Friday, August 28, 2015

The Peculiar Blindness, Part 2: The "Yes, But" Mask


Cemetery at night. Jefferson City, Missouri.


As a society, we have refused to set aside discomfort so we can really see American slavery and the following generations of systemic racism and centuries-old memes that keep all of us mired in a dysfunctional family quicksand. One way we avoid seeing is to don the "yes, but" mask.  

Common "yes, buts": 
  • Yes, slavery was bad, but Africans kept slaves themselves, so .... 
  • Yes, slavery was bad, but Africans sold other Africans to the Europeans, so ..... 
  • Yes, slavery was bad, but some African-Americans owned slaves in the South, so ....
  • Yes, slavery was bad, but the Irish were virtual slaves when they came to the US, so .... 
  • Yes, slavery was bad, but look what we did to the Native Americans! If anything, that was worse! 
  • Yes, slavery was bad, but there is slavery today, so why aren't we talking about that instead of what happened in the past .... 
  • Yes, slavery was bad, but those were different times then ...
  • Yes, slavery was bad, but it would have disappeared eventually, without the Civil War ...  
  • Yes, slavery was bad, but most slave-owners only had a few slaves ....  
  • Yes, slavery was bad, but some slave-owners treated their slaves very well .... 
  • Yes, slavery was bad, but at least they had food and shelter and clothing given to them ... 


Some folks think the "yes, buts" are relevant. They aren't.

Systemic mass traumas visited upon a group of people stand alone.

You don't compare them with each other.

You don't diminish a group's experience so you can protect yourself from discomfort.

You don't sneer at a group of people for wanting full acknowledgement of the experience. 

"Yes, buts" shut people down. 


We don't hear "yes, but's" with these events:
  • The Holocaust. We even capitalize the historic event to acknowledge the immensity of its horror. We don't say "yes, but," we say "never again!" We honor the wisdom and insights of those who survived, those who made a poignant mark on others before they died, those who saved Jews and other targets from being transported to the concentration camps. There are those who tirelessly sought individuals who perpetrated crimes against humanity during the Holocaust, and we applaud them for it.   
  • Native American genocide (and later, cultural oppression) campaigns. We don't say "yes, but," we acknowledge fully the intrinsic wrongness of this ugly history. We lionize the courage and acumen of famous warriors and chieftains. We aspire to Indians' traditional respect for the earth and its inhabitants. We adopt some spiritual Native American traditions and we credit Indians with having created these traditions. (But see note below.)
  • Acadian Dérangement. In South Louisiana, the trauma of the Acadian Dérangement is honored in cultural centers, in music, in books, in festivals, in public commemorations. We don't say "yes, but." We embrace the shared hardship of a group of people forcibly removed from their homes, separated from their families, thrust into a foreign climate, where they endured poverty and later, ridicule, as they struggled to maintain their culture and to thrive.  
  • Japanese concentration camps. Actually, we are virtually silent about this, which is one way to blindfold ourselves about what we did to a group of people during World War II. However, we don't say "yes, but." 


And let's consider the "yes, buts" from another angle

You have a partner, a parent, or a boss who's an abuser. Each time you get zapped, you do get an acknowledgement, but .... 
  • Yes, I did that, but you just make me so mad! 
  • Yes, I did that, but couldn't you see I was in a bad mood? 
  • Yes, I did that, but I was drinking, and you know how I get when I'm drinking. 
  • Yes, I did that, but I'm under a lot of pressure and you're not helping.
  • Yes, I did that, but you were asking for it.
  • Yes, I did that, but if you'd do it right the first time, I wouldn't have to ..
  • Yes, I did that, but if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. 
  • Yes, I did that, but you just can't seem to get it right. 
  • Yes, I did that, but it seems the only way I can get through your thick head. 

These are classic manipulative ploys used by abusers, designed to place blame on the target of the abuse, to intimidate, and silence the target.

How do we take off the mask so we can look at our history and start to move on? 

We need to stop making and tolerating from others the "yes, but" statements, for one. Trying to debate any "yes, but" comparison is a waste of time because each is irrelevant. Every historic trauma stands on its own.  

I'll repeat what I wrote in The Peculiar Blindness, Part 1: Introduction:

... everything I think I know about individuals, groups, and processes tell me that before we get over it, we must stop our defensive attitudes for a minute and:

  1. Acknowledge - without any qualifiers - the grotesque enormity of American slavery and its aftermath; 
  2. Express our sorrow and regret for the experience; 
  3. Listen to what the other has to say, without interrupting - and without feeling the need to agree, only to understand; and
  4. Think and act in new ways to eliminate discrimination in our midst, making it very uncomfortable for Americans to express their prejudices in speech and actions. 

In the 12-step world, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, this is called "clearing the wreckage of our past." It is not good enough to just say sorry - we also have to stop doing what was done in the past, and do things differently in the future.

Catholics have the sacrament of confession, whereby one can confess one's sins to another human being, perform an act of penance, and ultimately receive forgiveness. 

In my experience as a mediator, in cases where an injustice was done, the power of a sincere apology is huge, as is the willingness to attempt to make things right. An apology does not require groveling or humiliation. It does require humility, sincerity, and accountability. It is the authentic expression of regret that another person experienced a wrong, without any "ifs" or "buts."

How many families suffer decades-long estrangement because one or more family members refuse to acknowledge a wrong? They don't "get over it." We all know this dynamic, but seem unable to apply this knowledge in a societal context.

How many families keep certain things secret from the larger community? We don't like to "air our dirty laundry." It is our nature as humans, perhaps, to want to cover over bad things, whether it's domestic violence, incest, addictions, infidelities, or shady family businesses. The victims within the family are pulled into the little society of secrets and shame, as well. 

How many family and larger cultures of those who were victimized quash bad experiences so as to avoid renewed pain and suffering for younger generations? The younger generations never know why their parents and grandparents think and act the way they do. It is common for victims of trauma to feel shame, and that shame can reverberate through generations. If all of our children don't learn how slavery and its aftermath permeated every single aspect of some people's daily lives, from the very tiniest acts of casual contempt to the most egregious acts of violence, it is easy to fall into shame when one's antecedents, living and dead, were the subjects of racism that has been so internalized in our society that it is like the air we breathe.

We know, in theory, how important it is to shine a light on the trespasses we commit in our personal lives. If we really do want to "get over" our shared heritage of American slavery and its aftermath, then we need to bring our dark history into the fullness of light and look at it unblinkingly.

Below is a song by Rhiannon Giddens (one of my favorite artists), called Julie:






*Note about the Native Americans. Our admiration of Indians does not translate into policies and actions that reflect social and economic justice. In other words, we tend to love Indians in the abstract, and not so much in the real.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Louisiana: Chewing Gum and Dance


Source: The Jumping Frog


Before I came to South Louisiana, I didn't chew much gum. When I did, and after it had played out, more often than not, I just swallowed it. (I swallow watermelon seeds, too.)

But in South Louisiana, I chew way more gum than I ever have in my life. It is kind of what one does while dancing. So I don't swallow it anymore. There are limits.

I tried to find statistics to support my hypothesis that South Louisianans consume far more gum per capita than other regions in the U.S.  Couldn't find any state-by-state comparisons. But I did learn that Iran and Saudi Arabia have the highest percentage of gum chewers in the world. The U.S. is third.

But getting back to chewing gum and South Louisiana. As I said, many dancers here chew gum.

This salsa forum discusses the pros and cons of gum, mints, sprays, strips, and good ol' fashioned teeth brushing before dancing.

This gum ad suggests that the right chewing gum could actually cause you to break into dancing:




Stride Gum sponsored this magnificently happy-making dance video by Where the hell is Matt:



From the Do's and Don'ts of Square and Round Dancing
..... don't forget to use something to sweeten your breath (mouth wash, chewing gum, etc.) Avoid eating garlic or other offenders before attending a dance.


The Teaberry Shuffle, the dance steps one breaks into upon taking a piece of Teaberry gum:




To be honest, the only direct link I can find between Louisiana and gum chewing is a 2009 Louisiana State University study about the effects of gum chewing on academics and our health.


Monday, August 24, 2015

Learning to Dance: The Tao of Following


Crawfish Festival 2014, Breaux Bridge, Lousiana.


Two of my goals for my Louisiana sojourn have been to:
  1. Learn to dance; and then 
  2. Go out and do it.

It's now been about  year and a half since I took my first dance lessons (Cajun, Zydeco, and line dancing) and here's where I am:


On following:

There are pleasures in following that I did not anticipate, especially for a recovering control freak like me:

  • I'm not the driver; my partner is. I don't have to worry about what's behind us or around us, that's my partner's job. I can relax into the process - physically and mentally - in the trust that he's going to get us around the dance floor safely and smoothly.  And when the occasional fender bender occurs, oh well, all I need to do is smile and shrug and keep on moving. 

  • There is a beauty in being fully mindful of only the moment I am in, so I can feel my partner's cues about what we will do in the next moment. I have to work at this because it is easy to become distracted and for me to lose that connection. It can also be tempting to try and anticipate my partner's next move, which means I am living in a future moment that may or may not be real, and it disrupts the fluidity of the present. 

  • I adore roller coasters.  The physical rush of controlled danger, of g forces, of going up and down and around. A lead partner who knows how to facilitate the twirls and turns and spin-outs - as the follower, it is like being on a roller coaster. A head rush. 

On the fear of being observed and judged by others while I'm dancing

Whereas this form of self-consciousness would have been paralyzing before Louisiana, somehow it disappeared early on in my Louisiana dance quest. Seriously. There have been a number of times where a dance partner and I are the only couple on a dance floor and I don't even think about it. Some reasons why this is true flows from my role as the follower:
  1. My dance partner obviously has the confidence to be half of a sole couple on the dance floor, and I take on the cloak of that confidence. 
  2. As a new dancer, I am so focused on what my partner is doing that I have no brain space left to worry about onlookers. To do my part as a follower, I need to stay fully in the moment. 
  3. And part of it is a choice that is similar to that made by Cheryl Strayed (author of Wild) when she decided to walk the Pacific Crest Trail - she had to tell herself that she did not fear mountain lions, bears or rattlesnakes or else she couldn't have embarked on the walk. I had to let go of self-consciousness about my dancing in order to achieve my goal. This was big-big because there was a time when jumping out of a plane was less scary than dancing.

Crawfish Festival 2014, Breaux Bridge, Lousiana.



Monogamous versus polyandrous dancing

Monogamous

Monogamous dance couples can practice steps and routines together, blend their rhythms, experiment with new steps or timing or patterns, and develop what can be a moving art form on the dance floor, a joy to watch. Even monogamous couples who are unvarying in their dance styles can demonstrate through their body language the pleasure they derive from dancing together.

A downside, of course, is that a monogamous dance couple can become stagnant to the point where one partner feels desirous of new moves - some spice - whilst the other wants to stay in his comfort zone.   




Crawfish Festival 2014, Breaux Bridge, Lousiana.



Polyandrous

A woman without a regular dance partner must become polyandrous.

Benefits of multiple lead partners for new dancers:
  • Practice in how to stay present so I can go with the lead's flow
  • Practice in how to stay present so I can avoid trying to anticipate the lead's next move, which gets me into trouble
  • Constant exposure to new moves (originally I wrote "constant learning of new moves," but see re: geometry in Learning to Dance: Solving for X.)
  • Regular receipt of feedback that promotes improvement 
  • Regular receipt of feedback that promotes acceptance of feedback in this and other areas of my life ("acceptance" doesn't necessarily mean agreement; it means receiving without pushing back) 
  • Once I know a particular dancer's moves, then I know what to expect, therefore, there is some predictability (in a good sense), resulting in less stress for me as the follower

Disadvantages of multiple dance partners for new dancers:
  • A new lead brings the great unknown, which is a little anxiety-producing
  • Conflicting feedback from different partners on best practices, which can cause consternation to a new dancer - at first. (Over time, however, I've learned to take what I want [or that I am ready for], and leave the rest.)


Crawfish Festival 2014, Breaux Bridge, Lousiana.



My favorite dance partners

The best dance partner is not necessarily the most knowledgeable or the most skilled. He doesn't necessarily have the greatest number of moves, or the showiest. 

My favorite partners are those who:

  • Are such skillful prompters in their lead role that they make me appear to be a far more accomplished dancer than I am. They even make me feel more accomplished than I am.

  • Dance because it's fun and that's what they care about for themselves and for their partners. When I mess up, they don't give one shit about that - they are dancing for the joy and they want me to have joy, too.

  • During a slow dance, they dance slow. Some leads like to dance fast to a slow song. Slow is sexier.





Friday, August 21, 2015

Learning to Dance: Solving for X

A friend said to me once: Every day is solving for x.

It certainly is the case in my quest to learn how to dance in South Louisiana.

My experience of dance (and other patterns of movement such as t'ai chi) is that it is a form of geometry.

The definition of geometry is: "from the Ancient Greek:  geo- "earth", -metron "measurement") [and] is a branch of mathematics concerned with questions of shape, size, relative position of figures, and the properties of space."

There's a blank space in my brain in regard to geometry. I don't have a good sense of direction. Line graphs are a head-scratcher. Distance and length estimations - wild-ass guesses. 

When dance partners sometimes say, "no worries! just go with the beat! don't count the steps!" this is well-meaning, but it's not actionable information. For people like me, we've got to break it down, see how it's built, and then see if we can replicate it with our spatially-challenged limbs and joints. Eventually, we'll get it, given enough practice, but we are remedial students. 

There are several line dances currently popular that involve a lot of turning AND heel-toe, chacha, or rock step action, plus some hopping bits that paralyze my brain cells. Helpful people - and they really are! - call out the steps while we're doing it, point their arms in the direction I need to go, and so on, but sadly, this only adds more stimuli to a brain that is already in cascade-fail mode. These sainted South Louisianans, who only want me to succeed, have no idea that below is how my neurons interpret their information:



Credit: Amplify


So between you and me, sometimes I have to just tune them out. Please don't say anything.

Having said all of the above, things have gotten better in the year and a half I've now been here. Some steps I can do with confidence, others middling so, and others remain (for now) an algorithmic teaser that I hope to some day master.

It's all worth it, though.  With dance comes joy.



Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Opelousas Massacre, Part 1: Massacre v. Riot

The anniversary of the 1868 Opelousas Massacre is September 28, though technically, the killings associated with this event took place over days.

Some accounts refer to the Opelousas Massacre as the "St. Landry Riot" or "Opelousas Riot." 

What is a "massacre"? 

Wikipedia authors present a thoughtful roundup of definitions, a couple of which I've excerpted below. The emphases in bold are mine:
Robert Melson's ....  "... the intentional killing by political actors of a significant number of relatively defenseless people... the motives for massacre need not be rational in order for the killings to be intentional... Mass killings can be carried out for various reasons, including a response to false rumors... political massacre... should be distinguished from criminal or pathological mass killings... as political bodies we of course include the state and its agencies, but also nonstate actors..."[5]

Mark Levine ... the murder of more than one individual, "although it is not possible to set unalterable rules about when multiple murders become massacres. Equally important is that massacres are not carried out by individuals, but by groups... the use of superior, even overwhelming force..." and he excludes "legal, or even some quasi-legal, mass executions."[6]
When I look at a list of events referred to as massacres, I can see that the number of people killed is not the most salient factor. We call some events a massacre when fewer than five people are killed, and we call some events a massacre when the deaths are in the hundreds or thousands. 


The reason I bring this up is because the accounts of people killed in the Opelousas Massacre vary from fewer than 10 to more than 300. I'm going to address these numbers later, but for now, I'm just making a note that the number of people killed, by itself, does not transform a "massacre" into a "riot."

This is important because calling an event a "riot" carries entirely different connotations than a "massacre."

What is a "riot"? 

The term riot implies reckless, violent, chaotic lawlessness. Indeed, here is a roundup of what constitutes a riot:

A disturbance of the peace by several persons, assembled and acting with a common intent in executing a lawful or unlawful enterprise in a violent and turbulent manner. ....

... There is never any justification for a riot. The only defense that can be claimed is that an element of the offense is absent. Participation is an essential element. Establishing that an individual's presence at the scene of a riot was accidental can remove any presumption of guilt. ....

 ... Private persons can, on their own authority, lawfully try to suppress a riot, and courts have ruled that they can arm themselves for such a purpose if they comply with appropriate statutory provisions concerning the possession of firearms or other weapons. Execution of this objective will be supported and justified by law. Generally every citizen capable of bearing arms must help to suppress a riot if called upon to do so by an authorized peace officer.

Massacre versus Riot

"Putting down a riot" is entirely different from participating in a massacre. The one has a protective legal cloak; the other is a travesty.  To call a massacre a riot is to trivialize and justify the actions perpetrated by one group against another.

Although in one account below, both sides use the word "riot" to describe the other, one only need look at the complete obliteration of the freedmen's campaign for voters' rights to see the ferocity of the assault against them. In my view, there's no question this was a massacre.

An account of the Opelousas Massacre by Judge Gilbert Dupre

On December 15, 1925, Judge Gilbert Dupre wrote a piece for the [Opelousas] Daily World. An excerpt related to the "riot" in Opelousas:

"... I am an antebellum product. I saw my father and [brother] take their shotgun and assist in putting down a riot in 1868. The men of St. Landry had returned from the tear-stained hills of Virginia. ... They accepted defeat [in the Civil War], but they never understood that to mean that their slaves should rule over them. The first attempt, which was the only one in St. Landry, resulted in the carpetbagger [Emerson Bentley] being horsewhipped from out the parish, the ringleaders among the Negroes promptly arrested and executed. This riot established firmly that, though our soul had been overrun, the spirit of our people was invincible. This occurrence in St. Landry had a far-reaching effect. It taught the people of the North and of the civilized world that the Negro might be emancipated but rule over the whites of the South he never would.  ... The result was obvious. The whites had but recently whipped the blacks into subjection, and [the blacks] had marched to the polls and cast their ballots for Seymour and Blair, rather than Grant and his running mate. ... "
 
Two accounts of the Opelousas Massacre, as published in the Sacramento Daily Union

But first: To clear up possible confusion by modern-day readers: During Reconstruction following the Civil War, the Republican Party encouraged the right to vote by African-Americans, while the Democratic Party opposed the African-American right to vote - unless they voted for the Democratic candidates. 

In 1868, the white population in St. Landry Parish (Opelousas) wanted Horatio Seymour to win the presidential election. The Democratic Party's tagline at that time was: "This is a white man's country, Let a white man rule".


"The St. Landry Riot" is an article published by Sacramento Daily Union on October 28, 1868, digitized for posterity by the California Digital Newspaper Collection. It includes the accounts of two individuals, one from each side. Note how both sides in this instance use the word riot to refer to the other side. I added hyperlinks for additional information on some references:

Truthful Account by an Eye-Witness. A trustworthy correspondent of the New Orleans Republican, who was in Opelousas, Louisiana, writes the following truthful account of the recent rebel riot :

Last Monday morning three members of the Opelousas " Seymour Knights " went to the colored school, on the outer edge of the town, and severely whipped Emerson Bentley, the teacher, who is also the English editor of the St. Landry Progress. 

The attack was made because of an article published by him giving an account of a Republican meeting in Washington, in which he said that some rebel spirit was exhibited by the Democratic organizations who met the procession at Washington, thoroughly armed and equipped. The account was true in every particular, which can be proved by over 500 persons who were at the meeting at Washington. 

Bentley was an active leader of the Republican party in the parish, and as the news of his being whipped spread over Opelousas, the freedmen began assembling, armed. But Bentley and many others told them to go back to their homes, and not to start any riot, which advice having been followed, apprehensions of a difficulty subsided. Bentley made affidavits against the three "persons who assaulted him, and warrants were granted for their arrest, the time set for the trial being three o'clock in the afternoon. 

At about 11 o'clock a. M. the rebels had assembled in strong force, armed with new guns, revolvers, etc., and, taking advantage of the return of the Republicans to their homes, they took possession of the town, and sent patrols to disarm the freedmen and capture the leaders of their party, who were obliged to conceal themselves or take refuge in flight, if they were lucky enough to get out of town. 

At about 11 or. 12 o'clock A. M. the same day a body of armed men went to the office* of The Progress to see Gustavo and Cornelius Donato, who were at the office, and told them that the town belonged to them (the rebels) and that if the radicals wanted to get possession of it they could do so only by riding over the bodies of the "peace-loving," " much-abused," " down-trodden " white people of the parish. 

They had captured a courier on the road to Washington, who had told that G. Donato had sent him to Washington to tell Sam Johnson to bring the Washington club, armed, to Opelousas ; but when this courier was brought face to face with Donato, he said that somebody had told him that Donato wanted him to go to Washington. At this juncture a courier informed the crowd at the Progress office that there was fighting at Hilaire Paillet's place, a short distance out of town, whereupon the crowd mounted their homes and rushed to the scene of action. 

The fight, as far as I was able to learn, resulted in the death of one white man and two or three colored and three or four wounded on both sides. The number of freedmen was about fifteen, headed by one Adolphe Donato, and they threw down their arms only when strong reinforcements of whites arrived. Adolphe Donato made his escape. On Monday night armed bands of men were sent over town to seek for the concealed Republican leaders. The Progress office was searched without success. 

One band went to the residence of Francois D'Avy, the acknowledged leader of the Republican party, and forced an entrance to lii- room where he was asleep. He was shot at while lying on the bed, but the assassins missed their aim. He fell to the floor feigning death, and the armed crowd started to leave. D'Avy leaped out of the window and ran through the garden. ' He was shot at again while running, and the ball grazed the side of his head near the ear, without inflicting serious damage.

D'Avy escaped, as did all the rest of the leaders of our party except Durand, French editor of the Progress, who has been in Opelousas twelve or fifteen years, but is a citizen of France, never having been naturalized. He was taken from his house on Monday night by armed men into the woods and was not seen afterward. 

All day Tuesday and the succeeding night the roads were strictly guarded, and persons were arrested and searched before they were permitted to enter the town. On Tuesday night the Progress office was again entered and the material was entirely destroyed. The type was thrown into the streets and the press broken. Two young men who were employed in the Progress office were advised by the rebels to leave, which they did on Wednesday morning by the boat. 

Violet, who is agent for the Freedmen's Bureau in St. Landry, fraternizes with and assists the rebels in their unlawful depredations. He was with the crowd that went to the Progress office to see the Messrs. Donato. The men who assaulted Bentley rode around town armed, and no attempt was made to arrest them. Their names are Mayo, Dixon and Williams. All is quiet now, but a strict watch is kept by the rebels to prevent an uprising.

Democratic Recital of lbe Dulcbery.

To complete the picture, we reproduce the Democratic version from the Bulletin of October sth, showing that the massacre of colored men in the outskirts of the town was horrible:

We learn the following particulars of the riot in Opelousas from Dr. Taylor, of that place, who was present at the time and an eye-witness at the terrible scene. 

Its origin is traced to an article published in a radical paper called the Progress, recently established there to disseminate Republican principles, to promote peace and good order in that part of the State, and to do the printing under the famous bill of the Legislature. 

The editor, Bentley, had misrepresented the official conduct of the Deputy Sheriff, an ex-Federal officer, and was called upon to publish a correct statement the following week. Instead, however, of making the desired retraction, the editor of the Progress only added insult to injury by publishing a still grosser libel than the first. Whereupon he was waited on by the injured party, who proceeded to administer a severe castigation in the way of a wholesome application of the cowhide to the tune of lashes. 

This performance took place in the presence of fifty of the negroes who were attending the school over which Bentley presided as dominie. The cowhiding of their preceptor naturally aroused their sympathies, and they set up such a howling as to cause the assembly of a gang of negroes about the schoolhouse, who proposed to commence the work immediately of cleaning out the people of Opelousaa. The time had come for work, and it was proposed to '* pitch in." 

Couriers were then dispatched to the plantations with orders to bring in all the negroes well armed. In a short time the whole town was almost entirely surrounded by these enraged negroes. A company of twenty-five white men then rode out to meet them, and to persuade them to disband. Before reaching the place where the negroes had congregated the whites were fired upon by a band of negroes who were ambushed. Five horses were killed, and the riders of four badly wounded. 

The whites then made an attack upon the assaulting party and killed every one of them, The whites, after being re-enforced, then rode into the crowd of negroes, who had assembled just beyond where the first attack was made. Upon their approach the negroes fired one volley and then fled. 

The whites then pursued them, and only desisted after killing all that they found with weapons in their hands. The next day the various plantations were visited, and the negroes were made to understand that unless they surrendered their arms they should be taken out and shot. This threat had the desired effect, and negroes from far and near brought in their arms, several hundred in number, ' and handed them over to the whites. 

During the disturbance the office of the Progress was gutted and the types were scattered to the winds. The editor was not to be found, and has not since been heard of. It is estimated that over 100 negroes were killed and about 50 wounded. The whites had four wounded, but none killed.


"The negroes were made to understand .." ... chilling words.


Monday, August 17, 2015

The Peculiar Blindness, Part 1: Introduction


Slavery Museum, Whitney Plantation, Louisiana. March 2015.


The peculiar institution
 
Before the Civil War, the South used the phrase "our peculiar institution" to refer to the system of slavery in the southern United States.





Slavery Museum, Whitney Plantation, Louisiana. March 2015.



The peculiar blindness

Ever since then, we in the United States have practiced fervently "our peculiar blindness" about our shame of  slavery, apartheid (racial segregation enforced by law), and other past and ongoing, institutional racist practices.

I call it blindness because even though we agree that, yes, slavery and Jim Crow and other injustices occurred, and those were bad things, it was largely in the past and we all just need to move on, and let's not keep talking about it.

Here's what the peculiar blindness looks like to me: 
1. Celebration of the high society and culture of the antebellum South by way of plantation tours and dress-up events, with only a nod to the human misery necessary to support that society.

2. In town squares, visitors' centers, local museums - historical recognition of the achievements, hardships, and tragedies of the white population, while virtually ignoring heroic acts for freedom and justice by people of color, massacres and atrocities visited upon people of color, sites of conscience where, for example, men, women, and children were bought and sold; or landmark legal decisions, such as the Emancipation Proclamation. 

3. Proud acclaim for populist heroes such as the pirate Jean LaFitte and Jim Bowie, without mentioning they smuggled African men, women, and children into the US to be sold as slaves after this had been outlawed (even in the South).

4. In the South, a spectacular disregard for its African-American residents by the relentless idolatry and never-ending mourning of the so-called glories of the Confederacy.

5.White folks who seem able to have "friendships" with individual people of color but who are blind to the ugliness of the assumptions and ignorance they express publicly about African-Americans as a group.

6. Memorials or museums related to the African-American experience that are, for the most part, compartmentalized as historical side bars. Arguably, this might be understood in northern states with a small African-American population, but it's difficult to justify in states where slavery was the law and where a high percentage of African-Americans are residents.   


Missouri state capitol. History museum.


In Louisiana: 

It wasn't until I'd been in Louisiana for a small while that the idea of our peculiar blindness really came home to me. It may have been when I watched the documentary,  The Cajun Way: Echoes of Acadia, at the Acadian Cultural Center in Lafayette, which is one of the six Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve sites in Louisiana.

It's a good movie and the cultural center is nice - worth a visit, for sure.

But as I watched the documentary - a well-told story of the Acadian people being forcibly removed from their homes in Canada, families separated, having to resettle in a land, climate, and culture foreign to them - the absence of a similar chronicle of note in the cultural center, describing Louisiana's settlement by African ancestors, became visible to me. In the exhibit area, there is some reference to the experience in Louisiana by people with African roots, but not much.

The town square in Opelousas has a handsome monument to the Confederacy, but no mention of other historic events of note in the town or St. Landry parish, such as the Opelousas Massacre or the Emancipation Proclamation.


Not far to the north, the visitor center in the village of Washington waxes poetic about what makes a Cajun man, and notes some important historic dates to the white population within, but silence again on the Opelousas Massacre, although it was an incident in a Washington school that lit the fatal spark to the killing that followed. Also in Washington is the national historic landmark, the Steamboat Warehouse, now a restaurant, but in the past, a location where I am told that men, women, and children were bought and sold. This is a perfect opportunity to own that part of our dark history, and make the landmark a site of conscience, but there is silence on this.



In the Missouri State Capitol there is a history museum.  


Missouri state capitol. History museum.
It wasn't until I'd been in Louisiana for awhile that I looked at how we documented our dark history in other places. My home state of Missouri, for example. A bit of the capitol's history museum looks at slavery. But, jeez, it does so in a discounting and distancing way, to wit:
  • "Missouri slaves had opportunities to learn more skills than typical slaves in the deep South."
  • "Since they could not farm in the winter, many worked part time as carpenters, hatters, cabinet makers, tailors, shoemakers, and blacksmiths. They earned money for their owners and for themselves." 
Missouri state capitol. History museum.
  • "The lives of Missouri slaves differed from those in the deep South. ... Some were encouraged to learn skills other than farming. ... "
  • "Missouri slave owners disciplined their slaves with the threat of being sold down South."
  • "Most Missouri slaves worked on small farms, where master and slave often worked side by side. The average Missouri slaveholder owned no more than four slaves."


It all sounds so ... not so bad. It sounds protective of Missouri's image at the expense of Missouri's African-American residents, past and present. And this is the official story of slavery for the state of Missouri.



Bringing sight to a dark history

When I returned to Louisiana for my second year, I stayed at an airbnb while I looked for an apartment. One of my temporary roommates was a German linguist. She expressed dismay at how we Americans hide from our dark history. 

She said that in Germany, it is required for all students, throughout their school years, to learn about the Nazi era. Every community that has a population that exceeds a certain number must have a monument that acknowledges the Holocaust. Every student, at least once in his schooling, visits a concentration camp. There are lesson plans devoted to the history, the sociology, the psychology of how the Nazis came to power, what happened, and what will keep such a thing from recurring.


But in the US, there is ... not much about American slavery and its aftermath.

Indeed, contingents of us like to say, "Get over it! That was the past! Stop stirring up trouble!"

It would be so much more comfortable to "get over it," wouldn't it? But everything I think I know about individuals, groups, and processes tell me that before we get over it, we must stop our defensive attitudes for a minute and:
  1. Acknowledge - without any qualifiers - the grotesque enormity of American slavery and its aftermath; 
  2. Express our sorrow and regret for the experience; 
  3. Listen to what the other has to say, without interrupting - and without feeling the need to agree, only to understand; and
  4. Think and act in new ways to eliminate discrimination in our midst, making it very uncomfortable for Americans to express their prejudices in speech and actions. 

In the 12-step world, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, this is called "clearing the wreckage of our past." It is not good enough to just say sorry - we also have to stop doing what was done in the past, and do things differently in the future.

Catholics have the sacrament of confession, whereby one can confess one's sins to another human being, perform an act of penance, and ultimately receive forgiveness. 

In my experience as a mediator, in cases where an injustice was done, the power of a sincere apology is huge, as is the willingness to attempt to make things right. An apology does not require groveling or humiliation. It does require humility, sincerity, and accountability. It is the authentic expression of regret that another person experienced a wrong, without any "ifs" or "buts."

How many families suffer decades-long estrangement because one or more family members refuse to acknowledge a wrong? They don't "get over it." We all know this dynamic, but seem unable to apply this knowledge in a societal context.

How many families keep certain things secret from the larger community? We don't like to "air our dirty laundry." It is our nature as humans, perhaps, to want to cover over bad things, whether it's domestic violence, incest, addictions, infidelities, or shady family businesses. The victims within the family are pulled into the little society of secrets and shame, as well. 

How many family and larger cultures of those who were victimized quash bad experiences so as to avoid renewed pain and suffering for younger generations? The younger generations never know why their parents and grandparents think and act the way they do. It is common for victims of trauma to feel shame, and that shame can reverberate through generations. If all of our children don't learn how slavery and its aftermath permeated every single aspect of some people's daily lives, from the very tiniest acts of casual contempt to the most egregious acts of violence, it is easy to fall into shame as one whose antecedents, living and dead, were victims.

We know, in theory, how important it is to shine a light on the trespasses we commit in our personal lives. If we really do want to "get over" our shared heritage of American slavery and its aftermath, then we need to bring our dark history into the fullness of light and look at it unblinkingly.


Some related resources: 

Slaveholder and slave populations by state in 1860 and in other years

Reconciliation from Beyond Intractability

What it Means to be Sorry: The Power of Apology in Mediation

Sites of Conscience

Talking circles


Slavery Museum, Whitney Plantation, Louisiana. March 2015.


Below, Billie Holiday sings Strange Fruit:




Friday, August 14, 2015

Louisiana: Sweet Potato Talk


2010 Yambilee poster, Yambilee Festival Building, Opelousas, Louisiana



I was standing in line at my neighborhood grocery store the other day, and a man came up behind me with only one item to buy, so I invited him to move ahead of me. A happy consequence is that he noticed the two gigantic sweet potatoes I had among my stash, and this sparked a memory for him.


Yam sign outside Yambilee Festival Building, Opelousas, Louisiana


When he was a kid, he dug up sweet potatoes during the harvest from, he said, first thing in the morning til the end of the day. It was terrible hard work, he said, but at mid-day, the labor was suspended for a large meal, which gave him energy to re-commence with the work in the afternoon. The man allowed as how it made him feel strong and good. ... though I suspect this is more how it feels to him in retrospect than at the time.

Sweet potato patties, Walmart, Lafayette, Louisiana


The man observed that digging the sweet potatoes is no longer necessary, as there is a machine that can do it now.

Yambilee Festival Building, Opelousas, Lousiana


Recently, I've been buying sweet potatoes in bulk because the price at my local grocer is so giddily low right now and I love the durn things. I bake two racks of them at a time, skin them, distribute them into portions, then freeze the portions in freezer bags.


Sweet potato chips, Louisiana


The man's story got me to thinking about sweet potato agriculture.

The American leaders of sweet potato production, in order from largest to smallest, are:
  1. North Carolina
  2. California
  3. Mississippi
  4. Louisiana

Louisiana State University produced the video, The Sweet Truth About Sweet Potatoes, which focuses on commercial sweet potato agriculture, from planting to harvesting and curing:



Based on what I've learned in the above video, I'm thinking the sweet potatoes I'm buying today are those that were harvested last year.

What I see in the LSU video about commercial sweet potato agriculture in Louisiana is at odds with the troubling work conditions for North Carolina laborers that I'm reading about. In the LSU video, I see mechanical harvesting (which conforms with what the gentleman at the grocery store told me), but the reports about North Carolina refer to hand-harvesting, which is where labor abuses come in.

North Carolina Sweet Potatoes says this about mechanical vs. hand-harvesting:
"Sweet potato roots are turned up on top of the ground by a side angle disk plow and partially exposed to aid the workers in picking and sorting. Sweet potatoes are very susceptible to damage at harvest; therefore hand-harvest is preferred over mechanical harvesting. ... To harvest, the field rows are usually plowed with a modified disk or moldboard plow with a spiral attachment. Roots are then hand harvested and graded in the field. Sweet potatoes can also be dug by a chain digger or a riding harvester that conveys the roots to a sorting crew using a harvest aide. Potato harvesters are sometimes used to harvest sweet potatoes but damage is usually unacceptably high."


Even though Louisiana might use mechanical harvesting, and therefore maybe there aren't all of the same labor equity concerns here as in North Carolina, there is still a question about how commercial farmers in Louisiana protect workers during and after pesticide spraying.

Just as the movement builds to protect people from second-hand smoke in businesses .... when we have an opportunity to do so, let's encourage our food suppliers, legislators, and local, state, and federal regulatory agencies to create and enforce safeguards to protect agricultural workers (and their families - and consumers) from unhealthy work and living conditions (when provided by the farmers). Some advocacy and regulatory organizations include:

Farmworker Justice
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
United Farm Workers



On a different note ... Do you notice how I side-stepped the whole yam versus sweet potato conversation? 


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Lafayette: Petit Bayou in Vermilionville


Petit Bayou, Vermilionville, Lafayette, Louisiana. August 2015.


The other day, I took a beginner's class in kayaking.

Petit Bayou, Vermilionville, Lafayette, Louisiana. August 2015


We kayak babies twirled and splashed about in a large bathtub, so as not to be a danger to ourselves or others, said bathtub being Vermilionville's Petit Bayou.


Petit Bayou, Vermilionville, Lafayette, Louisiana. August 2015


Kayaking or canoeing in Louisiana is a meditative experience. The water is slow. Small life forms glide and hop and hover and zoom just above and below the surface.

Petit Bayou, Vermilionville, Lafayette, Louisiana. August 2015



It is nice to sit still in your vessel and look deep into the dark water to watch the movement of life.

Petit Bayou, Vermilionville, Lafayette, Louisiana. August 2015

Monday, August 10, 2015

Flashback to August 2011: Rustavi: At the "Big" Market

From my August 2, 2011, post in Rustavi, Georgia (Caucasus). Gosh, I love that picture of the two Azeri men unloading potatoes!  They were laughing that I was taking their photo. In the original version, I used a pseudonym for my hostess, but below I am using her real name, Tamar.  At the time, I thought it was appropriate to use a pseudonym, as her son was a police officer, and I wanted to protect their privacy. Later, I understood that this was not necessary to either of them, but the die had already been cast.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Rustavi: At the "Big" Market

My hostess, Tamar, and I went to Rustavi's "big marketi" this evening. It is part open farmer's market, part roofed stall market for fish, poultry, beef, pork, spices, cookies, pasta, etc., and part storefront lanes.

Two Azeri-Georgians and their potatoes

 A factory owner asked my hostess what I was doing when he saw me take the photo of the building below, and while my hostess, Tamar, explained who I was, what I was doing here, etc., this woman happened to walk by and her curiosity detained her, then resulted in her giving me this loaf of bread!

Building near market

Carrots

Casino 1

Cheese vendors

Factory owner (see story above) - with whom my hostess and I now have a date to meet his family Friday night

Frozen fish ... mmmm, frozen, cold, frozen, cold.

More frozen.

And more frozen. 

Casino 2

Watermelons

Watermelons

And today's Building Behind Me:



Building Behind Me 080211



Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Gathering of Nations, Part 3



Gathering of Nations, Albuquerque, New Mexico. May 2013.


Here it is August 2015, and I found this draft from back in 2013. Do you think anyone will notice my tardiness?

Not sure how I intended to tie things up with Part 3, but below are the links to Parts 1 and 2:

Gathering of Nations, Part 1. Includes links to my posts on the Red Paint Powwow in Silver City. Also includes notice of troubling remarks related to women by one of the Gathering of Nations emcees. I heard a similar discordant note at the recent Coushatta Powwow last month in Louisiana.

Gathering of Nations, Part 2: A Whole 'Nother Genre of Music. I wrote about the revelation of "round dance songs." Wow. This is where I first heard the captivating voice of Fawn Wood.  

I know that I did intend to educate myself on some of the current activist and cultural streams as a result of puzzling statements I heard by emcees or performers. The statements alluded to tensions in the powwow world and also in the greater Native communities societally. That research never happened.

A good article on powwows, though:

Powwow 101, from Native Peoples Magazine, 2004


A slide show from my Gathering of Nations visit:




In fact, I have a number of New Mexico post drafts yet to be published. I've even got a post from Caucasus Georgia still to put out there. Because readers dip in and out of blogs irrespective of chronology, well, that just works out fine.





Monday, August 3, 2015

Flashback to August 2013: New Mexico: The Jingle Dress Dance

From my August 2, 2013 post about the Mescalero Apache parade in July:


Friday, August 2, 2013


The Jingle Dress Dance


Jingle dress dancer, Mescalero parade, Mescalero, New Mexico


There were jingle dancers at the Mescalero parade in July:




Here, a woman tells the story - several stories, in fact - about the history and meaning of the jingle dress dance.

An excerpt:
One of the most profound elements of Jingle Dress dancing is its spiritual power, which originates as an energy generated from the sound of the cones that sing out to the spirits when dancers lift their feet in time with the drum. The very act of dancing in this dress constitutes a prayer for healing, and often spectators, musicians, and other dancers will make gifts of tobacco to a dancer and request that she pray for an ill family member while she dances. An example of hidden spirituality and ritual within a public forum, the ever-unfolding story of the Jingle Dress Dance is unique in Indian Country. There is little fanfare and no public announcement when the Jingle Dance is performed as a healing prayer, only a quiet circulation of family members from dancer to dancer, a whispered request, and a quick nod of thanks by both parties.

Jingle dress dancer, Mescalero parade, Mescalero, New Mexico