Isn’t it sad that—taken as a whole—we as a people are more interested in how we should fitly meet the Baby Kardashian than how we should meet anything related to truth, goodness, beauty, or other noble pursuits. I won’t speak about theology or religion because I frankly can no longer get my head around those kinds of ideas.

Old Sebastian Bach knew a thing or two about us. We have this elaborate ritual of warm-fuzziness and camaraderie (“mutual trust and friendship among people who spend a lot of time together”) that makes us feel more generous than we have any right to feel about ourselves. It doesn’t matter if we actually believe in the [original] “reason for the season.” We all participate in the orgy of “spending and pretending.” Pretending we love everyone, when what we really want is to keep our economy on track. I don’t need to say all of this.

Everyone who has more than 30 seconds to be reflective knows it.

So Old Sebastian Bach stuck this hymn into his Christmas Oratorio, right in the first section. The choir (and presumably the congregation at St. Thomas, Leipzig) sang these heart-warming, goose-bumpy words about meeting the Baby Jesus (or the Baby Kardashian).

But if you’re paying attention, you realize he’s tricking you into singing also about police brutality in Ferguson, MO, about our desire to change the law so we can carry murder weapons openly in Texas, about the estimated 300,000 kids in North Texas who live in food insecurity. And I won’t mention (because most people—even those who might agree we need to sing about murder and hunger—absolutely do not want to think about it) the racism that so pervades our culture that we who are in charge of things can’t even see it.

In place of the words to the Christmas Oratorio I find news of Kourtney Kardashian’s baby—at least partly because those words are lost in piles of stuff I don’t need. Stuff that makes me feel warm-fuzzy, protected, successful, while I ignore the homeless black man sitting yesterday a couple of yards from the gate to my apartment complex.

“O sacred head. . .”

Quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum.

Like as the hart. . .

Like as the hart. . .

On a clear day in June, 2008, on a highway between the Sea of Galilee and the city of Nazareth the driver of the bus carrying the small group I was with slowed and told us to look left up the hill to see a Gazella gazelle, a Palestinian Gazelle. I saw a tan streak of motion a bit darker than the dry hillside and a couple of tiny patches of white. The Palestinian Gazelle disappeared up the hill faster than I could look.

Our driver said we were lucky—hardly anyone sees Palestinian Gazelles because they are a declining and endangered species. Since that day I have been fascinated by the Palestinian gazelle.

I’m also fascinated by the romanticizing of the demographics of The Galilee. Nazareth is west of the Sea of Galilee. About 150,000 people (mostly Arabs) live there. It’s not simply the mythical place where Jesus walked. Nazareth is a metropolitan area that was ceded to Israel in 1948 even though the population was over 60% Arab—60% of those people Muslim and 40% Christian.

Across the Sea to the east is the Golan Heights, until 1967 a part of Syria. While we are horrified at ISIS taking swaths of Syria in the name of religion, we accept uncritically Israel’s 1967 annexation of the Golan Heights in the name of religion. Fascinating.

A melody that often sneaks from my unconscious to my conscious mind to sing repeatedly is the opening of the anthem by Herbert Howells, “Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks.” The King James “hart” is the Palestinian gazelle.

כְּאַיָּל, תַּעֲרֹג עַל-אֲפִיקֵי-מָיִם– כֵּן נַפְשִׁי תַעֲרֹג אֵלֶיךָ אֱלֹהִים.
ὃν τρόπον ἐπιποθεῖ ἡ ἔλαφος ἐπὶ τὰς πηγὰς τῶν ὑδάτων οὕτως ἐπιποθεῖ ἡ ψυχή μου πρὸς σέ ὁ θεός
Quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum.
Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks, so longeth my soul after thee, O God.

I used to think I remembered the words of this anthem because the uncommonly beautiful music, once learned, is impossible

Like as the hart

Like as the hart

to forget. It may be the other way ’round.

Jill A. Fisher proposes that there are

. . . four primary overlapping functions of the tattoo. First, the tattoo functions as ritual. . . the tattoo can serve . . . as a physical mark of a life event. . . interpreted as significant by the bearer . . . The tattoo also functions as identification. . . as part of a given group . . . A third function of tattooing is protective . . . a talisman to protect its bearer from general or specific harm. . . the fourth function of tattoos is decorative . . . modifying the body with tattoos, the individual has chosen to add permanent decoration to his/her body. (Fisher, Jill A. “Tattooing the Body, Marking Culture.” Body and Society 8.4 (December 2002): 91-107.)

About ten days ago I had the image of the face of a Palestinian Gazelle tattooed on my right forearm with the Latin Quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum (“As a deer longs for flowing streams”) circling my arm below it.

This was not my first tattoo. I had a stylized version of the Arabic words for “peace” and “love” intertwined tattooed on that arm about five months ago.

Since I last wrote about this phenomenon of late-in-life tattooing, I have been thinking about and (frankly, having difficulty) explaining to myself why I’ve had them done. I don’t much care (my sister says we are of a generation that makes one of two assumptions about men with tattoos, neither of which apply to me; she has not told me what those assumptions are) what anyone else thinks of them, but I would like a bit of self-understanding around this permanent modification of my body, especially in such obvious places. Why not on my upper arms or some other place on my body that I can easily cover?

As I have written about before, I had my first tattoo about six months ago—on my left arm, a rather startling image taken from a 15th-century Gregorian chant manuscript, the incipit of the funeral hymn, Dies irae (“Day of wrath, O day of mourning”).

The only other tattoo I plan to have is already prepared for by the illuminated “H” on my left shoulder. It will be the beginning of another Gregorian Chant, Haec díes quam fécit Dóminus (“This is the day the Lord has made”). I decided on the Haec díes because I wanted a chant that begins with “H” and has lots of complicated notation for Joe, the artist at Tigger’s on Main Street in Dallas, to copy. It will stretch from my shoulder half-way around my back.

Ritual. Identification. Protection. Decoration.

I’m fascinated by my own motives. My first tattooing was one week after my final semester on the faculty of SMU ended. The “H” came at the time I made a decision about how I want to spend the first period of my retirement. The Arabic “peace and love” came during the Israeli devastation of Gaza. And the gazelle came at a moment of change and redefinition of my life.
My first awareness of—and secret desire for—tattoos was in 4th grade when the older brother of one of my friends came home on leave from the Navy. I wanted a tattoo like the anchor he had on his arm. My getting tattoos is arrested development?


. . . that day Will dissolve the world in ashes . . .

. . . that day
Will dissolve the world in ashes . . .

Or perhaps my mind is finding rest somehow that I can’t predict, control, or understand. And these tattoos are either a part of that process or keeping track of it.

An indelible reminder that the end is coming. An acknowledgement that I long for—for what?—I do not know. A declaration that this is the day. An abiding desire for peace and love. In ancient languages. In images of ancient languages?

I did not have a grand plan for these tattoos. I’ve taken each without much thought about how it fit with the previous ones. But “Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks . . .” Palestine is desert-like. It’s easy to understand why a Palestinian Gazelle desireth the waterbrooks. Does the gazelle know why, or understand the nature of the water?

Dies irae
The day of wrath, that day
Will dissolve the world in ashes
As foretold by David and the Sibyl!
How much tremor there will be,
when the Judge will come,
investigating everything strictly!

Quemadmodum desiderat cervus
As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?
My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?”

Haec díes
This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord.

Peace and love.

It has my back.
Haec Dies banner

“O, let America be America again—The land that never has been yet—“ (Langston Hughes)

140818-michael-brown-graduation-jms-2128_e9443531d58b213656488e4ce6d17a4fMy anguish, my horror, my sense of complicity—these things keep me from writing. I don’t want to sound like the old (white) schoolmarm, or the bleeding heart (white) liberal, or the judgmental (white) bitch, or. . .

But I want you (my white friends and followers of my blog) to read the indictment below.

Please give the few minutes out of your (white) privileged day you will need to read this statement of truths you and I, the white dominators, need to hear.

We—you and I—can’t say it’s not our fault, that it was begun by our (white) ancestors and we are not to blame—we are to blame. My guess is not one African-American man is reading this. If you are, I don’t know what to say to you. I don’t know the right thing, the helpful thing, or the self-aware thing that can possibly begin to right a centuries-old wrong.

So I will try my damnedest to hear Joshua DuBois. If his words are too hard, perhaps I can at least try to hear the lovely poetry of Langston Hughes I’ve copied at the end of Joshua DuBois’s writing.

I want you (my white friends and followers of my blog) to read the truths below.

[Note: Copyright of Newsweek Global: the property of Newsweek LLC and its content may not be copied . . . (I am breaking copyright laws. So be it. I’m willing to take the risk if you will read this)]

Joshua DuBois, “The Fight for Black Men”

There are more African-Americans on probation, parole, or in prison today than were slaves in 1850. It is not a crisis of crime. It is a crisis of people being left behind.

There is an easy way to meet Joe Jones, and a hard way. Let’s start with the easy way. If you and I were at a cocktail party, I’d introduce you to a tall, bald, black man, standing a shoulder above most everybody else. Knowing Joe Jones, he’d probably be wearing a tan suit and muted tie. Joe’s subdued, square-rimmed glasses fit nicely with his veiled intellect–he’s the kind of guy who readily drops six-dollar words without a hint of pretense.

I’d probably ask Joe to tell you about the nonprofit he runs, the Center for Urban Families on Baltimore’s West Side. CFUF is a national model for helping men and women who are confronting addiction, poverty, and despair turn their lives around, and teaching absent fathers how to reconnect with their kids. Joe’s a modest guy, so I’d have to brag on his behalf, about the bigwigs who have dropped by his center, and all the awards the organization has won.

Finally, I’d say in passing: “You know, Joe has a powerful personal story himself. His own father wasn’t around, he struggled in the streets for a while, and then pulled himself up, and made it out.” Nice and neat. Joe would nod and smile. You’d nod and smile. I’d nod and smile. We’d all be smiling–appropriately inspired.

That’s the easy way to meet Joe Jones. But there’s also the hard way. The hard way is to grapple with the fact that Joe’s family didn’t just emerge from some unseen ghetto thousands of miles away. No, his grandfather migrated to Baltimore from North Carolina, and started a business–a waste-management facility, one of the city’s more successful ones. His grandparents were “models of stability,” Joe told me. A few generations before that, Joe’s family were slaves.

It’s hard to figure out what happened to Joe’s dad, and thousands of other black fathers like him. Joe’s dad was training to be a teacher, but one day in the mid-’60s he hopped into the driver side of a Ford Thunderbird, visibly angry, slung his duffel bag on the passenger side, and drove off for good. Joe saw the whole thing from his upstairs window in the Lafayette Court housing projects; he thought his dad was going to the laundromat, and sat waiting for him, for hours.

It’s tough to stomach what happened later. How Joe, an adorable kid of 13–never a smoker, never a drinker–met a guy a couple years older than him. And this person put it into Joe’s young head that maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing to stick a needle in his arm, and let a bit of heroin rush in. So, as a 13-year-old, he did. Joe’s two cousins shared the needle with him–their dad wasn’t around either–and his best friend, Barry, also fatherless, did too.

So now Joe’s an adolescent junkie, hanging out on Edmonson Avenue in West Baltimore and shooting up wherever he can find a shadow long enough to hide himself: sometimes in a bowling alley bathroom, sometimes in his aunt’s basement. He was 14 when he was busted for the first time for using drugs, along with his two cousins and Barry. The other boys’ parents bailed them out, thank God, but the police suggested that Joe, the ringleader, should stew for a little while to learn his lesson–you know, “tough on crime.”

Turns out, this wasn’t the best move for Joe. During his few extra days in jail, in the throes of heroin withdrawal that his young system wasn’t handling well, Joe met a local kingpin who taught him how to be a more efficient junkie, and a more effective criminal. Or as Joe puts it now (in his always-impeccable phrasing): “This man created a pathway for me to negotiate the street environment in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. It was the worst thing that could’ve happened to me.”

So in the span of a few years, Joe went from a stable household to a single-parent family. From a middle-school honor student to a street-corner addict. From the grandson of a businessman and great-great-great-grandson of slaves to the son of an absent father, and a future deadbeat dad himself. It was a jumble of inputs–bad parenting and bad policy, misguided culture and tragic history–resulting in one clear output: a woefully lost kid.

There is a lot more to Joe Jones’s story–more pain than most can bear; more beauty than you’d expect. We’ll get to all of that, including his fateful encounter with the president of the United States.

But first, a few words about the world Joe comes from: the world of low-income black men. Why talk about this world? After all, it’s simple enough to ignore. We can safely tuck these men away in our inner cities and allow them to interact largely among themselves. We can rush past them in front of the gas station, murmur silently when the nightly news tells us of a shooting across town, or smile when we meet a nice, inspiring man like Joe. We can keep them in these places. It’s safe and easy for us.

Yet if we’re honest, we’ll have to admit that when one single group of people is conspicuously left behind, it never bodes well for society as a whole. In many ways, black men in America are a walking gut check; we learn from them a lot about ourselves, how far we’ve really come as a country, and how much further we have to go.

I spent the past few months talking to dozens of experts who are working to address the crisis among black men. It was clear from these conversations that the reasons for this crisis are complex–as are the solutions. But it was also clear that the fight for black men, which is currently being waged by activists, politicians, celebrities, and everyday people alike, can indeed be won.

As with Joe Jones, it starts by understanding their history, and their stories.

THE EARLIEST chapter in that story is a tough one. I’d rather skip it. You’d rather that I skip it. But as Ralph Ellison once remarked, channeling Faulkner, our complicated racial past is “a part of the living present”; it’s a past that “speaks even when no one wills to listen.”

-The facts are a bit overwhelming, but not in much dispute. Africans were imported to the United States as purchased goods beginning around 1620. By 1770, when Crispus Attucks, a free black man, spilled the first drop of blood in the cause of the American Revolution, nearly 18 percent of the American population–almost 700,000 people–were slaves. By the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, that number had exploded to over 4 million.

Beneath these sterile facts lay a grisly reality. Blacks were systemically dehumanized for hundreds of years, a practice that had unique social and psychological effects on men. They were worked and whipped in fields like cattle. Any semblance of pride, any cry for justice, any measure of genuine manhood was tortured, beaten, or sold out of them. Marriage was strictly prohibited. Most were forbidden from learning to read and write. The wealth derived from their labor–the massive wealth derived from cotton, our chief export throughout much of the 19th and early 20th centuries–was channeled elsewhere.

But, because slavery ended 150 years ago, we often assume that this dehumanization is ancient history. It is not. As Douglas Blackmon of The Wall Street Journal meticulously documents in his Pulitzer Prize–winning book, Slavery by Another Name, blacks were kept in virtual bondage through Jim Crow laws, sharecropping, and, quite often, a form of quasi-slavery called peonage, which endured well into the middle of the 20th century.

Here’s how it worked: black men (it was usually men) were arrested for petty crimes or no crimes at all; “selling cotton after sunset” was a favorite charge. They were then assessed a steep fine. If they could not pay, they were imprisoned for long sentences and forced to work for free. This allowed savvy industrialists to replace thousands of slaves with thousands of convicts.

While some whites were caught up in this system, the forced labor camps were 80 to 90 percent populated by black men. This practice endured until 1948, when the federal criminal code was rewritten to helpfully clarify that the law forbade involuntary servitude.

Around that time, determined activists–from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Fannie Lou Hamer–organized to demand equal treatment. We know the civil rights story well: Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which overturned the separate-but-equal doctrine; the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed various forms of discrimination; and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which carved a clear path to the unfettered right to vote.

And that, we told black men, was that. Immediately following the civil rights movement, in the early 1970s, we assured these men, with fingers perhaps gently crossed behind our backs, that all the discrimination they had faced was behind them; that there would be no further barriers to opportunity, even unspoken ones; that it was time for them to wake up. Get a job. Get married, and start a family. Build wealth. Take hold of the American dream. We won’t stop you–we promise.

We focused our social investments in this period–our brief War on Poverty–on women and children, because men were supposed to figure it out. But in the 1970s and 1980s, many of these black men didn’t. Just like their great-grandfathers never fully figured out how to teach their sons about manhood while being lashed in a field. Just like their grandfathers never completely figured out how to pass on lessons about building wealth when theirs was stolen through peonage and sharecropping.

Their fathers tried to rally around Martin Luther King as a symbol of what they could be–but he was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. In the post–civil rights era, many of these black men, men like Joe Jones’s father, weren’t quite figuring it out either. And neither are many of their sons and grandsons, those bright if often scowling men we see on our streets.

Why not? The reasons are as complicated as the difficult history, and simple debates about government spending versus personal responsibility are woefully insufficient.

But one of the key reasons has to do with our criminal justice system. And it points the way toward one of the key solutions–perhaps the single most important thing government can do to help win the fight for black men.

No one has done more to shed light on this issue than Michelle Alexander. Alexander may be this century’s Harriet Beecher Stowe, the storied author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin about whom President Lincoln remarked, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this Great War?” But instead of making a war, Alexander wrote a book to end one.

Alexander was a young civil rights attorney working for the ACLU of California and trying to find a model plaintiff for a civil rights case against the Oakland Police Department, which at the time was rife with corruption. One day, a 19-year-old black man walked into her office, and he looked like the perfect case to prove that the Oakland PD had gone bad.

The man had been stopped and released dozens of times, for no reason at all. He had been forced to lie on the ground spread-eagle and been subjected to invasive searches, after which the police found nothing. And, important, he had taken meticulous notes of all this–every stop, every date, every badge number. “I was getting more and more excited,” Alexander told me, “because I thought this was our plaintiff.”

However, at the end of his presentation, the man shared one final fact: he had a felony record, having been busted for a drug offense years earlier and convicted as an adult. Alexander stopped him there. “I explained to him that I couldn’t take his case,” she told me. “It wouldn’t be fair to him or to us. With his felony record he’d have no credibility on the witness stand; he’d be cross-examined about his past.”

Alexander tried to explain to the young man that it wouldn’t work out, but he pushed back in protest. He said that the conviction was for a minor offense, and that he’d just taken a plea deal to avoid more jail time. He said his past should have no bearing on the repeated abuse he had experienced.

But Alexander didn’t budge, and eventually the young man had enough. Fighting back tears, he yelled at her, “You’re no better than anyone else! The minute I tell you I have a criminal record, you stop listening. I can’t get a job. I can’t feed my family. Where am I supposed to sleep? How long am I supposed to pay for my record?”

The man stormed out in a huff, leaving Alexander stunned. At that point, something clicked with her, something that pulled together all of her prior experience in civil rights law and history. Alexander realized that, not unlike the peonage system in the early 20th century, the “war on drugs” had created what she calls a “permanent under-caste” of men convicted of drug offenses. Men who, even after their release from incarceration for relatively minor crimes, would never again be able to navigate the world on equal footing with the rest of us. Men like the young man she met but could not serve.

eric-garner-police-brutality-ramsey-ortaThe full explanation of this permanent under-caste of black men and the devastation it has wrought is meticulously and powerfully delivered in The New Jim Crow–Alexander’s book about the war on drugs, which was on The New York Times bestseller list for nearly a year and today can be found in the hands of decision makers across the country, from federal courtrooms to the halls of Congress. In the book, she describes the ramp-up of criminal-justice spending in the 1980s as the result of an intentional political strategy rather than a reasoned law enforcement response. The result has been the mass incarceration of African-Americans, mostly men, with little connection to actual rates of crime.

Alexander shows that there are more African-Americans in the corrections system today–in prison or on probation or parole–than there were enslaved in 1850. As of 2004, more black men were denied the right to vote because of a criminal record than in 1870, when the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, giving blacks the right to vote. In the three decades since the war on drugs began, the U.S. prison population has exploded from 300,000 to more than 2 million people, giving our country the highest incarceration rate in the world–higher than Russia, China, and other regimes we consider repressive. A significant majority of black men in some urban areas are labeled felons for life; in and around Chicago, when you include prisoners, that number approaches 80 percent.

But isn’t this just a function of more crime in black communities? Aren’t we arresting violent super-predators, the type we see on television? Alexander makes clear: in most communities, the answer is no.

“It has nothing to do with crime rates,” she told me. “Crime rates have fluctuated over time–we’re currently at historic lows–but incarceration rates have consistently soared.” People of color are arrested in large numbers for relatively minor offenses–four out of five drug arrests in 2005 were for possession, not sales–and then given sentences that outpace their white counterparts. In fact, in the 1990s, when the war on drugs was at its peak, almost 80 percent of the increase in drug arrests was for possession of marijuana.

The result of all of this is the “under-caste,” an apt if cringe-worthy term describing the massive numbers of black men who cannot access housing, who are screened out of employment, and who in many states are denied the right to vote. Facing severely limited options and few opportunities for rehabilitation, millions of these men re-offend, creating more victims in our communities and landing themselves back in jail.

These men are increasingly isolated from the rest of America–including from middle-class African-Americans. As the Rev. Al Sharpton, the nationally known civil rights activist and founder of the National Action Network, told me in an interview, “We’re in the best of times and worst of times, at the same time.” “It’s the best-time times,” Sharpton continued, “because we have a black president, black attorney general, black CEOs. But it’s the worst of times because millions of African-American men are being locked up and left out like never before.”

Ben Jealous, the president of the NAACP, agrees. In an interview, Jealous declared to me that “black men are the most incarcerated people on the planet warehoused in prison for nonviolent crimes that two decades ago would have resulted in little to no jail time.”

But Jealous is also hopeful. The NAACP is going state by state, attaching practical solutions to Alexander’s thesis. And because of strained prison budgets and concern about bloated government, they are finding receptive audiences not just among liberals but among conservatives too. For example, they are presently working with Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia, a Tea Party Republican, to, in Jealous’s words, “make their prison system dramatically smaller.” “Our allies on the right are beginning to think about criminal-justice reform,” Jealous says. “They are finally getting beyond ‘tough on crime’ slogans, and actually focusing on what works.”

In fact, bipartisan efforts on criminal-justice reform are growing. On the Democratic side, Attorney General Eric Holder has confronted the issue head on, spearheading an initiative to tackle youth violence and create new reentry programs for returning offenders, while working with Congress to reduce racial disparities in sentencing. He’s been joined on the right by Republican Congressman Frank Wolf, who has taken a particular interest in “smart on crime” approaches, driven by his relationship with Prison Fellowship, an evangelical Christian organization that believes in giving second chances to people who’ve been incarcerated.

Meanwhile, from the halls of Congress to statehouses across the country, people are reading Michelle Alexander’s book. On a recent afternoon, I drove to the office of U.S. Congressman Bobby Rush, sitting for an hour with this stalwart of the Congressional Black Caucus whose experience on the issue of black men in America spans from a stint in the Black Panther party to Christian pulpits to losing his own son to gun violence. Rush recently had a spat with a fellow Illinoisan, Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, who made headlines recommending that Chicago spend $30 million more to lock up young gang members. “I sent him a copy of The New Jim Crow,” Rush told me. “He promised me that he would read it.”

IF MICHELLE Alexander is worried about black men’s criminal records, John Hope Bryant is concerned with their wallets. “I believe that 99 percent of black leaders are digging in the wrong hole,” Bryant told me. “If you’re poor, your health care’s going to suck, your housing is going to suck, your infrastructure is going to suck if you’re poor, everything sucks.”

Bryant speaks like Martin Luther King on an auctioneer’s stand–a frenetic ball of energy and ideas, seamlessly mixing civil rights maxims with financial advice at 100 miles an hour. He started his first business in Compton, California, at the age of 10, when the corner store in his neighborhood stopped selling the type of candy kids wanted. He opened up his own store in his mother’s living room, and in three months was so successful that, in his words, “I put the corner store out of business.”

Since then, Bryant has been convinced that the way out for black men is through a burgeoning bank account, not a social service program. “The whole world pivots on economic issues. If you don’t solve that, you can’t solve anything else,” Bryant says. “But if you do solve that, you have a chance at solving everything else.”

Bryant has put his money–and substantial energy–where his mouth is. He runs the largest network of financial literacy centers in the country–HOPE Financial Dignity Centers–which help low-income Americans access credit for small businesses, manage their budgets, open bank accounts, and purchase homes.

Like Michelle Alexander and others, Bryant is concerned with the mass incarceration of young black men but from a slightly different angle. “There’s a very good chance that we’re actually locking up the only potential we’ve got to revitalize inner-city neighborhoods in America,” Bryant told me. “Drug dealers, gang organizers–they’re all natural entrepreneurs. They get up early, they work late, they hustle–but they have misplaced values and terrible role models.”

Bryant created the HOPE Business in a Box program to help troubled youth start, fund, and operate small businesses. He also thinks that black businessmen should help young black boys ditch the “rappers and ball players” that they currently hold up as role models, and look in a different direction for examples of success. “These young men are the best chance we have to create jobs and GDP in our neighborhoods,” Bryant says, “if we can just get them back on the right track.”

BRYANT’S EFFORT is just one of a growing number of innovative private and public programs that are making real inroads on this issue. Many of these initiatives are taking place under the umbrella of George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, which has created a Campaign for Black Male Achievement and a Leadership and Sustainability Institute to knit together previously disparate programs for black men and boys, and help the field outlast funding from any one source. The effort is led by Shawn Dove, a burly man who speaks with a thick New York accent that has hints of all five boroughs at once. In fact, he’s lived in all of them, but he cut his teeth mostly at 80th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.

It was on that corner that Dove sold loose joints as a teenager, teetering between a strict Jamaican household, where his single mother ruled with an iron fist, and the warm glow of New York evenings and the allure that hustling brings.

One day some friends invited Shawn to a basketball game on the Upper West Side, and he met a guy named John Simon, who ran a youth program called DOME (Developing Opportunities for Meaningful Education). Simon told Shawn that he had the potential for greatness if he would only focus. “I took him up on his offer,” Shawn told me.

From there it was a fast track to Wesleyan University, a stint in the garment industry, and a career as a shining star among nonprofit executives in New York. But several years ago, Shawn received a call that would change his life.

It was from the Open Society Institute–now Open Society Foundations. They were looking for someone to start a project on low-income black men, and wondered if Shawn would be interested in the job. Shawn said yes, and six years later he has helped create an entire field of “black male achievement,” an ecosystem of organizations, programs, and leaders with one straightforward if daunting goal: give low-income African-American men and boys an opportunity to succeed, a pathway to the American dream.

Under this umbrella is a Black Male Achievement Fellows Program, which supports social entrepreneurs in urban communities, in partnership with the Echoing Green Foundation. Then there is “BMe,” a collection of thousands of video testimonials that allow black men to tell their story in their own voices. Dove’s institute has also partnered with Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York on the Young Men’s Initiative, a citywide effort to redirect black and Latino boys bound for prison to another path. Linda Gibbs, the deputy mayor of health and human services of New York, told me that the Young Men’s Initiative is about building a “continuum of services,” including job training, mentoring, and male-friendly health care to give troubled young men the best chance to succeed. In less than two years of running the program, Gibbs says they’ve seen a “dramatic reduction in the number of young men who are serving time,” as well as a reduction in re-arrests. (The program has sparked a similar effort in other cities called Cities United–in which Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans, Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, Casey Family Programs, and the National League of Cities are leading participants.)

Dove has also convened other major funders–including William Bell of Casey and Robert Ross at the California Endowment–into a new Black Male Achievement Funders coalition, each with a different approach to a previously intractable problem. Ross, the California Endowment’s president and a pediatrician from the South Bronx who took a three-month sabbatical to study the issue of young black men in America, focuses on behavioral health and education. The California Endowment is funding programs to close the achievement gap in third-grade reading scores and develop alternative approaches to suspension when dealing with troubled boys. “Overly harsh discipline and suspension marginalizes, stigmatizes, and criminalizes these boys,” Ross told me. “When an African-American male in eighth grade has defiant behavior in the classroom, it’s like seeing a burn on their body; we need to treat their behavior as evidence of a problem to be solved rather than a kid to lock up.”

There’s powerful work happening outside of Dove’s network as well. For example, Michael Curtin, CEO of D.C. Central Kitchen, believes the food industry can help to empower black men and women. Since 1989, the kitchen has served over 25 million meals to low-income people in the D.C. area–but don’t call it a food bank. Instead, Curtin, a former restaurateur, runs a rigorous culinary job-training program, using the process of meal preparation to help formerly homeless, addicted, and incarcerated men and women learn culinary skills and then find employment in the hospitality industry.

I visited D.C. Central Kitchen recently and saw lines of men and women who were previously on the streets chopping vegetables, barking orders, and managing a full-scale industrial operation. Curtin told me at the time, “When I look back on my personal experience, I recognized that I was incredibly fortunate–I had a phenomenal family, I grew up in safe communities, and went to good schools. I made reckless decisions, but always had someone there to put me back on track. Many of the men and women who come to us grew up in very different circumstances–when they messed up, they didn’t have someone to help get them back on track. What we’re trying to do at D.C. Central Kitchen is provide people with that opportunity.”
THE FIGHT for black men is being waged through policy and programs, as the work of Shawn Dove and Michelle Alexander shows. But there’s also a concurrent fight going on for their culture and soul–and in that battle, Ta-Nehisi Coates is at the forefront.

Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic, is a reluctant spokesman. He has shut down his Twitter account more than once. After penning several landmark columns for The New York Times, he declined the Times’s offer of a permanent weekly slot. And he does not write solely, or even primarily, about race. His recent topics of interest range from the conflict in Syria to Kurt Vonnegut. He speaks fluent French, and analyzes the hit show Mad Men with gusto.

But try as he might, Coates cannot escape the mantle of leading cultural envoy. He writes in a way that’s inherently viral, moving fast from black hands to white and then around the world. What Henry Louis Gates says about race painstakingly, like an intricate symphony, and Cornel West declares elliptically, like a Pentecostal preacher or alto saxophonist, Coates offers straight up, with just a splash of hip-hop as a chaser.

Consider his New York Times essay “The Good, Racist People,” which summed up in nine paragraphs what black men have been trying to get off their chests for the last 30 years. Through personal stories, he cast racism in America as “invisible violence,” perpetrated by well-meaning folks all around. Or his landmark piece for The Atlantic, “Fear of a Black President,” about what he calls the “false promise and double standard of integration” in the era of President Obama.

Coates is at the fulcrum of a resurgent cultural conversation about black men, one that is advancing in a number of sectors. There is the painter Kehinde Wiley, who mixes classical techniques with contemporary subjects to create stunning portraits of blacks in America. There are rappers like Lupe Fiasco and Kendrick Lamar, who are using their lyrics to put new spins on old truths. In sports, Miami Heat great Dwyane Wade has teamed up with a cast of unlikely characters–including Grammy Award–winning artist Lecrae and conservative funder Foster Friess–to launch the “This Is Fatherhood” challenge, which encourages young people around the country, and particularly black men, to tell stories of what fatherhood means to them. In film, the talent agent Tamara Houston has launched a new organization, ICON MANN, to create a space for Hollywood’s leading black male actors to learn from one another and project their values to the world.

But Coates is in many ways this movement’s biographer. In an interview, he told me that the goal of his writing is not to “fix” race relations in America. “I have folks who write me and want me to help out with their racist uncle; I don’t want any part of that,” he said with light-hearted sarcasm. But when pushed, he admitted that he does see himself as “an agent in pursuit of the truth of this country, of which I’m a citizen, in which I was raised, which I love.” “I want to understand it,” he continued. “I want to explore it, and make that exploration as honest as I can.”

I asked Coates about the best way to help black men who are struggling, and he didn’t point to a particular program. Instead, he said, “If there’s one thing that’s missing in our country, it’s an acknowledgment of the broad humanity of black folks. Racism–and anti-black racism in particular–is the belief that there’s something wrong with black people and I mean something in our bones.” He continued, “In our own community, we’ve internalized this. We wonder if we lack moral courage.”
“I want the country to understand that there’s nothing wrong with us,” Coates says, with urgency in his voice. “Things have happened in this country, but there’s nothing wrong with us. My job is to help close the gap between what they see in us and who we actually are.”

“WHO WE actually are.” It took Joe Jones about two decades to figure that out. That’s how long he was strung out–after his dad pulled off in the Thunderbird, his mom went away to work, and he made a series of bad decisions on Edmonson Avenue; after jail made him more of a criminal and a junkie, not less. By 1986, Joe was spending $800 to $900 a day on a mixture of heroin and crack.

There were some bright moments–the birth of his son, a job at the Social Security Administration. But in one way or another, they all were deflated, pricked by the same needle that he regularly thrust into his arm.

Finally, facing a five-year prison sentence for drug possession, Joe argued and cajoled his way into an in-patient treatment program instead. He told me: “There was a six-month wait for the program, but I knew I needed to get in now. The only way you could get in was if you were crazy, so I acted as crazy as I could.”

It worked. And from the moment he got serious treatment, things kept working for Joe. I asked him how it all came together, and he told me it was pretty simple: people listened to him, got to know him, and they liked him.

There was the staff at the treatment center who grew to know Joe Jones as not just an addict but a man, “counselors and therapists who could help me understand why I did the things that I did.”

There was the dean at Baltimore City Community College, who admitted Joe despite his criminal record. He and Joe became so close that Joe ended up counseling the dean when the dean’s son was struggling with his own drug addiction. Joe graduated from the college with an accounting degree, at the top of his class. There was also the young woman Joe met in the financial aid office at this community college–she liked him so much that she later became his wife.

This phenomenon of knowing, and liking, was repeated over and over in my interviews with experts on troubled youth. As Geoffrey Canada, CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone–our country’s go-to model for turning around tough neighborhoods–told me, “First you have to know them, and then you have to like them, enough to respect what they’re going through but not accept responses that may be inappropriate.”

Canada continued, “You really do have to like them. Boys, when they’re threatened and angry, they act out in ways that make them difficult to deal with. They can become threatening, sullen, disrespectful. They learn to be frightening as a defense mechanism in the environments they have to navigate.”

“When you don’t like them,” he said, “those are reasons to get rid of them–to put them out of programs, put them out of schools, to call the police to deal with them, lock them up. But when they’re kids that you actually know, and actually like, they will listen to you, and you will listen to them. And that’s where change starts.”

A few people got to know Joe Jones, and then like him. And his life changed. Joe entered a series of nonprofit jobs, from HIV counseling to health care, and eventually began working for the Baltimore Health Department. He persuaded the city of Baltimore to start a fatherhood program, along with programs on maternal and child health. These efforts were so successful that the mayor of Baltimore at the time, Kurt Schmoke, helped Joe spin them off into a larger, independent organization, which became the Center for Urban Families, the organization that Joe runs today.

At CFUF, Joe uses evidenced-based models to help the same types of men and women he grew up around. Funded in part by Shawn Dove’s campaign, Joe’s center has a successful job-training program, including partnerships with major Baltimore employers. They have a fatherhood program, along with programs on maternal and child health. These efforts were so successful that the mayor of Baltimore at the time, Kurt Schmoke, helped Joe spin them off into a larger, independent organization, which became the Center for Urban Families, the organization that Joe runs today.

At CFUF, Joe uses evidenced-based models to help the same types of men and women he grew up around. Funded in part by Shawn Dove’s campaign, Joe’s center has a successful job-training program, including partnerships with major Baltimore employers. They have a fatherhood program that gives dads practical skills to reconnect with their kids and pay back child support. Joe also wrote state legislation called “Couples Advancing Together”; it’s based on a simple but powerful idea that low-income men and women who are romantically involved should develop life plans and financial goals together. Social programs focusing on job training and financial literacy have traditionally served these couples separately, instead of acknowledging that their goals and life plans are inherently intertwined. Joe’s couples-services concept has the potential to dramatically change how these programs work; it passed the Maryland legislature in April and was signed into law by Gov. Martin O’Malley in May.
And a few weeks ago, something special happened. The man who perhaps most radically symbolizes both the hope of black men in America and the challenges from which they spring stopped by to see Joe Jones. President Obama, himself a product of a single-parent household, visited the Center for Urban Families to say hello to Joe and the men he serves. Obama met with employers, people being trained for jobs, and dads getting back on track. His remarks were private, candid, and–based on accounts from those in attendance–had quite an impact on a bunch of guys from West Baltimore who were struggling to make it by.

Later that same weekend, Obama traveled to Morehouse College in Atlanta to deliver a speech to the black male graduates there. He was to talk about fatherhood and responsibility, and what African-American men must do to compete in the world. But in one brief, unscripted moment at Morehouse, the two dichotomized worlds of black men–Joe’s new one and his old one; the soaring heights of the presidency and the depths of the streets–briefly and powerfully collided.

I had been a small part of the planning process for the speech. Obama’s relationship with his father–years of absence and brief flickers of presence–is one of the defining aspects of his life. While I grew up with a strong and supportive stepfather, my own biological father had a beautiful, tragic, and deeply complicated story–a black man who received a Ph.D. from Cornell University, and ended his life in a federal penitentiary in North Carolina. Out of this common set of experiences, I worked for years with the president on his fatherhood initiative, an effort to help absent fathers around the country get back on the right track.

I had the text in front of me as Obama was delivering the speech. So it came as a surprise when, as the president neared his close, something pulled him away from the prepared remarks. He was supposed to be moving to a final story about one of the graduates, but instead started talking about men who had been left behind. I have to imagine he was picturing men like those he saw at the Center for Urban Families, men like those he had known his whole life. Men like Joe.

“Whatever success I have achieved,” the president said, “whatever positions of leadership I have held have depended less on Ivy League degrees or SAT scores or GPAs, and have instead been due to that sense of connection and empathy–the special obligation I felt, as a black man like you, to help those who need it most, people who didn’t have the opportunities that I had.”
He continued, “Because there but for the grace of God go I. I might have been in their shoes. I might have been in prison”–a jarring thing to hear from the president of the United States. “I might have been unemployed. I might not have been able to support a family. And that motivates me.”

Obama’s voice faded off into a trail of emotion and applause, and he returned to the text. But the point was made.
We have walked a winding road with black men in this country, with no small amount of pain and tears along the way. But all Americans have walked that road together. Our connection to each other is, as James Baldwin once said of the relationship between blacks and whites, “far deeper and more passionate than any of us like to think.” And it’s that connection, that empathy, that “there but for the grace of God go I” mentality, that must motivate our society’s efforts on behalf of low-income black men. Because our history, our present circumstance, and our humanity demand it. Because there are boys walking the streets of this country with the brightest of futures–the next Shawn Dove, the next Joe Jones, the next Barack Obama–if only they were given a shot.

JOSHUA DUBOIS was President Obama’s first director of the White House faith-based initiative, and is now an author, teacher, speaker, and CEO of Values Partnerships.

“Let America Be America Again,” by Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967)
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

[I should not put this picture here because we will all be so shocked we will say it’s too much, it’s too real, it can’t happen anymore. Ask Eric Garner’s widow about that.]

“My advice to young people is to like hats but not love them.” (Aaron Belz)

Griff's in the foggy sunrise.

Griff’s in the foggy sunrise.

Griff’s on the Dock is the premier seafood restaurant in Port Orford, Oregon. When I spend a summer week or two in Port Orford, I stay at the Castaway Motel. When the weather is clear at sunrise looking east, I can watch a small spit of land reaching out to an Oregonian rock formation emerge from the dark, and beyond that, Mount Humbug.

To the west, the town dock slowly lightens, and Griff’s restaurant comes into view.

I own several baseball caps. My favorite cap is from Griff’s. It’s off-white with blue printing and a curved bill, the kind I like because it keeps sun off my rosacea-marked face. I’ve been wearing that cap often for the past couple of years.

Another of my favorites is the black-with-white-writing cap I got in Washington, D.C.

photo(1)I don’t like my appearance wearing a baseball cap. My head is too big or too round or something. I don’t look cool. I look like a plump old man trying to be young and sporty in a baseball cap. But they are practical.

Last week I was in Baton Rouge visiting my brother and sister-in-law for Thanksgiving. I had the Griff’s hat in my duffle bag. However, when we went out for the day on Black Friday (to a mall?—on the day after Thanksgiving?), I forgot to wear the cap, and I needed sun protection. I can’t allow my almost-shaved, almost-bald head to get sunburned or my reddened cheeks to be exposed.

My brother knew of a cap shop in the mall called “Lids.” It’s mainly stocked in caps with the logos of professional sports teams I don’t want on my head. But—what fun!—they have a machine on which they can embroider any words the customer wants. I wanted a “Baton Rouge” cap, and I had it in about 10 minutes. Tan with red lettering.

On Saturday we went back to the almost-deserted mall. I don’t remember the main purpose, but my purpose was to get another lid—dark blue with bright blue lettering, “OG Harold.” That’s right, Original Gangsta—my name to some college young men I know. They produced my one-of-kind lid.

The next day we went to Laura Plantation a little south on the Mississippi. Once again I left my cap—I had three to choose from—at the house, so I had to buy a cap in the gift shop—light blue with gold lettering.

I arrived home in Dallas with 4 caps instead of one. The temperature was 37, and I needed my stocking cap, not the “OG Harold” cap.photo-002 - Copy-001

I have written a great deal about my time(s) at the Oregon coast. They are not simply times away, or R&R. My being on the beach at Port Orford—here comes the hyperbole—has been some of the most “spiritual” time of my adult life. I do not like the word “spiritual” because people toss it around to mean whatever they want it to mean. The fact is that my experiences that some might call “spiritual” are the farthest thing from other-worldly or spooky or religious or any of those things. My experiences are the closest to “reality” I ever feel.

I don’t want anyone to tell me that I’m being “spiritual.”

I have written about this heightened sense of reality many times. My personal favorite—the one that comes closest to saying what I think and feel—is about my experience at Paradise Beach near Port Orford in 2009. Not surprisingly, several of those writings have to do with sunrises and sunsets.

I don’t need to try to replicate that writing or expand on the experience here. When I walk(ed) on the Oregon beach, it is (was) necessary to wear a cap even though it may be cloudy, foggy, dreary. I learned the hard way once that the sun is not hidden in those conditions. I posted a picture of myself wearing a favorite cap on July 15, 2011.

DSC01639I don’t remember which pictures of myself at the beach I took with the “time-release” on my camera and which I commandeered one of the other two or three beach walkers to take for me.

A kindly surf-boarder headed down to the water took the heading photo of my Sumnonrabidus blog. My cap is, of course, the important focal point of the picture. It was a Port Orford cap, and it blew off my head and far away in a downtown Dallas wind a couple of years ago.

My memory doesn’t play tricks on me. It simply pulls strands of this experience and that experience together, experiences that have nothing to do with each other.

Caps and oceans. Caps and the Library of Congress. Caps and football, Nebraska or SMU. Caps and nicknames. Caps and family time that becomes more gracious and important every day.

I never wore caps until this century.

My brother wears floppy hats in the safari style. My friend wears baseball caps like mine. Most gay men don’t wear baseball caps. I don’t know why. Another friend always wears her new elegant hat on Easter. Everyone wears hats when it’s cold. Stocking is preferred. “The problem with the love-hat relationship is that it is superficial. You don’t necessarily even know the other person.”

I’m thinking about what my various hats say to other people about me. I’m thinking that hats as reminders of memories are lovely. Especially if the memory is shared with a loved one.

Like all other reminders—symbols—one must be careful when attaching meaning. A cap is a pretty trivial way into the heart of another person.

Like so many of the ways we judge each other.

“The Love-Hat Relationship,” by Aaron Belz (b. 1971)
I have been thinking about the love-hat relationship.
It is the relationship based on love of one another’s hats.
The problem with the love-hat relationship is that it is superficial.
You don’t necessarily even know the other person.
Also it is too dependent on whether the other person
is even wearing the favored hat. We all enjoy hats,
but they’re not something to build an entire relationship on.
My advice to young people is to like hats but not love them.
Try having like-hat relationships with one another.
See if you can find something interesting about
the personality of the person whose hat you like.

Aaron Belz is the author of The Bird Hoverer (2007) and Lovely, Raspberry (2010). He earned an MA in creative writing from New York University, and a PhD in English from Saint Louis University. He has taught English and Creative Writing at Fontbonne University, Saint Louis University, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and Providence Christian College.

A kindly surfboarder.

A kindly surfboarder.

“God hath cleared our title to this place” (Governor John Winthrop)

". . . taking it from a people who had long usurped upon him. . ."

“. . . taking it from a people who had long usurped upon him. . .”

(In which I’m about as grumpy as an old man can be.)

Thanksgiving Day has an edge of improbable irony. On the one hand, many (I would no longer say “most”) Americans have much to be thankful for. We (those of us who grew up in the economic boom-times following WWII) used to say that we were better off than the citizens of any other country. That is, of course, no longer true for most of us, but we still have it pretty darned good.

On the other hand, the entire enterprise of giving “thanks” as a nation is so tainted with imperialist motives and (yes, shall I say it?) genocide that we (at least the white descendants of Northern Europeans) might better have an annual Repentance Day.

Shall I draw a totally objectionable parallel between the “birth” our nation and a certain development in the world today that has most of the Western world reacting in horror and consternation?

John Winthrop (12 January 1587 – 26 March 1649), who helped found several of the towns in the Massachusetts Bay Colony beginning in 1628 and was the Governor of the Colony presiding over the first Thanksgiving Day was a religious zealot who believed that God was directing the Puritans not only to “purify” the religion of England but also to conquer North America to create a sort of “caliphate” of religious law and purity. Bethany Berger, Professor of Real Property Law at the University of Connecticut Law School, says of Governor Winthrop’s motivations that

Although religious superiority was the earliest and the most fervent of the initial justifications for colonization, the religious mission of the early colonies also made it easy to see God’s will in the acquisition of Indian bodies (through death) as well as souls (Berger).

She presents evidence (she’s one of those “liberal” academics who looks at evidence and then forms opinions rather than depending on Post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning) from John Winthrop’s letters that the Puritans (Winthrop at any rate) believed they were creating a society that had protection from God because their beliefs were pure.

God hath . . . cle[a]red our title to this place [and the Lord was] pleased with our inheriting these parts . . . taking it from a people who had long usurped upon him, and abused his Creatures.

The official declaration of the Day of Thanksgiving for the colony’s success in King Philip’s War (1675-1676) asserts that

God that made bare his own arm for our deliverance [so that of the tribes that rose against us] there now scarce remains a name or family of them in their former habitations but are either slain, captivated, or fled into remote parts of this wilderness.

". . . there now scarce remains a name or family of them in their former habitations . . ."

“. . . there now scarce remains a name or family of them in their former habitations . . .”

We are witnessing—or rather, participating in—the desperate attempt to stop the spread of the so-called Muslim Caliphate in Syria and Iraq (and elsewhere). I’ve spent as much time as I care to unsuccessfully looking for actual pronouncements of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but we believe almost without question that the justification for the wholesale slaughter of citizens of those countries is a religious zealotry based on ISIS’ belief that “God hath . . . cle[a]red our title to this place.”

I am not saying (exactly) that our country was founded on the same kind of religious fanaticism that we fear (or don’t like because it is too strong a motivation for fanatic Muslims to thwart our own belief that God has cleared our title to the place) that ISIS seems to inspire.

But it is interesting to let one’s thoughts be provoked to try think about realities rather than myths and fairy tales. Just saying.

I’m not a historian, so I understand my making pronouncements about historical events and their significance is suspect at best. However, in another manifestation that God has cleared our title, “Whatever the status of these first Africans to arrive at Jamestown, it is clear that by 1640, at least one African had been declared a slave” (PBS).

I’m not certain what the relationship between the Puritan colony in Massachusetts and the (secular?) colony in Virginia was. But it seems fairly clear that as the Puritans were cleansing the earth of “heathens,” the Virginians were importing “heathens” as slaves to make them rich. The first African brought to Virginia who was unequivocally named as a slave in 1640 was ordered by a Virginia court “to serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or elsewhere” (PBS).

In Ferguson, MO, 374 years after the court decision in Virginia and 338 years after the citizens of Massachusetts were giving thanks that indigenous people had been “slain, captivated, or [had] fled” by the will of God, the imperialist and racist foundational concepts of our country are being played out.

And many Americans of Northern European descent—the political/philosophical/religious progeny of Governor Winthrop and the Virginia court—are standing by and wringing our hands and wondering why—why people of color can’t understand that we don’t want to subjugate them anymore, that we’re genuinely sorry that, for example, we incarcerate their young men at a rate surpassing the imprisonment of any other group of people in “first world” countries or that we still maintain a system of “reservations” to separate them from our society.

It seems to me (but I am a curmudgeon and an old guy who’s mad at the world—or something) . . . well you ought to be able to figure out what seems to me to be the irony of Thanksgiving Day.

You probably better try to figure it out before you rush off to Black Friday sales, the culmination of our unshakeable belief that God is on our side and someone, somewhere must support our lifestyle no matter what cost to them.
Berger, Bethany R. “Red: Racism and the American Indian.” UCLA Law Review 56.3 (2009): 591-656.
PBS. “Arrival of first Africans to Virginia Colony 1619.” Africans in America Resource Bank. WGBH. PBS online. N.D. Web.

". . . serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or elsewhere . . ."

“. . . serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or elsewhere . . .”

“. . . structurally positioned outside the human family, and its claims to integrity, honor, and visibility. . .” (Tryon P. Woods)

The Fakahatchee Strand. Want a piece of the swamp?

The Fakahatchee Strand. Want a piece of the swamp?

Since November 21 I have been trying to write a piece that I’d feel comfortable publishing here. The anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, yet another loss in my personal life, the joy of working with unusually eager-to-learn college students (that is, athletes). I’ve approached these subjects with humor, or with seriousness, or even with the desperation I feel much of the time these days).


And then this morning, as everyone knows, the news is full of the violence in Ferguson, MO, resulting from the decision of the grand jury not to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown.

When I was a kid, my parents gave my brother and me a couple of picture books, stories about a “day in the life” of a couple of black kids living in an American city. These were not children’s books with nice drawings and cute poetry. They were photo-essays. Real photographs of real kids doing what kids do.

The books disappeared decades ago, but the memory did not.

I just did a Google image search for, “1950s photos children’s books black kids at home.” Page after page of black and white photos of children—not a single black child among them. Is that indicative of anything? The reality of the ‘50s—or, more probably, the reality of the obliteration of blacks that still exists in the United States such that Google doesn’t know how to find a single photo from a black children’s book.

My father was born in Kansas City, Missouri, my mother in Kansas City, Kansas. When I was a kid, my relatives who still lived in Kansas City, two of my mother’s brothers and their families, and all of my grandparents lived in Kansas. Both of my mother’s brothers and their wives worked in KCMO.

. . . at least one hundred black people walking around . . .

. . . at least one hundred black people walking around . . .

One of my uncles was a ham radio operator. His license plate number was his call letters—how I remember this, I cannot imagine—K Ø THP. I guess that’s still the format for ham radio operators. (On second thought, I do know how I remember it—I made it into a little melody and sang it in my head incessantly.) I remember on one of our visits to KC, my uncle was in a dither because the police had come looking for him thinking he had committed some offense or another. The reason was that “some nigger has the same license as mine except it’s O, not zero.”

I was always shocked when I heard my uncles used the “N” word because it was absolutely forbidden in our home. The last time I remember hearing one of my uncles use the word was in 1995 when I was visiting in Kansas City. By that time my mother’s oldest brother and his wife had moved to a retirement community in Missouri, and the occasion of the use of the word was at dinner at their home with all of the KC relatives.


I was more than shocked. 1995.

It’s not surprising in hindsight that my parents did everything they could way out in Scottsbluff, NE, to help us be comfortable with racial difference. The first black person I ever spoke to was a man who moved to our town from somewhere in the Eastern US and came to our church. I was in 6th grade.

My sister remembers playing dolls with the little black girl who lived next door to our grandmother in KCK—playing with the backyard fence between them because we were not allowed to have any contact with the family. My uncles were visibly relieved when Grandmother’s house (where they had all grown up) was taken by eminent domain for a new freeway, and she was no longer the only white living in a neighborhood that had “turned.”

My guess is that everyone who might be reading this has, somewhere in their family background, stories like these to tell. And, while they may be more obvious in the South, they are by no means exclusive to the South.

Remember Louise Day Hicks and the National Guard protecting black students on their way to newly segregated schools in Boston in 1975? Hicks was elected to the House of Representatives saying in her campaign there were “at least one hundred black people walking around in the black community who have killed white people during the last two years.” There were 223 murders in Boston in 1973-1974, but only two dozen involved blacks killing whites.

Fast-forward to yesterday.

Does anyone really believe that in the short 40 years since Louise Day Hicks created violence in Boston we have moved to a “postracialist” society? In Ferguson, Missouri, or anywhere else?

Give me a break. Or, rather, if anyone believes it, I have a piece of land in Fakahatchee Strand I’ll sell them.

I do not mean to be flip. Or to make a joke about the most serious problem facing our nation. It’s not ISIS, or Afghanistan, or Wall Street banks. Or Chinese imports, Or Iranian nuclear warheads.


Nowhere is the racism more obvious than in reactions to our President. In a posting today about the President’s reticence to speak about Ferguson, Ezra Klein says,

President Obama’s speeches polarize in a way candidate Obama’s didn’t. Obama’s supporters often want to see their president “leading,” but the White House knows that when Obama leads, his critics become even less likely to follow. The evidence political scientists have gathered documenting this dynamic is overwhelming. . .

And this dynamic is powered by racism—read Klein’s article. It’s convincing.

I am not qualified to write about racism except by my observation and my conversations with black university students over the past 15 years. So I’ll end this musing—thinking about what seems to be the imponderable and the intractable—with a couple of quotes from respected academics.

How can we read the present context of increasing black dispossession and criminalization and the historical context of black struggles for self-determination and representation within contemporary cultural production? How is a popular hip hop song that explicitly recalls an infamous police beating, and implicitly brackets the ensuing historic urban uprising, connected to a sonic and visual landscape that consolidates black suffering and its invisibility today, that further eclipses the historical context of (ongoing) black struggles for self-determination, and that endeavors to marshal all manner of black expression into the new discourse of containment, “postracialism”?
Woods Tryon P. “’Beat It like a Cop.’ Erotic Cultural Politics of Punishment in the Era of ‘Postracialism.’” Social Text 114 •Vol. 31, No. 1 •Spring 2013
Dr. Woods is Assistant Prof of Sociology, Anthropology, and Crime & Justice Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, where he is affiliated with the African and African American and Women and Gender Studies programs.


Our criminal justice system is in constitutional crisis–a crisis that the courts have yet to recognize. Over the past generation, America has waged an increasingly punitive war on crime, and the casualties of that war have been disproportionately people of color. Even a casual observer of the American system of punishment would be struck by its racial disparities. Yet the Supreme Court has failed to see a problem of constitutional dimension. This judicial blindness is the product of a deficient construction of the Eighth Amendment- a construction that takes its shape from majority norms rather than counter­ majoritarian principles.
Cover, Aliza. “Cruel And Invisible Punishment.” Brooklyn Law Review 79.3 (2014): 1141-1195.
Dr. Cover is Associate Professor of Law at the University Of Idaho College of Law.



Children of Rawdat El-Zuhur

Children of Rawdat El-Zuhur

Dear Friends in the USA:
“As Jesus approached the city of Jerusalem, He wept for it.” (Luke 19:41)

He would most likely cry again seeing what is happening to the soul of the city, with such a brutal military occupation. But despite all the obstacles and the harsh measures, as well as the ongoing onslaught on the city and its Holy Places, RAWDAT EL-ZUHUR SCHOOL (“Garden of Flowers”), remains a haven for Palestinian children. It continues to struggle in order to provide a meaningful life and quality education to the children of Jerusalem so that they will not lose hope in humanity as they continue to feel abandoned during those challenging times.
12937lrgPlease join the special circle of friends who are helping RAWDAT EL-ZUHUR carry on its torch so as to make a difference to the lives of those children under such circumstances. Thanksgiving is just around the corner. And in no time you will all be celebrating Christmas, freely and without any barriers, but with joyful carols, gifts and family gatherings. Would you, in this spirit of joy and giving, consider making a special gift this year to RAWDAT EL-ZUHUR? You can make it in honor of somebody special in your life, or in memory of a dear person.
rawdatfeatured2012The Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) have kindly agreed to process your gifts to RAWDAT EL-ZUHUR. You can make your donations tax free to the following address indicating that the gift is for RAWDAT EL-ZUHUR and also requesting that Rawdat El-Zuhur is notified of your gift and its amount:

Dr. Peter E. Makari, Ph.D., Executive, Middle East and Europe
Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
700 Prospect Ave., #718, Cleveland, Ohio 44115 USA

To donate online or by phone: https://donate.globalministries.org/onlinegiving
Click on “Middle East and Europe” in the “designation” pull-down menu. Then in the “project/partner” box enter: RAWDAT EL-ZUHUR School, East Jerusalem.

With best wishes,
Samia Nasir Khoury retired in 2003 after serving for 17 years as president of Rawdat El-Zuhur, a coeducational elementary school for the lower income community in East Jerusalem. She continues to serve as treasurer of the board of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in East Jerusalem and on the board of trustees of Birzeit University in Birzeit, Palestine.


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