Friday, December 23, 2016

Five kinds of racism

Once when I was in high school, after a theater production, I was helping to take pieces of the set to storage when I walked by my sixty-year-old history teacher.

"You're striking," he said.
"Thanks," I mumbled, creeped out.
"How much money are you all asking for?" another student asked.

This story makes no sense, right? That's because the word "striking" has three different meanings and we were all using them differently.
  1. striking: dismantling a theater stage
  2. striking: dramatically beautiful
  3. striking: stopping work until demands are met
Now take that confusion and multiply it by a million, and you get the word "racism."

A lot of White people think that "racism" has one meaning. Racists hate anyone not White, they won't hire them for jobs, they don't want them in their schools, they don't want to live near them, and they think they are all on welfare. Basically this woman. So when White people say, "I'm not racist" or "I'm tired of being called a racist" - comments I saw a lot around our recent election - they mean, "I'm not like that person."

This is the first definition of racism: explicit racism (I will call this Type 1 racism). The good news is that a lot of White people are right; they are NOT Type 1 racists. The bad news is a lot of White people ARE explicit racists; witness the recent rise in hate crimes as Type 1 racists are emboldened. The further bad news is that there are four other kinds of racism, and between them, they cover every White person in America.

Here are the remaining definitions of racism:

Type 2 racism is institutional racism. A perfect example is my kids' school district. Ninety-seven percent of the teachers are White, in classrooms where about 60% of the students are children of color. The schools are not run by Type 1 racists, so how did the district end up like this? Well, our schools usually hire new teachers out of the sub pool, and the sub pool is made up of people who can afford to not work every day, and that means White people (White households have 13 times the wealth of Black households and 10 times the wealth of Latino households), usually married White women. Perhaps no one intended to create a racist school district, but the only thing people have to do to perpetuate a racist system is... nothing and the system will perpetuate itself. Now, you can't call an individual a Type 2 racist because by definition the word describes institutions. But you can say that a White person benefits from Type 2 racism, and we do, overwhelmingly. Longer life expectancy. Better healthcare. Better education. Higher salaries. More lenient sentencing. (And yes, poor White people benefit from institutional racism too, when compared to people of color of the same socioeconomic class. For example, when 95% of clinical trials use White people, health risks unique to people of color are ignored and White people of any class benefit.)

The third definition of racism goes back to the personal level, but this time it's below the surface: subconscious racism. I'll give an example of it that came out of my own mind. On the train riding to work, I saw a poorly dressed Black woman and assumed her to be homeless. I saw a White, blond woman in similar disarray and thought, How European! What a free spirit! I didn't consciously act on those thoughts - I was disappointed when I realized I'd had them - but in some tiny way, they influenced how I interacted with those women. Maybe I smiled at one and not the other. Maybe if I had noticed a belonging missing, I would have suspected one and not the other. These tiny reactions add up. Type 3 racism is death by a thousand papercuts.  It comes directly from Type 2 racism: we are so thoroughly steeped in a racist history, racist government practices, racist housing patterns, racist educational systems, and a racist media that I doubt there is any White person in America who isn't some kind of Type 3 racist.

Type 4 is strategic racism. Ian Haney López (Dog Whistle Politics) explains strategic racism as "purposeful efforts to use racial animus as leverage to gain material wealth, political power, or heightened social standing." This racism is a tool used to achieve a goal deemed more important than not being racist. The book is mostly about politicians who use coded words like "welfare queen," "thug," and "states' rights" to appeal to both explicit and subconscious prejudice in voters, but really, it could be about the entire history of the United States. How do you get millions of White people to support a system that enriches a tiny minority while doing tremendous damage to everyone else? Create a myth of racial superiority and many poor White people will side with the exploitative White capitalist over their Black neighbors, every time, from slavery through Trump. Strategic racism can also be directed inward. White people who refuse to see that they benefit from racist institutions or to consider their own subconscious racism are employing strategic racism as way of protecting their own self-image as good and moral people. Self-directed strategic racism is the decision that our own comfort is more important than acknowledging hard truths about the world.

Finally, Type 5 racism is what Haney López calls "common-sense racism." He includes this with Type 3 racism, but I think they are a little different. To me, subconscious racism is about emotional reactions but common-sense racism is about simply getting the facts wrong. Take, for example, the fact that Black people commit crimes at a higher rate than White people. Is it because they are inherently criminal? Do fewer educational and job opportunities breed crime? Does Black culture glorify "thug life?" Actually, it's none of these because Black people DON'T commit crimes at a higher rate than White people. Black people are arrested for crimes at higher rates, they are prosecuted at higher rates, and they are given longer sentences, but crime rates themselves do not vary by race. Type 5 racism is when "everyone knows" common-sense facts that are wrong. 

I didn't go back to my history teacher and tell him that I had figured out what he was saying because it really wasn't that important. Getting the word "racism" right, that's important. White people, we can't just say we're not racist and be done. We need to figure out which meaning people are using and we need to acknowledge that we, all of us, me and you, are some kind of racist.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Family Plan for a Trump presidency

First draft of the plan we created for moving forward after the election:

1.     Accept that we don’t live in a democracy.
Don’t be surprised when a racist, misogynistic plutocrat enacts policies that benefit a tiny minority at the top. It’s how the system was designed. Being outraged all the time is exhausting. Save the outrage for things that are actually surprising.

2.     Try to change the government anyway.
  • Support progressive candidates through donations, by making phone calls and/or by knocking on doors
  • Set up ongoing donations to groups challenging unjust government policies, such as the ACLU
  • If possible, volunteer for groups challenging unjust government policies
  • Make more phone calls to senators and representatives
  • Participate in protests
  • Volunteer for the local Democratic committee
3.     Support people who may be directly affected by new government policies.
  • Set up ongoing donations to organizations that will be directly affected, such as Planned Parenthood
  • If possible, volunteer for organizations that will be directly affected
  • Give directly to those in need
  • Check in with our kids about what they are experiencing
  • Make our support for affected groups clear and visible
4.     Build community
  • Get to know neighbors better
  • Engage with people who are different about differences and common ground
  • Increase patronage of local businesses
5.     Take the high road
  • Be aware of our privileges and how we use them
  • Don’t label ourselves allies, safe, or non-racist; there is always room for improvement
  • Support people who support our goals, even if we disagree with how they are doing it
  • Focus on facts; avoid insults and sensationalism

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Ethiopia Travel Warning

The U.S. Department of State is now asking U.S. citizens to defer all non-essential travel to Ethiopia:

"The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens to defer all non-essential travel to Ethiopia due to ongoing unrest that has led to hundreds of deaths, thousands of arrests, as well as injuries and extensive property damage, especially in Amhara and Oromia States. The U.S. Embassy’s ability to provide consular services in many parts of the country is limited by the current security situation. "The Government of Ethiopia declared a State of Emergency effective October 8, 2016. An October 15 decree states that individuals may be arrested without a court order for activities they may otherwise consider routine, such as communication, consumption of media, attending gatherings, engaging with certain foreign governments or organizations, and violating curfews. The decree prohibits U.S. and other foreign diplomats from traveling farther than 40 kilometers outside of Addis Ababa without prior approval from the Government of Ethiopia, which severely affects the U.S. Embassy’s ability to assist U.S. citizens. The full text of the decree implementing the State of Emergency is available on the U.S. Embassy’s website.
"Internet, cellular data, and phone services have been periodically restricted or shut down throughout the country, impeding the U.S. Embassy’s ability to communicate with U.S. citizens in Ethiopia. You should have alternate communication plans in place, and let your family and friends know this may be an issue while you are in Ethiopia. See the information below on how to register with the U.S. Embassy to receive security messages.
"Avoid demonstrations and large gatherings, continuously assess your surroundings, and evaluate your personal level of safety. Remember that the government may use force and live fire in response to demonstrations, and that even gatherings intended to be peaceful can be met with a violent response or turn violent without warning. U.S. citizens in Ethiopia should monitor their security situation and have contingency plans in place in case you need to depart suddenly."

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Another letter

Dear Senator / Representative:

I am writing to ask you to cosponsor Senate Resolution 432 / House Resolution 861, supporting respect for human rights and condemning violence in Ethiopia. In the last two weeks, at least 50 people - some reports place the number at over 600 - were killed at a cultural festival in the town of Bishoftu when police fired tear gas and live ammunition at the crowd. Protesters responding to the massacre killed an American researcher named Sharon Gray and destroyed foreign businesses believed to have government connections. The Ethiopian government declared a state of emergency, legitimizing arbitrary arrests, restricting freedom of movement, and making it illegal for people to cross their arms over their head.

The United States considers Ethiopia to be our ally. This crisis is happening with support from my taxpayer dollars. We need an urgent review of our security assistance to Ethiopia.

Thank you.

Find your representatives in Congress here.

Friday, September 30, 2016

In our national self-interest

Telling a foreign government what to do is always messy. This is directed at MY government. It is not in America's best interest to subsidize violence in Ethiopia: 

"The stakes are too high for the US, UK, and other western allies of the TPLF/EPRDF regime to just sit back and watch as a simmering volcanic eruption rocks Ethiopia and spews chaos and instability to the sub-region.  It is in the strategic interest of these countries, including the international partnership on counterterrorism, that Ethiopia has a stable, popular and democratic government elected by free, fair and transparent process."

Read the entire piece here: Ethiopia: The Myth of a Stable and Reliable Partner Under the Minority TPLF Regime


Monday, September 19, 2016

Sample letter to representative in Congress

Sample letter to representative in Congress. Copy and paste or modify -

I am writing with great concern about the escalating human rights violations in Ethiopia and asking you to support House Resolution 861. I am a constituent who has family and friends in Ethiopia and I fear for their safety.

In the Ethiopian elections of May 2015, the ruling party claimed 100 percent of parliamentary seats. In November the majority ethnic group in Ethiopia, the Oromo, began a series of overwhelmingly peaceful protests asking for democratic reforms. The Oromo were later joined by other ethnic groups, including the Amhara and the Konso. The Ethiopian government has responded with arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings, and restrictions on freedom of expression and political organizing. Human Rights Watch gives a low estimate of 500 peaceful protestors killed in the Oromia and Amhara regions in the last few months. In the last few weeks government-sponsored violence has escalated, with security forces seemingly adopting a scorched-earth policy to punish protest. Last week Ethiopian National Defense Forces attacked the community of Konso, in the south of the country, burning entire villages and killing more than 30 people. The following day more than 400 shops in the city of Gondar in Amhara were burned. 
We must do something to help. Ethiopia is an ally in the war on terrorism and receives large amounts of aid from the United States. In return we have the right to expect respect for basic human rights. I ask you to support House Resolution 861 condemning the killing of innocent civilians in Ethiopia and calling for increased accountability of United States assistance to Ethiopia.

On behalf of my loved ones in Ethiopia, thank you for your help,

Friday, September 16, 2016

Message from Konso

We are locked in the house. Lots of people are arrested. More than 30 people are killed, many injured. More than 200 houses are burned. More than 10,000 people and children are homeless, no healthcare, no food, no water.
My little boy is sick and I am afraid to take him to the hospital because they are arresting everyone. He has a fever, maybe malaria. I have nothing to bring the fever down. I am so afraid.
This message came today from my friend in Konso, Ethiopia. I will not identify him out of fear for his safety. The human rights situation across the country is going from bad to worse. Bad was when peaceful protesters were being shot by government troops. Worse is when anyone who sets foot outside is arrested or killed, when entire sections of towns are burned down. The unrest has spread from the Oromia Region, where the country's largest ethnic group has been asking for proportionate representation in government, to the Amhara Region, where the beautiful green town of Bahir Dar and the historic city of Gondar have experienced mass killings, to Konso, where a small community is asking only that they can continue their traditional way of life. I feel so incredibly powerless to help. The only thing I can think of doing is contacting my government representatives - and asking you to do the same. Please call or email or go in person to see your congressperson and senators. There are currently resolutions in both the House and the Senate asking the Ethiopian government to stop killing its citizens and calling for a review of security assistance to Ethiopia. The U.S. considers Ethiopia an ally in the war on terrorism and gives aid accordingly; our government can leverage this aid to help innocent people like my friend. 
Please ask your congresspersons to support House Resolution 861 and Senate Resolution 432 

And please spread the word.  

More here -  

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Thoughts before our trip

There have been a lot of thoughts swirling around in my head as our trip approaches. I go back and read this post and the thoughtful comments that follow it and wonder, is a completely ethical adoption ever possible? Some people seem so sure. They draw a line in the sand and say, this child needed to be adopted and that child didn't. Black and white. It's not like that. Everything is so much more complicated. If a grandmother grabbed her orphaned grandson by the ear, dragged him over to the child catcher and sold him for $50, is that adoption ethical? Before you say no, is leaving him with a grandmother who would sell him ethical? Aren't children removed from those kinds of homes in the US? If a child is dying from lack of medical care that is only available in a Western country, is that adoption ethical? Before you say yes, is it ethical that that kind of medical care is only available in a Western country? Is it ethical to use that inequity as a reason to create a family? An ethical adoption is a chimera, endlessly chased after, proudly proclaimed, but in reality, an apparition that shimmers and dissipates under scrutiny.

We can only do the best we can. We can try to understand what the first family wanted, and provide that. We can try to look at cultural practices through the lens of universal human rights and decide if what the first family wanted is something we feel comfortable providing. We can try to uncover the truth and share it with our child, so they understand their full story and can one day put the pieces together. We can be honest. We must be honest.

Our children did not "need" to be adopted - whatever that means. The person who was legally responsible for them could not care for them. But they had someone else who could, who was. I think that person did not want them to leave. From what we heard on our visit two years ago, everyone else saw it as "an opportunity." The process that Wide Horizons described was not what actually happened. The children were not in an orphanage before adoption came into the picture. The children were placed in the orphanage in order to be adopted. Everyone was free with that information - Wide Horizons must have known. In every message we get from the family, they say they are happy the kids are with us, but they are anxious for us to visit again.

It's easier if I can label this as ethical and that as not, but the reality is so much more complicated.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

"They" are right, "we" are wrong

I really wish American adoption agencies would drop this line of " 'They' (Ethiopian families) don't understand the 'real' meaning of adoption." Instead agencies should be educating 'us' (American adoptive families) about the real meaning of adoption, or alloparenting, as it has been practiced for tens of thousands of years. It means deciding that someone other than the birth parents will care for a child, with the decision often made by the extended family, while the child retains connections to the original family, and with the expectation that the child will one day return to help the family. Agencies need to make sure that adoptive families not only understand this but agree to and prove that they can abide by the expectations of the child's community, including ongoing contact and return visits, and if adoptive families can't / don't want to sign on for that, then, sorry, they can't adopt. I know that excludes people who can't afford this responsibility, but adopting someone else's child is a privilege, not a right and no one is entitled to it. 

*Updated to say that of course I know agencies won't do this because they are a business and will take money from anyone who can pass a homestudy, so it's up to us, as adoptive families to educate ourselves.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Anatomy of a nickname

D. loves words. He loves to talk...

Me (calling into the other room): Do you want to some ice cream?
D: It's like you shrank yourself down to a tiny size, crawled under the door, climbed onto my head, drilled a hole, climbed inside and looked at my brain, climbed back out, patched the hole, crawled under the door again, made yourself big, and went back in the kitchen.
Me: So, yes?

...he loves his "robust vocabulary words"...

Me: Who did that?
D: A. is the culprit.

...and he loves giving nicknames. His dad has been Dahee, Hooda, and Hoo, and for a long time his brother was Hoylo and then Swift (strangely, I've never been anything but Mommy).

D's most recent nickname for his brother, Nee, is really fascinating because it shows how words evolve.

Step 1:  D. learns about Bernie Sanders. A's nickname becomes Feel-the-Bern.
Step 2:  Feel-the-Bern is shortened to Burn.
Step 3:  Burn (noun) becomes Burneean (adjective) in the phrase him and his Burneean ways
Step 4:  Burneean becomes a noun.
Step 5:  Burneean is shortened to Neean and then to Nee. 
All in the space of a few weeks. I love my son's linguistic gifts!

*Update: A few weeks later, A's nickname is Nee-ah mon.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Four years!!!!

Happy four years in America, lijoch!

And yes, we are going to Ethiopia. For six weeks!

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Notes from my week off

  • I braided A's hair using a new braiding technique and it looked terrible.
  • Even though braiding takes me a long time, and comes out fuzzy, and A is just watching videos while I'm doing it so we're not really interacting, and it looks better and is easier and faster when a professional does it, even so, I love doing it. I love the sustained physical contact, and feeling like I am providing for the physical needs of my child.
  • When I do a bad job braiding, I feel like I should apologize to every Black mother I see.
  • There is a website by a White mother about how to care for Black hair that is very popular in adoption parenting circles. It's a pretty good website, but there is nothing on it that is not on hundreds of other websites and YouTube videos made by Black people. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that this website is so popular because a lot of White adoptive parents are more comfortable learning about Black hair from a White person than from a person who actually has the hair.
  • A couple of neighborhood kids who recently moved here from West Philly came over to play basketball. Later A asked me if the way they were talking is "correct." I explained that there is no such thing as incorrect language; there is language that is appropriate or not appropriate for a situation. Later A was out playing basketball again, and I heard him trying out some new expressions. It was super cute.
  • My friend was pulled over by THREE police cars because "you have a jacked up license plate." I will give you one guess what the color of her skin is.
  • My neighbor told me about getting beat up by the police, twice, once as a child and once as an adult. Thrown against a wall, kicked in the head. I'll give you one guess about the color of his skin.
  • I redid A's braids and redeemed myself.  My parts aren't completely straight but at least he can go out tomorrow without me hanging my head in shame.
  • I'm not sure how anyone can live in  America and NOT talk about race.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

To go or not to go

We've spent the last few months trying to figure out if we should go to Ethiopia this summer. It has been 2 years since A went back, 4 years for D. They need to go, visit their relatives, remember their roots. I fantasize about taking the summer off and taking both boys on a longer trip, touring historical sites, visiting national parks, and just hanging out and experiencing life there for a while.

But Ethiopia has been experiencing the worst drought in 50 years. Crops have failed. Millions of people are in need of food aid. Hundreds of thousands of children are experiencing malnutrition. More recently, in some parts of the country, torrential rains have hit the drought-hardened earth, causing flash floods and killing people without lingering long enough to provide farmers with any relief. We have donated to Save the Children, and there are many other organizations, large and small, working to help. Please donate. In terms of our trip, even though Burji is still doing OK, I can't help thinking that a devastating drought isn't the best time for tourism.

Just as worrying, since last November there have been widespread protests against the Ethiopian government, and the government's response has not been peaceful nor restrained. Some background - in the 1990's the government redrew state boundaries along ethnic lines. There's the Oromia Region for the Oromo people, the Tigray Region for the Tigray people, etc. The idea was to grant each region self-determination. Ownership of land, though, was reserved for the federal government. Last year the government, which is dominated by the Amhara and Tigray, decided to expand Addis Abeba, the capital, which is its own state, into Oromo land. Since land ownership is vested in the federal government, they could confiscate or claim land from Oromo farmers. The Oromo actually constitute the majority ethnic group, but do not have proportionate power. The Oromo protested the plan. The government cracked down on protesters. The protests continued. Eventually the government backed off the Addis Abeba plan, but by then all the seething anger at systematic ethnic discrimination had erupted. Protests have continued and expanded. The government continues to crack down with violence and media blackouts. Hundreds of Oromo people have died. There are multiple reports of universities burned and police firing indiscriminately into crowds.

For a while we thought that, no matter how bad it was, we could still get to Burji while avoiding the affected areas. Oromia is huge - east, west, and south of Addis Abeba. Burji is about three-fourths of the way to the Kenyan border, west of the southern part of Oromia. If we flew to Arba Min'ch and drove to Burji from the west, we wouldn't have to set foot in Oromia.

Everything except the lower southwest quarter of the map is Oromia, but if we flew from Addis Abeba to Arba Min'ch and drove to Burji (at the pin) from the west, we would avoid Oromia.
But then the protests spread to Konso, which is directly west of Burji. To get to Burji from Arba Min'ch, you have to pass through Konso. There is no other road. The situation in Konso is different, but related to that of Oromia. Konso is much smaller and is part of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's Region, the "everyone-else" region of Ethiopia. Up until last year, like Burji, Amaro, and some other small ethnic groups, Konso was a "special woreda," an area with a fair degree of autonomy. Last year the government merged these "special woredas" into a single zone, and created a new seat of government in a middle-of-nowhere place called Segen. Last month people in Konso began protesting. The government reacted, someone fired shots, and three people died. Driving from Arba Min'ch to Burji through Konso may not be safe anymore.

At this point, you might be wondering, Why are you even considering this? Well, there are a lot of reasons:
  1. Ethiopia is a huge country. There are many perfectly peaceful places. As widespread as the unrest has been, most of it has been far from Burji. Imagine if there had been a lot of violence around New York and Philadelphia and a much smaller incident in Washington DC. Would that stop you from going through DC to reach a peaceful Richmond, Virginia?
  2. We have an obligation to our children to go. We made a promise that we would stay connected to Ethiopia. More than just keeping our promise, we need to stay connected so that they can grow up understanding who they are, where they came from, and how the two parts of their lives fit together. Waiting until next summer feels too long; it would be three years away for A and five away for D, more than half his life. It feels very important that we go now.
  3. We have no guarantee that things will get better. If the protests, exacerbated by the drought, get worse, I can easily imagine things getting much worse and staying that way for years. 
  4. We have a specific person we need to visit.
  5. We're getting contradictory information and advice and we know that we don't have the full picture. One person from Burji told us to come and another told us to stay away. Social media sources we follow contradict each other. There is a media blackout in many parts of the country, so we simply don't have enough information.
We might still fly to Arba Min'ch and then have the people we want to see come to us. They would also have to travel through Konso, but unlike us, they wouldn't attract attention. Of course, I wouldn't want them to do it unless I were 100% sure it was safe. If that plan works, I can see Arba Min'ch being a comfortable place to spend a week or two...

So that's where we are right now.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Appalled at Pennsylvania

This month Pennsylvania joined the ranks of state legislators completely ignorant of the basic workings of human reproduction. There's Texas, where the co-author of one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country thinks that abortion requires "cutting on people's bodies." There's Indiana, where on March 24 the governor signed into law a requirement that "a miscarried or aborted fetus must be interred or cremated," unaware, I guess, that most miscarriages occur in the first trimester, can last for several days, and look like a heavy period with clots and clumps. Sorry, but what exactly are women supposed to inter? Blood-soaked sheets? Sanitary pads? The entire toilet? Then there's Utah, where on March 29 the governor signed a law requiring that a fetus is administered anesthesia before an abortion... but how do you administer anesthesia to a fetus? Oh, there it is, on line 55, in the section that removes any choice in the matter: "through the woman." So women are forced to undergo a potentially dangerous and completely unnecessary medical procedure.

And now there's Pennsylvania, where on April 1, Representative Kathy Rapp, based on the extensive medical training she received from her paralegal certification at Slippery Rock University, introduced to the Health Committee PA House Bill 1948. The bill eliminates dilation and evacuation abortions (though the author substitutes her own made-up word. She also doesn't seem to know the word "fetus."). Further, the bill bans any abortion after 20 weeks gestation unless two physicians certify in writing that the pregnancy will cause death or substantial and irreversible impairment of a major organ. No other reason for abortion is allowed; the bill specifies that even if there is "a claim or a diagnosis that the woman will engage in conduct which would result in her death or in substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function... no abortion shall be deemed authorized." In other words, if a woman is so desperate or determined that she will risk her life to end her pregnancy, the state says, go right ahead and die (the Texas law includes the same language). And of course 20 weeks is around the time that many fetal abnormalities are detected, so Pennsylvania is joining Indiana in saying that women cannot choose an abortion based on such a diagnosis. The bill passed the Health Committee on April 4 by a vote of 16 to 10 without hearing any input from any doctors.

Of course these lawmakers are neither ignorant nor unaware about the facts of life. They know exactly what they are doing: controlling women, controlling women's bodies, controlling women's lives.

If you live in Pennsylvania, or even if you don't, please contact the Pennsylvania House of Representatives about HB1948.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Book recommendation: "Slavery by Another Name"

When did slavery end in the United States? In 1863 when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation? In 1865 when the 13th Amendment was ratified?

According to Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, slavery continued in the United States until the 1940's.

It's an amazingly well-researched, eye-opening, horrifying book.

Douglas Blackmon is not comparing Jim Crow laws to slavery. He's not using slavery as an analogy for poverty. He's talking about actual, forced-labor, legally-owning-another-person slavery. He begins with the Civil War, takes us through Reconstruction, which saw some real gains for former slaves, and then explains the system of convict leasing that fueled the industrialization of the South, using tens of thousands of Black slaves primarily to lay railroad tracks, clear forests, mine coal and process iron.

Here's how it worked. The 13th Amendment said that, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." That loophole was enough to create an entire new system of slavery that I, at least, had never heard about before. In my mind, the period after Reconstruction in the South was associated with sharecropping, not coal mines. Blackmon explains how beginning in Reconstruction, laws in the South "criminalized Black life." Laws made it a crime to not be employed by a White man or to change employment without permission from the White employer. When a Black person broke such a law, they were arrested by local law enforcement, who then turned around and sold the prisoner's labor to a coal mine, a timber company or an ironworks. This was called "convict leasing." Often scouts for the companies would identify good potential workers and notify the local sheriff, who could make arrests based on trumped-up charges and then profit from the sale of the new labor. Enormous mines and factories were worked entirely by slaves. Slaves literally built the modern cities of the South.

Physical abuse of convicts was such that 30-40% of slaves died during their forced labor. Perversely, while before the Civil War slaves were viewed as property that had some financial worth, in post-Civil War slavery, the slaves were leased, so when a slave died he or she was simply replaced with no financial loss.

What this means is that there was legal slavery in the United States, not when my great-great-great-grandmother was around, but when my mother was a child.

"Let us define this period of American life plainly and comprehensively," writes Blackmon. "It was the Age of Neoslavery. Only by acknowledging the full extent of slavery's grip on U.S. society - its intimate connections to present-day wealth and power, the depth of its injury to black Americans, the shocking nearness in time of its true end - can we reconcile the paradoxes of current American life." 

Slavery by Another Name won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.

You can watch an interview with the author at

Friday, February 19, 2016

What winter sounds like

Part 1
  1. Pick any word.
  2. Make an audio file of the word.
  3. Put on your headphones and turn the volume all the way up.
  4. Set on "Repeat."
  5. Play for two hours.
 Part 2
  1. Think of a simple, obvious statement ("There's no school on Saturday," "Yoda is short," etc.).
  2. Make an audio file.
  3. Put on your headphones and turn the volume partway up.
  4. Play the audio. If you choose to respond to the statement, give yourself a 30-second respite of sweet, golden silence. If you choose not respond, play the audio again at a higher volume. Repeat until you respond.
  5. Play for two hours.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Black History Month trivia

I compiled this list of trivia questions for Black History Month at my kids' elementary school. I tried to create a list that was balanced between men and women, historical and modern figures, and various fields (science, rights, entertainment etc.). I ordered the list in approximate order of difficulty for the 19 school days in February. I'm posting the list here so that other elementary schools can use it if they want:

Black History Month Trivia Questions
(in order of difficulty)

1.    Today’s famous Black American is the 44th president of the United States. He was elected president in 2008 and again in 2012. He is president now. Who is he?
Answer: Barack Obama

2.    Today’s famous Black American is known as the “mother of the Civil Rights movement.” As a member of the Montgomery, Alabama NAACP, she chose to be arrested on the city bus in order to challenge the law that Black Americans had to sit at the back of the bus. Her arrest started a year-long boycott of Montgomery city buses. Who is she?
Answer: Rosa Parks

3.    Today’s famous Black American was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. He was a minister who believed in the power of non-violence. He led marches and organized protests for equal rights in cities across the United States. His “I Have a Dream” speech is one of the most famous speeches in U.S. history. Who is he?
Answer: Martin Luther King Jr.

4.    Today’s famous Black American lived at the time of slavery in the United States. She was born a slave in Maryland but escaped to Pennsylvania. Over 10 years she completed 19 secret missions to rescue over 300 people from slavery. She was known as “Moses” for leading people to freedom. Who is she?
Answer: Harriet Tubman

5.    Today’s famous Black American played second base for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1947 to 1956. He was the first African American to play in the Major Leagues, ending segregation in baseball. He was an All-Star player for six years in a row. On April 15 every year, every player on every team in Major League Baseball wears his number, 42. Who is he?
Answer: Jackie Robinson

6.    Today’s famous Black American was a singer, songwriter, and dancer. His album Thriller is the best-selling music album of all time. He had 13 Number 1 songs, including Billie Jean, Beat It, Man in the Mirror, and Black or White. He won 13 Grammy Awards and 26 American Music Awards, including “Artist of the Century.” Who is he?
Answer: Michael Jackson

7.    Today’s famous Black American is a musician known as Queen B. She has been singing for the past 19 years and has won 20 Grammy Awards. She has had 22 Number 1 songs, including Single Ladies, If I Were a Boy and Listen. Forbes Magazine named her the Most Powerful Female Musician of 2015. Who is she?
Answer: Beyonce Knowles

8.    Today’s famous Black American is a talk-show host, actor, and producer. She hosted a talk show from 1986 to 2011 that is the highest-rated talk show in American history. She owns her own magazine and television channel. She is one of the richest people in the world, worth 3 billion dollars, and she has given hundreds of millions of dollars to education. Who is she?
Answer: Oprah Winfrey

9.    Today’s famous Black Americans are two sisters who are considered the best tennis players of all time. Between the two of them, they have won 8 Olympic gold medals in tennis and hold 117 championship titles. Who are they?
Answer: Serena & Venus Williams

10. Today’s famous Black American was the first African American justice on the United States Supreme Court. He was on the Supreme Court from 1967 to 1991. Before he became a judge, he was a lawyer who won the case for school desegregation in Brown v. Board of Education. Who is he?
Answer: Thurgood Marshall

11. Today’s famous Black American is an astronomer and writer. He is the director of the Hayden Planetarium and one of the best known scientists in the world. He has written many books and articles about science and has hosted and appeared on many TV shows. In 2015, the National Academy of Science awarded him the Public Welfare Medal for his “extraordinary role in exciting the public about the wonders of science.” Who is he?
Answer: Neil deGrasse Tyson

12. Today’s famous Black American lived during the time of slavery in the United States. He escaped from slavery to become a famous writer, speaker, and newspaper publisher. His books, speeches and newspapers told people about the evils of slavery and argued that all people should have equal rights. After the Civil War he became president of the new Freedman’s Savings Bank. Who is he?
Answer: Frederick Douglass

13. Today’s famous Black American was an inventor who improved travel by train in the 19th century. He received 57 patents for his inventions. We use his name today when we call the original and best thing “the real McCoy.” Who is he?
Answer: Elijah McCoy

14. Today’s famous Black American is a doctor and an astronaut. She was the first African American woman to go to space. She was an astronaut from 1987 to 1993. She started her own science and technology company and runs an international science camp for kids. Who is she?
Answer: Mae Jemison

15. Today’s famous Black American was an inventor who made communities safer. He invented the first safety hood so that firefighters and rescue workers could safely go into places filled with smoke and poisonous gases. He also invented the first traffic signal so that carriages and cars would not crash into each other. Who is he?
Answer: Garrett Morgan

16. Today’s famous Black American was the first self-made female millionaire in the United States. She created hair and beauty products and trained women around the country to sell them. As her business grew, she continued to support her community, giving money to education, the NAACP, and the YMCA. Who is she?
Answer: Madame CJ Walker

17. Today’s famous Black American is the current Attorney General of the United States. This means she is the chief lawyer for the United States government. She represents the United States in all legal matters and advises the president. Who is she?
Answer: Loretta Lynch

18. Today’s famous Black American was a writer, poet, professor, and activist. Her book of poetry Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie won the Pulitzer prize.  Her many books include I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I Shall Not be Moved, and the children’s book Life Doesn’t Frighten Me. Who is she?
Answer: Maya Angelou

19. Today’s famous Black Americans are the creators of the Black Lives Matter movement. These three women are working to end racism in the United States criminal justice system. They use social media, non-violent protest, and disruption of public events to draw attention to violence facing African Americans. Their organization, Black Lives Matter, was a runner-up to Time Magazine’s 2015 Person of the Year. Who are they?
Answer: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi