A new holiday tradition: study racism

How much of what we automatically celebrate really merits celebration?

In a few days we’ll be celebrating the 4th of July, the founding of the United States of America. Surely that’s not a problematic holiday?

a Black man wrapped in an American flag. Is 4th of July a racist holiday?Weeeeelllllllll….the Declaration of Independence our Founding Fathers signed on July 4, 1776 remained silent about the enslavement of Black people—a practice begun in this hemisphere by  Christopher Columbus, by the way, who enslaved indigenous people in Barbados and instituted “barbaric forms of punishment, including torture” when he served as governor of Hispaniola. Somehow, they didn’t teach us that in elementary school.

England and Europe had already outlawed the practice of enslaving human beings when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence—and, despite the fact that he “owned” enslaved people himself, his first draft condemned the practice. The Continental Congress removed that section, in exchange for votes from the colonies whose economies depended on slavery—not all of which were in the South.

Understand the past, change the future

Today, Black Americans still contend with the effects of this shameful history: how many nonviolent white people get killed by the police? And the judicial system is not the only aspect of our society that’s been shaped by centuries of reduced economic, educational, medical, and social opportunities for Black people. Or, if you’d like a more concise way of putting that, by Institutionalized Racism.

Recently, more white Americans are coming to terms with how we have perpetuated (and perhaps are continuing to perpetuate) Institutionalized Racism.

Sometimes we do it unconsciously, like by not thinking too hard about why the junior white guy got that promotion instead of the more experienced Black person. After all, if we think about it, we might have to speak up.

Or by hearing a middle-aged Black friend talk about being followed by security in a store and saying, “That happened to me a lot when I was a teenager.”

Or by ignoring a white person making a scene in a grocery store or on a sidewalk or in a park when a Black person asks them politely to follow the rules. Walking away in those situations is a privilege, one our Black neighbors do not have.

It’s easier to think about unconscious racism, because its evil twin—conscious, active racism—is an absolute stain on humanity. We have to root that out like the invasive weed it is.

Racism has a hell of a head start on us—400 years, 500 years, more—so it’s not going to disappear quickly. But with diligence and commitment, we can eradicate it. And by “we,” I mean white people. We’re the ones who invented it, after all; we have to take the lead in dismantling it.

A new holiday tradition: study racism

So as you kick back on this 4th of July, think about adding a new tradition to your holiday festivities. Celebrate our freedom as a country, sure. But remember that the Declaration of Independence didn’t free all of us.

In between burgers and fireworks and red-white-and-blue desserts, take a few minutes to think about how unconscious racism might surface in your life.

  • Have I ever failed to acknowledge a Black person in the room?
  • Have I ever interrupted a Black person who was speaking?
  • Have I ever claimed that my experience as a white person was similar to a Black person’s?
  • Do I take the opportunity to amplify good ideas offered by Black people?
  • Do I devote a little time—even 5 minutes a day—to learning more about Black people’s experiences?

This exercise is not about making white people feel guilty. In my opinion, guilt is a totally unproductive emotion. The past is the past—focus on the present and on the future:

What will I do to understand the effects of institutionalized racism better tomorrow than I do today?

In case you didn’t know…#BlackoutTuesday

photo of James Baldwin, smiling
I keep thinking of James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time.” There have been many “next times” since he wrote that essay, but perhaps we can make this time one of the last times.

I’m putting my megaphone aside today. It’s time—it’s past time—for allies to listen and learn.

So I am joining many people across the country to observe #BlackoutTuesday today.

Read a book. Engage in some activism. Donate some money if you can—or time and attention if you can’t.

When the world makes you headdesk

NOTE: I wrote this a few weeks ago, but I held off posting it. As a result, I held off posting anything—not good. Read on to find the headdesk worthy update that caused me to finally press Publish.

“Why?”

You know how that word sounds when people sincerely want the answer to that question. They ask “why?” with no guile, no defenses.

I got one of those Whys in response to an assertion I made today. And the sheer lack of comprehension in that “why?” short-circuited my brain. Seriously left me speechless. And if you know me, you know how rarely I find myself speechless.

What did I say to provoke such puzzlement?

It’s the Italian translation of “Green Eggs and Ham,” of course. Made me giggle.

The man I was talking to had just given a speech, a fairly good one too. He started by talking about a long-ago sketch on SNL. As an homage to the recently deceased Dr. Seuss, they had someone read Green Eggs and Ham as a serious piece of oratory.

What made the sketch indelible was the guest they asked to do the reading: the Reverend Jesse Jackson. So far so good. But instead of showing the sketch, the speaker acted out parts of it. Yes, complete with a Jesse Jackson impersonation.

Do I need to add that the speaker is white?

I told him that in 2019 it is not appropriate for a white person to impersonate a person of another race. I was prepared for a lot of responses—I’d already collared the conference organizer to express my displeasure. The organizer also seemed flummoxed by my passion, but he reacted more defensively—wondered if perhaps I just didn’t see much comedy, didn’t understand comic impressions.

But the sincere, utter cluelessness of the speaker just floored me.

As we continued our conversation, it seemed that he did have some understanding that what he did was inappropriate. He had always read Green Eggs & Ham to his daughters in his Jackson voice, and they thought he was the best storyteller on the planet. So when the Dr. Seuss centennial came around, they volunteered him to read it at the school.

“All the kids were sitting on the floor,” he said, “and I was about to start when I noticed this little African American girl sitting in front of me. And I thought, ‘Should I do this?’ And I decided not to.”

I told him he’d made the right decision that time. And that perhaps if there were more people of color at this conference he would have thought twice about it. (For the record, I raised the lack of diversity with the conference organizer too.) I also suggested that he didn’t need to impersonate the Reverend to make his point. He said he’d looked for a clip to play but couldn’t find one. Perhaps he’s forgotten how to Google. I found one—admittedly grainy—in about 30 seconds.

I’m not sure my conversations with the organizer and speaker accomplished much, though the speaker promised he’d watch the replay and see what he thought. I hope I opened up at least a tiny crack in their worldviews.

As for me…it showed me I don’t get out in the world nearly enough. I live in my little bubble, working with people who understand that diversity means more than having 50% of the speakers be women. I write about diversity and inclusion for clients who have a sophisticated understanding of the issues, so I guess I’ve assumed that people across the business world understand internalized racism and seek to eradicate it.

Oops, the business world tries not to use the R-word. They call it “unconscious bias.” The bias I encountered today was so unconscious it was practically comatose. Whoo boy. We have a lot of work to do.

UPDATE:

And then I was watching TV one night and saw an ad for an actual movie that will be released into theatres shortly. “Shortly” as in soon and also, I hope, as in it will disappear almost as soon as it arrives. (I refuse to link to it; you can find it on your own if you wish.)

It appears to be a comedy…about a white man who becomes famous by imitating a black woman on the radio. Think Tootsie as a voice actor—which at least relieves him of the need to don blackface, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see that plot twist before the credits roll.

What about this mess seems like a good idea?

So much for the impassioned conversations I had with the clueless conference organizer and speaker. Thanks for nothing, Hollywoodland.

Headdesk, indeed.

Dr. King and the speechwriters

Everyone’s publishing pieces about Dr. King today—of course, it’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. But I found some new things in this long piece Vanity Fair republished today. Okay, “new” only because I clearly missed it three years ago when it was originally published.

It focuses on one Clarence Jones, who was Dr. King’s lawyer and—the word appears just once—speechwriter. Nelson Rockefeller’s speechwriter pops in at a pivotal point in history, too. He connected with his fellow scribe Jones after King and dozens of young people had been jailed in Birmingham. And because of that connection, Jones met Rockefeller at a Chase Manhattan Bank branch one Saturday morning and emerged with a valise full of bail money—$100,000 in cash.

Dr. King
Meme created by Daniel Rarela (@DJRarela) using text from Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Like his contemporary Ted Sorensen, who never until the day he died confirmed that he had written President John F. Kennedy’s speeches, Jones remains mum on his contributions to Dr. King’s writing. But he did smuggle the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” out of said jail, after smuggling in the pages of legal paper on which Dr. King wrote it.

Clearly, these days it’s more important than ever for us to remember Dr. King, all that he fought and died for. We must also recognize all the injustices we still perpetrate (knowingly and unknowingly) and still need to correct.

But let’s also remember the people behind the legendary leader—especially those who’ve stood in history’s shadows for so long. Including Clarence Jones, Dr. King’s lawyer and speechwriter.

The grace of Yu Darvish

The Dodgers may have one of the whitest baseball teams in the Major Leagues, but they do have a Japanese-Iranian pitcher, a man named Yu Darvish.

Darvish started Game 3 of the World Series on Friday and an Astros player, the Cuban-born Yuli Gurriel, hit a home run off him. Yep, that happens sometimes in baseball.

What doesn’t—shouldn’t—happen in baseball is what did happen next: Gurriel returned to his dugout and pulled the corners of his eyes up in a slant while uttering what lip-readers could clearly see was a racist slur.

Major League Baseball was swift to condemn the gesture. They suspended Gurriel for five games. Starting in April.

Where’s the sting in that? As Martin Luther King said, “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Still, there was one moment of grace—brought to us by the man the slur was directed at, Yu Darvish. Asked about it after the game, he called the gesture “disrespectful” adding:

“Nobody’s perfect. And everybody’s different,” he says. ” And we’re going to have to learn from it. We are all human beings. That’s what I’m saying. We’ll learn from it and we have to go forward.”

“One of the most gracious and helpful statements”

The next day, Darvish expanded on that in a tweet:

“No one is perfect. That includes both you and I. What he had done today isn’t right, but I believe we should put our effort into learning rather than to accuse him. If we can take something from this, that is a giant step for mankind. Since we are living in such a wonderful world, let’s stay positive and move forward instead of focusing on anger. I’m counting on everyone’s big love.”

On the News & Guts Facebook page, journalist Dan Rather wrote

“In all of my years covering civil rights, this is one of the most gracious and helpful statements I have read. It is in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And the response and conversation that this helped spark is bringing us together as a nation, rather than what we are seeing on the political level.”

Rather pointed out that the choices we make can exacerbate the divisiveness in our country or, perhaps, ease it:

Each of us has a decision to make, especially those in leadership or before the public eye. Do we succumb to intolerance? Do we refuse to listen to the voices of others? Do we play with the easy currency of fear? Or do we recognize that the only future worth a damn for our country, and our world, is to try to get along?

What’s your choice today?


Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing

A hard time to be a white person…and what to do about it

white person
Miss Texas 2017, Margana Wood, from her Instagram account

It’s a hard time to be a white person. Not hard as in we’re liable to get shot just for walking down the street—no, people of color definitely have us beat there. And not hard as in we’ll be ostracized—and maybe lose our jobs—if we express our opinion. Again, that’s much more likely to happen to a person of color (see Miss Texas as exhibit 1 and ESPN anchor Jemele Hill, exhibit 2.)

No, I think it’s a hard time to be a white person because there are a bunch of white people out there who make no sense at all. And to the rest of the world, I look just like them.

No! I want to shout, It wasn’t me! I’m not one of those white Baby Boomer women who voted for him! But there I am, guilty by association.

The Survey Says…

And so we come to the Reuters/Ipsos survey released a couple of weeks ago, in which our fellow citizens had a chance to say just what they think of white supremacy and white supremacists.

The good news: We don’t like ’em. Only 4% supported neo-Nazism; 8% supported “white nationalism.” Now, extrapolated across the whole country even 4% is a pretty huge number. But I’m gonna take comfort in it right now, because I need some comfort, okay?

Nearly 90% of our fellow citizens did us proud, agreeing that “all races should be treated equally.” But that’s a softball question, right? I mean, even the Nazis know what the politically correct answer is.

So the researchers, as good researchers do, asked the question again in slightly different forms: Do you agree or disagree with the statement “white people are currently under attack in this country.”

Who could look at what’s going on in the country—what went on in Charlottesville just weeks before they fielded the survey—who can look at this and say, “Yep. White people are definitely under attack in the United States.” Four out of ten people, that’s who. Okay, 39%—so just a shade under four in ten. But that’s a lot of damn people. A lot of damn people who are maybe just a few Fox “News” reports away from becoming neo-Nazis or white supremacists themselves.

Only 29% of my fellow white people disagreed with that statement. And while that’s nearly three in ten, it should be a no-brainer.

If you can get pulled over for a routine traffic stop and not worry that you’ll leave in handcuffs or a body bag, you’re a white person. If you’re a straight, cisgender white person, you haven’t got a clue about what it feels like to be “under attack” in your own country.

And if you’re a white person who understands this, you have a responsibility to speak up. Don’t make the black and brown people do all the work of dismantling racism—they didn’t create it. It’s our mess; we need to clean it up. Together.


Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing

My racist coworker: a true story

a black person wearing a T-shirt with Bible verse "I am a child of God"Yes, I’m supposed to be on vacation. But I have something to say about Charlottesville, so I’m “reclaiming my time,” in the words of the inimitable Maxine Waters. I have a story you might need to hear, a true story about my racist coworker.

For about six months in 1985, I lived in Jacksonville, Florida. I hadn’t yet discovered my calling as a speechwriter, so I worked at a place that churned out forms for retirement plans. People elsewhere in the building plugged paragraphs into documents; I made small, predetermined adjustments and sent the documents to the printer, then collected the printouts and shuffled them off to the next stage.

The system had been designed for two people to do what I did, but the company had a hard time keeping anyone else in the job. Because the work was too boring? Nope. Because the work was too hard.

So I was thrilled when they finally found someone who could handle it. We’ll call her “Misti”—with an i instead of a y at the end because giving her two i’s allows the Misti of our imagination to dot the first i with a star, maybe, and the second with a heart. That was just the kind of ray of sunshine Misti was: perky and petite, always smiling. If you imagine she’s also white and blonde, you’ve got the picture. A high-school cheerleader straight out of central casting.

Misti proved quite capable at her job, so she stuck around awhile, and I was glad to have someone to chat with. I don’t remember what we were talking about that day, only that her next sentence came completely out of the blue. With all the authority an 18-year-old can muster, she announced: “You know, Elaine, the n*****s are trying to take over the world.”

My racist coworker

I don’t know whether I was more shocked by her statement or by the fact that she’d just used the N-word, right there in the office—with our Black colleagues working just a few desks away.

“What…?” It was less a word than a strangled, shocked sound.

“Oh, it’s true,” she replied, in the same chirpy tone she used to describe what she’d brought for lunch. “You always hear them complaining about discrimination. You never hear white folks complaining about discrimination. Do you?”

It’s not easy to render me speechless, but that bit of twisted logic did. Of course, it’s hard to complain about something you never experience. But I didn’t say that. In fact, I don’t think I said anything to Misti. Ever again.

I left town in pretty short order. Hightailed it back to New York, to Brooklyn, where I could imagine that people never thought those kinds of things. Because they certainly never said those kinds of things. Not in polite company. Not around me.

It’s a privilege to walk away

Racism is like that if you’re a white person. It’s a casual remark you can ignore. Change the conversation, leave the room, move out of town and you can believe you’ve left it behind.

I don’t know if I could have changed Misti’s mind back there in Jacksonville in 1985. But I could have given my racist coworker something to think about. I could have introduced her to a different worldview. Instead I left her with her hateful beliefs intact, ready to pass on to any kids she might have in the future. Or, by now, grandkids. That’s three generations of racists I might have prevented. Or maybe not. But the point is I didn’t even try.

White Christmas 

Thirty-something years later: Christmas with my relatives, one of whom started a conversation that veered dangerously close to racism. Did I say something? Reader, I did not. I walked out of the room. I felt guilty about it at the time, but a few weeks later I would feel even worse.

My partner was talking to some Black friends of ours, telling them about the experience. I tried to head her off, but she plowed on. I left that room, too. Couldn’t bear to see my friends’ faces when my partner reached what seemed to her like a triumphant conclusion, “…and Elaine just left the room!”

Later I said, “I wish you hadn’t told them that story.”

“Why?”

“Because,” I said, “if I found out they’d heard someone saying disparaging things about LGBT people and all they did was walk away, I would have ripped them a new one.”

Forgive my salty language, but I feel strongly about people who ignore their responsibility as allies. Of course, I have no standing to criticize. As you now know, I’ve walked away too.

I wasn’t actually in Charlottesville

I left Misti behind when I moved out of Jacksonville. But her illogical argument, her strange racist reading of social interactions—those things pop up everywhere. And they’ll persist and spread until we can educate the people who believe them. And, worse, who act on their beliefs.

So no, I wasn’t part of the angry white mob in Charlottesville last weekend. But who knows how many people have crossed paths with my racist coworker in the 30 years since I declined to talk some sense into her? I stood by as she threw a pebble into a dark and ugly lake; the ripples of her hatred have had a long damn time to expand.

Let one racist continue in their ignorant thinking and that thinking will spread exponentially. But engage in thoughtful conversation with a racist—tell a story, speak about your own experience or the experiences of others—and you have a chance to stop the spread of hate. A slim chance, maybe. But that’s still a chance.

We can’t afford to be silent any more. To paraphrase the Buddhist teaching about planting a tree: The best time to have a conversation about racism is 20 years ago; the second-best time is now.

Yes, I’m looking at myself when I say that. And I invite you to look at yourselves, too.

Uncomfortable conversations and the invisible asterisk

It didn’t start out as one of those uncomfortable conversations:

“Thank you for articulating that so clearly.”

That’s a sentence I might write to any of my writers at any time. But I wasn’t responding to one of my writers. I was responding to a black woman I’d never met, who’d posted on our mutual friend’s Facebook thread about the casual racism of a five-year-old white girl on a playground in my old hometown of Maplewood. My beautiful, mostly diverse, so-proud-of-its-perceived-inclusiveness Maplewood.

we need to have uncomfortable conversations about raceThe little girl told a black boy her age that he couldn’t play on the playground equipment: “Whites only.” When the boy’s father reality-checked this with one of the other parents present, the white man dismissed the comment: “That’s not her personality.”

This friend of my friend, a woman named Jan Abernathy, commented on the Facebook post:

“I would definitely say the ‘it’s not her personality’ sounds accurately reported and happens because we believe that bias is for ‘bad people’ versus part of a system in we all participate because it’s all around us.”

“Thank you for articulating that so clearly.” I typed, and pressed Post. And in the next second I thought, Did I just tell a black woman “you’re very articulate”?

I pressed Edit. My fingers hovered over the keyboard. Of course that wasn’t what I meant. My sentence was complete as it stood; no implied “…for a [fill in the stereotype here].” But she didn’t know me; would she understand that? In the end, I added a completely unnecessary “That’s so true” and clicked out of the edit window. Let the chips fall where they may.

Yes, I was uncomfortable. And that’s not a bad thing. Because Uncomfortable is a stage we have to pass through on the way to Inclusion. We really need to get there, as many of us as we can. And that will involve having some uncomfortable conversations.

Uncomfortable conversations — do think twice

My mother always told me to count to ten before I spoke. No one who knows me will be surprised to hear I never took that advice.

But if I think twice, or even twenty times, about my reactions when I’m dealing with someone who is unlike me—especially someone of another race—that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because I have grown up not thinking, not questioning the system, as Ms. Abernathy wrote, “that is all around us.”

Because I am a white woman, that system has mostly been no more visible to me than the air I breathe. As a “lipstick lesbian,” I have encountered it from time to time, not often enough to truly remember it exists. It wasn’t until the results of the most recent presidential election came in that I felt it. Because for the first time I was on the wrong side of the system—as both a lesbian and as a woman. My white skin will not save me from the Trumpocalypse.

Now, I won’t presume that what I’ve felt for the last eight months compares in any way to what a person of color feels from the moment they become conscious of the system we live in (for the child in the story, that sadly seems to be about age 5). But it has opened my eyes—eyes that I didn’t even realize needed to be opened.

I’ve been writing about diversity and inclusion for my clients for a decade now. I always thought I “got it.” I think I’m closer to getting it now. But I also know how far I have to go.

The invisible asterisk

Last week, I wrote about the subversiveness of the Declaration of Independence. Well, yes. But there’s an unexpected bit of punctuation in there, an invisible asterisk. That is, the asterisk is invisible to most of us, but for those who do see it…I imagine that sometimes it’s pretty much all they can see. It grounds the otherwise subversive document firmly in the mainstream of its time—and, sadly, of modern times, too.

When our founders wrote the Declaration, everyone understood that the phrase “…all men are created equal” actually meant

*white men of certain socio-economic standing.

Definitely not women. Definitely not people of color. And although the founders didn’t have words like “homosexual” or “transgender,” definitely not those folks either.

In the couple of centuries since our country’s birth, many of our laws have grudgingly caught up with the errors of omission and commission in the Declaration and the Constitution. But the inequality that those foundational documents enshrined—that invisible asterisk—remains rooted in our culture. And not just in the South, home of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, our present Attorney General, who seems hell-bent on rolling the gains of the Civil Rights movement back to, oh, about 1932. We in the North have our own bigots; just ask Philando Castile, who lived in Minnesota.

You can’t get much less “South” than Minnesota. You also can’t ask Mr. Castile anything; he was shot and killed by a Minnesota police officer. And that police officer was acquitted by a jury of his Northern peers, just as surely as the all-white Southern jury set the killers of Emmett Till free more than 60 years ago.

I’d like to believe such attitudes would never see the light of day in my town. But as long as we live with the invisible asterisk—as long as we remain silent about that damning piece of punctuation—those attitudes have room to flourish. And apparently even five-year-olds are not immune.

Allies: learn to have uncomfortable conversations

So, really, it’s not enough just to be for inclusion. It’s not enough to be a silent ally, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago in a post about a gay football player. And it’s certainly not enough to let a black father stand alone in trying to correct the situation produced when a little white girl says, “Whites only.” Any of the other adults there could have spoken to the girl. To her mother. Better yet, to both. Because all of us should be outraged that—whether she picked it up at home or at school or somewhere else—a five-year-old can casually spout racist language with no consequences.

We need to have conversations—even uncomfortable conversations—about whether we want to live in a system founded on an invisible asterisk that leaves out so many. And if we don’t want to live with the asterisk, what do we need to do to change our country and ourselves?

Thanks to my new friend Jan Abernathy for giving me permission to quote her in this blog. As it turns out, she works in equity inclusion at a small independent school I know quite well. I would write more about her, but this post is already too long so I’ll save it for another day.

I also want to thank Brittany Packnett, whom I haven’t met except through my phone as I listen to the always eye-opening Pod Save the People. Ms. Packnett has taught me more about what Ms. Abernathy calls the “system we all participate in” than perhaps anyone else.

Educating people is hard—especially if the people you’re educating think they already know all they need to. So thank you both for your work, and thanks to everyone brave enough to engage in uncomfortable conversations.


Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing

No wicked people necessary—history repeats itself

James Baldwin understood the difference betweeen spineless and wicked people
James Baldwin in London, 1969 Photo by Allan Warren – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I’ve been rereading James Baldwin lately; I highly recommend it.

I still remember the shivers that went down my spine the first time I read The Fire Next Time, probably more than 30 years ago. Of course, I didn’t understand it—not the way I do today. And probably not the way I will, if nuclear holocaust or some other kind of holocaust doesn’t take us all, 30 years from now.

If you think of the Civil Rights Movement as ranks of orderly marchers singing “We Shall Overcome,” punctuated by the occasional Southern sheriff wielding water cannons and police dogs; if the Black Lives Matter movement came as a surprise to you; if you don’t understand how deep the roots of inequality are in this country, and how widely its noxious flower still blooms—then it may be time for you to reread James Baldwin, too.

History repeats itself, damn it

Why am I writing about James Baldwin when there’s so much else—so many other horrifying things—going on right now? Because it’s true what they say about history repeating itself. And although Baldwin wrote in another time about another subject, a lot of what I found in his 1962 essay “Letter from a Region in My Mind” could apply to what we’re dealing with today.

The demise of “the American experiment” seems imminent. Russia seems to have affected the outcome of our most recent election—perhaps even with the encouragement, if not assistance, of the man who now sits in the White House. At any other time in my life, the idea that a foreign power had interfered in the election would have set alarm bells ringing; the fact that it was Russia—the erstwhile “Evil Empire” in Ronald Reagan’s phrase—would have sparked a bipartisan effort to prosecute the offenders and restore trust in our democracy.

But the Republicans in Congress are too busy trying to take healthcare away from 20 million or more Americans so they can enact an unprecedented tax cut for billionaires. And they’re working under a strict deadline—they need to effect this massive transfer of wealth before the president who vowed to sign the bill has been removed from office.

If just three Republicans cling to their humanity and vote No, the bill will die. If not, millions of Americans will die. Possibly even me—so, yes, don’t expect me to be objective about this.

Wicked people not necessary

But I find Baldwin had the same thoughts in 1962 that I have today. To wit:

“…a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.”

I don’t want to co-opt Baldwin’s argument. He was writing about the scourges of racism and segregation; I’m thinking about the scourge of ultra-Conservative donors buying off key Congressional leaders. Paul Ryan just booked a donation from the Mercer family of about half a million dollars. Half. A. Million. Dollars. (I can’t find the citation for that, but here’s an article from The New Yorker about Robert Mercer.)

And I’m thinking about the scourge of ultra-partisanship—to the point that the Republicans blocked an effort to revoke Jared Kushner’s security clearance, even though we now have proof that he lied on his clearance application about meeting with a Kremlin-connected operative during the campaign.

Are these wicked people? That’s for God, not me, to judge. But they sure as hell seem spineless.

“I sometimes think, with despair, that Americans will swallow whole any political speech whatsoever…”

I despair about that too, Mr. Baldwin. Fifty-five years after you wrote those words, too little has changed. Will it ever?


Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing

A toe-tapping hymn—Song for a Sunday

A James Baldwin essay I read this morning began with quotations from two bits of poetry. Rudyard Kipling’s paean to colonialism, “The White Man’s Burden,” and a stanza from a gospel hymn called “Down at the Cross.” I’d never heard the hymn before, so I went looking for it. Following the disturbing casual racism of the Kipling poem (and Baldwin didn’t even quote the worst part of it!), I certainly wasn’t expecting such joyful, toe-tapping music.

toe-tapping beat care of Doris Akers
Doris Akers by Source (WP:NFCC#4), fair use

It took a while to search out the right rendition. I found choirs full of white people bluegrassing it up all over YouTube. But I wanted to give you something closer to the hymn as Baldwin would have known it, and I think I did, in a lovely late-1940s recording of three black women singing close harmonies with a brisk, positively toe-tapping rhythm. They called themselves the Simmons-Aker trio: Dorothy Simmons, Hattie Hawkins, and Doris Akers at the piano. I wonder why Hattie Hawkins got left out of the billing?

Turns out Doris Akers not only played religious music, she also composed it. One song she wrote with gospel diva Mahalia Jackson sold more than a million records. Near the end of her life, in 1992, the Smithsonian Institution dubbed her “the foremost black gospel songwriter in the United States. The Gospel Music Hall of Fame inducted her posthumously, six years after her death.

And so today’s song is “Down at the Cross.” Toe-tapping gospel: I dare you to listen and keep still.