My father told me once, as I was trying to justify my suspicions concerning a neighbor’s behavior, that he wastes little time on questioning his judgement. “If I think you did it,” he said, “then you did it.” My father’s perspective has saved me a great deal of time. Instead of equivocating and questioning the judgement and sensibility sure to dissuade me from honoring an unconventional, unconfirmed, and unsupported truth of mine, I have learned to trust my own conclusions and appraisals.
While my embrace of my father’s philosophy may appear abrupt, distancing, unfair, and unfriendly–it is what it is. My father always wanted a son and never made one. I, for one, benefited from the lessons he would’ve taught him. Boys aren’t often commanded to be nice, to question their judgement, to risk their safety for the sake of giving someone another chance. My father gave me another perspective on the value of being outside of another’s favor. Having others dislike you is a fact of life and not liking them either can be an effective way of responding. This doesn’t mean that you have to be mean, spiteful, cruel, or volatile it just means that you accept the reality that people don’t always like one another. My father used his extra time to be draw lines in the sand, I use mine to maintain distance without cultivating contempt.
By now, you may have heard of the Chapel Hill shooting of newlyweds Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salhar and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salhar. Say these names aloud. I won’t detail the event which ended their lives brutally short here. Though underreported, the information is out there.
Islamophobia has many faces. We saw it when millions marched under the banner of “Je suis Charlie” proclaiming support for freedom of speech – in reality, affirming the power of a viciously Islamophobic publication. We see it again now in the three young, promising Muslim lives taken by a white supremacist, a violent anti-theist, on Tuesday.
I refer to the events surrounding Charlie Hebdo because there are more than a few parallels. For one, it is publications like Charlie Hebdo that contribute to the very rhetoric which bred the Chapel Hill shooting. “Freedom of speech” is used to disguise…
If you’re in the Atlanta area this weekend, here’s an event you don’t want to miss:
The text reads as follows:
50 years since the day Malcolm X was assassinated, Spelman College will host a symposium addressing the contemptuous and deadly disregard for black life evident across the social, political, and cultural landscape in the United States.
I subscribed to the Black Heritage Postal series sometime in December. Each month, I receive about six stamps featuring black Americans along with the stamps value at the time of its original circulation. In addition to the stamps, I also receive news and updates from the National Postal Museum. The exhibition currently featured at the museum, Freedom Just Around the Corner: Black America from Civil War to Civil Rights, presents a clear eyed examination of race, violence, power, and American history in very provocative ways. In case you can’t make it to D.C., the website provides an enriching virtual experience.
The photograph above of the Baker family sets in relief the dangers of “opportunity” for black folk by Reconstruction’s end. As you might notice, Mrs. Frazer Baker appears in the photograph above but Mr. Frazer Baker does not. Mr. Baker was one of the many black folk President William McKinley appointed as postmasters. Whites in Lake City, South Carolina were enraged that Baker occupied this post and demanded that he quit. When Baker refused, lynch mobs “burned his house and shot his family as they escaped.” According to the Postal Museum curators,
Because Baker was a U.S. government employee, his murder led to a federal trial. None of the accused was convicted, but the incident brought national attention to the lynching problem.
For more on this story, listen to the audio below.
Ms. Heidelbaugh can’t be faulted for trying to find the silver lining in this story, she’s merely complying with the nation’s quest for “the pursuit of happiness.” This story told without the silver lining comes from Dr. Fosetina Baker, a niece of Frazer Baker.
I have no idea what my son will learn in school today about Presidents Day, but I bet it won’t come close to this tragic tale. While I’m not suggesting that six-year-olds spend the day discussing lynching, they should be required to learn that U.S. history and the presidential past and present has not been laced with happiness. In fact, James Garfield and William McKinley, both from my home state of Ohio, were the second and third presidents to be assassinated after Abraham Lincoln. George Washington might be one of the few who doesn’t make the list of those presidents who were targeted for assassination–but he was the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution so it’s not like his life had not been in danger. I’m not quite sure how to tell this story, but it’s not like other nations don’t have this problem. Great Britain and France alone beheaded Kings and Queens for any number of reasons, how does this fact inform the history lessons they teach? Whatever their model, it certainly won’t be anything like what my son learns from the Brain Pop episodes he watches in school today.
In chapter 5 of Being Mortal, Atul Gawande writes beautifully about the professionals most interested in helping people “in a state of dependence sustain the value of existence.” The people at the center of interest for Gawande are the elderly and some whose grim prognosis requires assistance through formal structures like a nursing home or other informal arrangements like those offered by family. Gawande makes an admirable critique of the interplay between medical professionals and those who leave end of life decisions to people who have “technical prowess” but who may lack “understanding of human needs.” He concludes that this practice of leaving life in the hands of those whose skill may outweigh their recognition of the many experiences, acts, or endeavors that make life meaningful has failed. Gawande writes:
If safety and protection were all we sought in life, perhaps we could conclude differently. But because we seek a life of worth and purpose, and yet are routinely denied the conditions that might make it possible, there is no other way to see what modern society has done.
Recognizing the limits of the current model has led to the emergence of facilities that acknowledge the dignity and integrity of all persons. While Gawande details some of the institutional changes occurring, I want to focus on the Boston retirement community that he offers as an illustration of some of these transformations.
NewBridge fuses multiple models for attending to the elderly: independent living, assisted living, and nursing home living. The nursing home, however, reflects insight from research on gerontology. Rather than narrowly focusing on vital statistics and medical services alone, this nursing home emphasizes the more familial aspects of “home.” Unlike many nursing homes where professionals attend mostly to their patients, NewBridge offers care and assistance to its residents. In doing so, you can find private living spaces as well as common dining rooms that allow for interaction with others and the fluidity across boundaries that living in a community often fosters.
Ruth Barrett resides at NewBridge and she offers an example of the limitations of the technical model that Gawande takes for granted. In doing so, he offers an example of his claim regarding the limits of technical mastery given the cultural distance that often separates doctors from their patients. For Gawande, Barrett gave him a “sense of just how disabled a person could be while managing to still live in her own place.” So, Gawande meets Barrett while in the company of Jacquie Carson, NewBridge’s director. According to Carson, Barrett hasn’t walked in four years. Barrett challenges Carson first by stating, “I walk,” when Carson doesn’t back down, Barrett responds, “I don’t walk a lot.” At this juncture, Gawande offers that Barrett’s memory has faded thus countering Barrett’s self-understanding, “My memory is very good,” Barrett asserts. What follows is even more interesting. Gawande writes:
Unfairly, I asked her how old she was [Carson told Gawande that Barrett was 85 before he met her]. “Fifty-five,” she said, which was off by only three decades. She remembered the past (at least the distant past) reasonably well, though. She never finished high school. She married, had a child, and divorced. She waitressed at a local diner for years to make ends meet. She eventually had three husbands in all. She mentioned one of them, and I asked her to tell me about him.
“He never killed himself working,” she said.
Gawande offers no explication of what Barrett says. He assumes that readers will accept his authority as a doctor whose seen the charts and so can evaluate the patient’s fitness. Instead of confirming his authority, Barrett sets in relief the unfortunate presumptions supporting an analysis of black life informing how even the most enlightened folk evaluate mental acuity. To that end, Gawande presumes his right to question and test Barrett without acknowledgement of the respect that many women demand with revelations concerning their age. Rather than being “off by only three decades,” Barrett suggests that she still has an investment in her presentation of self through a show of vanity; too, she may not have found Gawande someone she took seriously; as someone who she was then required to answer truthfully. Gawande may be ‘a’ doctor, but he is not Barrett’s doctor. He’s a doctor touring a facility where she resides. From Gawande’s description, he met Barrett but he doesn’t tell readers that Barrett signed-up to answer his questions. Gawande can’t even conceive of the possibility that Barrett thinks little of his evaluation of her; that she might even understand herself as thoughtful in a way that he’s not. When Barrett tells Gawande that her third husband was lazy, Gawande does not recognize this moment as one that highlights Barrett’s mental dexterity. If the author of a book that takes seriously a troubling hierarchy regarding mortality, the fact that he uses Barrett as a test case of his and Carson’s authority to describe her world and her experience is problematic.
For those of us with chronic illnesses, Gawande’s failure to translate the patient/resident’s self-evaluation into something meaningful, insightful, or even digestible is a common experience. This limitation also prevents many doctors from recognizing the generalities they try to pass off as science. If you’ve ever had an MRI or a CT Scan with contrast, you know what I mean. After drinking the potion they concoct to illuminate your insides, the technician will tell you to “drink lots of water” to flush the chemicals. Nurses and doctors are similarly as precise when it comes to flushing your system after whatever test or treatment they’ve given to confirm what you already told them. While miscommunication does not serve as one of Gawande’s premises against surrendering one’s life to those with technical skill, it very well could be. If those authorities who evaluate one’s fitness don’t understand the depth and value of what you’re telling them, why would you want them to have the ultimate say in how you live out your final days? I know people who insisted on dying at home despite what doctors advised and I totally get it.
If you are ever in Atlanta with children, your own or other people’s, you might schedule the National Center for Civil and Human Rights as one of your stops; otherwise, this is just ANOTHER Atlanta site that won’t really be as transformative as one might expect. While the Center does many interesting things with new technology, like featuring the famous photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. in a Birmingham, Alabama jail cell while the words of his famous epistle get spelled out in cursive as you watch or when you enter the Human Rights portion of the Center and you stand before a mirror that appears to have a person trapped inside who begins to talk when you step in front of them. Besides how technology and design can be used to reinterpret the past, most adults over 35 have seen the photographs and documents used throughout the Center. There are no primary documents or texts of any sort–except for the few King documents on display. The one document that I found most interesting was the pencil written costs of the funeral arrangements (unfortunately, the photos from my phone don’t show clearly…but I’ll work on it); but even most of the primary documents on display are mostly available for view on the King Center website, the Stanford website, or on Google. Normally, I wouldn’t suggest digital text over printed text, but if you are a researcher interested in the Morehouse King Archive, your experience will be completely digital as the documents are considered too fragile and too expensive for individuals to routinely handle. To that end, seeing King’s pink death certificate as an object was little different from viewing that same document online.
I’m finally beginning to understand that a Center is not a Museum. Centers are for those who need to really step into the shoes of people who suffered indignity to learn, to find the past relevant, to experience empathy and perhaps compassion. Thus, Centers might be wonderful sites for elementary through middle school students but by high school, I would hope students could sympathize with the young activists who were harassed, beaten, and spat upon at lunch counters in the South without having to sit on replica stools at replica lunch counters listening to hate speech through a headset…but maybe I’m overreaching. I overheard three high school teachers discussing the free tickets their school was given to take the entire student body to view Selma. They never mentioned teaching a lesson using primary sources or even secondary ones so that viewing the film would not be understood as the primary source for their students’ understanding of history. The teachers were mostly concerned with who the unknown sponsor(s) for the tickets might be. Nor did they appear invested in the motive behind someone thinking it a good idea for an entire school to go and view a movie that will soon be released for home viewing or streaming in the coming months.
Miles and I have been reading Toni Morrison’s children’s book, Remember: The Journey to School Integration, and that experience has been quite enriching. The cover of the book features a black girl and a white girl sitting face-to-face. When we began from where we left off, Miles said, “we already read this page.” After we finished the section, I closed the book and pointed out that he thought we’d read that page because he recognized the photograph because it is also the one featured on the book’s cover. While the historical details regarding each photograph is documented at the end of the book, Morrison’s “captions” are written in the form of a story. So as we’re reading, we’re discussing what the children might be feeling or thinking; what a dilapidated school looks like and the influence this might have had on students in these schools; we’ve talked about feelings of shame and fear. As far as I’m concerned, our experience reading this book further diminishes the urgency that I feel towards taking my son to the Center; if I take him at all. It might be better to skip the Center with it’s $16 entrance fee and $10 parking and just go the library. Working your own imagination over photographs, general text, and sculpture seems like a much better way of spending your time and money.