Sunday, February 28, 2010

Black History Month

I’ve mentioned my abiding love for The Ramones before, and one of my birthday gifts was a new book by Joey’s brother, I Slept with Joey Ramone. I was looking forward to starting that, but then a friend posted something about February being Black History Month, and I thought “Yeah, I should do something for that.”

On the shelf next to my desk are several books that I think of as being on deck. They are books that I have bought and not gotten around to reading, and there are more than the ones on this shelf, but I hope that keeping these nearby reminds me to get to them. After I read one, I can bring something else out. Anyway, two of the books on deck were directly related to black history: Time on the Cross (Robert William Fogel and Stanley Engerman) and The Slave Community (John W. Blassingame).

Well, I decided to hold off on Joey, and read Time on the Cross instead, which was reasonable, and then I got really ambitious and decided to read both of those and Beloved (Toni Morrison) and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou).

Let me give you some background on how big of a procrastinator I am. My first encounter with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was in June of 1991. I had just started college, and I was trying to stay in town over the summer and earn some money. That did not work well at all, but one hot day I was hanging out at the library. I saw a copy, and started reading and got drawn in, but I did not check it out. I had so much to do, and everything was so uncertain, that I just decided that I would need to get back to it.

After I came back from my mission I got a job at Clear Connections, and I worked there for a little bit after graduation too. I can’t swear as to whether this happened in 1994 or 1996, but sometimes if I had a little extra money I would end up at B. Dalton, or the Book Vault, or the PSU bookstore, and blow it. Actually, it was probably before graduation, because one of my impulse purchases (Soul Stealers) ended up being a required text in my Chinese history class. Anyway, I bought Time on the Cross and The Slave Community at the PSU bookstore. Some professor had them in his assigned reading. I bet Sweetness and Power was for the same class, and maybe even How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, though I can’t be sure on that one.

Beloved was the most recent one to come up, and even that was probably 1998. I just remember I was working with Rose at Intel, and she was reading it and saying how good it was. Actually, I know we were talking about it when the movie came out, so that was 1998. Basically, I decided to undo over a decade’s worth of procrastination in a month.

The library provided the two books I didn’t own, and that was fine. They were both well-written, and gripping. I did not like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as much as I thought I would. I was frustrated with the people, who made bad choices. There are some horrible choices in Beloved, but I didn’t feel the same way about it.

Honestly, there are very horrible things in Beloved. It does not feel as harsh as it could, probably due to the poetic dreamlike writing, but still, there is some pretty horrible stuff. At the same time, I just felt more compassion than judgment. I guess all of the horrible choices came out of horrible situations, whereas maybe I felt that in the other book, they really should have known better. Maybe we shouldn’t even be able to quantify everything about the emotional response a book gives an individual. Regardless, I couldn’t stop reading either.

That was totally not the case for the other two. I started with Time on the Cross, and I stopped reading it to read Beloved, just to get a break. I have not finished The Slave Community yet. I will, but I may need to take more breaks. It’s not that there isn’t good information. Maybe I am just out of the academic mindset. I’m not sure “pedantic” is a fair word, but I’m kind of leaning towards that.

To be fair, they both have different problems. With Time on the Cross, they are using cliometrics to analyze the various aspects of slave life, and it was a new technique at the time, so it is very figure-heavy rather than being a narrative. Also, because they end up coming with many positive aspects of slave life, I felt a little disturbed reading it. Slavery is bad, and they are never trying to say that it is not a bad thing, but there’s a disconnect that can be a little off-putting. In the end, I did learn a lot about slave life, and about ways of studying history, and it was a good reminder about how data can be misinterpreted and twisted, so that constant re-examination is good. I’m glad I read it.

The Slave Community seems very poorly connected. A lot of information is thrown out, possibly to the point of overkill, and then sometimes the information is contradictory so I don’t feel like I am really getting anywhere, except that here and there I have picked up on some things that I didn’t know and that make sense. Also, I am not done with it yet, and Time on the Cross improved as I was reading it—so maybe in another thirty pages I will get into The Slave Community, and regret badmouthing it here. I will finish it.

I will say, though, that the reason that I think it might be the same professor who assigned both of these and Sweetness and Power is that Sweetness and Power (which covered the sugar trade and so related to slavery in South America and the Caribbean) was so pedantic that I gave up on it, and gave it away without ever reading it. That would have been a rough class.

In retrospect, I am really glad that I did this. I think understanding history is very important, and understanding viewpoints other than your own is very important. If we also had an Asian history month, and a Latin American history month, and so on, it would start feeling like a bit much (though we would learn a lot). I think there is something to be said for having black history month specifically, and I will probably gum up explaining it.

Asian Americans faced prejudice and hardships, but they came here on their own, and often they were settling in groups where they maintained some cultural identity. It is the same for Latin Americans. The Europeans who came here basically became what we think of as American history. Africans were brought here by force, integrated in some ways but separate in others, and that relationship has been a huge factor in shaping American history. We should be revisiting it over and over again. The only other history month that it might make sense to have annually would be Native American history month. Maybe I should campaign for that. (But really what I will always be hoping for is people reading more history and more literature and more science and more knowledge, all the time.)

I do regret a little bit that it was so much focused on one period. Beloved occurs partly after slavery, but there are a lot of flashbacks to slave times, and everything is an aftermath of slavery. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was the only one that was at all modern, covering time during the Depression and World War II. Maybe next year I can spend some time with Garvey or Abernathy or Bunche. At some point I know I will want to read Haley’s book on Malcolm X.

For now though, we have other library books to finish before the due date. Maria reserved Playing the Enemy after we saw Invictus and The Blind Side after we saw that, and when a book is tied to a movie there are a lot of holds, and it was just dumb luck that we got both at the same time, but there are many more holds so we will not be able to renew and we need to read them now. Then I need to read Born to Run, because a friend lent it to me, and then I can get to Joey. (And then I think I will just need to catch up on magazines for a while!)

If you would like to increase your own black history reading, I do have a few recommendations. First of all, it is a big commitment, but Alex Haley’s Roots is just phenomenal. Yes, it is fiction, but it is more than fiction too. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, by Walter Rodney, is a textbook, but it is a compelling and easy read (which is why it might not be from that one professor). From Slavery to Freedom, by John Hope Franklin, is the work on the subject, but it’s been so long since I read it that I can’t really remember it. I should probably re-read it at some point.

It’s not much of a list, but the faded memory is a problem. There was a great book on the Buffalo Soldiers that I read when I was doing my research paper on them, but I can’t remember the name. One the plus side, there was a collection of various papers and letters that I could not recall, and because of reading The Slave Community, I think it might have been Blassingame’s collection, so maybe I will be able to find it again. I just found this Spanish poem that has been haunting me since 1991 (Y yo me ire by Juan Ramon Jimenez), because someone finally posted it online. So someday, I am going to find those letters, and that other poem. But taking better notes back then would have been good too.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Others

Sometimes a news item weighs on me, and then I feel like I have missed the opportunity by waiting. Funny how things repeat, and the opportunity just keeps coming back. So, before we need another incident to come up, let’s just talk about relationships between Portland Police and African Americans.

It’s so much easier if I just type cops and blacks, but I want to keep a level of respect—there’s not enough of that.

I originally wanted to write about the bean bag incident, so we can start there. First off, the use of the bean bag on the thirteen-year old girl seemed completely appropriate to me. She got a bruise on her thigh but did not require further medical treatment, so that part certainly sounds right. She had been banned from Tri-met but was not complying with that or with police orders, so some action is necessary, but what else would you do? Using a regular bullet would certainly be worse, and excessive for the situation, and would anyone feel happier if the adult male officer tried subduing the teenage girl with his body? The action was appropriate and justified. It probably wouldn’t have even been that big of a deal if anyone else had done it, but it was Chris Humphreys.

One appropriate use of force does not mean that every use of force is appropriate, and there certainly do seem to be grounds for concern in the James Chasse case—not even necessarily that excessive force was used, but was any force necessary and could medical attention have been provided more quickly? Because of the way that incident was handled, people have concerns about police behavior and accountability, and again, that can be reasonable.

So, then between City Hall and the Chief, Humphreys gets put on leave, and the force rallies behind him, because due process was ignored and the move was political. Well, yes, that move looked extremely political. Of course, people who get elected to their positions, or appointed by elected politicians, will sometimes need to think and act politically, but it wasn’t the right action for that incident. I believe it was an attempt to make up for mishandling the death of James Chasse.

At the same time, it’s hard to feel good about the rally, or the vote of no confidence. The history doesn’t help. The last time a vote of no confidence occurred was when two police officers were fired for leaving dead opossums at a black business. You know, even if we assume that any potential racial overtones are strictly coincidental, that sounds like harassment, and really inappropriate, and a good reason to be fired. Plus, my understanding was that Sizer had been doing a good job, and its important to have a good chief, with the confidence of the officers, so that’s a lot of harm being done, and probably without much help.

At the same time, it is really the wrong time to be crying racism, because if anyone punches a cop and comes away with no injuries but a bruised thigh, that is not persecution. Yes, thirteen sounds young, but physically she was large enough to do some damage, and she was way out of line.

I guess the point of the above is that I don’t agree with anyone, so ha! Except that it is not “Ha!” because I really hate situations like this, where everyone is in conflict and maybe no one is completely wrong but certainly no one is completely right. My stomach knots up and I hate it.

So now we have something worse than a bruised thigh. We have a dead man, and possibly inappropriate action, and probably a traumatized cop, certainly a bereft family, and Jesse Jackson to top it off, whom I wish I believed would be helpful, and a different kinds of rally.

On one side, we have the Portland Police Bureau. Many of them are good men, and it is their job to take risks to ensure the safety of the city. They volunteer for that. Sure, they get paid, but not really that much and with a lot of risk. Especially lately, when there have been so many shooters targeting police, it is an act of courage to keep going out there day after day. They need our support.

On the other side we have the African American community. They have good reason to be afraid of cops. There are disproportionate traffic stops and sentencing, and a long history of conflict, and it’s not hard to understand that when an unarmed woman gets shot, or a young girl walking in the middle of the street ends up with her head under an officer’s knee, or a professor gets arrested in his own house, all of that adds to a sense of fear and distrust. They shouldn’t have to feel that way. (And by the way, yes, he lost his temper, but why couldn’t the guy have just given his name and badge number? Could that have maybe defused it? He had been responding appropriately until then, so having his name attached to it should have been fine!)

A few years ago, I was almost asleep, and then suddenly I was wide awake as several shots were fired. I listened in the dark, trying to figure out what was going on, and just as I had almost decided it was nothing, voices started up, and police radio, and I was listening to a standoff about two blocks away. A man who had been drinking and was upset, not necessarily in that order, took two guns outside, fired them both, then took the guns back into the house, and went outside to wait for the police to show up and shoot him. He was asking for it, but he didn’t get it. He was arrested instead.

Talking about it to a neighbor, she became very agitated. She was a white woman, but she had a black son, and just having that happen so near to her house gave her visions of the police showing up and shooting her son. (Incidentally, the guy trying to get himself killed was white.) To help bring her nerves down a little, I told her it was probably lucky for this guy that he wasn’t in Portland. Somehow, I have always thought of them as a bit more trigger-happy. (Our responders are the Washington Country Sheriff’s Department.)

For me, sure, I am a white female in the suburbs, and I am not likely to ever be hassled, but I have to worry about appropriate responses too. I’m diabetic, and my blood sugar can suddenly drop, and such an incident led to one diabetic getting tased. (Why the people with her, when she told them her blood sugar was falling, called the cops instead of feeding her, I have no idea. If she asked for juice, I know she didn’t mean electricity.) That was also in Portland.

I don’t feel good about feeling that way. I know there are many Portland officers who try hard, and heroically, to protect and serve and keep everyone safe. Maybe it only seems like more happens because it is a bigger city, with more happening. But maybe there is something to that perception, and then it needs to be dealt with. If somehow in the attitudes or training or traditions, something makes the them more likely to fire, or in other ways act inappropriately, that needs to be investigated and dealt with. If the problem is just that there are a lot of good cops and some bullies, those bullies need to be brought out, and not protected.

On cop shows whenever the Internal Affairs team shows up it is bad news, and they are despised and traitors, but that kind of oversight is really important. Isn’t the real traitor the one who shames the job? There is work for the police to do, but it is not all up to them.
We owe them a better world and a better citizenry. Yes, a lot of the scuffles involve people of color, but they also frequently involve the mentally ill. With the way resources have been cut, the streets are full of them, and that’s something we haven’t had the will to solve.

The black community needs to be addressing the issues of youth in gangs, who shoot each other, and cops, and the issue of wild thirteen year old girls roaming around and getting into trouble on Tri-met. That’s not to pick on them. I realize that there is a long history of problems that have affected African Americas, starting with slavery, and then Jim Crow and segregated housing and welfare rules and many things leading to the social problems today, and that those problems are not uniquely black and pretty much spread out and touch all poverty. I know that and have compassion on it.

It’s just that all you can ever really be responsible for you. Jackson can chastise the cops, and the cops can point out all the reasons that every perp deserved and needed deadly force, but all it does is create bad feelings. If instead everyone worked to correct their part of the problem, then we could actually get somewhere.

A major disappointment for me was reading Fixing Broken Windows. It talked about community policing (Kroker was a fan), and I expected it to be all about making connections between police and government and citizens. Instead it was about order management. Yes, you fix broken windows and paint over graffiti, but also you don’t allow jaywalking or fare jumping and then because everyone realizes that the man is breathing down their neck they get into line (basically).

Maybe that would work, but what if maybe it was just showing that somebody cared? People keep things repaired because they care about the community, and that caring can spread to include caring about people. There was an emphasis on beat cops, and those can be great. What if there had been outreach to the point that Chris Humphreys knew James Chasse, and recognized him right away and could see, okay, he’s off his meds, better call his sister? This teenage boy is Walter, and he is a high-functioning autistic and if he does not respond right away, it is not insubordination. It’s a lot of work, but it’s not impossible.

Everything is different when we know each other. Most of the time, we don’t, and so when one of your own is attacked you circle the wagons and defend, and put on a “Don’t choke ‘em; smoke ‘em” t-shirt, because it is supposed to represent your tough choices, but what it really does is make a joke out of a loss of human life. Or you get all righteous about how violent the police are when someone who talks to others about suicide while holding a gun has put himself in a pretty bad situation. Everyone has a point, but they are still missing the one that matters.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Liking and Loving

The other day I was talking to a friend, and I told her “I like you.” She responded that she loved me, and then I said that I loved her too, all of which was true, but the reason that I started off with liking her is that for me that is the bigger compliment.

I try to love everyone. I don’t always succeed, but my end goal is to have Christ-like love for everyone. I love many people that I don’t like. If I like you, I do love you too, but the point is that I also enjoy spending time with you.

It’s not completely unrelated. If I like you, it is easier to love you, because there isn’t anything getting in the way. It’s amazing how difficult it is to feel love when you are constantly irritated. At the same time, as I love you, it becomes easier to like you. Having a vested interest in you makes it easier to spot your good qualities, and excuse your flaws, and find you enjoyable.

I won’t deny that my loving you gets you farther. If you need help, it is love that makes me do it, but I will help the annoying ones too, if I can—it’s just not as gratifying. I guess my point is that I love you because of whom I am (or am trying to be), but if I like you it is because of you.

I do have a long way to go. First of all, there is the question of boundaries. If I love you, I want what is best for you, but that may not mean giving you money, or not calling the police on you, depending on the circumstances. It may even mean that if spending time with you would be bad for me, even if it might be good for you. I get that, but somehow maintaining love for people who do bad things can be difficult.

That is still not my biggest problem. The worst is loving those who annoy. My personal kryptonite is stupidity, especially combined with neediness. Since a persistent focus on getting others to pay attention to you interferes with your ability to accurately perceive the feelings of those around you, or pretty much anything anchored in reality, stupidity accompanies neediness more often than not.

At times I have justified my preference for other types of people in that those who are constantly seeking attention will probably get it, but it won’t be enough, and also, people who are not like that still need occasional support and encouragement, and you can make more of a difference there. The logic is sound, but my real motivation is probably just a desire to not be anywhere near the stupid.

Naturally, this is bad of me. At the same time, I believe that as I keep going, I will improve, and that it will get easier—I will find another level of love.

In some ways I have already seen growth. One interesting thing about Facebook is how greatly it exceeds the number of people you can be aware of, and care about. I have often found myself praying for multiple people in my personal prayers based on their statuses. It’s not that I wouldn’t want to know what was going on, and help, but before Facebook it was impossible to know what was happening with whom on that scale.

On a smaller level, I see it in our family prayers. Some time ago my sisters and I decided to start praying for a few people. We started with three guys in the ward whom we felt were fairly marriageable—no big issues stopping them—but maybe just needed a little push to move forward. (I know it sounds weird. We want to get out of the singles ward, but we know we are still needed there, so we are trying to pray other people out to the point where we are not needed anymore.)

Some months later, we are usually praying for about thirteen people, plus this family, plus other individuals who may have specific temporary things going on. No one has complained about the prayers getting too long, or the slowness of the process. In addition, sure, praying does not feel like much, but sometimes it is all you can do, and then sometimes we get ideas about other things we can do, and opportunities come up. As we open our hearts, they expand. (And two of the original three guys have serious girlfriends now too, so we feel good about that.)

I may have some hope in the stupid area too. One person I have a lot of difficulty with is my older sister, who is so focused on getting attention that there is nothing else to her. I used to be able to talk to her about this, and she would agree with me, but nothing would change. Now we can’t even have the conversations. I prayed for her to get better, but nothing was happening there. I tried feeling differently, and nothing happened there. Finally I decided all I could do was try and act nicer to her, so my behavior was at least more correct, even if nothing else was.

I made a point of exchanging a few responses with her each night, acknowledging what she was saying. She enjoyed it, and both Mom and Julie mentioned how I seemed to be getting along better with her. They thought I was feeling better about her, which I was not, so it was not everything I had been hoping for, but it was a small improvement, and maybe that was enough.

I say “was” because there was a big setback. She got mad at Mom about something, so didn’t come around for a while, and we got used to the peace. Then she came back and started trying to make up for lost time, talking twice as much and twice as pointlessly. I have had a hard time trying again, but I will have to, because she is family and I do love her, even if I do not enjoy her.

I know, we haven’t even touched on romantic love yet, and it is the right time of year for it, but I think it will kind of be the same. I suppose that will be more similar to liking, but more exciting. In terms of being kind and faithful and honest with someone, again, I will do that because of who I am—loving him will just make it more of a joy.

So that’s where I’m at—still perpetually single, but there is a lot of love in my life, and I am still working on improving the love that I give. I feel like I love pretty well now, but I intend to love brilliantly.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

I hate it when I am not logical

I am chagrined.

Lately, people have been doing a lot of themes on Facebook, and they have been getting kind of annoying. I loved the Thanksgiving status updates, but they were still highly individualized. I think the tide turned around the time that women were posting their bra colors for breast cancer awareness.

It’s not that there was necessarily anything wrong with that, mind you, but two thing combined to get me kind of irritated. One was an article about “slacktivism”, where some things you do for awareness or charity aren’t really that much work, and does that maybe cheapen some things. Believe me, I think about that a lot when I visit Green Patch and Sweet Shop. (It’s about the only way I can contribute now, but still, I realize its effects are limited.)

At the same time, there started just being a slew of status updates that were all, if you care about this, post this. It wasn’t exactly a new phenomenon, but a lot of new ones came out in a short period of time, and they seemed to be getting pushier. If you really care, you will post, and most people won’t.

I like finding out about things that are really going on with people. I like posting what is going on with me, even if it is just a movie quote that came into my head and made me laugh. That’s a big part of the fun of Facebook. So disrupting that with various causes, no matter how worthy, is a little annoying, and when it starts feeling like there is pressure and manipulation going on, it becomes really annoying. And it is trivial. I do love Jesus, but I will never honk because of it. It does not seem like an appropriate way of expressing my faith in the Savior. So I care about cancer and infertility and malnutrition, and many other things, but it will probably not affect my status updates.

At the same time, there were also new themes coming up for profile pictures. The first one that came up was Retro Week, where you posted old pictures. That seemed kind of fun, and I did it, and then people kept the old pictures up, and I started to see some issues with changing the profile picture, and then it got out of control too.

Retro Week was followed by Doppelganger Week, where you put up celebrities whom you resembled. There were some interesting ones, but I wasn’t going to participate because I am either going to be blatantly lying or putting up someone I don’t find that attractive, and I don’t like that choice. (We’ve covered my self-image issues.) Then it was Pet Week. Well, I love my pets, but I was annoyed again, and was not changing my profile picture. Besides, people really get out of sync, so it is never actually a week—any given theme sprawls out of time as it slowly makes the rounds.

Anyway, I was already non-participating, and I don’t know that I will participate in any profile picture or status update memes again, but then I saw one today—put up a picture of you and your significant other.

Much like my self-image issues, my love life has been covered. The coverage has shown that it has been basically non-existent. I have been attracted to many, and in love twice, and come close to love a few other times, but there has never been any known reciprocation ever. I’m sure when you have had relationships, being single is still hard, but there is something harsh about never having felt wanted by anyone.

The ridiculous thing is, I am usually okay with it, and yesterday I was great. I was feeling really grateful and joyful in church. In Relief Society we talked about loneliness, and I remember thinking that sure, anyone can have moments of sadness, but really, if you are focused on serving others it is not usually a problem. When you have a good relationship with God, you don’t need validation from other people, and you can enjoy it, but you don’t depend on it. That is huge. That ultimately, with my family and friends I have a lot to be thankful for, even if I am single for my entire life.

Maybe I was too prideful in thinking about those self-absorbed losers who are always waiting for someone else to prove to them that they have worth, so to speak. Anyway, I saw the thing about the photos, and knew it was impossible. Sure, I could put up a picture of my family or my pets, but there are a lot of dirty minds online, and besides, I am now against these constant changes in general. I couldn’t let it rest though, so I put up a smart remark, somewhat being sarcastic, but it is also perfectly true:

“But I have never had a picture taken with a significant other! Oh well, no reason to spoil everyone else’s fun.”

Again, this is completely true. The last time I was anyone’s girlfriend was for three days in sixth grade, and no photos were taken during that time. That being said, I don’t have anything against Valentine’s Day. My sisters and I will look for people we want to remember, but I don’t get depressed, or get into that weird rebel state at the other end of the spectrum where I would throw an anti-Valentine’s party. I’m just kind of mellow about it.

So explain to me then why after a few responses to the status update I found myself on the verge of tears. And that’s why I’m chagrined. It’s like, really? Now this is going to bug me? I guess it was posting the smart remark that did it, but if that’s a problem, well, I’m not ready to change that. I don’t think I have it in me.

Perhaps it’s for the best. I did sign up for the talent show, so I will be doing standup comedy in two weeks, and it’s no good without a little angst. Boys are so silly, and so am I.