How Systemic is Our Awareness? (Beyond 19)

What would it mean for reports about Dante Servin, armed off-duty Chicago police officer, and Rekia Boyd, the unarmed 22-year-old citizen he shot to death in March 2012, “to be systemically aware” (see yesterday’s post)?

  • Should we be focusing on a judicial system that let Servin off on a technicality this past Monday (4/20/15)?
  • Should we be focusing on the invisibility of women in the discussion of police killings?
  • Should we be talking about racism in state violence more generally?
  • Or should be we consider the even more fundamental issue of fear?
from BYP100 .org
from BYP100 (Black Youth Project)

Rekia Boyd’s story is not a straightforward example of the “unarmed suspect shot” scenario: Servin was not attempting to arrest Rekia Boyd. He appears to have been reacting to belief that her boyfriend was armed (he wasn’t), complicating any discussion of police response to Black women. Servin defends his actions by invoking police protocol, claiming: “Any police officer especially would have reacted in the exact same manner” (see video in ABC7Chicago story linked above). But he was off-duty, and he shot Rekia Boyd following a complaint about noise because he “feared for his life.” So, really, it comes down to fear….

The badges and guns belong to us

John Domen, 12/8/14,  CBS Local story
John Domen, 12/8/14,
CBS Local story

I symbolically embodied Rekia Boyd during a demonstration at the U.S. Capitol followed by a 4-1/2 hour die-in at the Department of Justice on Human Rights Day, December 8, 2014. I chose her name because she was female (like me) and from Chicago (like me). And while I had already left the city by the time I was 22, I feel some connection with a young woman out with friends on her own streets, maybe forgetting that it was late and time to keep the noise down or maybe just forgetting — as my friends and I did often enough — that there were other people around.

During those long, cold hours on the ground outside the Department of Justice, the following passage — one that has stuck in my brain since I first read it — returned to me again and again:

“…Them shootin’ me wasn’t no accident. You don’t take no scared white boys can’t tell the difference between one black man and another, give ’em guns, and let ’em run around the streets of Harlem and then say it was an accident when they one day shoot down an innocent man….”
— Tempest Landry, speaking post-death in Walter Mosley’s Tempest Tales. (NY: Washington Square Press, 2008.)
see also “Declarations of Independence…”

And, while some sectors, particularly Black media, have certainly addressed the topic many times for decades upon decades, mainstream media is still not asking the most fundamental question:


Why do we allow armed police to roam in areas where they fear the residents?

As Collette Flannigan, mother of Clinton Allen (age 25; killed by Dallas TX police), told “Voices of Grief and Struggle” last December:

 

“Those badges and guns belong to us.

Every time they kill they kill in our name.”

That’s a level of systemic awareness I rarely see and believe we must develop, soon.

We counted 19 on the evening of April 22. Tonight, we count….
Continue reading How Systemic is Our Awareness? (Beyond 19)

Lucidity and Racism (Beyond 18)

Yesterday’s post warned of the dangers of “pretension to total lucidity,” a concept based on Zornberg’s commentary on the Book of Numbers. (See also quote, citation.) Today, Race Forward released a series of videos responding to the query, “Systemic Racism: Is that really a thing?” — a key element of “lucidity.”

Systemic Racism: Is that really a thing?
Systemic Racism: Is that really a thing?

Race Forward, formerly Applied Research Center, has been researching racism and pushing conversations about it since 1981. Its publication, Colorlines, covers “stories from the perspective of community, rather than through the lens of power brokers,” with breaking news, investigative reporting, and dispatches. Jay Smooth is Race Forward’s video and multimedia producer — a cultural commentator with a gift for succinctly addressing complex issues. (See also “Oppression as ‘Normal'” for more from Smooth.)

Looking at each entry in the new series about Systemic Racism, I found myself asking: How will this move the conversation forward? Those who see this, see it already, and who else will take the time to look at the videos? But the video below (separate from the series) cogently explains how Race Forward’s examination of news found that much of it (2/3 of stories examined) “fails to be systemically aware.” Exploring this can only improve our societal “lucidity.” (the related 2014 report)

We counted 18 on the evening of April 21. Tonight, we count….
Continue reading Lucidity and Racism (Beyond 18)

Pretension to Lucidity (Beyond 17)

As the “Tifereth” [“beauty”] week of this journey away from oppression continues, I return again to the biblical concept that all humans (other than Moses) see only a part of any picture:

…The problem arises when one is not aware of one’s own deflections of vision. Imagining oneself clear-eyed, one may become the greatest fantasist of all….the greatest illusion may be the pretension to total lucidity.
— from Bewilderments, Avivah Zornberg’s study of the wilderness travels in the Book of Numbers (see fuller quote and citation in Beyond 14)

In a post published today, Talia Cooper, program director of Ma’yan, provides an example of failing to get the “full picture.” the failure to understand and acknowledge anti-Semitism in the “leftist activist community.”

Anti-Semitism is real. It has and continues to negatively impact our Jewish people.

The leftist activist community doesn’t always do a good job acknowledging or understanding anti-Semitism.

It’s a problem because it means the left won’t have a full picture of society, which is necessary in order to build power and win. And it’s a problem because it perpetuates anti-Semitism itself.
— “A Call to My Beloved Jews: We Gotta Talk About Privilege” on Mayan.org

She goes on to explore the “privilege” factors in the complicated intersectionalities of any one identity expression:

Sometimes it seems so simple: of course it’s possible for me as a white Jewish woman to experience sexism, white privilege and anti-Semitism all at the same time. It’s “simple” because I’ve lived it my whole life.
— Read the rest of Cooper’s piece

LucidityCooper addresses specific conversations she believes Jews must have around intersectionality.
This omer series introduced the topic with “Are (Any) Jews White?” early in the Passover week. Readers are urged to share their thoughts and if/how their thinking has evolved over the course of this omer journey.

The midrash quoted above — insisting that we NEVER have the whole picture — offers a powerful call to remember the dangers of “pretension to total lucidity.”

We counted 17 on the evening of April 20. Tonight, we count….
Continue reading Pretension to Lucidity (Beyond 17)

Endurance and Transformation (Beyond 16)

“Endurance is not to be confused with transformation,” bell hooks (see “Balancing Compassion and Strength“)

“Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
— Babylonian Talmud: Sanhedrin 37a.

stolendreamThere is still much to be learned on the omer journey away from oppression. As our learning journey progresses, the March 2 Justice approaches the U.S. Capitol, providing an opportunity to learn directly from civil rights leaders and marchers themselves.

In their “Why We March,” the NY Justice League notes that JUST THIS YEAR the individuals listed here on the right, many with mental health issues, were killed by police.

In their honor, and in the names of Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Renisha McBride, John Crawford III, and Ramarley Graham, the NY Justice League is calling for

  • an end to racial profiling,
  • stopping the militarization of our local police forces, and
  • demanding the government invest in our youth and communities.

We counted 16 on the evening of April 19. Tonight, we count….
Continue reading Endurance and Transformation (Beyond 16)

(Beyond 15)

Yesterday’s post included a note from Bewilderments, Avivah Zornberg’s study of the wilderness travels in the Book of Numbers.

…Moses alone of human beings ‘saw b’aspaklariah meirah— through a clear lens.” All others, including prophets and seers, saw through an unclear glass, a distorted lens of subjectivity (Babylonia Talmud: Yevamot 49b, Rashi to Numbers 12:6). The problem arises when one is not aware of one’s own deflections of vision. Imagining oneself clear-eyed, one may become the greatest fantasist of all….the greatest illusion may be the pretension to total lucidity.

Also yesterday, theGrio — the African American Breaking news site — published “Study: Teachers more likely to label black students as troublemakers,” describing the “black-escalation effect”:

…teachers were shown records of kids with either stereotypical black names (Deshawn or Darnell) or stereotypical white names (Greg or Jake) and asked what disciplinary steps should be taken after certain infractions.

While the response to the first infraction was the same across both races, after the second rule infraction, teachers pushed for more punishment for the black students than the white students.

“It’s not that these are racist people, it’s just that we all are exposed to stereotypes in the world,” Jason Okonufua, the study’s lead researcher, said.

“The problem arises when one is not aware of one’s own deflections of vision.”

We counted 15 on the evening of April 18. Tonight, we count….
Continue reading (Beyond 15)

Balancing Kindness and Strength (Beyond 14)

With the new week, we begin a third leg in our journey away from oppression, and so shift focus to a new aspect of divinity. The first week focused on Chesed [“loving-kindness”]. The second, on Gevurah [“strength” or “boundaries,” sometimes “judgement”]. The third, “Tiferet” [“beauty”], is said to combine the first two. On its own chesed and gevurah are each untenable: in individual lives and in the universe as a whole a non-stop flow of loving-kindness leaves no room for boundaries; unmitigated strength leaves no room for compassion. The third attribute of God, and this third week of the Omer count, represent a balancing of forces.

In the early days of this omer journey, we focused on knowing as an act of loving-kindness, moving away from the moral deficiency of not-knowing — as when Pharaoh didn’t know Joseph (his country’s past) — in the early Exodus story. In the second week, we focused on strength required to persevere in the face of oppression and complex boundaries of gender and race.

To launch the third week, here are two potentially “balancing” thoughts —

one from bell hooks on Black women and feminism:

Usually, when people talk about the “strength” of black women they are referring to the way in which they perceive black women coping with oppression. They ignore the reality that to be strong in the face of oppression is not the same as overcoming oppression, that endurance is not to be confused with transformation.
— bell hooks. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1981.) p.6

and one from Avivah Zornberg on subjectivity and post-slavery views of a “good Land”:

bewildermentsThe world cannot be seen without ‘interference.’ According to a classic Talmudic description, Moses alone of human beings ‘saw b’aspaklariah meirah— through a clear lens.” All others, including prophets and seers, saw through an unclear glass, a distorted lens of subjectivity (Babylonia Talmud: Yevamot 49b, Rashi to Numbers 12:6). The problem arises when one is not aware of one’s own deflections of vision. Imagining oneself clear-eyed, one may become the greatest fantasist of all….the greatest illusion may be the pretension to total lucidity.

[Moses sees the land as “good.”] But the people are driven by fantasies and anxieties that make goodness an issue of love and hate; the Land represents other questions about themselves, the world, and God. No demonstration of lush fruit can ever lay rest the efes [however] coiled within them. Moses’ dream of vindication cannot address their need. For them, a journey will have proved necessary, if they are to find a way of speaking of the good Land with all their heart.
— Avivah Zornberg. Bewilderments. (NY: Schocken, 2015), p.134, 146

We counted 14 on the evening of April 17. Tonight, we count….
Continue reading Balancing Kindness and Strength (Beyond 14)

More Race and Gender and Strength and Boundaries (Beyond 13)

Shabbat approaches, and this week’s Torah portion is Shemini (“Eighth [day],” Lev: 9:1 – 11:47; see also “In Praise of Silence” ). It’s one in which women are simply not present — not even, as in the next double portion of Tazria and Metzora, as a source of potential impurity — unless by extrapolation: The portion is largely about kashrut; women have traditionally borne responsibility for keeping a kitchen kosher; therefore, women’s presence is implied. Earlier in Exodus, we learn the name of Aaron’s wife. When Nadav and Abihu die after offering “strange fire,” however we are told that “Aaron was silent,” but Elisheva is not even mentioned. (Lev. 10:1-3)

It is worth noting, I think, that this woman-less portion closes out the week of Gevurah [“strength” or “boundaries”] in our omer journey away from oppression. Jews, and Jewish feminists in particular, have been grappling for a long time with the ways the Torah defines women, when it isn’t ignoring them entirely. And this seems a good time to focus our attention on the ways in which Black women have been defined by others when the narrative isn’t ignoring them entirely.
Continue reading More Race and Gender and Strength and Boundaries (Beyond 13)

Race and Gender and Strength and Boundaries (Beyond 12)

As we come to the close of the omer journey week focusing on strength and boundaries, we should at least begin our reflections on the complex intersection of race and gender. My own time at the computer does not permit a long note today (a blessing, perhaps?), so I offer just a few suggestions:

One place to begin is with Zoe Spencer’s short independent film, Epiphany, an insightful and watchable exploration of related issues:

The answer will not be found
in the crooked hook of some misogynistic rap song
…there are far too many mothers crying
for far too many brothers dying
Far too many buying
trying to undue the stain of inferiority
by placing that new platinum noose around our necks
…I have allowed the history of racism
to separate me from my history
— from the introduction to “Epiphany”

Also consider watching or rewatching the powerful documentary on Anita Hill and the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearing. There is a lot there to explore, and the anniversary material is quite powerful in its own right.

He had a race.
I had a gender.
Anita Hill Film

Finally, from Nina Simone again:

…You lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears.
And talk real fine just like a lady.
And you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie

Oh but this whole country is full of lies….
Mississippi Goddam (1964)

Just scratching the surface on our journey from oppression.

We counted 12 on the evening of April 15. Tonight, we count….
Continue reading Race and Gender and Strength and Boundaries (Beyond 12)

(Beyond 11)

“[This clock] chimes the time twice,” he explains, “just in case you missed it the first time around. Sometimes you’re busy when a clock strikes and you miss the count. This one waits a few seconds and gives you a second chance.” Unstuck in time.

— from an interview of Kurt Vonnegut by William T. Noble (published in the Detroit Sunday News Magazine June 18, 1972 and republished in the 1999 Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut.

In this spirit, I offer a second opportunity to listen to Voices of Grief and Struggle, and important and powerful resource posted on December 9, 2014.

In addition, for those who maybe missed the fact that this is National Poetry Month, here is a second chance of sorts, an opportunity to consider Audre Lorde’s “Coal” — with it’s reminder to consider “who pays what to speak” — as well as some words from Marge Piercy, (re-)reminding us all to “honor Jews who changed”:

…those who chose the desert over bondage,
who walked into the strange and became strangers
and gave birth to children who could look down
on them standing on their shoulders for having
been slaves. We honor those who let go of everything
but freedom, who ran, who revolted, who fought,
who became other by saving themselves.

We counted 11 on the evening of April 14. Tonight, we count….
Continue reading (Beyond 11)

In Touch with the Source (Beyond 10)

Three days into the wilderness journey, the promise of freedom seems to fade —

וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לִשְׁתֹּת מַיִם מִמָּרָה
כִּי מָרִים הֵם
they could not drink of the waters of Marah,
for they were bitter [the waters? or the People?]
Exodus 15:23

Despite their recent experiences of leaving bondage and the miraculous, sea-splitting escape from Pharaoh’s army, the Israelites encounter bitterness and are unable to drink.

“Water,” according to Jewish tradition, is linked symbolically with “Torah.” The Israelites’ real problem, therefore, is interpreted as “growing weary” because they “went for three days without Torah.”

The ancient teachers used this story as an explanation for the public Torah reading schedule: Saturdays, Mondays, and Thursdays. In this way, the People “will never go on for three consecutive days without hearing Torah.” In addition, the minimum number of verses for a reading was set at ten, corresponding to the number of people needed to constitute a minyan [public prayer quorum]. (Babylonian Talmud: Baba Kama 82a)

At heart, the message seems to be that we must never drift too long without returning to the Source, however we understand that, and that community is essential in this process.

Nina Simone’s song, “(I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be) Free,” helps me with this “return,” in general, and suggests several lessons for this particular omer journey. There are several wonderful versions, each with its own lessons.

(1) Warning: Most Basic Torah

In her “Live in Montreux 1976” version, Simone pounds out a warning, adding a line not in the usual lyrics:

I wish you could know what it means to be me
If you could see, you’d agree
everybody should be free
’cause if we ain’t we’re murderous
— Live at Montreux 1976, this quote at 2:45ff
(link to clip or whole concert)

The demands here — “see me” and “everybody should be free” — are a call to return to the Source, to the most basic Torah: “I am YHVH thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” (Exodus 20:2)

(2) I’d Sing What I Know

This 1968 version, live in Paris —

— stresses “I’d sing what I know.”

This call to learn from — and to share — the direct experiences of people who have suffered oppression is especially apt for this year’s attempt to “Make the Omer Count,” exploring the workings of oppression, and our part in them, with an aim to more effectively move toward liberation for all.

Moreover, Simone urges listeners to participate in a way that echoes for me the rabbis’ embedding of the communal number ten in the Torah reading (above): The artist wants to hear others singing “what I know,” and doesn’t give up when they don’t immediately sing out. At one point she asks band members, “Should I leave ’em alone?” — to which they answer an amused “no!” without missing a beat of their choral response. Still not hearing from enough others, Simone leaves the piano and adds additional verbal and visual cues to facilitate participation.

Finally, I am moved by her addition toward the close of “I’d be a little bit more me.” To me that about sums it up: the journey from Passover to Shavuot is one that is meant to help us each become “a little bit more me,” in our liberation, while striving for a community that honors the need for everyone else to be their own best selves.

SimoneFree

(3) An Anthem Toward…

Several years ago, Elaine Reuben suggested this song as “an appropriate anthem as we count our way toward…” to Fabrangen Havurah‘s Omer Blog). And yes, that’s “toward…” with destination unexpressed, not “forward,” regardless of spellcheck preferences.

The 1967 version, used in the posthumous compilation “The Very Best of Nina Simone” and linked in Fabrangen’s 2010 blog above, is shared without video of the artist. A straight-forward studio version, this rendition serves especially well as “an anthem” in which each of us can join.

This version and Elaine’s “as we count our way toward…” seem apt for this omer journey, with its unknown destination. Of course, we expect to reach 49 and then the holiday of Shavuot. But, our learning about oppression and its workings will be informing where we end up ultimately.

NOTE: In 2013, the Simone estate uploaded an amazing array of resources, including the clip in #2 above, the full concert linked in #1 above, interviews, and more. For more on Nina Simone, visit the website maintained by her estate.

Continue reading In Touch with the Source (Beyond 10)