“. . . 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.


“. . . The noose pendulous over his head, you can feel him. . .” (Yusef Komunyakaa)

As a non-tenure-track professor of a college course now called “Discovery and Discourse,” (aka, “Freshman English”) I assumed one of the best means of “discovery” about any given topic for students would be discussion with other students who were not cookie-cutter versions of themselves. That, of course, is a liberal knee-jerk idea. I even went so far as to socially engineer class members into talking to each other. I’d ask them to get into groups of three in which they did not know either of the other two or have any contact with them outside of class.

That process usually meant that, if the class included students from one of the prerequisite minority groups on campus, they did not end up forming a group to work together either in safety or in opposition to the others. If the students didn’t self-select that way, I had my not-so-subtle ways of getting them to regroup.

The first time I was engaged to the woman who eventually became my wife (after our second engagement, brought on by my having no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated from college) and then became my ex-wife (when I figured out one possibility for what I wanted to be when I grew up), I met one of her closest friends, a young man who had been a classmate of hers at the college where she went before she transferred to the University of Redlands.

Her friend was a radical liberal hippie type from the East somewhere (we later visited him in Philadelphia, but I don’t think that was his hometown). At the time I met him, I was under the no-doubt communist (at least fellow-traveler) influence of Dr. L. Pratt Spelman, Director of the School of Music and Quaker activist against the Viet Nam War (which was hardly even a war at that time).

I was, because of the no-doubt-anarchist influence of Dr. Spelman, primed to be influenced by “Young Pierce,” as my sometimes wife called her friend for reasons I’ve forgotten. He was a member of SNCC—the Students’ Non-violent Coordinating Committee. He had either been in the “March on Selma” or helped coordinate the “Freedom Riders” who supported it. I can’t remember. He showed up in California, and I was terrified of him both because he was so damned articulate and persuasive about Civil Rights and such things, and because he was tall, red-headed, and handsome, and my not-yet-wife obviously had some feelings for him that made me nervous.

Never mind those feelings. What happened, of course, was that in about one weekend my political beliefs went from nice-boy (leaning away from) Nebraska Republicanism to radical (if timid) bad-boy California anti-almost-everythingism. I had been duly prepared for the change by the relentless tutoring of Hyman Lubman in my junior and senior American History classes at Omaha Central High School. Relentlessly academic and intellectually challenging, that is. I was pretty much a “hanger-on” in those classes, but Mr. Lubman had managed to get me used to the idea that the status quo might not be the status good.

The School of Music at the University of Redlands under the anarchist influence of Dr. Spelman (who was president of the dangerous American Society of AestheticsNOT skin-care) had one African American student—and I didn’t know any others from other department of the University. Can we say token?

Meeting Young Pierce opened me to a vast array of no-doubt-communist causes from anti-war to civil rights to “what’s-a-little-recreational-sex-between-friends,” and almost to smoking weed. That’s where I drew the line (at that time). You know, sex, drugs, and J.S. Bach, or something like that.

So here we are again where we were when I met Young Pierce. Wars that seem endless, Jim Crow voting laws being passed

Yusef Komunyakaa. Through the mirror into lynching.

Yusef Komunyakaa. Through the mirror into lynching.

right and right and right, and income inequality growing by leaps and bounds (the university where I taught for 15 years never paid me more than $40,000 per year, and rumor has it they’ve offered a famous football coach $4,000,000 to come and save the program, 100 times the amount of my salary). You know the state of affairs in this country. I don’t need to tell you.

I grew up in Nebraska, never more than a stone’s throw from the Oregon Trail. All the people on the trail a hundred years before were white. As far as any of us knew.

Our favorite stories of the Oregon Trail, the ones we played at and reenacted as kids, were the stories of the settlers being attacked by Indians, aborigine wild men out to kill us white good guys. We knew in a play-acting sort of way what “circle the wagons” meant. Wagon train, Oregon Trail, non-white heathens attacking, “CIRCLE THE WAGONS.”

So here we are again. Circle-the-wagons time. The non-whites are attacking again. Ebola from Africa. Thousands of children from Central America. Those “lazy black people that wants the government to give them everything” trying to vote. Gays getting married (most of them are white, but they might as well be black). Those old people without photo IDs trying to defraud us by voting. And a dangerous Indonesian-Kenyan smartass in the White House.

I don’t quite remember when it was (in your 70th year you’re allowed to forget almost everything), but once in my life I was questioned for a Gallup Poll. It must have been at a time of some economic distress in the country because the first question was, “What do you see as the most important problem facing our nation today” (or some you’re-in-the-Gallup-Poll language). My answer was, “Racism.” The young man asking the question was thrown off completely. “Racism” was not on his possible answers list, so he had no idea what follow-up questions to ask.

Circle the wagons.
Yusef Komunyakaa was born in 1947. He is best known for his poetry about serving in Viet Nam. He received the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. He is currently Distinguished Senior Poet in New York University’s graduate creative writing program.
In several of his poems he uses the image of reflections as a metaphor for our ability to see past what is real in the present to connect with realities from other times or places. “All is a random flow of contingent, accidental associations, connecting to each other laterally but not to the transcendent presence of idea . . . Can one look through the window of history to its essence, or do its surfaces just laterally refract?” (“Knowing their place: Three Black writers and the postmodern South,” by William M. Ramsey).

Can one look through the window of the history of lynching, that is, racism, to see its essence?

“Reflections,” by Yusef Komunyakaa
In the day’s mirror
you see a tall black man.
Fingers of gold cattail
tremble, then you witness
the rope dangling from
a limb of white oak.
It’s come to this.
You yell his direction,
the wind taking
your voice away.
You holler his mama’s name
& he glances up at the red sky.
You can almost
touch what he’s thinking,
reaching for his hand
across the river.
The noose pendulous
over his head,
you can feel him
grow inside you,
straining to hoist himself,
climbing a ladder
of air, your feet
in his shoes.

What we do to "Freedom Riders."

What we do to “Freedom Riders.”

“. . . open wide my door /To the ghosts of the year. . .” (3)

We've caught the two!!!

We’ve caught the two!!!

Last night was Halloween. The eve of All Hallows Day.

How on earth did it get to be such a big deal in America (is it elsewhere)? It seems a bizarre celebration for a people who are mired in a political system that has utterly failed us; in a social system in which people who say the holiday is evil because it goes against their (tyrannical and terrorist) “christian” beliefs are becoming more and more entrenched and influential; in an economic system which day-by-day leaves more and more of us unable to flourish in the sense of the “American dream” that at one time was our common mythology and now seems very much like a grotesque nightmarish costume.

Or is it bizarre? Go begging door to door in the guise of having fun. In the guise of ghosthood. In the guise of blackmail.

Perhaps that’s the best thing for us to do. Go begging. I have the distinct impression that I should have gone out “trick or treating” last night to practice up for what I may well have to do when my paychecks stop next June because of my forced retirement from an institution that this year is raising $1,000,000,000 for itself (that’s a billion, in case your mind is boggled because you never see more than two or three zeroes in your own bank statements).

“. . . the ghosts of the year. . .” are pretty obvious. Ted Cruz. David Koch. Karl Rove. Antonin Scalia. Bruce Hoffman. Gen. Keith Alexander. Christoph Heusgen.  Lisa Monaco.

Yes, I am completely biased. I am a partisan of the worst kind. I can see nothing socially acceptable about these people. Their goal is to trick the American middle class out of its dream while they wear the costumes of fun and frivolity and offer the treat of providing a huge percentage of the populace with a fall guy (or a bunch of fall guys) to deflect the attention from their own complicity in the raping and pillaging of American culture, economy, and politics.

Every time many unthinking Americans, based on the “conservative” rhetoric (which is really ghoulish fantasy) in which the country is awash thanks to David H. Koch’s ability to buy TV ads, speak of our President, they say he is “(half) black.” That, of course, is a racist formulation through and through. Apparently claiming to be “black” when one is only “half black” is somehow telling a lie. Even though, of course, the legal definition of “Negro” in half of this country until the 1950s was (and still remains in the internalized beliefs) that one was is a “Negro” if even one of her great-grandparents was a “Negro.” (Let’s see, I had eight great-grandparents, so that would mean if 1/8th of my genetic makeup were black, I’d be a “Negro.”)

One of my best friends is ..  Uh, er, Black!

One of my best friends is .. Uh, er, Black!

Saying President Obama is only (half) black makes him the bogeyman because he—he’s wearing a costume! “Trick or treat!”

So we go on making more and more bogeymen. Bogeymen such as those approximately two people out of 65,000 in South Carolina who vote twice in any given election. So we pass new voter ID laws to prevent those two from voting twice. Most likely they are part of the “bunch of lazy blacks who want the government to give them everything,” says the GOP precinct chair from Buncombe County, North Carolina, Don Yelton (1). To be fair, the Republicans, sensing that his fixing of blame so blatantly on bogeymen was not playing well against the TV ads paid for by Mr. Koch and his friend Karl Rove, fired the self-declared bigot.

Lest friends of mine think I am not fair when I try to point out the failures of the Republicans (what the Koch Brothers and Karl Rove are doing has nothing to do with being Republican—they simply know it’s easier for them to use the great unwashed of the Republican rank-and-file than it would be to use the great unwashed of the Democratic rank-and-file, so that’s where they put their money on the great distribution-of-wealth-in-their-favor Trifecta), let me say right now that the Democrats under the President are making their own bogeymen. Muslims. “Terrorists.” You know, they’ve completely sold out to the “terrorism industry.” Anyone who looks Middle Eastern—or has a Palestinian friend on Facebook, I assume—is a bogeyman. And Bruce Hoffman would lose his power and influence if we called a spade a spade in that case.

The application of these newly learned capabilities to urban centers in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and elsewhere could result in a precipitous escalation of bloodshed and destruction, reaching into countries and regions that hitherto have experienced little, if any, organized jihadi violence (2).

So I guess it’s not so surprising that Americans love Halloween. We see bogeymen and ghosts everywhere we look. And that justifies our being frightened, repulsed, and angry at the “other” in our lives, no matter where we see her.


Aw, shucks. We have met the bogeyman and she is. . . . ?


All Hallows Night
by Lizette Woodworth Reese

Two things I did on Hallows Night:—
Made my house April-clear;
Left open wide my door
To the ghosts of the year.

Then one came in. Across the room
It stood up long and fair—
The ghost that was myself—
And gave me stare for stare.
(1) Green, Lloyd. “The GOP’s Racial Handicap.” The Daily Beast. Oct 28, 2013. Web. (2) Hoffman,  Bruce.  “Combating Al Qaeda and the Militant Islamic Threat.” Testimony presented to the House Armed Services Committee, Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities, February 2006. Quoted in, John Mueller, Terror predictions compiled by John Mueller. Ohio State University. May 2, 2012. Web.

My grandfather believed in labor unions

A. J. Knight at work

A. J. Knight at work

My paternal grandfather Archie James Knight (“Arch”) was a union member when he was a young man starting out his life in Kansas City. One of the unions connected with the construction industry. He believed in unions. He believed in the New Deal. He understood the necessity of and supported the development of Social Security (I used to have his SS card and the receipt for his first SS check).

Arch Knight was exactly–in fact the epitome of–the kind of person the”Tea Partiers” believe (I surmise from what I can make myself read of their palaver) reflects the values of this country. I admired (admire) him even though a statement of his obvious characteristics might sound, to anyone who knows how “liberal” I am, to be less than complimentary: White, male, hard-working, Christian, a self-made man. He was politically progressive and personally generous and open.

Kaiser Steel, before globalization

Kaiser Steel, before globalization

Granddad was a “borderline southerner” my dad used to say (born in Arkansas, lived much of his life in Missouri), but when among the spouses of his granddaughters were a Cuban-American, a Mexican-American, and a Japanese-American, he said he thought it was great that our family could have an “international baseball team.”

No Tea Partier need get on her high horse and self-righteously assume that, of course he accepted them because none of my cousins-by-marriage or my broher-in-law were “illegal” human beings. The family of Granddad’s Cuban-American grandson-in-law were refugees from the Castro revolution.  The family of his Japanese-American grandson-in-law were held in a detention center through WWII–my brother-in-law, a natural-born US citizen, a child who never set foot in Japan, was in the camp.

Americans who despise “illegal aliens” and hold certain Americans (such as Muslims) in fear and loathing like that felt toward Japanese Americans in the ’40s might do well to follow the example of my grandfather.

My grandfather was a white, Christian, (almost) Southern Gentleman who believed that “All men are created equal,” that all people are children of God, that workers have the right to join together to seek the best possible compensation for their work, and that we–together, all of us as a nation–owe it to ourselves and each other to create and maintain a financial “safety net” and the possibility of retirement.

What a bizarre creature he was.

He had, most certainly, prejudices that remained with him through his life. I doubt he would have been so sanguine if one of his grandchildren had married a black American although I’m also sure his love would have overcome his discomfort. I’m pretty sure he never understood that I am gay. But he had a basic understanding of fairness and generosity and equality that seems to me to have disappeared from much of our political and personal discourse.

I never thought of my grandfather as “conservative” or “liberal.” He voted for FDR four times. (My grandmother had a couple of Adlai Stevenson campaign buttons, so I assume they continued to vote Democratic.) He belonged to the union. He understood the value of Social Security. But he was also the owner of a small business, a Baptist (not Southern), and a Mason.

Either he lived in a time when it was possible to be, or he simply chose to be complex, to have beliefs that seem today to be contradictory, to be open-minded and generous. I never heard him say a judgmental or derogatory word about anyone (I’m sure he did, but he was careful not to do so in the presence of his grandchildren). He and my father had political beliefs as far apart as two men could have. But on the rare occasions I heard them discuss politics, they did so with mutual respect and without rancor.

My grandfather’s labor is to an enormous extent the source of the good things in my life. He worked hard to provide a stable life for his children, and was able–with scholarship help–to put his sons through college during the depression. It’s impossible to imagine what my life would have been but for that. And it’s impossible to imagine what my life would have been without his simple but unshakeable belief in fairness and generosity.

The farthest reach of hatred

The farthest reach of hatred

Perhaps my ideas are as bizarre and contradictory as my grandfather’s seem today. But could one have a better understanding of the role of labor, both organized and individual?

When is a person NOT like a snake?

A pain in the

A pain in the

Geneticists say we share a whole bunch of DNA with all other animals. You know, snakes have spines, and so do we. Snakes have eyes, and so do we. If you want to study how human lungs take bad things out of your blood and replace them with oxygen? you better have yourself a big snake.  I have a friend who did that kind of research at the Harvard School of Public Health, and he introduced me to his snake. A big snake with lungs remarkably like ours.

A snake could not fall in the bathtub and break her hip. Obviously. She doesn’t have one. We wouldn’t either if we didn’t need strength and balance for doing things like standing up.

On about February 1, I was putting up the shower curtain in my bathroom—which I had accidentally pulled down cleaning—and was standing in a precarious position with one foot on the tub and my other foot on the toilet. I fell right after I told myself what you’re telling me right now, “This is dumb. You’re going to fall.” This was not one of those old man “I’ve-fallen-and-I-can’t-get-up” moments. It was just dumb.

I landed on my hip on the bathtub—not in the tub, but on it. Even when I dislocated my shoulder the first time, I did not feel pain like that. The pain made me nauseous. I slowly got up and decided that, since I could stand, I probably had not broken my hip.

Last week (seven weeks later) both my doctor and my (newly found) physical therapist told me that most likely I bruised my Sacrospinous ligament, or one of my Sacrococcygeal ligaments, or—most likely—my Iliolumbar ligament. Or all of them. And yes, the PT did point them out on a plastic skeleton.

If you bruise a muscle, it heals pretty fast because all that blood the snake’s lungs and our lungs clean up and send out to do its job goes to muscles, not ligaments. You bruise a ligament, and it hurts like hell for a long, long time. If it’s in your hip, every time you get in and out of your car you stretch the bruise and never give it a chance to heal.

So now I’m doing PT twice a week for a while, and I have to wear this belt around my butt 24/7. It holds my butt together so I (supposedly) can’t move wrong and stretch those ligaments again, and they will have a chance to heal. The picture is inaccurate. I wear it under my jeans. It’s a pain in the ass.

In a (campaign) speech he delivered on March 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln said,18630124_Emancipation_Proclamation-Harpers-Nast

If I saw a venomous snake crawling in the road, any man would say I might seize the nearest stick and kill it; but if I found that snake in bed with my children, that would be another question. [Laughter.] I might hurt the children more than the snake, and it might bite them. [Applause.] *

Funny that Abraham Lincoln and I should both use snakes as a metaphor. He used it as a metaphor for slavery, of course. I’m not sure what my use is a metaphor for.

Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The Proclamation was an act of war, not of morality or compassion. He had no power to free the slaves, especially in the secessionist states. He had the power to conscript slaves to leave their masters and join the Union forces in war against them. The 13th Amendment was the vehicle of ending slavery in the United States.** Nevertheless, we all know the work—the long, painful process—of bringing equality to all Americans is not yet finished. Emancipation is a long way off.

Yesterday on Facebook, notice of a posting by one of my friends (an actual friend, someone I love dearly) on his Wall surprised (“shocked” is a better word) me. It was a picture of President Obama’s daughters on vacation for Spring Break. The caption was vile. It purported to be a criticism of the Obama family spending our money to go to the Bahamas. Of course the ridiculous inaccuracy of that criticism is obvious.

blc02Because I am not a snake, I am wearing a ridiculous belt around my ass.

Abraham Lincoln’s metaphor of the snake drew great laughter and applause that day in New Haven, Connecticut.

Anyone who sees my friend’s Facebook post knows it’s not about the President’s family spending tax money. It’s about those uppity people daring to have a family vacation together. The nerve!

My writing skill, I am afraid, is not great enough to tie all of this together.

Snake. Racism. Equality. Pain in the ass. You figure it out.
* Lincoln, Abraham. “Speech at New Haven.” The History Place. 2013. Web. 29 Mar. 2013.
**  The most accessible and accurate account of the situation surrounding the Emancipation Proclamation I know of is:  Wills, Gary. Lincoln at Gettysburg: the Words that Remade America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.