Bright Futures and Nikki Grimes’ Bronx Masquerade 10th Anniversary Edition

Nikki Grimes’ Bronx Masquerade is deserving of the 2003 Coretta Scott King award and would be a welcome addition to classroom reading lists because it would foster understanding  and self-expression while encouraging us to celebrate our differences. While it has been a long time since I was in junior and high school, I’m pretty sure school (which is not nearly as beautiful of a word as library) and my teachers conspired to make me hate reading.   At least, that’s what I felt at the time, and still do to this day in many ways.  Not only could I not  identify with my teachers or parents or the books on our assigned reading lists, but I was really winging it when it came to being a teen. And being a teen was brutal at times: I was an incredibly intuitive person with so much to say yet I lacked the language proficiency to fully communicate my emotions and experiences with the people who guided me.

But that’s where art, poetry, and amazing teachers come into play.

When you’re not legally an adult, you rely on the adults in your life–parents and teachers, mainly–to help you through this thing called life. You rely on them to provide you a platform to share your story, and you hope they don’t drop the ball.   And then there are the teachers–the good, the bad, and everything in-between. Hopefully you had the kind of teacher movies like Dead Poet’s Society, Dangerous Minds, Mr. Holland’s Opus, and School of Rock celebrate. In my experience,  “good” teachers facilitate self-directed learning opportunities, foster curiosity, and help students identify and build upon their strengths. That’s a tall order, since much of the work good teachers do is an extension of what good parents do. In Bronx Masquerade, Mr. Ward is one of those teachers who deeply impacts his students in ways they can only begin to understand. He makes his entrance early on when he assigns a lesson about The Harlem Renaissance and other works by popular and lesser known African American authors. The classroom environment begins to take on a life of it’s own: students no longer shame their peers for wanting to read and feed their intellects. Eager to relate hip-hop and rap to the rhymes and rhythm of poetry, students begin writing and sharing original poetry.  The act of writing and the resulting community they find in Mr. Ward’s class profoundly changes them.

In terms of format, Bronx Masquerade  introduces you to a cast of characters, most of whom are Black and Latino with a White and Asian minority, whose lives intersect around poetry and Mr. Ward. Each subsequent chapter introduces you to a new character: Diondra, Amy, Art, Raul, Natalina, Porscha,  Mai Tren, Wesley. Aside from Poetry itself, Tyrone is the central character around which all of the characters revolve.  By the end of the book, Tyrone’s life has changed for the better, and “Open Mic Friday” is at the center of the positive change. As other students begin to read and perform their poetry, sometimes in the style of a poetry slam and often incorporating musical rhythms and beats, Tyrone’s guard begins to come down.And most notably, for the first time, he can envision  a real future for himself and his peers, a future that seemed distant and dismal at the beginning of the book.

By the end of the book, it is clear that through poetry and community, Tyrone has developed a new understanding of himself and his peers. Most remarkably, the opportunity to create and share his writing under the wing of Mr. Ward has literally changed the course of his life that now includes a bright, beautiful future.

The Reason You’re Alive by Matthew Quick

I basically wanted to quit life for two days so I could do nothing other than read The Reason You’re Alive  by Matthew Quick. Apparently Quick wrote this gem in part as an homage to his late uncle, a Vietnam veteran who may have inspired elements of this novel’s “anti-hero”, David Granger.  The novel takes off right from the beginning, and amazingly, Quick sustains the momentum through to the end. I mean, check out this for an opening sentence: “They were giving me the mushroom treatment: keeping me in the dark and feeding me bullshit”. That just has to rank up there with the best opening lines of all time, right? I mean, talk about coming outta’ the box swingin’.

David Granger, main protagonist and narrator of the story is not supposed to be likeable, let alone loveable. But he is just that. After waking up in a hospital after brain-surgery, David rants about the evasive “Clayton Fire Bear” and how doctors are all corrupt scumbags who are either “pill pushers, needle pokers, or people cutters”. He’s right, though, isn’t he? I mean, who hasn’t had a negative experience with a doctor? But of course, he is wrong, too; and for every thieving people-cutter out there you will find a warm, compassionate civil servant who wants to take care of sick people. The truth may lie somewhere in between.

Throughout the course of this book, you’ll be amazed at the things that David says: and believe you me, he has something to say about everyone. And you’ll find that he’s right: why else would you be laughing SO HARD?  But he’s also wrong because, let’s be honest, it’s easy to stereotype and generalize entire groups of people without a second thought. And that’s where things get tricky, which is to say, human. David reserves a certain disdain for his son, Hank, his “mostly ignorant”, “ball-less”, cry-baby liberal son who wouldn’t cut it for a second in the jungles of Vietnam. And just wait until you meet Femke, Hank’s philandering wife, and their sweet daughter, Ella, who David notes is in the unfortunate position of having two complete morons for parents. All of the characters who fade in and out of David’s life are intriguing and memorable and will teach you something new about life.

This book beautifully reminds us that we see other people through the lens of our own experience. I think you’ll find, by the end of the book, when tears unexpectedly start welling in your eyes, that David strived to shield his family from suffering and pain, even at his own expense whenever possible (even when he was essentially shielding them from himself).This book is about loving and understanding your family and your friends on their own terms. This book is about war, madness, art, family, grace, and ultimately redemption. I dare you not to cry when you discover the rich meaning behind the title of the book, how David wrote it for his late wife, Jessica, and their son, Hank, the two most beloved people in his life. And then I dare you not to cry when it dawns on you that David was shielding you, too, as he had his family, from the heartache of having to let him go after finding out he was  good as gold all along.

 

 

 

The Most Dangerous Place On Earth

As someone who devours non-fiction, biography, and memoir, I was surprised to have finished this work of fiction in just shy of two days. To be fair, the book is a quick read (even for self-professed slower readers such as myself).  The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is the debut novel of Lindsey Lee Johnson with impeccable prose and superb character development.  I could even see the book being turned into a film. In a nutshell, the book is broken into  time periods: Eighth Grade, Junior Year, and Senior Year. Within those general time periods, each chapter is further subdivided with titles such as: The Note, The Lovers, The Striver, The Artist,  The Dime, The Ride, The Dancer, The Pretty Boy, and The Sleeping Lady.  Each chapter spotlights each of the core characters whose lives revolve around a tragic incident involving Tristan Bloch, an awkward but brave outcast with an overbearing mother. Over the course of four years, we follow each protagonist as s/he navigates the tough terrain of junior high and high school, further complicated  by  parents, teachers, and digital culture. In many cases, each of these young people–although living in million-dollar beach homes–is forced to establish his or her individuality and navigate adolescence while also living in the shadows of abuse, neglect, and addiction at the hands of the grown ups who are supposed to protect and guide them. As is the case with many young people, these characters can sense when things are awry at home and school; but they lack the agency to be able to articulate those experiences, sometimes in a healthy way. Always looming in this novel is what lies unspoken–what is between the lines.

At the center of this story is Molly Nicholl, a newbie teacher and transplant from central California who is hired on in the English Department at Valley High in the affluent city of Mill Valley in Northern California, roughly a 6-hour drive from Los Angeles. As Molly begins to feel out the culture at Valley High, she finds herself at odds with the other seasoned faculty who are  burnt-out on their jobs, presumably after many years teaching. As Molly reconfigures her classroom into two concentric circles (note, also, the circular themes throughout the novel) so as not to carry on her predecessor’s tradition of an authoritarian, old-school classroom, she endures pushback from teachers who believe she is crossing the line with regard to her relationship with the students. After a car crash and the exploitation of a female student on social media, Molly is questioned about the inappropriate nature of her commenting on her student’s social media threads–even though her comments stemmed from genuine concern about the well-being of her students . Early on in the book, Molly is eager to dig deeper into the lives of her students–to see them not merely as students but also as human beings who have complex lives and much promise.  Molly once asks “Isn’t it our job as teachers to help our students?” She was quickly put in her place when her co-worker says: “No, your job is to teach.” But what does it mean “to teach”? What does teaching–truly teaching–entail?

I think my teacher and parent friends would enjoy this book, especially because it sheds light on a number of questions–namely: What is the role of the teacher? How can teachers truly effect change and the lives of their students if they are forced to keep students at arm’s length? Can teachers truly be effective if they relate to their students on only the most basic, superficial levels? Is it the role of teachers to dig beneath the surface to enable students to identify and pursue their interests? Are teachers supposed to protect and help their students? How can parents and teachers be better aligned for the benefit of the student?  Must there always be such a deep and wide chasm between young people and adults–one in which “adultness” itself is often dishonest, distrustful, and cynical? I have to say that by the end of the book–and yes, it’s just the idealist in me–I feel like Molly compromised too many of her ideals in an effort to play it safe. I mean, on one hand, I can certainly see why she would opt to play it safe, given the events leading up to her transition from newbie mover-and-shaker to cautious, jaded professional.  In one particular scene, Molly receives an essay from Callista who has accepted and processed, through the therapeutic act of writing, her role in the tragedy of Tristan Bloch. This was the moment that Molly had been waiting for the past three years: to play an encouraging and inspiring role in helping  students reconcile their places in the world and hopefully help them tap into their potential. I mean, here was Callista sharing a deeply painful experience with her teacher and in a sense, looking for encouragement and validation. But Molly, perhaps afraid to assume a role other than “superior” or “teacher” misses the opportunity entirely. Instead, she writes Callista a typical response that an English teacher–not a mentor–would write. However, the implications of Callista’s writing–how she knew the fine details of the path Tristan took to the bridge–were curious, troubling. Again, the power of the unspoken demands attention.

This books asks far more questions than it answers; so if you’re ok with ambiguity, you’ll love this book. I’m still wondering about these characters–what becomes of them, if they ever get to realize their true potential. Reading this book also forced me to look back on my own experiences in junior high and high school, which, like most young people, was a mixed bag of good, bad, and ugly. When I was young, I did not have vast social networks at my fingertips and cyber bullying wasn’t yet a thing. So much happens to young people online–entire worlds exist out of the reach of unwitting adults. While I tended to despise the parental and authoritarian figures in this book, I was nonetheless sickened by how these students treated each other. But unfortunately, I also got the sense that Emma, Damon, Callista, Ryan, Elisabeth, Nick, and others were just on their own, abandoned even. I certainly found fault with the parents: what is the role of the parent in providing guidance and support to their children? How can effective parenting provide a more equitable, just world? In essence, how can effective parenting be the anti-thesis to bullying, suicide, sexism, and abuse? How should parents be meaningfully involved in the lives of their children without being overbearing and suffocating? These are just some of many, many questions I have after finishing this fantastic debut by Lindsey Lee Johnson, which has drawn some comparisons to Thirteen Reasons Why.

The Girl Who Thought In Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin

Written by Julia Finley Mosca and illustrated by Daniel Rieley, The Girl Who Thought In Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin, is a children’s biography told in rhyme about the inimitable Temple Grandin. If you’re not familiar with Temple, she has single-handedly created more awareness around animal welfare (specifically the lives of farm animals) than just about any other person. She is practically a household name and tours the country giving talks and presentations. There’s even a movie about her starring Claire Danes! Grandin has long advocated  for “humane slaughter”, a phrase animal liberation advocates would argue is contradictory; but she nonetheless prescribes standards for facilities design and proper restraint and stunning techniques  that are intended to cause the least amount of pain and suffering in the animals being slaughtered. You can check out Temple’s website to learn more about the extensive work she has done in the field.

In The Girl Who Thought In Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin, author Mosca discusses Grandin’s childhood as a person with autism and her deep connection with animals. Temple did not speak until age three or after, and, apparently, doctors initially told Temple’s mother they suspected she had “no brain activity”. Soon after being kicked out of school, Temple moves out west with her aunt, an owner of a ranch, and it isn’t long before Temple serendipitously embarks on her lifelong journey as an animal scientist and public speaker. She has worked tirelessly to create change in the practice of animal agriculture that is in compliance with the highest ethical standards after many years of communing with and studying the behavior of animals. Additionally, her persistence helps to create and foster an understanding of people who fall along the autism spectrum and to demonstrate that being autistic should not hold you back from a life of happiness and success.

The takeaways in this book are many: 

  • Humans are dismissive of what we don’t understand
  • We can learn to listen to others who speak a language that is different than our own
  • We nonetheless still have a myopic and narrow view of human intelligence and cognitive ability
  • Animals feel emotion and pain
  • We should not be defined by others but instead strive to live an authentic life
  • We can and should advocate for those whose voices are not heard
  • We should leave things better than how we found them

And last but definitely not least: persist, persist, persist! There are certainly many, many more morals of the story, but you’ll have to read the book to see for yourself. Personally, I was inspired while reading this picture book and think children would also find this an uplifting story. Plus, children are often more sensitive and receptive to the plight of animals than many adults–so we have much to learn from them!

Kesha’s Kaleidoscopic Album”Rainbow” is a Work of Catharsis and Transformation

At first, Old Flames (Can’t Hold A Candle To You)” was my favorite song on the album. In a waltz with the one and only Dolly Parton, Kesha’s resonant vocals are set against a meandering pedal steel guitar which is decidedly “country”; yet the underlying  near heavy-metal downpicking and tambourine on the chorus elevates the tune to “not your grandmother’s”  country shuffle. Kesha and Parton’s vocals complement each other beautifully as a faint doo-wop piano adds to the nostalgia of unparalleled love. Lyrically, love is likened to a flame, of course; but embers, fires, and candles are also invoked to describe the type of love about which singer-songwriter Patricia Rose Sebert and Hugh Moffatt wrote in 1978. “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You”) is the only cover song on the album: Kesha does her own writing, which is another reason to love this deeply-personal album.

As it turns out, “Spaceship”, track number 14, is my absolute favorite song on the album.  Kesha’s voice is paired with a banjo (and also a mandolin?) on the verses as she sings:  “I always said when I’m gone, when I’m dead / Don’t lay me down with the dirt on my head / You won’t need a shovel, you don’t need a cold headstone / You don’t need to cry, I’m gon’ be going home.” Due to the minimalism of the song, I am able to hear the beautiful timbre in her voice which is not buried (but instead enhanced) by the stripped-down instrumentation. “Spaceship” is essentially a dirge about how the narrator wants to be treated at the time the she departs the earth. I can think of no creative act on par with the self-penned elegy that is perhaps the penultimate act of staking one’s little claim on this spinning earth. The elegy song is basically akin to a living will for artists and one of the greatest works they can write.  The narrator of the song laments her life on Earth and states that she’s from another galaxy and will one day return home. Note the ethereal backing vocals on the chorus and how they creates a ghostly ambience that is not quite of this world. In my lil humble opinion, “Spaceship” is the best song on the album, because in a really beautiful, inventive way the artist confronts her mortality, contemplates her place in the world, and explores her interest in what lies beyond. The existential lyrics contemplating one’s mortality on “Spaceship”  immediately liken the mundane verse in “Tik Tok” to mere fodder for some otherworldy sacred cow.

“Woman” is a righteous, feisty song and gives voice to female empowerment and staking your ground,  dominant themes of Rainbow.  A saxophone full of attitude paves the way for the famed Dap-Kings horn section (who backed the inimitable, late Sharon Jones). Kesha sings: “I buy my own things/ I pay my own bills / These diamond rings / My automobiles /  Everything I got I bought it / Boys can’t buy my love/ Buy my love, yeah / I do what I want / Say what you say / I work real hard everyday / I’m a motherfucking woman, baby alright.” The song is part cabaret, part pop, and all sass, and Kesha sprinkles in some expletives for good measure (and I’m not mad at her for it). In fact, I love her for it because artistic integrity is not sanitized and flawless. Kesha is the antithesis to the Insta-world where all things appear perfect but are far from it: she is the raw and the real. In other words, beauty lies in imperfection. Sometimes, what is most real is disheveled and rough-around-the-edges. Check out “Boots”, which is a little bit like the “answer” to “Woman” and “Hunt You Down”, a pantomimic ballad about murdering a lover who has done you horribly wrong. Either way, this kaleidoscopic genre-bending album showcases Kesha’s dynamic vocal ability and range.

Forgiveness, prayer, and redemption from suffering (at the hands of loved ones) are also major themes of Rainbow. You’ve likely heard “Praying” at this point, which was released with a stunning,  video depicting a narrator who is letting go of the pain of all of those who have wronged her. If you haven’t seen her late night television performance of “Praying”, it is an awe-inspiring performance. The use of repetition andguttural belting of the lyrics “praying” and “changing” make it the centerpiece of the album, no doubt. But “Rainbow”the song after which the album has been named–has quickly become another of my absolute favorites. Kesha wrote “Rainbow” when she was in rehab  for an eating disorder, so this song both embodies and symbolizes healing, growth, and survival.  “Rainbow”–with its swelling string arrangements–evoke the magic of a Disney scene in which the lead character performs her triumphant soliloquy in a sunlit forest. Kesha sings: “I used to live in the darkness / dress in black / act so heartless / but now I see that colors are everything.” Thematically, colors  are a key vehicle for communicating personal transformation, and if you’ve seen the album artwork, you know what I mean. “Rainbow” signifies a new beginning or a re-birth while “Spaceship”–a song contemplating mortality–is the perfect final cut.

And that leaves “Bastards” which was described in the Rolling Stone review as a “ballad ripe for a campfire singalong”. And I couldn’t agree more. In fact, “Bastards” echos the sentiment my father still eschews to his kids today. This pep-talk of a title track is Kesha’s inner dialogue turned outward: ” Don’t let the bastards get you down, oh no / Don’t let the assholes wear you out /Don’t let the mean girls take the crown / Don’t let the scumbags screw you ’round / Don’t let the bastards take you down.” And that’s pretty solid advice.

I haven’t heard much of Kesha’s work aside from her 2010 album, Animal; but after listening to Rainbow, I’d count myself among the ranks of her adoring fans. After just a few spins of the album, there are some standout tracks that I would say are “great”, due either to the result of her collaborations with other (great) artists, her emotive shapeshifting vocals, or how content/lyrics, vocals, instrumentation, and overall production quality culminate in beautifully-crafted songs. As it turns out, the punchy, poppy dance tunes are my least   favorite songs but are catchy in their own right.  The songs I am drawn to and that have the most substance, in terms of lyrical content, also happen to be the most minimally arranged.

In general, Kesha really shines when her emotive voice gets to take center stage without competing with a spastic instrumental backdrop (“Boogie Feet” comes to mind). It’s easy to pass judgement on an artist like Kesha who has achieved the all-too-evasive super-stardom; but check out some of her live performances from “Rainbow” and if you’re like me, you’ll be moved by how she has completely lived the experiences about which she sings. “Spaceship”, “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle To You)”, “Rainbow”, “Bastards”, and “Praying” are beautiful and honest songs that I will return to again and again. If you’re the least bit privy to the legal battles and alleged abuse she suffered at the hands of her former producer, “Dr. Luke”, it’s not difficult to see that Rainbow  is a work of catharsis and metamorphosis. It’s fantastic to witness her return to her country roots because, yes, she isn’t merely a manufactured pop-star: not only does she write her own songs, but she can really sing. Check her out!

 

Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN.

When fans say Kendrick Lamar is the Tupac of our time, it’s an understatement that his music has already made a profound socio-political and aesthetic impact. Let’s not forgot that “Alright,” a song from his 2015 masterpiece album To Pimp A Butterfly (TPAB) became a rallying cry for unity within the Black Lives Matter Movement and acknowledges the epidemic of police shootings that disproportionately targets  Black Americans.   TPAB fuses multiple-genres and voices while the finely-crafted DAMN, by contrast, is am exercise in minimalism. Repetition and reverse instrumentation perfectly reinforce the cyclical  format of the album and the album’s themes after which the songs are named (BLOOD, DNA, FEAR, LOVE, GOD, HUMBLE, LOYALTY, etc).  Where some artists overcomplicate and muddy their waters, Lamar expertly tells stories that perfectly accentuate the cerebral/mundane & sacred/profane dichotomies present in his lyricism. And he often does so with painful self-awareness and contradiction (good & evil, dark and light). Check out some of the reviews of Lamar’s 2017 masterpiece, easily my favorite album of 2017.

The process of listening to DAMN.  has been both discursive and linear, which is to say I’ve listened from beginning to end, end to beginning, and most points in between . The rewards of mindful listening –keener insights into social and cultural references, for example–inspired me to look further into the literary references in Lamar’s work. As an album, DAMN. is particularly circular as well, which is to say the album doesn’t have a definitive beginning or end.   DAMN. is a departure from the ventriloquism of TPAB,  but it nonetheless features what could be construed as Lamar’s conscious and subconscious “voices”. For example, “FEAR”–easily one of my top 3 favorite tracks on the album– is an examination of life told from a few different standpoints. Charles Edward Sydney Isom Jr’s voice can be heard early on in the song asking: “Why God, why God do I gotta suffer? / Pain in my heart carry burdens full of struggle/ Why God, why God do I gotta bleed? / Every stone thrown at you restin’ at my feet.” One fan noted that this particular stanza could function to represent Lamar’s subconscious inner dialogue. But there is a second movement in the tune in which Lamar shape-shifts into the persona of (his) mother: “I beat yo’ ass, keep talkin’ back/I beat yo’ ass, who bought you that?/You stole it, I beat yo’ ass if you say that game is broken/I beat yo’ ass if you jump on my couch/I beat yo’ ass if you walk in this house with tears in your eyes”. This movement in the song continues for 23 more stanzas before transitioning into another “movement” wherein Lamar lays bare his anxieties about how he might die: “I’ll prolly die from one of these bats and blue badges / Body slammed on black and white paint, my bones snappin’ /Or maybe die from panic or die from bein’ too lax / Or die from waitin’ on it, die ’cause I’m movin’ too fast.”

I’m astounded by how Lamar crafts songs that build great intensity and ferocity through the sheer volume of lyrical stanzas alone: strip away all of the layered instrumentation and the lyricism–poetry–would stand independently of its own accord. “FEEL” is another standout song on this album because Lamar utilizes a “stream-of-consciousness” approach set against a dreamy, synth-n-bass backdrop. Lamar is righteously vulnerable in this song and lays bare his anxieties, summons his heroes, and appears to turn his anger inward for a moment. On a really simple level, “FEEL” is a song about anxieties: “Look, I feel like I can’t breathe
Look, I feel like I can’t sleep/Look, I feel heartless, often off this/Feelin’ of fallin’, of fallin’ apart with/Darkest hours, lost it/Fillin’ the void of bein’ employed with ballin’/Streets is talkin’, fill in the blanks with coffins/Fill up the banks with dollars/Fill up the graves with fathers/Fill up the babies with bullshit/Internet blogs and pulpit, fill ’em with gossip/I feel like this gotta be the feelin’ what ‘Pac was
The feelin’ of an apocalypse happenin’…I feel like the whole world want me to pray for ’em / But who the fuck prayin’ for me?”  Something that is conceptually remarkable about DAMN. is that it is an honest exploration of what it means to be human. It is considerably difficult for an artist to not only tap into but to give voice to the wide spectrum of emotion without censoring oneself.  Lamar goes into the depths of his soul in this album, which is an act of bravery unto itself. When asked what he would do differently the second time around?: “I’d go deeper”,  he tells Rick Rueben in a fantastic interview.

“DNA” is my favorite song on the album because of it’s unapologetic boldness in which Lamar attacks the microphone and takes no prisoners. For the reason that hip -hop allows the artist to re-fashion him or herself into the larger-than-life master of her own destiny, I am perpetually drawn back into its magic again and again. Unlike other musical genres, the best hip-hop acts as a springboard not only for reflection but for personal (and thus social) revolution and transformation not lost on Lamar: “I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA/ I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA.”  If you watch the official music video for “DNA”, you’ll see an incredible performance between Don Cheadle and Lamar that features Lamar administering a lie detector test to Cheadle. A sample of a Fox news brief features two news pundits mocking Lamar’s massive hit song “Alright” that calls out police brutality. I personally love how Lamar takes these two news pundits to task and challenges their snap-judgements and assumptions.  Like Nina Simone said, it is an artist’s job to “reflect the times.” Lamar does just that.

DAMN. becomes more revolutionary the more you listen and allow yourself to be awash in the poetry, politics, and existential philosophy. Having listened to DAMN. at least twenty-five times, I am amazed by Lamar’s “fast and furious” lyricism. A Pitchfork reviewer who gave the album a heavy-weight champion score of 9.2 opines that  “Lamar’s recitation is so effortless you wonder where he breathes, or if he does at all.”     Indeed, I also wondered when, exactly, he would find the space to take a breath during the recitation of his lyrics. If you haven’t heard this album yet, just listen with an open mind, which is to say with a neuroplastic mind, since we now know that the brain is not fixed but rather capable of change and charting new territory.

 

We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes On Race & Resegregation

We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation strikes a beautiful balance between scholarly and popular writing styles while still retaining the heartening qualities that embody the spirit of activism. Author Jeff Chang interrogates the assumptions surrounding concepts like “political correctness”, “color blindness”, “diversity”, “affirmative action”, and “privilege”, concepts that are oversimplified in spite of their nuance, rich history and deep complexity.

In We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes On Race and Resegregation  , Chang explores the historical and cultural backdrop for the events leading up to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in addition to the structures of racism and the impact on communities and people of color. “Racism is not merely about chauvinism, prejudice, or bigotry,” he says. In quoting Ruth Gilmore, he continues that racism is “about the ways different groups are ‘vulnerable to premature death,’ whether at the hands of the state or the structures that kill” (3). When we begin to examine how city zoning, for example, or access to affordable health care, schools, and housing hinder or help any given group of people, we begin to see things a little differently. It is deeply disturbing that “the death rate of Blacks is over 50 percent higher than that of whites, and higher that that of all other major ethnic groups, except for some American Indian coherts” (4).

Vehement protests in response to police shootings of innocent black people in the United States have dominated the press for good reason.  And everyone has an opinion, it seems. When debate rages on, either on the national political stage or social media threads, some complain about the implied burden of having to be “politically correct”, as though precision and care to detail are somehow a bad practice to uphold. Audre Lorde says it better: ‘It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.’  Chang unpacks the backlash against the phrase “politically correct” and explains concisely:

Before the 1980s, it was mostly Marxists who used the term “politically correct” to mock other Marxists. Since then, charging someone else with political correctness has become the first line of defense for racists, one of the best ways to shut down any discussion about inequity. That silencing isolates the most marginalized communities, and demobilizes white communities. Resegregation grows not from white ignorance, but from white refusal and denial. And so a half century after the peak of the civil rights movement, the nation has again moved into crisis (7).

In some social circles, online or in-person, it’s uncool and bothersome to discuss politics, a sad state of rampant anti-intellectualism and apathy. In my recent personal experience on social media, often outside of my immediate and insular “friends” list,  people don’t like to be inconvenienced with questions of inequity and injustice. “Can we just get back to posting pictures of our dinners?” has been a resounding mantra with regard to recent discussions of the NFL & Colin Kaepernick’s protesting of police brutality and racial inequity. But Kaepernick is tapping into mass anxiety about an issue that is all but isolated and his immediate and lasting consequences on real living, breathing human beings. If we are not to keep repeating mistakes and atrocities of the past, it is high time to Listen. Activists and scholars like Jeff Chang are leveraging their voices in order to shed light on some of the most insidious corners of humanity. And it is time not to become defensive and deny marginalized people their experiences with bigotry but instead to say: “Tell me your story and I will listen, even if my own experience is different.” We should seek to understand the experiences of our fellow citizens–not to try and shut them up or shame them when they take a knee or speak out on an social evils of epidemic proportions.   You might be surprised to discover that the continuity of a long storied history of racial inequity is explained in part by city zoning, urban sprawl, the bull-dozing of housing projects, and the history of policing just to list a few factors (82). Chang is trying to foster understanding with his book and create another testament to the realities faced by marginalized people. Considering how dense Chang’s book is, it’s a fairly quick read, too. It is of critical importance to note how 2017 is a standout year because Americans are more concerned about issues of race now than they have been since the early 1990s!:

“Polls show that more Americans are concerned about race relations now than at any time since 1992, the year of the Los Angeles riots. The previous peak had come in 1965–the year of the Voting Rights Act, the Immigration and Nationality Act, the apex of the civil rights movement, the year of the last national consensus for racial justice.”

We have entered into another vicious cycle that Chang describes compassionately and poignantly:

Race makes itself known in crisis, in the singular event that captures a larger pattern of abuse and pain. We react to crisis with a flurry of words and, sometimes, actions. In turn, the reaction sparks its own backlash of outrage, justification, and denial. The cycle turns next toward exhaustion, complacency, and paralysis. And before long, we find ourselves back in crisis. . .One need not be a pessimist to see the bad loop of history we are caught within–crisis, reaction, backlash, complacency, crisis. There are fires. There are calls for action. There is then a bullying politics of fear. If most Americans recoil from the kind of excessive, gleeful, cynical bigotry someone like the billionaire Donald Trump proffers, they are yet demobilized to the point of denial (‘there is no problem’) or justification (‘there is a problem but I can’t solve it’). And then we find ourselves in another crisis.”

The takeaway?:

1.) This is an important book.

2.) Please read it and share it with someone else.

3.) Jeff Chang is my hero.

 

 

Moonhead and the Music Machine by Andrew Rae

 I’m a sucker for fantastic  artwork and, lucky for me, Moonhead and the Music Machine is packed to the gills with gorgeousness. I want to buy individual prints of various scenes in this story and put them on my walls. Author and illustrator, Andrew Rae, is a seriously talented graphic designer who also does animation in addition to illustrating a number of comic books, graphic novels, and zines. You can check out his work at Moonhead Studios here! Moonhead t-shirts, anyone? Sign me up yesterday.

In terms of storyline, Moonhead and the Music Machine is a classic underdog tale in which Joey Moonhead, the main protagonist, must defy his bullies and wear his uniqueness (his strength) like a badge of honor.  Early on in the book, Joey attempts to engage with his parents who are both aloof and neglectful. Subsequently, he spends a lot of time alone in his room and his mind begins to wander, quite literally. The thing about Joey’s head is that it’s a giant moon that can detach and float through space independent of his body. Naturally, I think about how perhaps Joey’s moonhead is allegorical with daydreaming or even escapism, hallmark characteristics of being a young person who is discovering his or her own dreams and ambitions but who also experiences a fair amount of alienation (from parents, authorities, peers, etc). Initially, Joey’s wandering head tends to get him into trouble with parents, teachers, and friends.

That is, of course, until he learns how, with the help of willing adults and friends, to channel and harness his creative energy and embrace his individuality. Sockets, his best friend, is a big part of helping him navigate the hallways and social terrain of high school where Joey posits that that the adults are “training us to conform…to be factory workers!” Of course, Socket’s response, which is the other side of an age-old argument about education, maintains that “getting good grades” is one ticket to being able to determine your own path without being self-sacrificial. Joey & Sockets share a playful and sweet friendship in which they respect but still challenge each other’s opinions.

Enter music. Like many teens, Joey stumbles upon music in an organic way after having a parent-teacher conference that results in Joey’s finding a record player and a set of headphones. Whereas Joey’s head once levitated just above his body, ready at any moment to float away, it now was tethered to his record player by way of his headphones. Music is very “grounding” and facilitates connectivity unlike any other medium due to its accessibility and transcendence of time/space and language boundaries. To boot, I was overly excited about how Rae re-imagined classic album artwork design for album covers by musicians like David Bowie, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, and many others.

Once Joey is infected by the music bug, there is no going back. After taking interest in a music machine-building project, Joey meets the mysterious Ghost Boy and together they dazzle their classmates during a talent show after building a key-tar esque instrument (half-keyboard, half guitar) and bringing the house down. After their performance, Joey is overcome by the response of his peers who are inspired by the overall message Joey sends: to embrace and find strength in your individuality–in your moonhead. It may be important to note which of your friends stick by you even at your worst, when you don’t have anything of monetary or social value to offer aside from your friendship. They are the real deal, people. Read this graphic novel simply for the gorgeous artwork but find richness and multiple layers of meaning in its simplicity.

 

 

 

The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers in “Healthy” Foods That Cause Disease and Weight Gain

I read a lot of non-fiction about food and nutrition and, admittedly, there are a dizzying number of flash-in-a-pan diet/lifestyle books that villanize some foods and glorify others.   The Plant Paradox is absolutely another book in a sea of books that touts the healing powers of food to reverse and prevent illness and inflammation; but you will definitely appreciate the nuance Gundry offers even though the books isn’t without some alarmist language, too (Gundry likens taking NSAIDs to dropping a grenade into the body…but honestly, maybe it is like that).

The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers in “Healthy” Foods That Cause Disease and Weight Gain offers new insights into food-related causes of  illness.  One thing that gives Author and cardio-surgeon Dr. Steven Gundry an edge–in addition to his rigorous research studies and research citations–is his admission that he changes his stance on what constitutes “healthy food” based on a changing body of evidence. Sticking to your guns is great if you’re not a cardio-surgeon when patients require that your practices are current and evidence-based!

First-off, people who follow a plant-based diet or lifestyle can rest assured that Gundry in no way vilifies plant-based living and eating: most of the food choices he recommends are still plant-centric. But there are certain plants you should avoid or pressure cook so as not to incur their wrath. So what’s the problem? Blame the lectins, those teeny, tiny little things that cumulatively wreak havoc in our bodies causing inflammation and auto-immune disorders. What in the world is a lectin, you may wonder? I, too, furrowed my brow at the mentioning of the word. Let’s have a look and go straight to the source. Although Gundry spends nearly 400 pages discussing what lectins are and why they’re so problematic, you might sum them up simply in one of his earliest statements that “they are large proteins found in plants and animals, and they are a crucial weapon in the arsenal of strategies that plants use to defend themselves in their ongoing battle with animals” (14). One of the most infamous lectins starts with the letter “G” and I’ll give you one guess! If you thought of gluten, you’re right! As you have witnessed, most grocery stores sell “gluten-free” variants of bread, baked goods, pasta, soups, and frozen entrees; but gluten is just one of many, many lectins. Gundry discusses how avoiding one lectin will do little to help individuals attempting to adhere to a gluten-free diet and lifestyle because they have not removed the other lectin-containing foods from their diets. And you better believe those little buggers are everywhere. To add insult to injury, most gluten-free foods are far more calorically dense and sugar-laden than their gluten-containing counterparts.

One major takeaway from the book is that making healthier food choices is less about what you add to your diet and more about what you remove to improve your health. Check out this book to discover Gundry’s recipes for a 3-day cleanse and what he refers to as the “Plant Paradox” program. If you like avocados like me, I think you’ll be happy to find that many of the 3-day cleanse recipes involve guacamole. There is also a list of lectin-containing culprits and lectin-free foods. Gundry also devised vegan and vegetarian variations of his recipes, for those who currently supplement their plant-based diets with copious amounts of beans, grains, nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, white potatoes, goji berries) and legumes.

One consideration with the Plant Paradox “diet” is that it’s somewhat restrictive and likely unsustainable. While it’s possible to loosely follow Dr. Gundry’s instruction, it would likely take time, patience, dedication, and extra cash-flow to implement and be in strict compliance with his plan (especially if you opt for pastured animals, for example). Someone who regularly eats grains, breads, and nightshades (or several other items from the “Do not eat” list) will require quite a few adjustments as they learn to navigate the boundaries of the Plant Paradox program. And something that Gundry likely takes for granted is simply the mental load of having to exert substantial thought into what you’re going to eat for every meal of every day. Grain-based foods, beans, and legumes are filling and cheap whereas “pastured” animal products are more costly (in comparison to their feedlot-raised counterparts). However, it’s reasonable to start with some small part of Gundry’s plan and try to implement that first, i.e. maybe you weed out the simple carbohydrates and refined flours from your diet first rather than trying to do everything at once. Everyone’s nutritional needs are very different, too, so while one person may suffer little or no consequence from regularly consuming the above-listed offenders, another may experience debilitating gastrointestinal issues.  There is one thing I know for sure, though, and personally, when I replace the bread, flour, and dairy products in my diet with greens and velvety avocados, just to name a couple, there is a marked difference in how my gut responds. Happy gut, happy life!

Check this out if you like to stay on the up and up with new diet and nutrition information. This book is incredibly dense with a thorough bibliography if you’re inclined to reference some of Gundry’s research.

 

Inspiring Children’s Books: “I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsberg Makes Her Mark”

As shown in the fantastic children’s book I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsberg Makes Her Mark, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, loved visiting public libraries.  She “took to the library” because “on the shelves were stories of girls and women who did big things.” In 1940, when Ruth was growing up, “[B]oys were expected to grow up, go out in the world, and do big things. Girls? Girls were expected to find husbands”. But Ginsberg didn’t accept that short-sighted vision of what she was capable of. Time and time again, Ginsberg was told what she should and should not do: but she dissented on all accounts.

And thankfully so. Her initial public library education was revolutionary. Her strong and compassionate mother set an early example that women could, in fact, do anything that they set their minds to. Ginsberg learned at a young age what it felt like to be the recipient of discrimination. A young Jewish girl, she recalled a time when businesses would post signage that read “No Jews” and “Whites Only”. The pain and injustice of oppression profoundly changed her.

Ginsberg pursed social progress and social justice relentlessly. Despite efforts by her peers to diminish it, her inner strength shown brightly. She is and was true dynamo in every sense of the word: a Jewish Mother at the top of her class in law school working double-time to continue proving herself in a sexist society that viewed women as “timid”. She went on to fight for both men and women and to challenge the restrictive roles that were typical of the mid-century status quo.

For the reasons that Ginsberg was drawn to public libraries, I have always found them to be spaces of contemplation and possibility.  I spent days browsing library shelves and anticipating of all of the wonderful new things I could discover because I was fortunate enough to be able to read . Literacy enables you to change or improve your life or the lives of others. We don’t celebrate this realization nearly enough.  I brought home bags full of books, magazines, video, and music — and all for free. Today, I have the privilege of working in a library–a necessary and radical space for personal transformation available to anyone with a library card. I’m drawn to stories like the one told in I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsberg Makes Her Mark specifically because they feature people who refuse to have their humanity defined for them.  I’m so proud that Davenport Public Library provides access to such wonderful and inspiring children’s books.

Physical and virtual library spaces are chalk-full of stories of underdogs and of every day people who do extraordinary things, and access to these stories is gloriously free. All you need is a library card, and that won’t cost you a cent.

 

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