Emphases for October: History lessons on race and class

Of the many things I have been reading and hearing recently, the topics of race and class stand out. I was pleased to find many very good pieces that I have been mulling over and sharing with others.

The Stuff You Missed In History Class podcast dedicated two fascinating episodes on the history of redlining in the United States. The show astutely illustrates how early twentieth century policies on real estate and housing were overtly and unapologetically discriminatory against blacks. The two episodes show how these policies and now illegal practices have consequences that are still with us today.

The excellent podcast Decode DC did an episode about the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moinihan’s study in 1965 on poverty in the United States, which has, for better or worse, created a commonly held belief that poverty is caused by dysfunctional family and culture, and as a result the conversation essentially ignores the legacy of slavery.

Today I listened to the Philadelphia Free Library Author Events Podcast featuring an interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates about his life and his new book, Between the World and Me. Coates provides a tangible illustration of the damage done by the history of racist and classist policies in American institutions. For hundreds of years, for multiple generations, an entire class of people has been exploited, and effectively blocked from social and economic advancement.

I appreciate the widening interest and scholarship on this aspect of American life. I am hopeful that the information and insight coming to light will continue to advance the conversation on race, and help us all have a clearer understanding of our relationship and responsibility to work to change institutionalized racism and unjust policies.

Other recommended listening and reading:

2015 – The Year In Music So Far

I am a music geek. I used to write a music review column for my college newspaper, and I have always listened to popular music with a discerning ear. I don’t claim to be a purist or an expert. I like what I like, and some times LOVE, and I’m driven to obsession at times to listen unceasingly to a new favorite album, or an old one, and to find out every little thing about its production and composition. But I haven’t acted like it in the last decade or so. I’ve been more of a dabbler, just turning on the radio and occasionally tuning in to my favorite music critics.

Spotify has inspired me to listen critically and intentionally again. My New Year’s resolution last year was to listen to music more intentionally again, and I have done that. It has been very enjoyable. As a result, I have created numerous playlists, and I have become more aware of new music.

So, I am making annual lists on Spotify, composed of the albums I am checking out, and the songs that I like best. I’m rather proud of my lists for 2014 and 2015. I’m particularly proud of my list for the current decade. There is a lot of good music out there!

In particular, the following are so far my favorites for 2015. I’m pretty sure these will stay in my top ten, as I cannot stop listening to them:

There are more albums I’m considering for my top ten or top twenty. There are still three months left of the year, so I look forward to having more to say in January!

Paradoxical Readings – June 28, 2015

This week I cried tears of grief and joy, as the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples are entitled to the same rights and responsibilities as opposite-sex couples, and as the funerals proceeded for the nine fallen in South Carolina. While the Confederate flag is being lowered, and the rainbow flag raised, I am acutely aware that there is much more work to do to.

Changing the Flags

President Obama summed it up beautifully in his eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney:

As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other — but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.

It’s a terrible thing that nine beautiful lives had to be lost in order for the history lesson of the Confederate flag to sink in for many Americans. Finally, many are starting to understand that the flag, as Ken Burns said “is not about heritage, it’s about resistance to civil rights.” So perhaps some good can come of this. The momentum for the removal of the flags continues.

Why it still hasn’t happened in South Carolina (by the time I am writing this), I don’t understand. It is incomprehensible that something so offensive, so hurtful to so many continues to exist on state property. So, clad in tree climbing gear, Bree Newsome took matters into her own hands. Admirers and supporters abound, myself included. Just take the bleeping thing down!

Bree Newsome, our new super hero. Ava Duvernay tweeted that she wants to direct the film about her.*

Gillian and I took in the week’s events, observing the memorials for the fallen nine, and celebrating the Supreme Court marriage equality victory on Friday night with a bottle of bubbly and a beautiful meal (pan seared scallops with arugula, tomatoes, corn, avocado, and a gorgeous herbacious dressing – yes, my spouse is a genius in the kitchen, and that’s how we roll). We’ve been waiting a long time for this, trying to be married for the last eleven years, succeeding once and for all in 2013. Yesterday’s victory is just a sweet conclusion to our personal struggle, and our witness to the national struggle for marriage equality.

The week’s best Twitter hash tags were, hands down, #UrbanOutfittersbelike, mocking Urban Outfitters for ridiculous prices, and #AskTheNearestHippie, making fun of Antonin Scalia’s screed of a dissent of the marriage equality ruling. There was also this tweet from UHaul, who finally seems to get the classic lesbian joke. I can’t believe they haven’t cashed in on it before now.

Tears and laughter are both healing in their own ways. This week was certainly an opportunity to find the paradox of finding hope within sadness, and a realization of work left to do in the same moment we celebrate a significant success.

The wind is at our backs. Let’s not get complacent.

* Ava Duvernay Reportedly Directing Marvel’s Black Panther

Readings and Insights on Charleston

This Fathers Day, while I am musing how grateful I am for the long and loving relationship I have had with my Dad, my heart aches for the lives lost in a hailstorm of hatred and bullets in Charleston last week. The world has lost nine beautiful souls because a young, misguided man decided that it would be a good idea to use the firearm that he received for his birthday from his father. I can’t help but wonder at the kind of father who raised this child to be a man who would do such a thing, and I despair that we can change the world when gun violence persists.

I have been obsessing about the massacre and the world’s reaction to it, struggling to find my way through the chaos of fact and opinion to understand what happened and why. Here is a collection of some of the better responses I have encountered since the terrible incident:

A Hate Crime in Charleston – From On the Media. A brilliant piece that names each victim and delves into the media’s coverage of the story and the constant denial of what is undeniable, that racism and the easy access to guns is what enabled that awful moment. I loved this reference to the Ralph Waldo Ellison novel Juneteenth:

“Nothing ever stops, it divides and multiplies, and I guess sometimes it gets ground down superfine, but it doesn’t just blow away.”

The piece concludes that we must continue to grind it down and maybe someday it will blow away.

Only white people can save themselves from racism and white supremacism – Written by a native of South Carolina, calling for individual people, specifically white people, to take responsibility to confront their own prejudices. In the wake of this shocking horror, too many white people in positions of leadership and influence are denying that the problem is racism. This is the superfine dust that won’t blow away. The racism is there, but it’s ground down so fine that it’s invisible to those who are not victims of its ugliness and destructiveness.

It’s not about mental illness: The big lie that always follows mass shootings by white males – I suppose one could make the argument that racism is a form of mental illness. But making the claim of mental illness relieves people of any responsibility for their actions. It is beyond frustrating to hear the continued denials of racism in the face of difference between how black and white suspects of violent crimes are treated, even in the face of a crime that was committed by a self-declared racist. In the dominant paradigm, black criminals are thugs who deserve to be physically abused, and white criminals are mentally ill who get bullet-proof vests and taken to Burger King. This issue runs deep, and it is WAY beyond my expertise. But there is a lot to say here about the prison industrial complex and how black men are over-represented in the prison population. Angela Davis has been teaching the world about it for decades.

Further, my friend Carrie shared some righteous anger and brilliant insight on Facebook about the excuse of mental illness in this and like contexts,

“We’re assuming that mental illness equals violence–and this is simply not true. Guess who’s mentally ill? Like, everybody. People in your family, people in your classrooms, your workplaces, everywhere you hang out. If they haven’t told you yet, it’s because you’re a dick about mental illness and they’re embarrassed to talk to you. Seriously. And how many of these people, say, open fire on schools and churches? About .0000000000000000000001% of them. The rates of violence are NO HIGHER among the mentally ill than they are in the general populous–unless you count certain antisocial personality disorders, which the f^#%!&*@ judicial system does not. You know why? Because people with antisocial personality disorders know what they’re doing is wrong, they just don’t care. Despite what Law and Order may tell you, the insanity plea is rarely used and even more rarely won– because you need to prove that you are so mentally ill you are living in another reality and have no idea that what you were doing was wrong– not a faulty moral compass, not “I’m so racist it’s crazy” but literally hearing voices and hallucinating and stuff. Mental illness is an extremely rare cause of violence, while racism, which is what this is, is a painfully common one.”

An NRA board member blamed the pastor killed in Charleston for the deaths of his members – Really? REALLY!?! By this logic, it will be my fault if I get shot because I choose not to pack heat. That is not acceptable, and I don’t want to live in a world where people only feel safe if they carry a gun.

Take Down the Confederate Flag—Now – It has no place on government property. The Confederate flag is universally read as an endorsement for white supremacy, and flying it on government property sends the message of state-sanctioned racism. Period. Say what you will about Southern heritage, the cultural and historical meaning is undeniable. And yet people do.

White Supremacist Linked to Charleston Suspect Donated to 2016 G.O.P. Campaigns – Isn’t it interesting that a white supremacist thinks that these politicians represent his views? They are the same ones denying racism and supporting gun rights over civil rights.

Terrorist targeted historic SC church on 193rd anniversary of thwarted slave revolt planned by its founder – The date and location of the attack was no coincidence. It was a premeditated murder spree on a significant anniversary for this storied institution that has represented the struggle for freedom and civil rights for black Americans for generations. We all need to be responsible to know our history.

Jon Stewart expounding on the “Gaping racial wound that will not heal, yet we pretend doesn’t exist.” What will we do without him when he goes? Who is going to hold up the mirror and help us to laugh at ourselves…or cry, as in this case?

“In South Carolina, the roads that black people drive on are named after Confederate generals who fought to keep black people from being able to drive on that road. That’s insanity. That’s racial wallpaper. You can’t allow that.  The Confederate flag flies over South Carolina, and the roads are named for Confederate generals, and the white guys are the ones who feel the country is being taken away from them.”

I forgive you. Hate won’t win: This video brought me to my knees. The family members of many of the victims offering, through their tears, their blessings forgiveness to the killer. This. THIS is how the world will change.

Those of us who are moved by this tragedy should be inspired to make something good will come from this senseless, hateful act, something that will honor the lives of these nine precious souls that we lost, and honor those of us who continue to walk this earth and are responsible to make it a better place.

Someday We’ll All Be Free: 100 Hours Of Soulful Protest Music – The massacre illustrates why this music continues to be relevant.

Paradoxical Readings – April 2014

Recently I’ve read a couple of different articles that went viral about the wisdom most of us gain by our 40s. What You Learn In Your 40s and This is 45: The Eye of the Life’s Storm. The latter particularly resonated with me. In sum, the premise is “The emotional drama of growing up is behind you, the physical perils of aging are still to come.” Both articles speak to mid-40s being the age of perspective, of knowing exactly what it means that you are responsible for where you’ve been and where you’re going, for being wiser for having learned some of life’s hard lessons, and enjoying the present moment with gratitude. I can’t relate to everything in this article, as I am not straight and I am not a parent, but there are many nuggets of wisdom and humor that express what I feel, such as:

Your brain has reached capacity and to retain any additional information, some things leak out.


At 45 your tolerance for mean people hits rock bottom. Life is too short to spend any energy on bullies.


You begin to realize that granting yourself permission to just “be” is one of the hardest things you will ever attempt.

At 45, we’re all a little softer around the edges, literally and figuratively, and that’s kind of nice, actually.

This article in response to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In was an interesting read. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve talked to enough folks who have read it and found valuable nuggets of wisdom in it. This piece claims that “leaning in is killing us.” The author says that before she took Sandberg’s advice, she had more time for a personal life. All of this seems to speak to the old question of work-life balance that is never satisfactorily answered. Again, I’m not a straight woman and a parent, and I do think that is the audience for Lean In and this article, so I can’t relate to everything here. What strikes me as I read this and think about my straight female colleagues and friends who have careers and children is that, with exceptions, their male partners assume the stereotypical role of secondary caretaker of children and household. I do try not to be judgy, but it looks to me like as a culture we still have a long way to go towards gender equality in our professional and personal lives.

This article from the New Yorker about self-help books is a little depressing. The author posits that the positive thinking that these books teach their readers tend to have quite the opposite effect. I guess I don’t find this surprising.

The most effective way I have found to combat depression is to be pro-active, actually do something, as opposed to just thinking positively. One thing I do when I’m depressed is practice gratitude. I intentionally think of all of my blessings and offer up a prayer of thanks, meditate on the abundance in my life, or even send a thank-you note to a friend who has done an act of kindness for me. Practicing gratitude is included on this list of 19 Ideas to Start & End Your Day With Joy. On this post I found a few new things, and was reminded of a few I already know, to help me stay soft around the edges. These are all practices of self-loving, and good ways to stay mindful of all of the lessons I have learned by mid-life, and to stay open to continue learning.

More stats on what you can do proactively to combat depression: The Science of Happiness.

I love the Brain Pickings blog. A recent post about The Benjamin Franklin Effect tells the story of how Ben Franklin won over a a troll and a nemesis with kindness. In this story is the lesson for all of us to stop hate in its tracks by fighting it with love.

Speaking of fighting hate with love, there were a couple of really nice examples in the last few weeks. On the heels of the death of Fred Phleps, some local folks staged a demonstration of his funeral in the style of the Westboro Baptist Church, only with a compassionate twist.

In another loving response to hate, Honey Maid responded this way to hate mail that they received in response to ads depicting diverse families, including a same-sex couple and their son. I think I might be craving graham crackers!

What are you reading?

Thanksgiving Observations, November 11-17

This week I am observing gratitude about the following:

  • Every grief, every frustration, every disappointment, every pain, every heartbreak that I have experienced has led me to who I am right now. They have made me stronger, given me perspective and wisdom, and make me appreciate even more the blessings and joy in my life.
  • The opportunity to learn from my mistakes and past (and perhaps present) arrogance.
  • For laughter that is always essential for getting through challenging moments.
  • The litany of values and abundance of privileges that my parents bestowed upon me, and the sense of responsibility to enjoy and share those gifts.
  • After decades of loving city life and declaring that I’ll always live in an urban area, I have discovered the virtues and loveliness of life in a Philly suburb that resembles Mayberry. 
  • Always learning and experiencing new things. Life is never dull. 
  • Mentoring others, which has afforded me the chance to share my experience and continue to gain wisdom.
  • The presence of my faith. though I may wrestle with it and not always be mindful about it.
  • Everyday reminders to live presently. 

Thanksgiving Observations: November 4-10

My observance of gratitude this week:

  • Finally being legally married to my wife. We have been trying to be married for ten years, and we finally were able to make it happen at the end of October. Even after all this time it feels different. It means a lot, and it’s going to make a huge difference in our lives.
  • The generous community that has supported our marriage from the beginning. Through all the hard times, friends and family have had our backs and shown us nothing but love.
  • My father, an amazing and generous man who continues to inspire me each day. In his retirement, he has discovered that he is an artist. He’s painting, and creating a website to promote his art. He’s even selling some with my sister at her studio in St. Paul. This week he sent me a package of prints of some of his recent creations.
  • A job and career that provide me with meaningful work. I work with wonderful colleagues, in my office and across the country. I get to promote philanthropy, help build meaningful relationships, and have fun doing it.
  • The change of seasons. I confess I don’t love winter, but I love the transitions of one season to the next. I thoroughly enjoyed an extraordinarily beautiful summer turn into a lovely autumn. On a recent morning walk, sunshine was coming through a hazy fog to light up the bright yellow, orange, and red trees that line the streets of my neighborhood.
  • Having multiple delicious meals throughout the week that my spouse and I cooked together. Oh, and leftovers for lunch!
  • Invitations from our neighbor to let Jack run in their yard and play with their dog. He had a great time, and he will be calm and content for the rest of the afternoon while I get some work done.