Reverberations

So last weekend the news was about Elizabeth Lederer’s decision to stop being a lecturer at Columbia University Law School. It’s a little satisfying, seeing people put in the spotlight, seeing the (at-long-last-and-finally) negative impact caused by the harsh lens of Ava DuVernay’s Netflix miniseries about the Central Park 5, When They See Us. I am glad enough that Lederer won’t be a vaunted lecturer at Columbia’s law school anymore. I am, however, totally not here for her effort to control the narrative, saying she stepped down because she doesn’t want the distraction of publicity to affect the college rather than acknowledging that she has culpability. Notice that the weekend’s headlines aren’t about Lederer being fired.

I read a NYT article from a few years ago, an article written in 2013 after the airing of the Ken and Sarah Burns documentary about the jogger case, and after Frank Chi created an online petition demanding that Columbia fire Lederer from her teaching position. The article acknowledges that Lederer was involved in the perpetration of an injustice, but it clearly faults Chi for wanting her to have to pay any consequences for that involvement.

The five boys who’d been sent to prison were still trying to build lives after the justice system had done everything in its power to destroy them, and the writer of that Times piece was upset that anyone should point a finger at Lederer for her part in that heinous miscarriage of justice.

The writer, Jim Dwyer, says: “The petition against Ms. Lederer, in part, reduces her life in public service to a single moment, the jogger case. In fact, she has a lengthy résumé of unchallenged convictions in cold cases, having pursued investigations of forgotten crimes. No one lives without error. And designating a single villain completely misses the point and power of the documentary. The jogger case belongs to a historical moment, not any one prosecutor or detective; it grew in the soils of a rancid, angry, fearful time.”

Could he really have been serious? Does he really believe that, because she tried other cases that didn’t involve harming innocent people, that we should forget about what she did in this case, in this case in which she participated in the destruction of five innocent boys’ childhoods, in this case which impacted the families of each of these innocent boys? He says “the jogger case belongs to a historical moment,” as if we weren’t, at the exact moment he was writing that line, living in the reality of a system that regularly brutalized Black and brown people. Ferguson wouldn’t become a national flashpoint for another year, but it’s not as though anyone actually trying to look would have been able to miss the simple fact that the justice system treats Black and brown folks unjustly on the regular.

And even if we really could consign the jogger case to history, why should that mean the people who carried out that hideousness should be allowed to thrive and make money, in part because they point to their success in that case? Chi was absolutely right to call for Lederer’s dismissal. Columbia didn’t listen, though. Not then and not in the years since then when students at the school made the same call. Only now, in the wake of When They See Us being the most streamed show in Netflix history, are any dominoes falling — or, more accurately, are some dominoes falling and a few others removing themselves from the game.

 

I wasn’t sure I’d be able to watch When They See Us. I knew a) it would be painful, b) it would be enraging, and c) that I wouldn’t be able to sleep well after watching because d) my brain wouldn’t be able to stop running through the story, through all the moments when people in power could have decided another way, through all the moments when one or another of those innocent children was harmed.

I finally watched on Sunday. I went to a friend’s house and we watched together. We watched two episodes, took a short break, then watched the final two. She drove me to the train and I made my way home. I stayed up awhile, even though it was already late and I had an early meeting Monday morning. I was afraid to go to sleep, certain I would dream the worst parts of the show.

I didn’t dream the show, but I didn’t fall asleep right away, either. I couldn’t … because, every time I closed my eyes, my brain did what I’d known it would: began running through the moments of choice in the story, through the moments of casual brutality. I tried thinking about other things, tried reading a book, tried playing games on my phone. No good.

I did finally sleep. I had an equally hard time sleeping Monday night. I’m practically a zombie right now, running on a combined total of about 5 hours of sleep in 72 hours. I will probably have this same issue for several nights to come.

If I can’t sleep, and I am 100 percent not culpable of anything in this case, how do the people entirely responsible sleep? How have they been able to live their lives without remorse? I don’t make room for the possibility that they honestly believed they had served justice. There is no chance they aren’t guilty of pushing children into harm’s way to benefit themselves: to resolve a terrible crime … and to feed a popular narrative that enabled them to build and strengthen their own careers by showing how tough on crime they were, how skillfully they could win high-profile cases.

I don’t feel any kind of sorry for Fairstein or Lederer. I’m also not surprised that the primary fallout from the show (so far?) has centered on women. That’s predictable and problematic, but it doesn’t make me feel sorry for these two. Not at all.

Rather, I want everyone with dirt on their hands to suffer blowback. All the cops who beat and lied and terrorized confessions into those children.? The cops who decided to scoop up Korey Wise because he was 16 and they could do what they wanted with him without calling his mother. Every person along the way who saw lies being constructed and put their heads down and let it happen. Every prison guard and inmate who harmed Korey Wise during his years of incarceration. I want every single last one of the people connected to the criminalization and brutalization of those five children to face consequences. It’s good that Lederer and Fairstein don’t get to keep making money off the unforgivable thing they did, but it’s not enough. Do I sound like some raging angel of vengeful retribution? I am truly okay with that.

After Chi’s online petition took off six years ago, Chi asked Ken Burns to sign on. That was a no-go: “Burns said […] he and the other filmmakers wanted nothing to do with the campaign. “It is just simple retribution, and we are appalled by it,” he said. “We don’t subscribe to any of it.”” It was simple retribution. Yes. Exactly. Why not? Lederer had used her success in that trial to burnish her reputation. She benefited directly from the harm done to those boys. Retribution sounds entirely correct. But Burns couldn’t let himself get too close to that. It might get in the way of his ability to keep making documentaries and winning accolades for his compelling historical narratives. (He’s made 10 documentaries since 2013. That isn’t a gravy train you’d want to stop.) I obviously have no idea what Burns was thinking when he made that comment about the “fire Lederer” petition, but how could he have dug into the case and seen what was done, yet not felt that Lederer and everyone else involved had a price to pay?

And now, in response to When They See Us, New York City’s Public Advocate, the Legal Aid Society, Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, and the New York County Defender Services have called on Manhattan’s District Attorney to a) fire Elizabeth Lederer, who continues to work as a prosecutor for the City, and b) reopen and re-investigate sex crime cases that were handled by Lederer and Fairstein between 1976 and 2002. The Manhattan DA has said that the jogger casewas a profound injustice” … but he has no intention of doing anything about it, at least not anything like holding “an attorney in good standing” on his team accountable for her part in that tragedy.

Lederer won’t get a bonus check for lecturing at Columbia anymore. Her choice. Columbia didn’t fire her. She still has her well-paid job with the City. She’s fine and she’s going to be fine. Fairstein can run around slandering Ava DuVernay, skating on the edge of calling that woman out of her name. Her books will still sell. She’ll write new ones and some publisher is going to pick her up. She’s pissy right now, but she’ll be fine.

Yeah. I mean, I’m not at all surprised, but I’m entirely disgusted.

Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, and Yusef Salaam. We don’t call their names at Black Lives Matter events. Of course not. They are all still alive. They have all managed to grow up and make lives. Thank God. But there’s no question but that the child in each of them was killed in 1989.

 


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

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It’s Slice of Life Tuesday! Click over to Two Writing Teachers to see what the other slicers are up to!

Six Years Standing Still

In six weeks it will be exactly six years since I had my first knee surgery. Since then, I’ve had three additional knee surgeries, shoulder surgery, and two procedures for my heart. I’m so over having surgery.

Except that I’m not over it because an unfortunate fact I’ve been keeping to myself for a while is that I’m about to have another knee surgery. In a week’s time, I’ll be back in the hospital letting my body be handled, cut up and re-stitched. I’m sad about it and mad about it and frustrated about it and defeated about it. It seems that every time I start to think I have my body back and can work on relearning how to do things pain and disability have forced me to stop doing, I suddenly don’t have my body back at all. Instead, it’s time for another operation.

This one has all the hallmarks of being easier than the other four knee procedures. It’s outpatient surgery, for one. I’ll be home by the end of the day because the procedure is touted to be super minor and barely invasive. Can you hear my lack of faith? Well, that’s because my most recent hospital experience was the miserable disaster of my rotator cuff surgery, when the surgeon told me I’d be good to go back to work the next day and probably wouldn’t even need to wear my sling … and I was foolish enough to believe that insanity and didn’t properly prepare for how debilitated I was going to be. Forget the huge, thickly-padded bandage that was like wearing a dog bed on my shoulder. I couldn’t get dressed on my own! And never once did he mention that I wouldn’t be able to lie down and so wouldn’t be able to get to sleep. I’m shuddering just remembering the levels of pain I experienced after that operation.

This procedure will be different, if only because this is a different doctor, and I trust this hospital so very much more than I trusted the one I was in last year.  It will also be different because I have so much knee surgery experience that I have an idea of what to expect.

The trouble is that what I also expect is for this not to work, for this not to solve the forever problem of my knees that was created forever ago when a car running a red light as I was crossing the street made me fall badly, left me sprawling by the curb wondering if I’d be able to walk again. Each surgery has held the promise of making me feel whole and functional again. And the fact that I don’t feel whole and functional again after all these years and all these operations makes this coming procedure seem like a cruel joke.

My title isn’t quite right. I don’t feel that I’ve been standing still exactly. And I’m certainly not back at square one, but I’m not really anywhere close to having the physical ability I imagined I’d have when I started this journey. And I’m on the clock here. I have serious plans for my old lady life, and I can’t keep putting them on hold because I have to go on sick leave one more time.

I am actually not in as bad a mood as I sound right now. I have doubts about how successful this operation will be, but I’m not willing to keep living with the wonky, painful joint configuration I have right now.

So. Operating theater, here I come. With luck and a benevolent universe, maybe this will be my last surgery for many years to come.


It’s March, so it’s the Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! Twelve years and going stronger than ever. Click over to read a few slices, see what that eclectic group of bloggers is up to. And maybe write some slices of your own this month!

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And so, Liam Neeson.

Clearly, Liam Neeson was feeling all six feet four inches of his whiteness when he decided now would be the right time to tell the story of his past intentions of lynching a Black man. Maybe he figured everyone would let it pass. After all, he’s a popular guy, likable, still cosseted by public sympathy after the loss of his wife. Or he figured people would quickly overlook the hideous thing he was confessing and skip ahead to the part where he didn’t actually carry out his murderous plan (so far as we know — have we heard his whole story?). Or perhaps he thought we’d jump to the part where he changed his story and talked of curing his violent racism with exercise. Something.

And he was right, too, wasn’t he? All kinds of people defended him, said how brave he was to tell that story and how they understood his rage and pain. Blah, blah, blah. And I’m vomiting. Brave?! Where? How? Plenty of people were outraged and horrified and disgusted, and thank heavens for them, but there seemed to be almost as many apologists as there were folks who were appalled.

I wasn’t going to dive into the foolishness. Other folks were doing a beautiful job presenting the responses that were swirling in my head, so no need for me to send my blood pressure into the danger zone. But then I read this tweet from movie critic, Eric D. Snider:

“Liam Neeson had a terrible impulse that he didn’t act on, that he knows was terrible, and that he learned from. If we’re going to cancel people for being TEMPTED to do wrong, or for struggling with something before coming to the right conclusion … well, we’re going to be busy.”

I read that and realized something I should have understood all along: People are entirely comfortable talking all the way around the actual point, entirely comfortable pretending there is no point, entirely comfortable waving their hands in the air to distract from what’s really going on. I mean, I know that. I know it. But I was still caught surprised by it.

“Neeson had a terrible impulse that he didn’t act on”?!?! “TEMPTED to do wrong”?!?! What in the actual fuck is that? Well, it’s a lie, that’s what it is. As I tweeted back to Snider:

“He did act on his impulse. For a week and a half, he went out looking to murder an innocent person. The only reason he didn’t actually kill anyone is because he never got “lucky” enough to be confronted by a Black man during those walking-with-a-cosh nights.”

Because, really, we all have impulses, but most of us know that when the impulse is murder, we’re better off not trying to follow through on it. My second tweet to Snider went that way, too:

“Not acting on his impulse would have been: having the idea of looking for someone to kill … and then realizing that was sick and wrong and staying your ass home to comfort your loved one instead.”

Because we – the majority of the sentient public – know that you don’t just decide a good plan would be to kill someone, and certainly not some entirely random person who had nothing to do with the wrong that’s been done. We – again, this sentient public over here – know that you can’t just swap in another person for the one you want to do violence to and pretend that equals some kind of “justice.” And, finally we – now speaking for a much smaller subset of sentient folks who actually know and acknowledge the way race prejudice works and has always worked – we know how many Black men and boys, innocent of any crime, have been grabbed up and lynched simply because angry white folks wanted to lash out, wanted to kill “a black bastard,” as Neeson wanted to do.

And while we’re here, let’s look at a quiet detail of this vigilantism. Neeson says he went walking in Black neighborhoods to find his victim, walking and walking in these neighborhoods because he assumed that was all he’d have to do to have a confrontation with a random Black man. Because Black men are so volatile, are such beasts, that all it would take would be the sight of a big white guy and someone would be up for a fight – I’m guessing he wasn’t swinging his cudgel and making his intentions known. But seriously. How deep is this man’s bigotry?

So tired. So sick to my stomach.

Listen, I’m the first one to say that I will be dead or in prison if one of the women in my family is ever attacked. I understand catalysts of murderous rage … but I also know that when I say I will be dead or in prison if one of the women in my family is ever attacked … I am just talking, just trying to find the most emphatic way to express what the level of my rage would be like. But I know I’m not a murderer. I know I’m not going to pick up a weapon and go after anyone. I would for sure use every non-violent means of hunting and harming the guilty party, and I wouldn’t feel shame or guilt about one minute of that. But notice that I said “the guilty party.” If Neeson had been out in the streets looking for a particular, very specific person – namely, the actual man who attacked his friend or family member – his story would have been very different. Still shocking and distressing because we never like to know that folks are capable of murder, and we really can’t condone revenge killing because … moral society and the fabric of civilized life.

Isn’t the difference stunningly clear? If Neeson had said that his loved one had positively identified her attacker as Brock Rapistman and that he had then gone out with his cosh looking for that particular monster, we would have heard him differently, we would have seen ourselves in his actions. We might still have recoiled, but we would have understood him. But saying he just wanted to kill any Black man he saw? That’s something else altogether. And pretending that the nights he spent walking through Black neighborhoods with his cosh in hand was him not acting on his impulse is obscene. (A few people I’ve spoken to have likened Neeson’s story to Charles Bronson in Death Wish. No, my friends. No. Even if we could give a pass to vigilante spree killers – which, as I’ve noted, we cannot – there is the central difference I’ve just described. Bronson plays Paul Kersey, who goes on the hunt for actual killers, for people who had committed violent crimes. Neeson just wanted a good old-fashioned lynching. Guilt or innocence mattered not at all. So don’t come in here with your Death Wish mess, thank you.)

I had a few more tweets for our friendly, neighborhood obscenity-spewing film critic:

“Giving [Neeson] a pass simply because his revenge rage burned out before he got the opportunity to beat an innocent man to death is offensive. It also focuses on the wrong thing. He was willing to be a one-man lynch party, willing to kill any Black man he saw. His behavior is an example of the dehumanization that racism creates and sustains. The victim had no idea who raped her, only that he was Black. So taking the life of any random Black man would have been okay because we’re all interchangeable? In none of [Neeson’s] comments does he address the deep racism of his behavior. So there’s nothing to praise here. Nothing noble or redeeming.”

Neeson’s morning-after, let-me-whitesplain-my-violent-racism appearance on Good Morning America was another obscenity.

First, he changed his story. In the original interview, he said he’d gone out hunting Black men for more than a week. On GMA he said he went out maybe four or five times. Because that would make it better somehow? Oh, you only walked the streets as a killer for a few nights. Oh, okay. No worries. Move along, folks. Nothing to see here.

He says he learned something from the experience. Learned what, exactly? He certainly didn’t learn that his revenge-murder plan was 100 percent racist. He didn’t learn that he, in fact, is racist. So what did he learn? Please help me understand.

And then he came through with the magical cure: Power Walks! Yes, he got some help, he says, talked to some people — maybe a therapist, with any luck? — and then he said that power walks helped. Power fucking walks. If only we’d known! We could have ended slavery early, skipped the horrors of Redemption and Jim Crow and slid right into our bright, colorblind, post-racial society. Power fucking walks. Damn. Thank you, Mr. Neeson.

Definitely feeling like I need a power walk right about now.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Mississippi Goddamn

So the lynch-mob cheerleader won her Senate race in Mississippi. 83% of white people in Mississippi voted for white supremacy. And all over Facebook and Twitter, white people are wringing their hands and saying, “America! This isn’t Who We Are!”

And I have to wonder, as I always wonder, what exactly these people think America has always been. Maybe what they mean to say is, “America! This isn’t who I have allowed myself to pretend we are!” That sounds  more accurate.

A few years ago, I recorded a comment for The Race Card Project, a project started by NPR reporter Michelle Norris. We were asked to record six words that summed up what we were feeling about race on that cold, January, almost-MLK Day. I found my six words quite easily. I stepped up to the mic and said, “White Supremacy is America’s middle name.” I meant it then, I mean it now, I imagine the I will mean it for the rest of my life.

The fact that there are still white people in this country who act as if they don’t understand that this entire nation was built on racism isn’t shocking to me. It doesn’t surprise me, but it does disgust me. It does depress me. It does make me lose faith.

It also makes me think a lot of those hand-wringing people are flat-out liars. They have allowed themselves the entirely white luxury of pretending they live in a post-racial world. I imagine they have told themselves that so they don’t have to do any work. If we’re post racial — whatever the fuck that would even mean if it were really a thing — then there would be no need to dismantle the structures of racism, no need to do any of the back-breaking work of rioting out racism at the root and eradicating it once and for all. No. If we are post racial, their fantasy of racism being a thing of the past is real, and they wouldn’t even need to speak foolishness such as claiming to be colorblind or that talking about racism is the real problem with race. So they have lived in their lie, skillfully ignoring or deflecting all evidence that threatened them with reality. And now here they are faced with the impossibility of living behind that lie, and suddenly they’re outraged and shocked.

This all sounds like a lot of bullshit. Plain and simple. These people know where they live. They may have done a good job of hiding from history, but they most definitely know where they live. So to see America’s true face on display over and over and over and over and over again can’t actually be surprising. And yet there they are, wringing their poor, sore hands, lamenting over the discovery of reality.

Yes, Mississippi elected Cindy Hyde-Smith. Yes. Elected her thanks to a landslide of white votes that pushed her comfortably past Mike Espy, her Black, Democratic opponent. Yes, of course, Mississippi is a red state. Of course. It was red before Hyde-Smith said how tickled she’d be to attend a lynching. Sure. Yes.

My request is that white people (and – please God – any non-white people who have jumped on this crazy train) stop the nonsense. Stop playacting amazement at things that aren’t in any way amazing. Stop pretending surprise when the exact thing that could be expected actually happens. Cindy Hyde-Smith said something hateful and threateningly racist. And then she was elected to the US Senate yesterday. And? Rather than wringing your hands and exclaiming your shock that this country has suddenly become some horrifyingly racist place.

White Supremacy Is America’s Middle Name.

The white electorate in Mississippi has offered up a bright, shiny affirmation of this commonplace fact, so guess what time it is. Time to stop wringing your damned, chapped hands and get. the. fuck. to. work.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Magical Negresses, Robocalls, Ballot Boxes and American Greatness

A white supremacist group created a robocall for Georgia’s white voters. The call script is fascinating. Someone, doing what I’m sure they thought was an excellent and excellently funny impression of Oprah, talks about the plot to elect Stacey Abrams. Not-Oprah introduces herself as “the magical negress Oprah Winfrey” and talks about her own rise to fame being created by simple-minded white women and how that same constituency of simple-minded white women — “especially the fat ones” — will allow themselves to be duped into voting for Not-Oprah’s sister in struggle, the magical negress Stacey Abrams.

Well, this magical negress found herself full-on surprised by this ugly audio postcard … and surprised by her surprise. The campaign against Stacey Abrams as she runs for governor of Georgia has been nothing but bald-face lies, ugly snark, unscrupulous behavior, and disenfranchisement from the start. This call is nothing new and certainly shouldn’t be in any way surprising.

I don’t live in Georgia. I live in a racist northern state instead of a racist southern one. I don’t live in Georgia, but I’ve spent time and a tiny bit of money supporting Stacey Abrams. I would be thrilled to see her win today. She is one of what is — thrillingly — much more than a handful of Black, non-Black POC, and LGBTQIA Democratic candidates I’m pulling for this election. Their rise to the offices they seek wouldn’t be magical, wouldn’t mean the end of racism (see above, re: not magical). But their elections would each be important steps in a better direction than the one we’ve been headed the past 21 months.

I think my surprise with this robocall is in how comfortable the racists who created it feel. They are so comfortable, they don’t worry about alienating a large voting block of the Republican base. The call script is racist, sure, but that’s too basic a description. One that doesn’t do justice to the layers of hate and ignores the other ugliness on display.

First, the voice recording the call seems to be a man’s. Because of course. Because any Black woman who wields power and is proud and confident and talented is depicted as a man.

The script takes an old story and gives it an updated twist: as has ever been the white supremacist plot line, white women are held up as needing to be protected. The 2018 twist is that, in these modern times, rather than needing protection from the sexual rampaging of brutish Black men, white women need protecting from the cleverness of magical negresses (bearing gifts of free cars). Sweet.

The protection of white women in this call to action isn’t the protection of purity as we’ve grown accustomed to seeing. This script calls out the need to protect white women from their own stupidity. White women, apparently, are so addlepated they can be seduced away from the fight for White Supremacy by Black women and their magical negritude.

White women are weak … and the fat ones are weakest of all. The excess adipose tissue must put too much pressure on their wee little brains. Because, even if it has nothing to do with the subject at hand, if there’s an opportunity to throw in a little fat hate, why on earth would you let it pass?

It was the insult to white women that surprised me. White women have shown themselves to be pretty solid supporters of White Supremacy, gender inequality, and misogyny. Did the writer of this call script not see the results of the 2016 election, or the white women supporting Roy Moore or Brett Kavanaugh or any number of other candidates and ballot issues that were entirely against their own best interest as women? Given that voting history, why come for white women?

But, of course, white women are a safe target, a safe tool to use against Black women … precisely because white women have been solid supporters of White Supremacy and violent patriarchy. White women have chosen to support white men over and over again. No matter how much evidence can be shown of a white man’s guilt, vileness, basic unfitness for a job, white women will stand up in support of him. So I really shouldn’t be surprised that the creator of this call felt entirely comfortable painting his womenfolk so insultingly.

 

I don’t know what Georgia (or Florida, or Minnesota, or Michigan, or New York …) voters will do today. I hope they will send a flood of Democrats to local, state and national offices. I hope everyone who cares about human rights, human decency, equity, and the values we like to think this country was founded on understands the threat we’re facing and has stepped into this fight with both feet, stepped in fully-armed and prepared for the long slog. Because despite the legendary magic of negresses, this fight needs more than our votes alone.

We are people for whom and to whom America has never been particularly great, but who choose to believe that it could be great if enough people stood with us to hold the line, to force back the noxious sludge flowing in the streets. We will show up, because we do. We will cast votes aimed at protecting our families and communities and keeping this country from tumbling further into hell.

Who’s with us?


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Close to Home

Last week I gave a workshop for young women in a close-to-home program. I thought I understood every part of what I just wrote, but it turned out that my understanding was way off the mark.

Because of the work I do, I’ve gotten used to the definition of “young adult” being 16 – 24 years old. That’s the age range used for the kinds of programs that are funded to support “out-of-school youth” and “disconnected youth” and “opportunity youth” … and whatever other names we choose to give young people whose circumstances have made the transition to adulthood more difficult. These are the young people I taught in my basic education and high school equivalency classes years ago. All of the students I wrote about in those days fell into this 16-24 category. The range is fairly well cemented in my head.

“Close to Home” is the name of a juvenile justice initiative that focuses on keeping young people close to their families and communities rather than sending them to detention facilities that are too far away for their families to visit them easily. I don’t know if these programs exist in other states – though I hope they do – but we’ve had them in New York since 2012. Before leaving my last job, I attended an info session/focus group discussion about close to home programs. One of the community organizations we worked with was about to open a residence in the neighborhood and wanted other providers to know about the residence, understand what the program would look like, and offer possibilities for partnership in providing services to the young people who would live in that home.

As it happens, the definition of “youth” in the Close to Home model is very different from the one in my head and at my office. In New York City, Close to Home has enabled the City to completely eliminate prison for kids under 16 by placing them in group residences near their home neighborhoods.

Right. Young people isn’t the same as young adults. Not by a long shot. I wasn’t at all prepared for such young girls. The girls in my group were 14 and 15, and that was definitely not who I was expecting to meet. The workshop I prepared was, luckily, adaptable enough, but adjusting my brain wasn’t so . You just don’t talk to 14 year olds the way you do to 24 years olds.

The bigger misconception for me was what it meant for these young people to be living at this Close to Home group residence. I kept being surprised by my surroundings. Surprised by the level of security, surprised by how monitored the young women’s time was. I wasn’t sure what I’d been expecting, but clearly it wasn’t the same as what I was seeing.

I kept bumping up against how regulated the girls’ actions were. I’m sure this sounds silly because the definition of the program is that this program offers an alternative detention placement, doesn’t eliminate detention all together. The young people in these programs have greater or lesser degrees of freedom depending on the type of program they’ve been assigned to, but they are still serving out the time they’ve been given, they are still detained.

As I thought more about the cognitive dissonance I was experiencing, I realized that I’d been thinking of the group home as a halfway house, a middle step between incarceration and re-entry. In some ways, I suppose that is a function of the Close to Home group residence – the girls aren’t going to have to transition from a prison or from being cut off from their families – bu t there are constant reminders of the fact that the girls lives aren’t their own.

Realizing my halfway-house confusion highlighted that I have a lot to learn about this program. For example, what is the relationship between local police and these residences? When I arrived to give my workshop, there were police on-site, called because there was some disturbance with one of the young people. In the end, they took that young person away with them, which was incredibly disconcerting to me … and even more disconcerting once I fully understood the reality of the homes as a form of detention. If you are already detained, what does it mean to have the police called to further police you?

Certainly I think it’s better to have young people – and ones who are so young – detained near their families. The girls in my group all talked at one point or another about family visits that had happened since they’d been placed in the group home. That is better than their families having to miss work days to travel upstate or not be able to take that off time and wind up not visiting as a result. And the group home is better than local incarceration, too. The memory of my one visit to a prison tells me that. The horrifying vibe I got from the male guards at that facility makes me happy the too-young people I met – those children – clearly don’t belong in a prison environment.

So yes, better than regular incarceration … but still distressing. Doesn’t there always have to be a better option for children than jail? And yes, I’m asking that seriously, even as I watch this country imprison thousands of children, watch this country force infants and toddlers to represent themselves in court. And yes, I know all the reasons that its it’s easy to consign these children – these brown and Black children specifically – to prisons and detainment facilities. I know. I still have to ask the question. Have to.

Two hours. That was the entirety of my experience with that residence and those girls. It was enough to leave me with all this to puzzle over. I stay having so very much to learn. Sigh.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Building Sanctuary

I have been following the progress of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice since the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) first announced plans to create it. America’s history with lynching is deep and ugly, rooted firmly and hidden from view, glossed over. We, as a country, turn our backs on this history … even as we nod and wink at the carnival spectacle of it.

I don’t know my family’s full history, have no idea if any one of my ancestors was lynched, but lynching is a power evil in my consciousness all the same. I learned about lynching when I was a child, was already aware of it by the time I made the mistake – at nine years old – of reading Uncle Tom’s Children. That collection of stories is a classic but  definitely not meant for fourth grade reading.

(Nine, of course, is years older than other children have had to learn about lynching. And they have learned through the experience of of dying because of it, of losing a family member to it, of being uprooted from their homes to flee it. I fully recognize the privilege in my own experience, in the fact that I didn’t grow up in a place where I needed, realistically, to worry about lynching. That didn’t eliminate the fear, but the fear never needed to be active, never needed to be daily. I am grateful for all of that.)

As a country, we act as though lynching wasn’t pervasive, wasn’t a tool used to punish, terrorize, and control communities of color. At the same time, we pretend not to see or understand the impact lynching had on communities and the ways that impact is still seen and felt today. And we pretend that we can’t see the way people use calling the police to “handle” Black people today as a proxy for rounding up a lynch mob.

In 2000, when James Allen’s photo exhibit, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America was touring, people expressed shock and horror at the images on display. That seemed, at best, pathetically disingenuous. Who did these people think they were kidding, acting as though they didn’t know about lynching, acting as though they hadn’t thought it was “that bad.” It continues to surprise me how surprised white people are when confronted with the facts of whiteness in this country.

The title of that exhibit and the book that followed referenced the painful truth that, even in death, lynching victims were mistreated – bodies mutilated or dressed, made up, and posed for photos. No sanctuary.

I thought about Allen’s work when I learned about EJI’s plans for the memorial. And part of what I thought – especially after I saw the artist’s rendering of the design last summer — was that finally there would be sanctuary. Finally, these murdered innocents would be held with dignity, with grace. Finally, they would be respected.

The design of the memorial is stunning and majestic. The concept of the double set of county markers is so bold and inspiring. I think about those duplicate markers, the ones that are meant to be taken away from the memorial and placed in the counties they document. The idea of having this way of bringing the monument home to the sites of the killings is so moving. But it will also be very telling. I will be surprised if more than a few of the more than 800 markers are claimed by their respective counties. Those few blank spaces at the memorial will tell a story, but the hundreds and hundreds of remaining markers will tell an even more significant one.

Of course, I want to be wrong. I want to be entirely wrong. I want each and every one of those localities to shock the mess out of me and collect their markers and put them on prominent display in the county seat. I want that more than I can say. It won’t actually mean we’ve turned a corner on race. There will still be decades and decades of work to do. But it will be meaningful all the same. I want that. But I’m not naïve enough to allow myself to expect it.

I was never able to see Allen’s photo exhibit. I waited in the block-long lines in the cold to get into the gallery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Waited three different times. I wasn’t deterred by the cold but by the knowledge that I couldn’t bear the photos. I knew myself well enough to know that, but still tried to force myself into the gallery. Three times. It was an exhibit that needed to be witnessed – by every white and non-Black/non-native person of color, but also by me.

Every time was the same: I’d get within half a dozen people of the gallery entrance – only twelve people were able to be in the gallery at a time – and I’d pull myself out of the line and head back to work.

Several years later, I bought the book. I came on it by chance in a Brooklyn Barnes and Noble. There was just one copy. I didn’t want it. I knew I’d never be able to look at it. But I couldn’t leave it on the shelf, either. Couldn’t leave it to be picked over, to be ignored. It felt wrong to pay for it, wrong to have money change hands over it the way professional photos of lynchings were sold as souvenirs. But I bought it. To this day, I have barely handled it, have only turned a few of it’s pages.

This history is so painful inside of me.

The closer today’s date came, the more news articles appeared about the memorial. I avoided most of them, read part way through a few, chose other articles for erasure poem source text as I worked through my National Poetry Month writing challenge.

But here we are, today, and I have to say something, write something.

I don’t believe I will ever be able to visit the memorial. Just as I can’t look at the pictures Allen collected, my heart and head wouldn’t do well at the Montgomery site. I’m not ruling out a visit, but it seems highly unlikely.

I won’t rule out a visit because the power in that space is undeniable. The weight and pressure in that pavilion horrifies me and calls me, too. Maybe one day I’ll be strong enough to under that display.

For now, I am grateful for Bryan Stevenson, for the Equal Justice Initiative, for the design, realization, and opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. This is something every white person needs to see, every non-Black/non-native person of color needs to see, and however many Black folks choose to see. And, maybe one day, something for me to see.

The source text for today’s erasure poem is a Times editorial about the memorial.

Building Sanctuary
(An erasure of a Times editorial about the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.)

Before you know it,
Hundreds surrounding you,
watching.
Lynchings carried out with impunity.
more than 4,400 killings,
racial terror
lasting more than seven decades.
An accounting
of those lost to history.
Devastating,
unreadable and unreachable.
A growing pressure
to include the role of racism
in American history.
Anyone in this country
has inherited a narrative
of racial difference,
a slow accumulation of evidence
leading to an inevitable conclusion:
America’s “reign of silence”
around slavery, lynching,
racial subjugation.

Deliberativeness,
attention to detail —
only lynchings that could be verified
by two contemporaneous accounts.
Such a damning exhibit,
a kind of liberation,
a kind of redemption.

To face up
to America’s brutal, racist past
with open eyes,
to understand how it lives on today.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every year, I choose a specific form and try to write a poem a day in that form. This year, I am trying erasure poems and I want to use news articles as my source texts. I’ve practiced a few times, and it’s already feeling difficult! We’ll see how it goes.

Here’s an edited version of the Wiki definition of this form:
Erasure Poetry: a form of found poetry created by erasing words from an existing text in prose or verse and framing the result on the page as a poem. Erasure is a way to give an existing piece of writing a new set of meanings, questions, or suggestions. It lessens the trace of authorship but requires purposeful decision making. What does one want done to the original text? Does a gesture celebrate, denigrate, subvert, or efface the source completely? One can erase intuitively by focusing on musical and thematic elements or systematically by following a specific process regardless of the outcome.
Also, Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest has some good points to add about ethics and plagiarism:
Quick note on ethics: There is a line to be drawn between erasure poems and plagiarism. If you’re not erasing more than 50% of the text, then I’d argue you’re not making enough critical decisions to create a new piece of art. Further, it’s always good form to credit the original source for your erasures.

Image result for national poetry month
Washington International School

In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.