E.M. Monroe

"I knew, not from memory, but from hope, that there were other models by which to live." Weems


April 2012

Fathers and “Daughters”

A good friend of mine asked me what I thought about Nas’s new song “Daughters.” The song reflects on how Nas has informed his daughter Destiny Jordan’s judgement in the wake of her Twitter posts featuring her condom collection, crude language, and general lack of discretion. Apparently, Destiny’s mother, Carmen Bryan, who wrote a tell-all book about her relationship with Nas as well as the affair she had with Jay-Z, was “disappointed” by Nas’s song. I think she mis-reads his song as castigating their daughter but I see it as more of a critique of his job as a father. Sure it’s an admission of his disappointment with his daughter’s decisions but he didn’t invent the indiscretions. I think she should be expected to be held accountable for those. I recently had this discussion with a teacher who was trying to convince me to have sympathy for something that happened to a student we both knew. I did have sympathy for the young woman, I just didn’t feel responsible for the details of that young woman’s life. “Those are for her to manage,” I said to my friend. “When is she going to ever learn to manage those details if she never gets practice in it?” Similarly, Destiny is responsible for the repercussions of making those under-examined posts. One of the lessons here is that if you’re ashamed of what critics might say, if you don’t want to answer for it, don’t post it. I read her father’s song as a comment on her post and it was an honest, heartfelt, melodic one.

As I listened to the lyrics, I thought about growing up with people who cursed their parents for trying to tell them what to do in light of their mistakes. It was an argument I was never sympathetic too. My father made tons of mistakes and I appreciated him for sharing them with me. In fact, I thought my father was a wonderful raconteur of ‘hood tales of what not to do. To this day, I’m not sure what was true and what was false but I know his life could be grimy enough for me to believe him. Maybe because my father did tell such compelling stories and he made mistakes that he was willing to share, I paid attention to the kind of character I wanted to be…and the last one I would’ve ever wanted to be was one of the women in his tales. When Nas rhymes about sharing his pimpin’ ways with his daughter, I’m not quite sure that that was the problem. My father was horrible with women–at times, he wasn’t good with me–but I never would have tried to get him back by becoming one of the women in his stories.

Interestingly, my father was once a major player in the drug world but he never wanted a woman as a partner who drank or got high. She was the “kinda trick [he] ain’t want no parts of.” He would talk so bad about her that I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be her. Then there were the “stars” from back in the day who everybody wanted to go out with who got strung out, had a bunch of kids, and “just let everybody run thru her.” My father would always point this woman out after he had seen a woman who was only a shade of her former self. If I was actually around to meet the woman and he wasn’t just telling me about her, I would be horrified, straining to find her former glory. It was so sad. The fleeting glamour that might have been purchased, it seemed to me, cost far too much for it to be worth the trouble. I thought the people in my life and the characters in my father’s stories were the perfect ones to discourage me from joining their number.

My father didn’t like rap music. He certainly didn’t like their lack of discretion in talking about “the dope game.” Even though he didn’t like the music, I can’t help but to see him through the lens of that genre. T.I. reminds me of the kind of guy my father was. Had my father been a rapper, he might have been like T.I.: a talented, charming guy with lots of potential who keeps getting caught up in things far beneath his thoughtfulness. But, when I heard “Daughters” I thought about my father because he would have hated to have had to write that song, but he would have; he would have shared his ideas about me even if he didn’t like what he was seeing.

The difference it seems between Nas’s relationship with his daughter and my father’s with me is that I didn’t much care for the markers of status that my father liked. Nas seems to have taught his daughter to value the things that he values in worldly terms. Despite the overall sharpness in his catalogue, the products that one can buy as a result of his success is what he taught her to value. I think I valued and embraced the things my father wished he could. My father liked the idea of embracing non-material values, I even believe he thought they were attractive, but he couldn’t resist the pressure from people who wouldn’t understand and see the same. Admittedly, though, it was easier for me to have a critique of cars, clothes, and status items in general because of the risks that my father had to make and the destruction that he caused in order to get them. It must be difficult to have another idea of what you can value when you have earned the money, and lots of it, honestly and can easily afford things for your children. As Destiny’s story shows, it helps to have another model by which to live. Her story shows how unattractive it is to take hedonism as a gospel. What I like about Nas’s response is that it shows the potential of having a critique to rescue ugliness from itself by moving the story beyond those foolish tweets. In rhapsodizing about the mistakes he made as a father, he makes suggestions that can help us to parent better. My father used to say about his mistakes, “I’m like Dennis Rodman baby, I rebound; check me in the fourth quarter.” In claiming his daughter in the face of those tweets, Nas shows a willingness to confront his responsibility as a father. There’s still time on the clock and I think they can rebound.


Models Monday: The Dinner Table (Thoughts on “Table Talk”)

This weekend, I was reading the Huffington Post’s “Family Dinner Table Talk” blog and it reminded me of my own experiences at the dinner table. I came of age sharing dinner at the table with my family every evening, and it wasn’t an uncommon experience among the folk I knew. When I shared meals with friends and neighbors, we always sat at a table. It was an experience that seemed to cut across class as my high school peers who came from modest and wealthy families alike told stories about meals at the dinner table. It was something that I assumed was a common practice…and maybe it was–once.

I think it is important to honor the food we eat, the work of securing it, as well as the time and effort required for preparing it. Even on those rare occasions when I am taking a meal by myself, I still pause to savor the flavor and the experience as a tribute to my work, the food, and the day. I’m beginning to think that if you do not feel the need to do that, then it says something about the food you’re eating. Perhaps fast-food and vending machine fare don’t suggest the need to create a sacred ritual around them, which makes a strong case against routinely eating it. A good meal can be humbling and inspire reverence; awe. And in my experience, it’s the kind of reverence that moves you to talk–if nothing else, it moves you to saying, “Lord have mercy this is good!”

Good food makes me want to shout! I have another friend who is this way. She and I talk all while we eat. One of the things that I remember saying to my grandmother when I was a child was “Boy grandma, this is goooood!” She thanked me for the compliment. She even came to ask me for dinner suggestions, and was surprised when I would ask for things like split-pea soup. “You want that?” she inquired. Absolutely I wanted it. My heavens, I enjoyed my grandmother’s cooking. I don’t know what it was about certain meals that inspired so much reverence but I enjoyed the experience of trying to figure that out. Sometimes, that’s what I talked about. My friend, who also talks while she eats, does the same thing. We were both surprised to learn that people found it odd that we proclaimed our joy while eating. The recognition helped me to instantly understand Isak Dinesen’s short story “Babette’s Feast.” As she writes,  “[u]sually in Berlevaag people did not speak much while they were eating.” After taking a few bites of Babette’s food, things changed, and as Dinesen notes, “somehow this evening tongues had been loosened.” (For a beautifully illustrated and thorough engagement with Dinesan’s short story and the film based on it, check out Jama’s Alphabet Soup blog by following the embedded link.)

The conversation around the dinner table when I was a child was never contrived and perhaps it was because the food was always good, which made the talk easy. Of course there were meals that weren’t my favorites but that didn’t stop them from being somebody’s; so they talked, I listened, and I thought about my food. I thought about how I enjoyed the potatoes and the carrots in the stew but not the beef. I wondered how people around the table could just bite into the meat and not think about the fat. I wondered if I could just ask for the vegetables without the meat. I wondered how my dinner companions came to enjoy beef stew over toasted bread. Thus, when I wasn’t proclaiming my enthusiasm for a meal out loud, then I was thinking about it to myself. Good eating inspires both civil engagement and careful reflection, the complete antithesis of the “food fight” and so a much better model by which to live.

I was reminded of a post I made about the dinner table about a year ago now. I decided to re-post it today. In light of the remarks that I shared today, I see the Baby Phat ad as more of a commentary on the food than I did when I first composed it. On Thanksgiving, Kimora Lee Simmons posted wonderful photographs of her family around the family table:

KLS Thanksgiving 2011.

I found these photographs much more appealing than the ostensible glamour of the advertisement–you can follow the link to see more. What follows is my original post.

Sometimes I see advertisements that force me to really work at understanding the desires they seek to arouse. More pointedly, I find myself straining to make sense of what I’m supposed to want. The narratives of the ads aren’t always apparent. So while I understand that I’m supposed to want to wear the clothing that Kimora Lee Simmons and her daughters are wearing since Baby Phat makes that their business, I’m not sure why this image makes these goods attractive. While I really enjoy eating, there is no food here. There is nothing that makes my mouth water…but I guess all of my salivating is supposed to occur over all of the expensive stuff on display in the ostensibly sumptuous red room. I guess. But now I don’t understand why one’s children would be a part of the sale of those goods. Am I supposed to want her children? In what way?

John Ficara, Black Farmers in America. The University Press of Kentucky, 2006.

While not an advertisement, John Ficara’s photograph of a family meal in his book Black Farmers in America makes sense. Arranged around their kitchen table, Belinda, Jonathan, Roger, and Kendra Lamar bow their heads in prayer over what appears to be a delicious meal of rolls, onion rings, fried fish (or maybe chicken), beans (maybe pinto) and a green salad. While their glasses are empty I imagine they will soon be filled with the “house wine” of Putnam County, Georgia, sweet tea–as it is the choice spirit of the South in general. In the background, I spy the silhouette of what I believe to be a delicious white cake with butter cream icing. Have mercy. The direction of my desires are clear.

Reminiscent of Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting “The Thankful Poor,” humility and reverence makes this an attractive scene.

“The Thankful Poor,” Tanner.

This family expresses gratitude for their bounty. I can almost hear them giving thanks for the hands that lovingly prepared the food that will nourish their bodies; for their family who have all been brought together in love. The bounty here is intelligible.

I prefer this grace to the ostensible glamour of the other scene. As there are boundaries here, I can imagine an adult conversation. Such an exchange is predicated on instructing the children, and this begins with the prayer of gratitude. Despite Kimora Lee Simmons’s status as a business “mogul,” the photograph showing her daughter spread across the dinner table does not suggest that she is adequately in control of her home. Again, I am still unclear about why I should want to buy what Baby Phat is selling.

Jake’s Story

I once asked a man, who we’ll call “Jake,” what someone I knew had done to have gotten arrested. Jake shared a close relationship with this person so I was sure he knew what happened. Instead of lurid details, I got a levelheaded reply,”He got caught,” Jake said. I appreciated the integrity of the response. It mocked my own reasons for asking the question. I can honestly say now that I wanted pornography. That is to say, I wanted salacious details regarding the sentenced man’s life. Yet the clean response that Jake offered as an honest and direct answer to my question shamed my prurient interest. I learned a great lesson about respecting another’s boundaries and I understood that being arrested didn’t mean that I was entitled to satisfy my thirst for lewd details about someone’s behavior. So when Jake was facing his own sentence and we were talking about some of the events of his life, I didn’t ask what he had done to get charged, I knew better; I asked about his regrets. Jake told me about the day he caught his wife in an uncompromising position and asked his children to verify what he had seen, and thus to testify against their mother.

I thought about Jake’s story when I came across the story of former football great and current NFL Network Analyst Deion Sanders tweeting pictures of his children allegedly filling out police reports against their mother. From Jake’s story, I learned that a man who maneuvers to put his children in a position to observe their mother in a bad light lives to regret it.

I’m not sure what “truth” Sanders hoped to capture on Twitter but what I saw was arrogance and self-righteousness that blinded him to the dirt on his own hands. When Jake looked over his own life, he was more dazzled by his own dirt than his then wife’s. Not that Jake thought of his wife as an innocent; he certainly did not. But as he recalled that scene, Jake was less impressed by her dirt and more transfixed by his own. And ultimately, that makes sense, we are responsible for our own souls and our own sins. Jakes wasn’t responsible for his ex-wife’s sins; only his. He also had responsibilities regarding his children. Jake believed that he dishonored them.

Thank goodness technology wasn’t available to Jake.

I think it says a lot about how we think of media, athletics, and celebrity that Sanders faces no repercussions for how he uses media though he earns money from it. Apparently the NFL Network doesn’t count on sports fans being turned off by patriarchal performances like Sanders’–even though he has made his family life an aspect of his public life by being on a reality show about his family called Deion & Pilar: Prime Time Love. I was actually turned off by his role on the NFL Network after catching a few episodes of that reality show. I found Sanders to be very disrespectful to his wife. I had admired Sanders’s tremendous athletic talent for both football and baseball; so much so that I ignored critics who claimed that he was self-absorbed. “Even so,” I thought, “he’s a heck of an athlete and I’d want him on my team.” Now I see what they mean. Winning at the cost of having him on my team would be too high a price for me to pay. Now that he isn’t playing, I don’t find him attractive enough to listen to as I am so repulsed by his arrogance.

When I watched Sanders on his reality show, he reminded me of the scene in The Cat in the Hat when the Cat is trying to do as many outrageous things as possible to get and keep the children’s attention, “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me NOW!” says the Cat. I saw Sanders as a man who behaved the way the Cat did  in claiming attention for himself. The Cat had at least tried to keep the interest of both the boy and the girl, it wasn’t clear that Sanders was ever interested in keeping the attention of anyone who didn’t find aloof, patriarchal coldness attractive. Though I had at one time watched Sanders on the NFL Network, I tried not to after I saw his reality show because I didn’t think he respected me as someone in his audience. (I’m beginning to feel that way about the been there done that athletes who serve as commentators on sports networks in general. I have grown weary of their commentary on what it’s like in the locker room or on the sidelines. I get that I’m not welcome and I have decided that I wouldn’t want to be given what I have been presented with of Tiki Barber’s behavior and Deion Sanders’s.)

Jake’s story suggests that the borders of shame are porous, but Sanders’s consistent history of arrogance makes me wonder about shamelessness in our time. Jake’s regret stemmed from his feelings of powerlessness to make amends for what he had done, I can’t imagine how Deion Sanders would even go about considering the possibility that he would be powerless or feel indebted to anyone; especially if regret gets linked to a woman. I don’t mean a shallow notion of regret that would suggest that he wished that he hadn’t married her. Instead, I mean regret that is felt as a deep sorrow for pain that you caused that seems to grow as you come more to understand it. Jake’s relationship with his children, from what I could see, became defined by this wound. From that moment onward, he wrestled with how he could ever rectify the harm he had done by encouraging his children to see their mother with contempt. Deion Sanders, from what I know of his public posture, has never appeared repentant about anything…but of course, I don’t know Deion Sanders. Maybe there is a man who exists beyond what he shows on camera and on Twitter. Maybe that man is as uncommon as his athleticism; I hope so.

Models Monday: Being Among Your Betters

I have talked with friends about the contests and games staged for children these days and the verdict seems to be that children are routinely shielded from loss and encouraged to believe that everyone wins. Loss is cloaked with badges, ribbons, and medals for showing “spirit” and simply participating. It was a much harsher climate for people who “also ran” when I was a child. You either won or you didn’t. I don’t want to dismiss the value of recognizing the importance of all of the participants because I do think their contributions are important. When I competed, I never dismissed my teammates who never placed. In fact, I was almost awe struck by people who were committed to the team and to coming to practice but who never had any hope of winning or even coming close to it. Thus, I identified with Bill Clinton’s fascination with his daughter Chelsea’s commitment to dance in much the same way. In a review of Taylor Branch’s biography of Clinton, Robert Franklin, esq. writes this about the former President:

Any father can be proud of his daughter, but Branch’s account suggests something more: that Bill looks up to Chelsea and finds the self he never managed to become. She was a source of hope when he was bitter, of perspective when he was self-pitying. Clinton liked doing what he was good at but marvels over Chelsea’s devotion to ballet, how her feet bled after practice, how she worked hard at it because she loved it regardless of how good she was at it. “I’ve always admired that,” Clinton says. “I’ve wondered whether I could ever stick with something for its own sake.”

I am sympathetic to Clinton’s reflections because I have often looked at devoted people who continue to participate without hope of glory and thought the same thing: Could I continue to do this for its own sake? 

When it came to sports, the answer was a resounding “no, I could not continue doing this for its own sake.” There was no other model by which to play sports as far as I was concerned. I knew that if you did not win, you did not matter and I could not accept the consolation prizes.

The real Vernon Earl “The Pearl” Monroe in action.

When I saw Spike Lee’s film He Got Game, I thought he captured an authentic experience of athletic competition that resonates with what I take to be a realization that many competitors face: the truth. The moment in the film occurs when Jesus Shuttlesworth confronts his father Jake about naming him after Christ and learns that his name was actually inspired by black people in North Philly calling Earl Monroe Jesus because he was “the truth.” I have only seen this movie once when it first came out back in 1998 and I never forgot that line. I remember it because I knew what it meant to encounter “the truth” as an athlete. The only equivalent that I can think of for non-athletes is of  hearing Bobby Brown being asked about he and his wife being talented singers. In responding to the question about then wife Whitney Houston, Brown said, “naw, I can sing, but my wife, she can sang.” Sangin’ is for real jack. There are people who are so good that it just takes your breath away. And you know with every fiber of your being that no matter how hard you workout and remain committed, those people are competing on a level that you cannot attain. For me, it was an experience that made me rethink my goals for that arena. For a long time, I could pass for being among the really good ones but eventually, I knew the time was quickly coming to pass when I would have to move on. Unlike Chelsea Clinton, I decided that I would need to find a place where my hard work and dedication might contribute more to the history of what was taking place.

I left athletics with a profound understanding about the dynamics of functioning in a competitive environment. It was clear that there was always a tension between wanting the team to be better and fearing being displaced by “the truth.” People were always moving about under a heavy mantel of insecurity. Relief from this insecurity was generally temporary–it held until the next contest or the next season when the battle for supremacy would recur. When I entered other spaces where people wanted to talk about them in terms of competitiveness, I had a very solid vantage point from which to judge. In most cases, what people called competitive I could tolerate because they seemed to be imposing terms onto a space where they were superfluous. Competitiveness in the athletic arena is required. In those other spaces, I could opt out of whatever the competition was for and invent my own system of meaning that had value.

I prefer to cooperate rather than to compete. I enjoy getting along with people for the sake of a common goal rather than trying to fight with them in a terrain where everything valuable is scarce. I learned to monitor my own feeling that succeeding required a construction of scarcity. For example, when I consider conversations now among peers about college admissions, I pay attention to heightened concerns about enrolling in particular schools. While I think it’s fine to rank your top choices, I grow concerned when I hear people talk about their world ending when they are not accepted into what I call brand name schools. There are plenty of colleges and they accept students by the thousands. I am not convinced that being denied admission into your favorite brand is the end of the world. A well-known school can certainly provide the structure and the demand for excellence that should prompt one to excel but if you are interested in excellence, you can make that your goal in whatever program you enter. Too, the brand name should not take away your desire to create a system of meaning for yourself.

I also learned from my time as a competitive athlete that I preferred to surround myself with my betters rather than to exclude them because I felt threatened by them in some way. I think that my intellectual and spiritual growth depends on being surrounded by people who offer a model for being intellectually and spiritually strong. I am far from being the smartest person that I know; or the most patient, or compassionate, or thoughtful. I have a great admiration for the people in my life. They all bring something to the table. They offer skills and habits of being that I want to emulate and that help to ensure my humility. In athletics, a better athlete may replace you, but in life outside of athletics, someone with better skills can enhance you. I’m not so sure that this message is being conveyed in our efforts to ensure young people’s self-esteem. My feeling is that the way we’re encouraging self-esteem in young people teaches them to believe that they shouldn’t recognize their betters. It’s as if we’re encouraging them to think that in most cases, they are just as good at everything as everyone else–but that’s simply not true. Take my son and my next door neighbor’s daughter, who was born on the same day, as an example. Now, I think my son is a sharp little dude, but if I’m honest, my kid is not going to win an elocution contest today. His L’s sound like W’s so he says things like, “Why are you waughing at me.” While I think he sounds just as cute as could be, he wouldn’t be the first choice if CBS came looking for people to do voiceover work on 60 Minutes. My neighbor’s little girl, though, might have a shot at the gig. Her speech is perfectly free of tongue frustrations. She is the superior elocutionist at this point. Fortunately for all of us, we understand that there can be more than one child who can clearly articulate themselves. I’m happy to have someone in my son’s peer group who is close by so that we can take measure of his progress. She’s also one of three children in her household and she goes to daycare. I like it when my son plays with her because then he can develop his social skills by spending time with someone who is clearly so good at it. Instead of feeling threatened by our neighbor’s daughter and her facility, we are grateful to have her in our lives.

I think that it is a very good idea to have people around you who are better than you at any number of things. As one of my dear friends likes to point out, they will make you a better version of yourself.

Models Monday: On Mindfulness (Against Oblivion)

I finished reading Catching Fire, the second book in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy, and I enjoyed it so much that I have already started on the final book in the series, Mockingjay and dreading its conclusion. I discussed the plot of The Hunger Games in a previous post so I won’t rehearse it here. Catching Fire picks-up right where the first work ends. Though you’re hoping for some relief for Katniss and for a moment for her to relax and enjoy being able to spend time with loved ones, this does not come to pass. She inspired many in the districts to resist the tyranny of the Capitol and the regime wants her to pay for sparking rebellion (or if you prefer, revolution).

One of the things that I found most compelling about Catching Fire was how aware the characters were about what skills they possessed and how they could use those skills to not only survive but to also maintain a life and the lives of others. The work of the districts, whether it was in fishing, textiles, electronics, or agriculture, equipped people with certain skills that were meaningful and useful for survival. But what is also clear is that people have fond memories of spending time with friends and families and in sharing meals; or in making food taste good; or in helping a neighbor heal. As overburdened as life was with work and in trying to survive amidst stark deprivation and an inhospitable socio-political terrain, they were not estranged from joy.

Being oblivious to one’s circumstances and towards its potential for cruelty could be deadly. I found this interesting because I think we actually live in a world that encourages obliviousness; in fact, joy presumably resides there. Thus, we are said to be at our most joyful, our happiest, when we “don’t have a care in the world.” I wonder how different life would be if obliviousness was generally considered to be dangerous like it was for the majority of the citizens in the districts of Panem.

I must admit that I do think it’s odd to aspire to have a life where you don’t have to think about the details of how it is lived, which is generally why wealthy people’s lives are presumably attractive. While I understand the real burden of having to worry about money and thinking about how bleak your options might look compared to those with greater means, I don’t always like the dismissal of the worthiness of being able to look at your circumstances and to wrest or to create a life from the existing terms. Unlike a lot of folk who believe in Horatio Alger dreams of success, I don’t believe that hard work and good character will lead to great material wealth. In some ways, having a belief in these sorts of myths promote oblivion; particularly of critical consciousness. You aren’t supposed to question the standardization of success and wealth so that fortune gets reflected in money, consumer goods, professional titles and memberships, awards, and fame. But you are supposed to believe that people who have these things got them through hard work and merit; that there was nothing unfair about it. And you’re supposed to envy them and their lives. I know people, though, who have wrested a life away from the assembly line or the water treatment plant or from domestic service and created interesting, desirable places to live for themselves and for friends and family to enjoy.

I would certainly like it if I didn’t have to worry about paying for my visits to the dentist because no matter what my dental coverage is, it always seems inadequate for what they’re charging. I would certainly like it if I didn’t have to worry about having enough money for what might happen in the future. But even if I had this kind of money, or what my father would have called “ends,” I wouldn’t want a life where I didn’t even have to think about it. I don’t find anything about mindlessness attractive, which is why I loved the moment in Catching Fire when Katniss describes her prep teams discussion as “a whole lot of stuff about their incomprehensibly silly lives.” Katniss wasn’t being smug because that would not have given her any useful information about her world. Such an inclination for arrogance would not have helped her form new knowledge about her world that would have been of value to her. I have a great admiration for people who know how to make something valuable, but find it “incomprehensibly silly” to be encouraged to believe that folk who buy valuable things are supposed to be subjects of envy.

The Hunger Games, Trayvon Martin, and District 11

I once worked with a guy who believed that our current fascination with reality shows revealed our interest in watching people die. I went for it but I wondered how this fascination carried over to reality shows like The Real Housewives franchise. The challenges staged on Survivor could actually malfunction and give the audience the bloodbath they were looking for, but The Real Housewives? Then I realized that the people on these shows have an ambition that makes them ruthless and merciless. Their desire to win and to achieve fame overrides any faint desire to be civil and certainly mutes any desire to honor another’s humanity. So I would expand what my colleague said about the desire to see people die to include the desire to see people kill them. When I have watched these programs, the people on them are indeed trying to kill one another, and they are merciless, ruthless in doing so. They have a very generous definition of what it means to take a life. The vanquished are killed not just if they stop breathing, but when they are humiliated and shamed; when they have been belittled; when any hope that they can face themselves in the mirror and see themselves as lovable is gone; when it makes no sense that anyone could love them. If you know what to look for, reality television can be a killing field.

I’ve been reading The Hunger Games trilogy and it’s a series that understands the horror of our bloodlust compellingly. I have only recently finished reading The Hunger Games and started on Catching Fire, but it has been very good reading–a wonderful interpretation of our times.

The story occurs in a dystopic future world that has been ravaged by both natural disaster and the human battle to reclaim a world through the devastation. Panem, the glory of this distress, emerged as the Capitol that organized the remains of the world. In the wake of a civil war of the thirteen districts against the Capitol that saw twelve defeated and one vanquished, the Capitol stages an elaborate ritual to commemorate the treasonous rebellion. Thus, the Hunger Games features one boy and one girl from each of the twelve districts between the ages of twelve and eighteen who try to kill one another. The winner is the one person who survives. The Hunger Games are like a macabre Olympics, a grim spectacle televised to an audience eagerly cheering for their district’s tribute or for their favorite participant.

While the audience may be distracted by the spectacle itself, the relief of not being one of the participants or having one of their children participate, Katniss, the novel’s protagonist, manages to be one of the few people who stays focused on the true stakes of the Games. Katniss is the bomb. As one of my dear friends says of Katniss, “she is so capable.” You not only want her on your team, you want your daughter to grow up to be like her. I really liked Jennifer Garner’s character, Sydney Bristow, on Alias and Katniss reminds me a lot of this character.

I haven’t yet seen the big screen adaptation of The Hunger Games because movies just cost too much money, but I look forward to seeing it on DVD. I have been following the reviews and the commentary on the film and have been struck by how peculiar the discussions have been in light of the near simultaneous coverage of the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin by self-appointed neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman. I recently listened to Michel Martin, of NPR’s wonderful program “Tell Me More,” host an interesting conversation about whether or not The Hunger Games was an appropriate film for children, and yet it seemed odd that Trayvon Martin never emerged as a subject for consideration. The Trayvon Martin case has helped to reveal for public consideration the role that racism has in shaping the way that many black parents of black children define aspects of responsible parenting and their unique worries about raising their children, particularly their sons. These discussions would have seemed relevant to a contemporary discussion about protecting children and the filtering of harmful content as it relates to them. Commenters on the NPR story about children viewing The Hunger Games accepted the terms of the discussion as they were presented and continued the debate about the race of the characters as well as the issue of violence itself and the savagery of the Games as suitable for children to watch. The reporting on Trayvon Martin’s experience of being profiled and eventually killed resonated with many people, black folk in particular, as the potential danger they know young people face. It seems to me that deciding on whether or not your child sees The Hunger Games would be greatly informed by how you imagine the dangers confronting them. Thus, it seems that thinking about the narrative of Trayvon Martin’s story as it is being articulated through the media would have been interesting to consider in terms of how parents responded to a question about being responsible to their children.

I have long felt that the world where children reside as children is much more brutal than claims regarding their alleged innocence suggest. Not only do I think this as a consequence of thinking about my own childhood but as I think about bullying that children encounter in schools today. If children are as innocent as many folks like to imagine, where do they find the ability and the skill to be so cruel towards their peers? When I watch reality television, I am often reminded of how much I longed to be in the company of mature people when I was a child. I used to imagine that as a person got older, they became more caring and compassionate, but it has become even clearer to me now that these are virtues that have to be taught. Reality shows further confirm that maturity is not promised with age. Maturity is something that children must be prepared to accept.

When I was a child, my education included observing ugly and distressing scenes. I remember bringing home “bread bowls” to collect donations for poor children in El Salvador. I remember being moved by seeing children my age who were dirty and nearly starving. Even as a child, I knew that the extremely poor were with us and it accompanied lessons about moral responsibility but also lessons against greed, excess, and waste. I am old enough to remember mimeograph machines. I remember our teachers conserving paper by mimeographing the clear side of flyers for new notices or worksheets. I remember the light purple ink and the moist paper distributed to us with an implicit message about showing respect for those children in El Salvador by not being wasteful with resources.

As someone raised Catholic and who attended Catholic schools, I also learned about violence. I don’t know that I always thought about the crucifixion through the lens of violence, as odd as that might seem, but I remember learning about the fate of some of the missionaries and being repulsed by the violence. Of course, at a young age, I had not yet questioned missionary work itself as problematic, but when we would pray for Sister Dororthy Kazel and when I saw her picture in the foyer of our school, I definitely thought about rape and murder. Indeed, in my own life, innocence precedes memory.

The Hunger Games suggests that children are always in conversation with their environment, which denies them innocence. I think that Katniss is prepared to be capable because she was raised to live in the world as it existed as opposed to being raised in the world her parents wanted for her. She is a figure of hope for me because she is so clear eyed about her world; she’s not at all delusional. For example, I love the assessment she makes in Catching Fire about life in District 11 versus District 12. About the differences she thinks:

“Well, I’ve learned one thing today. This place is not a larger version of District 12. Our fence is unguarded and rarely charged. Our Peacekeepers are unwelcome but less brutal. Our hardships evoke more fatigue than fury. Here in 11, they suffer more acutely and feel more desperation.”

I find value in being able to recognize these kinds of differences. For me it’s that key distinction that bell hooks makes between suffering and oppression when she writes that she will grant that all people suffer but cannot extend that universal claim to oppression. So the direct claim is something like: I will grant you that we all suffer but it is not the case that we are all oppressed. Whether or not children should see The Hunger Games is an odd question when posed within the context of oppression. That is to say, it seems superfluous to ask whether or not a parent should allow their children to see The Hunger Games when they are living the Hunger Games. Trayvon Martin was like a tribute from District 11. But to the point of how I began this post, I think it’s useful to think of what it might mean for all of us to consider how we in some way participate in the Games.

See Also: 

For more posts on Trayvon Martin, see the A Heap See Page.

Models Monday: Broke and Still Blessed (Thoughts on Joel Osteen and Bishop T.D. Jakes)

I watched Oprah’s Next Chapter yesterday. I saw most of two interviews that she conducted with Joel Osteen and Bishop T.D. Jakes. Oprah said to both of them, though for slightly different reasons, that she grew-up in the Church but that the ministries she experienced then were quite different from Osteen’s and Jakes’s ministries. The churches she had experienced while growing-up were much, much smaller, they were less racially diverse, and the ministers were poorer in comparison. To this last point, Jakes contends that he is far more disturbed by ministers who lead smaller congregations in more depressed circumstances who drive fancy cars than those like him who have streams of income from enterprises outside of the church that account for finer appointments. Osteen confirmed that his luxuries come from the sale of books and not from the church. For my part, I listened to this thinking about Ann Petry’s novel The Street when her protagonist, Lutie Johnson, considers the world of the rich people she works for and thinks, “[i]t was a world of strange values…”

Like Oprah’s experiences of these contemporary mega-churches, my experience of church as a child are distinct from these. I was raised Catholic but I also attended lots of Baptist services with friends. The services that I remember were also very different from what I saw on television of these ministries on Oprah’s show: they were less spectacular, though memorable services. Fr. Kraker was the priest at St. Tim’s and his homilies stayed with me. My favorite was a story about a person who gets a glimpse of life in heaven and in hell. He travels through hell and sees people sitting at a table trying to feed themselves from spoons that are so long they can’t turn them to put the food into their mouths. These people are in agony trying to manipulate the utensils so that they can eat their food. In heaven, the people are also equipped with long spoons and forks but instead of trying to feed themselves, they feed the person across from them. The difference between heaven and hell was not the setting, but the recognition of the needs of others. I was a child when I heard this story and I never forgot it. I remember wanting to live in a world where kindness could matter and be felt forever; where compassion and generosity were without end. I still want to live in a world like that. Going to church gave me hope that I could make a heaven out of the world that I lived in. A good sermon meant that I was inspired to make my world reflect the world that I could imagine. The way that I heard blessings being described on Oprah’s Next Chapter was uninspiring. In the world Oprah, Jakes, and Osteen described, evidence of being blessed was not in being fed, but in the kind of flatware being used; indeed, “it was a world of strange values.”

I don’t know the bible well, that’s why a minister would be useful to my spiritual growth, but it just doesn’t sit well with me that someone who has this understanding would conceive of blessings through materialism. Of course, this was never a direct claim, but when Oprah asked Bishop Jakes to respond to his critics on the issue of material acquisition, she framed her inquiry in terms of blessings and the Bishop did not correct her. In referencing that day’s sermon, she said that she understood that “God doesn’t just bless you and say enough. He allows your cup to runneth over.” For his part, Bishop Jakes believes that he got his stuff honestly and he then wanted to deflect the criticism onto those with smaller congregations who are driving expensive cars. I guess it would have been more satisfying to me to hear my minister talk about the work of conceiving of ones blessings despite having this stuff, but that was not to be. When the Bishop’s wife took the stage and described her walk with her husband, fulfillment of their commitment was discussed in terms of the penthouse suites they can now reside in anywhere in the world. I don’t know the bible well, but I would have thought that following Jesus would have meant having some commentary on what being poor and on welfare taught you about poverty and housing; about poverty and the need for hospitality. Instead, there was no critique, just an uncritical acceptance of what was good in worldly terms. So between husband and wife, there was no critique of stuff. We’re supposed to uncritically accept that a Rolls Royce is a good car and that the penthouse suite means that you have arrived. I don’t know the bible well, but I would think there would be some stuff in there about re-ordering your values so that they align with less worldly things. I guess I would think there would be some stuff in there about avoiding temptation and the seductions of wealth. I guess I would think there would be some stuff in there about finding value in recognizing another’s agony and tending to them and defining the tending and the receiving as wealth; about seeing wealth in the patience we show others who are slow to learn; about seeing wealth in showing compassion and empathy. It just doesn’t seem right, at least not to me, to interpret God allowing your “cup to runneth over” through high sticker price consumer goods.

Joel Osteen did confirm that prosperity means more than just having stuff. But what I didn’t go for was when in one minute Oprah said that a part of his appeal was that he was “just like us” to her later suggesting that the trappings of his success helped to sell his message. She said something like, what good would it do for you to be poor and miserable trying to convey a message. That isn’t a direct quote but I think what I’ve rendered captures the spirit of what I heard: if you are poor, you are miserable and have nothing to offer. Osteen didn’t correct her interpretation. Again, I don’t know the bible well, but I would think there would be some stuff in there about the humanity of the poor. It would seem then that if you are a part of humanity, then you have something to offer. It just seems to me that ministers should be responsible for helping to convey the message that you can be broke and still be blessed. I know I feel that way. I don’t think that God has left me because I don’t have very much money, drive a ten-year-old Ford Escape, and shop at Kohl’s with a 20% off coupon.

I am not a minister nor do I know the bible well, but I have another idea about what it means to be blessed than what I heard last night on Oprah’s Next Chapter. As far as I’m concerned, there is a difference between being blessed and having money. I do not believe that having an expensive car or a high mortgage means that you are blessed. Nor do I believe that being able to go shopping on Rodeo Drive means you are blessed. Nor do I believe that being able to rub elbows with people who have this stuff prove that you are blessed. What you have when you have cars, homes, and material things is money to pay for them. What you have is the power to not be overwhelmed by debt. It seems to me that you are blessed when you have life. Each living moment gives you an opportunity to figure out how to lift the spoon and feed the one across from you. Sometimes you are feeding the needy vegetables and meat, but other times you are feeding them perspective and witness. We are blessed when human beings help one another fulfill their needs.

Models Monday: Had it All been a Farce?


Jewish-American poet Emma Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus” to be auctioned off in support of the building of a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. I have read that  the sonnet reflects Lazarus’s deep concern for refugee immigrants. The most famous, now iconic lines from the poem offer an eloquent call of welcome to downtrodden strangers:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

the wretched refuse of your teaming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

As the Statue was itself a gift from the French, it is hard to read these lines and not see Theodore Gericault’s oil painting The Raft of the Medusa (1819).

This is a photo of The Raft of the Medusa where it hangs in The Louvre that I took using my iPhone.
Here is another snapshot of the same painting. By following the hyperlink above, you can view better images of this work.

The painting takes as its subject the 1816 wreck of a French Navy frigate setting sail to colonize Senegal. Of the 150 men on board, only 10 survived the 13 day trial. In thinking of the painting in light of Lazarus’s sonnet, you see the hope of rescue as the welcoming act of hosts who will extend these weary sufferers hospitality and thus recognition for their plight.

Gericault was right to envision hope on the raft as Lazarus was correct to envision her call from within the Harbor: the land tells a story of welcome very different from the dream. Even before Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona wagged her finger in President Obama’s face, she articulated a much harsher view of “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free” than meets with Lazarus’s ideal. For her, the longing for freedom conveyed through the ideal, hides a more sinister truth of predators plaguing Arizona’s border. New immigration laws in Alabama, Colorado, and Georgia reflect many of the same tough measures against those yearning masses that Brewer contends are threatening Arizona’s borders. The “golden door” appears to be shutting.


“It had all been a farce,” thinks Amerigo Bonasera in the opening scene of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather when the two young men who had “tried to dishonor” his daughter receive suspended sentences. Refusing to accept this injustice, Bonasera turns to the Godfather, Don Corleone, and he begins his plea for justice with these claims: “I raised my daughter in the American fashion. I believe in America.” I thought about this when I sat across from Chege, a detainee being held at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia on Saturday. Chege sought political asylum in the United States but his request has been denied. He has been in the States for a year. Most of the men detained at Stewart are there between two and three months but Chege’s lengthy stay may have something to do with the violence at the shared border between Kenya and Somalia. Chege’s three sons and one daughter live in Kenya so maybe he is claiming it as home because they reside there as he also has claimed Somalian roots. How could the U.S. deport him in light of the turmoil in these places? For his part, Chege was not frustrated with the U.S. government nor has he been critical of our hospitality, like Bonasera once believed, Chege still believes in America.

As I listened to Chege recount American history as he has learned it through diligent reading of Joy Hakim’s The History of US and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, it was clear that he has faith in the goodness of our country. He trusts us to get it right. As I listened to him describing the courage of a people to claim their freedom from an oppressive government and in committing to democracy to see it through its moral mistakes and its failing to get it all right, I strained to keep out Don Corleone’s critique of pursuing American justice:

“You go to the law courts and wait for months. You spend money on lawyers who know full well you are to be made a fool of. You accept judgement from a judge who sells himself like the worst whore in the streets. Years gone by, when you needed money, you went to the banks and paid ruinous interest, waited hat in hand like a beggar while they sniffed around, poked their noses up your very asshole to make sure you could pay them back.”

It was clear to me that Chege had no sense of this critique. “I believe in America,” seemed to underscore his every utterance. When I asked him if he had any message he needed me to carry or send to his family, he said no because he had an aunt in Kansas who had taken care of that, but he did want me to convey a message about Congress. He wanted me to convey the message that their political rhetoric was damaging the potential of the good, American ideas being put forward by the President of the United States. “What they are calling ‘Obamacare’ is a good idea,” Chege told me. When people are well-taken care of, when they can be sick and know they will be taken care of by good doctors, it strengthens the security of others,” Chege said. “People are less subject to prey on those with money so as to pay health care bills they cannot afford if they were granted insurance,” Chege continued. What an interesting way to frame the defense, I thought, coming from someone of a class our government has constructed as a threat to national security. “America shines brightly as it is,” Chege told me, “but imagine how bright its light if they ensured the health of all its people.” Chege expects that universal healthcare will be a mandate because it is a good idea, which he thinks is the one that historically prevails in America. He believes in America.

How can you still believe when we shut the “golden door” in your face, I wonder. It wasn’t clear to me why Chege, unlike Bonasera, never even wonders if it has all been a farce. Rather, he accepts the conclusions that Don Corleone suggests comes with believing in America:

“Then you have nothing to complain about. The judge has ruled. America has ruled…Be content…So give me your word that you will put aside this madness. It is not American. Forgive. Forget. Life is full of misfortunes…The court gave you justice.”

Chege is not bitter. Even though you have never stepped foot as a free man on American soil? I believe in America. Even after we said that we don’t want you? I believe in America. Have you ever read Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, I asked him. “No,” Chege responded. How about August Wilson’s Fences?”  “No,” he said.  “What about The Godfather?” “No,” he told me. “I wonder what you would think of them,” I said.


Though AT&T didn’t work, I could still use my camera phone to take pictures.

 For some time, I had been looking forward to spending time with some of the people who volunteer at El Refugio, a house extending hospitality to the families of men detained at Stewart. I worked alongside people who offered food and drink, conversation and smiles to one woman with five children who had gotten on the road at 4 a.m. so that she and her family could visit her husband who was being detained at Stewart. From my understanding, he had been on the way to pick-up his wife as she had gone into labor and was stopped by the police for speeding. He did not have a driver’s license. The six-month old child, the youngest of the five, was first seen by his father through the glass window at Stewart. Later, two other women arrived with children. I do not speak Spanish so I do not know how long their journey was but we managed to share smiles as we negotiated forks and knives, made sandwiches of turkey and cheese, and filled glasses with Brita filtered water. It was striking to me that these women and children would be so gracious as to receive our hospitality. They did not blame us for fracturing their lives and troubling their families with our call to their “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” I certainly wouldn’t blame them if they did, but they didn’t seem to.

There are still places in the United States where people recognize the plight of the “tired” and the “poor” with a “yearning to breathe free.” There are still people who refuse to allow those people to be without welcome. For me, their work is what Marvin Gaye called “wholly holy.” The folk at El Refugio are “lifting the lamp” that gives Chege a reason to still believe in America. They offer “another model by which to live” that shames the work taking place at Stewart Detention Center. That facility makes a liar out of the Statue of Liberty…and that should bother us.

Go Big Blue!!!

This is for all of the fiercely loyal fans of The Big Blue Nation: 






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