What a revelation. I saw the 22-year-old Baltimorean, Kondwani Fidel, perform his spoken word last evening. This is the power and potential of Art. To speak the universal language of the heart. To show, unsparingly, what is real, and true. To alchemize almost unbearable suffering into strength.
Not the false strength of righteous anger and bitterness. The unbreakable strength of an open heart.
Watching him, taken in by the rhythm of words, I was struck by his courage, the word itself derived from the Old French, coeur, meaning heart. His poetry was an offering of himself, a gift of story. His words shone with the raw material of struggle and honesty, polished by the thought and care of craft. Artistry transformed hard subjects all too often burdened with shame. His words reached me. Continue reading
In her essay, “Not Here to Make Friends,” Roxane Gay calls into question the gender double-standard that female protagonists can’t be unlikable, while literature, TV and film are full of male leads who are despicable—and we love them. It’s a fascinating and maddening situation that she tackles with aplomb. I’m enjoying all of the essays collected in her book, Bad Feminist, for how they make me think about the many ways that gender stereotypes show up (and are hidden) in our culture.
“Perhaps, then, unlikable characters, the ones who are the most human, are also the ones who are the most alive. Perhaps this intimacy makes us uncomfortable because we don’t dare be so alive.”
I do have some quibbles with this premise. Unlikable characters are certainly more realistic, and therefore more like us. They may be less relatable because we don’t want to see those traits, our shadow qualities that have been carefully hidden, or ruthlessly suppressed and denied. Still, I hold out that positive characters can be alive. A literary example doesn’t come immediately to mind, but Joanna Macy and the Dalai Lama are pretty interesting people. Continue reading
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” ~ Edmund Burke
In the 2007 film, “What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire,” the narrator brings up a phenomenon of environmental books that I’ve noticed, too. They all have about ten chapters of diagnosis, chronicling what’s wrong—species extinction, rainforest decimation, mountaintop removal, toxic chemicals in mother’s milk, melting polar sea ice, on and on. Then, in the 11th chapter, there’s a prescription of what we can do to reverse it, fix everything and restore our right relationship with the living earth. “It’s not too late” is always the message. That it comes at the end of about 200 pages of gloom and doom reflects a lack of sophistication about the human psyche. If you’ve even gotten that far, you’re not going to be convinced by a single chapter of platitudes about the indomitable human spirit. No, the preceding ten chapters will have convinced you that there is no hope. We are screwed.
I am left with a similar feeling after reading Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, The New Jim Crow. I have to admire her for using all 261 pages for the diagnosis, not claiming to have answers or a prescription. Instead, she chooses to ask powerful questions, to spark debate and exploration. This is a huge book, not only for its dense narrative and 33 pages of footnotes. It is nothing short of a reassessment of American history: full of revelations, truth telling, and looking beneath the surface of cause and effect. I wish it could be required reading of every U.S. citizen. From the first pages, I saw just how duped, blind and irresponsibly ignorant I have been about the reality of the so-called War on Drugs. Continue reading
I’ve been reading Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. It’s a perfect illustration of the threshold between stories. The old stories—of law and order, of command and control, of rich versus poor, of white versus black—are exposed through vivid facts, stories, and history as unfair and inadequate, manipulative and destructive.
Everyone has the power to conjure the stories that we so desperately need now, particularly when it comes to the gulf between people of means and those in poverty, white privilege and the oppression of people of color. Alternative stories are recognizable for their humanity, their appeal to empathy, connection, and belonging.
In “Straight Outta Compton,” Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy E and their friends are taking a break outside the record studio in Torrance, where they are producing their second album. The police roll up and get to work harassing and humiliating them in a practiced way, assuming they are gang bangers and dope slingers. The musicians’ protests are met not with respect or the benefit of the doubt, but with threats of further harm. It’s a clear dramatization of the power-over dynamic enabled by the war on drugs. The militarized tactics of police rely on the logic of old stories. Continue reading
There will be times in your life when you feel like an outsider. When it looks like everyone around you, the people you admire and the ones you dislike, belong somewhere. They have this life thing all figured out. They are needed, respected. They matter. Their opinions and insights matter. And they have their ranking systems, their awards programs, their contests and grants and fellowships. They all seem to know how to work that system and be recognized—whether it’s for years of toil on some obscure invention or a brilliant essay dashed off after a flash of insight.
Don’t fall for it. It’s a trick of the light, a smoke-and-mirrors deception. All of us are outsiders and wanderers. The only real lasting sense of belonging has come from cultivating a strong relationship with my inner world. The degree to which you feel exiled, out of place, shunned, is the degree to which you are estranged from your own core of being, your own heart. Continue reading