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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

The ribbons: what now?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

So about the ribbons, the black and white ribbons I put on after the shooting of Michael Brown because I wanted an outward sign of my sadness. I said I would wear them for 100 days and hundredth day was November 28, right after the grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson. Not the day I wanted to shed that sign, but I did. Not the right day, but what day would be?

Some people assumed they were kriah ribbons, the torn black mourning ribbon which, in the Jewish tradition, is worn for the first 30 days after the death of a close relative. Just as taking off the kriah ribbon doesn’t mean the end of mourning, taking off my ribbons doesn’t mean the end of my thinking about the privilege that comes with being white and the injustices that come with being black.  

So this is what I’m thinking about...how my tall, hoodie-wearing grandsons do not have to be raised with warnings about not looking somehow “threatening” ....about what kind of downside could there be to a society in which everyone felt included...about people who voice support for the police yet don’t seem to respect them enough to hold them them to a higher standard of maintaining civic order....about ubuntu, the African concept of our interconnectedness, the idea that I cannot be free to be fully human unless you are also. 

In this video I saw online, Tory Bullock talks about how the daily realities of being a young black man make Ferguson not a watershed moment, but just one more in a long line of heartbreaks. Sort of the way it turned out that Sandy Hook was just one more gun-related tragedy. 

So I took the ribbons off. I carry my sadness now where it doesn’t show as much. I offer you this poem, written in 1938 by Langston Hughes, and I hope we can do better.

Let America be America Again


Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!

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Wearing the ribbons: Day 37

Friday, September 26, 2014

“You’re going to need more ribbons,” Dr. D. said to me this morning as he read the paper. 

Oh, indeed.  There was that state trooper who shot the man who, at the officer’s request, was reaching for his driver’s license. There was the shooting of the Wal-Mart customer who was holding an air rifle from the store’s shelves. There was the unbearable prevalence of incidents reported with the gratuitous line, “(Insert name of wounded or killed man here) was black; Officer (insert name here) is white.”

About the ribbons: 37 days ago, I felt I needed to recreate some publicly visible sign of my anguish over the shooting of Michael Brown, so I made a little “awareness pin” of black and white ribbons which I committed to wearing for 100 days. I felt it was an acknowledgement of the unearned privilege I have because of my white skin. It also represented my hope that the people I interacted with during the day would treat me with the same respect and consideration if I were black. A lot of weight for two  little ribbons to carry.

I also have extra ribbons with me in in case anyone else wants one. Two people have. A few people asked about the ribbons. But mostly the awareness ribbons seem to be as invisible as...awareness.

In my Day 7 post, I noted that the awareness was primarily mine, and that continues. Also my sadness. This week, as I wear the ribbons, I am watching the Ken Burns series on the Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt. The series is extraordinary. Likewise the three subjects. For all of TR’s and FDR’s accomplishments, it is Eleanor who is emerging, for me, as the true star of self-invention, resilience, and, most importantly, beacon of the nation’s highest ideals. Given the times that the series is set in, there are horrifying pictures and instances of racial injustice, that I am taking in as I read about the most recent assaults on voting rights as well as on human beings’ persons and dignity.

Years ago I had the privilege of working with the late Jonathan Mann on a manuscript, never completed, on how to be an activist for human rights. The first step, according to him--and a hugely powerful one--was according dignity to every other human being simply in acknowledgement of their humanity. A simple concept, but so powerful. A quick look at what exists on the subject of human rights activism talks about first steps including joining organizations, going to meetings, monitoring abuses, large and important things, certainly. But this one simple step is something we can all do right now wherever we are:

Just treat other people with respect. 


Doesn’t even take a ribbon.

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Wearing the ribbon, day 7

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Last week I said that, in response to the death of Michael Brown, I was going to wear black and white ribbons for the next 100 days and some people asked me to give updates. So here’s my first.

A little recap--I wanted an an outward sign not only of my sadness over what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, but also of my recognition of my white privilege and my hope that people I encounter would treat me with the same respect and courtesy if I were black.

 A little logistical update--Making the ribbon is trickier than it looks. Since I’m kind of klutzy, it took few days to get it to not look like a sorority pledge ribbon. Now it’s got that little loop we’re so used to seeing in different colors. According to the internet, it’s called an awareness ribbon, so I’m thinking of it as my white privilege awareness.

And so far that’s exactly what it’s turned out to be: MY awareness. When I first wore it, I felt as if I was wearing a sign and I rehearsed how I wanted to talk about it. But, actually, almost no one has asked me about it. 

I, however, have thought about it a lot. Every day when I pin it on, I am aware that I am  making a public statement about my identity. I feel as if I’m pinning on my whiteness and all the societal implications that go with it, including things I take for granted that others are routinely denied. Even if no one else comments or notices or has a clue why I am wearing it, I know. 

Back in the 80s, as a volunteer with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, I took part in a session where we were asked what we considered the single most fundamental part of our identity. Surrounded by people whose answer was “gay,” I realized I never thought about “straight.”

Likewise, this weekend I attended an opera festival where, at at one point, I sat near a woman who was very obviously once a man. Although she wore long hair and lively pink nail polish, her body language was painful--guarded and uneasy. Even in this bucolic setting among  this very specific group she looked as if she felt at risk. And I thought about the privilege of not thinking about going out in public identified as “other” in people’s eyes--and about how many categories of “other” people are made to feel. 

I am hoping against hope that Ferguson will provide a turning point. I am hoping even as I see the horrifying comments and hundreds of thousands of dollars pouring forth in support of the officer who shot Michael Brown.  Every day the news dashes my hopes. But still, I am hoping and I am wearing my ribbon.


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One very small very personal action

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A few weeks ago  I had an encounter with a police officer. I was driving down a Cambridge street and drove through a crosswalk just as a pedestrian was nearing the far sidewalk.  Seemed like a totally reasonable thing to do, no danger to anyone, but as I was stopped at the traffic light just past the crosswalk, a police officer walked over to me and said politely, “In Massachusetts, the law is that you need to stop whenever someone is anywhere in the crosswalk.” “Oh, I didn’t know that,” I said and he said,  “Have a nice day,” and I drove away thinking, “what if I had been black? What if, instead of being an old white woman, I were a young black man?” 

In fact, a young black man I know, a delightful poet who has done tremendous good in our community, had a similar small traffic incident recently and it did not end with the officer saying, “Have a nice day.” 

So, as I am thinking, like many of you, of Michael Brown and Ferguson, Missouri, and the long line of injustice and tragedy that shows no sign of ending,  I am also thinking of how I am wrapped in the protection of my skin color. 

There have been so many times I might have had a similar incident--the taillight I didn’t realize was out, the misjudged yellow light--the thousand and one little things that might have gotten me into trouble but didn’t. I’m thinking of the many times I’ve wandered through a store “just looking, thanks,” without being followed, or how I walk down the street without worrying that someone might decide to question my freedom to do that. There was a Saturday when Dr. D. and I ate a Formaggio barbecue lunch on a picnic bench in front of a nearby school:  the school was closed, but there was a “no trespassing” sign, and we were aware of the privilege we felt in our white skin to do this small, harmless thing. 

When my crosswalk incident took place, Michael Brown was alive and well, spending summer evenings with friends and getting ready to start college. In the weeks since then, and especially now in the days since Michael Brown’s death, I find myself in daily interactions wondering if I would be treated the same way if I were black. A stupid question, I know, insensitive, societally tone-deaf. 

I’ve decided to do a very small thing. I bought some white ribbon and black ribbon and pinned a snip of each on my shirt.  It’s an outward sign of my sadness, not unlike the torn black ribbon Jewish mourners wear when a family member has died.  It is also, I hope, an invitation to a conversation. I hope I will be asked about it, so I can say I’m wearing it because I am heartbroken over what took place in Ferguson and because I realize I have the unearned protection of white privilege and that I hope the people I meet during my day who treat me with courtesy and respect would do the same if I were black. 

It’s a tiny thing, subtle and maybe totally inconsequential, and, I hope, not presumptuous. I am wearing it today for the first time, and I feel a little nervous, a little self-conscious, a little uneasy about whether anyone will react and how I will respond. I’m going to wear it for 100 days. It’s a personal response, but if you see me, I’ll have ribbon with me in case you want some, too.





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Pound Sterling

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Whew. We can all breathe more easily. The disgusting remarks of Donald Sterling were appropriately answered with major sanctions from the NBA, announced by its commissioner, Adam Silver.  And now the whole Sterling-Silver episode is on its way to being a done deal and we can all congratulate ourselves for how quickly racism met swift justice. See what a little 24/7 news coverage can accomplish!

We can all rest easy, right?  We were shocked shocked. Whew, LA NAACP which was about to engrave Sterling’s name on a second lifetime achievement plaque. Close call, Doc Rivers and all those players who were caught by surprise by their team owner’s despicable attitude and stepped up to protest with a coordinated wardrobe malfunction during a practice session. Great news, all those other NBA owners, those hob-nobbing officials, all the fans who scored courtside seats who won’t have to risk such tawdry association any more. Racism has been vanquished and no playoff games were harmed. Like a surgeon with the happy report, “we got it all.”

Am I the only person finding this a little tarnished? I think there’s a tiny worm we missed in all the hoopla. This was a start, but if we’re honest, we might need to stop the piling-on and the back-slapping and admit it: it’s not just Sterling. It’s time to root out racism, but the job isn’t quite done yet.  It might even extend outside the paint.  It’s kind of a bigger problem than one puny man. 


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Life on the streets

Friday, April 18, 2014

We were walking along the street and the two women walking in the opposite direction said hello.  And the next people coming down the street said hello, too. In fact, many people we passed acknowledged our existence. Not all of them and not in a creepy or intrusive way. Just in a human way--a little nod to the shared space. And when I inadvertently stepped into the path of a bicycle, the cyclist braked loudly and then...offered his hand in apology.  Said he was sorry, even though it was my fault. Asked if I was all right. We exchanged assurances that each of us was fine and hopes that we each would have a nice day. Dr. D. and I left that exchange noting that, in Boston, invectives would have been hurled and anger would have curdled the air.

But we were in Philadelphia. 

Philadelphia, which often looks as if it’s seen better days and which feels, in many ways, like Boston’s opposite. Where the Boston streets are cozy and walkable, Philadelphia goes for the wide vista and the life-threatening street crossing. Where Boston revels in the patrician heritage, Philadelphia celebrates egalitarianism. Philadelphia is sadly defaced with graffiti; Boston--thanks in large part to community activists and with no thanks to the graffiti-glorifying ICA--does a better job of protecting its exposed surfaces. Both have a strong presence of educational institutions, cultural vitality. Philadelphia gets a plus for weather, Boston for public transportation. Philadelphia wins hands down on city halls.

But what’s with the friendliness--presence versus lack of? When I first moved to Boston from New York, I noticed this. Coming from New York! New York, the city people place right up there with Paris on the friendliness scale. But that hasn’t been my experience. In New York there is an acknowledgment that other people exist. Give New Yorkers a shared street experience--a sudden snowfall, an annoying horn-honker, an adorable child with puppy--and they exchange looks. Smiles even. Or shrugs or eye-rolls as the occasion warrants. It’s quick, the underlying rule on sidewalk or street being always keep the traffic moving. But it’s there. 

Not in Boston. On our streets there’s no recognition that another person is approaching. Even on my quiet one-block-long street. People are friendly enough one on one, but not in the public space. What’s up with that?


Dr. D. and I came home determined to give it a try. Philadelphia’s brotherly love in the hub of the universe? Let’s see how it goes.

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A memorial to a memorial

Thursday, April 10, 2014

I visited Copley Square more than once last spring. More than two or three times; each time it was a wrenching experience. Each time I joined others walking slowly, dabbing at eyes or letting tears fall freely, remembering what happened on April 15. We stepped around the wilting flowers, read the heartfelt notes, saw the objects left in tribute, including all those running shoes. If there was one overriding image, that was it: the running shoes, everywhere at the Copley Square memorial and later grouped into a heart shape for an iconic Boston Magazine cover.  

It was the kind of outpouring that often grows in the face of tragedy, like the ones at firehouses all over New York after 9/11, and like the one outside the Engine 33 Firehouse on Boylston Street right now. They are the human impulse to comfort made visible. Their power grows out of their spontaneity.

And then what to do with them? Sweep up the flowers, distribute the teddy bears, put the signs and letters in a storage corner? In Boston the decision was made to preserve as much as possible and create an exhibit. The result, “Dear Boston,” is currently at the Boston Public Library, next to the newly-repainted Marathon finish line and across the street from where the memorial grew.

I am sad to say that the exhibit, while clearly well-intentioned, is a memorial only to a memorial. A neat square of running shoes. Letters in children’s handwriting--notes from other countries--all under glass, clean, and carefully planned. And maybe that’s why it feels so depressing, so dead. The Boston Strong spontaneity is gone, scrubbed out, cleaned up, and presented for viewing access. 

Maybe that's inevitable. In an online essay Quentin Miller wrote about how the instinctive outpouring of last year’s Copley Square tribute is likely to remain, in the minds of those who saw, it more poignant and powerful than any permanent marker the city might erect. That memory is definitely more powerful than this exhibit, just as "Boston Strong"--complete with expletive from Big Papi--is more powerful than the heartfelt but limp-sounding, "Dear Boston."

Certainly the impulse to preserve the tribute is understandable, as is the necessity of having some tangible sign this year of what happened last year.  

If you go to the BPL you may be impressed with the way an organized presentation has been orchestrated out of the scrambled chaos of what was left in tribute. You may find it interesting that people in other countries felt Boston’s sadness, and its strength. You may appreciate the fact that these things were collected and preserved.


But you  probably won’t cry.

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