Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Rage Against the Machine

Growing up with modest means, David Henry was like many youngsters of his day, helping out his family with their small business and nurturing his curiosity for education and wildlife.  He attended Harvard where the expectation for many young men was to take up honorable employment.  However, David Henry, a person who contentedly forged his own path, left Harvard and instead of entering a formal profession, took jobs here and there, such as being a handyman and serving as a tutor for a child of a family in Brooklyn, NY.  He disdained city life and moved back home where he spent two years living on rented land and documented a personal journey of simplicity and enlightenment by living off of the work of his own hands.  If his powerful sense of individualistic pursuits were not enough, he also felt that his name was not truly indicative of who he was.  So, he changed it.

The world would come to know him as Henry David Thoreau.

The rustic life of Walden promoted quiescence and solitude. Yet, Thoreau did not live his beliefs quietly or in a vacuum.  Both of his essays, Walden and Civil Disobedience stem from deep contemplation on life and liberty and are a commentary on the deeds of American society. While Walden is memoir-like, Civil Disobedience is an impassioned response to the evils of capitalism (a term he did not use, but was
the economic model of nation becoming more industrial and less agrarian) and of slavery.   Slavery, aka privately-owned chattel, could only exist within a country that accepted that Black people were equal or lesser in value to the products that they made.  To Thoreau it seemed irrational and  hypocritical for a country that so fiercely espoused values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, to tolerate such a peculiar institution. He compares men, especially those who serve in the military, to machines for they give their bodies in patriotic duty to their country without conscience, neither questioning why they serve and for what higher purpose. They are reduced to small, replaceable parts, subject to the shifting winds of government. Civil Disobedience is a call to reclaim consciousness.  In light of the American Revolution, Americans were living with the idea of freedom from monarchy, but not in the reality of freedom, since the government allowed the enslavement of Black people.  The opposite of consciousness is the illusion of freedom or fighting for it from forces without (the US was in the midst of war with Mexico during the period of his writing). Fighting to protect national wealth and security, the young country found itself in its first mid-life crisis.  Thoreau incisively attacked the government and her sleepy citizens who valued consumerism and decadence over principle, modesty, and justice.

At the core of his writing was the inquiry into living by principle rather than defining the self by the quest for economic wealth and material comfort.  For Thoreau, principled living meant that the worth of a man's work was measured by the time, effort, and heart he put into working with his hands and not by how much income could be gathered by production.  It also meant that there was a conscious connection between what a man did and his raison d'etre.  The feverish pursuance of wealth for its own sake disrupted this connection.  Once this disconnection occurs, it is not hard to understand why slavery was justified.

Deep in the illusion of liberty, Americans and those aspiring to be, find themselves trapped in a hole.  The American dream is the light above, but way out of  reach. We have done this hard work, and we have the calloused hands to prove it.  Our ancestors worked harder than us to give us a leg up so we would not have to clean the dirt out of our fingernails.  Yet, here we are, ensnared in the web of history repeating itself.  Our government is entrenched in mini-wars all over the world that we wish that Mexico would fight us again so we could decide once and for all what do about immigration. Slavery, the institution that once solidified the  economy would also confirm Blacks as second class citizens for ever after.  Our industrialized world has reaked havoc on the air we breathe and the land we trek.  The farm-to-market and locavore movements are not only a nostalgic longing for days of yore, but a necessity for the planet's longevity.

As the roots of the tree of history bear down into the fertile soil, its strange fruit returns: a newly revised version of Jim Crow. Typically, a Constitutional amendment protects the rights of its citizens.  However, states like Florida and Georgia are enacting legislation making voting difficult for their most vulnerable and oppressed populations.  The Votings Rights Act of 1965 strengthened the language of the 15th amendment outlawing practices like literacy tests.  These "exams" are being replaced by mandates to show proof of citizenship and  birth.  Prior to 1965 some states were still enforcing poll taxes to justify the ability to vote. Many older Blacks living in rural areas do not have birth documents beyond their bibles, so isn't it convenient that these people will need to purchase papers in order to do something that is free.

Thoreau was jailed for refusing to pay his poll tax because he strongly believed that he should not have to pay the government for something that was an inalienable right.

He died several years before the 15th amendment was ratified.  Civil Disobedience was published four years after his death.  He would never know how much his personal inquiry and his writings would inspire later generations and set the stage for a new discourse on what it means to disobey.

Gandhi and leaders in the Civil Rights movement used Thoreau's writings as a blueprint for peaceful resistance.  Similar to Thoreau's time, disobedience stems from discontent with the status quo: the condition that dictates that it is okay to dig a deeper hole of debt in the pursuit of a dream and that it is perfectly normal for the most powerful few to control the plight of the masses.  In waking up from the reverie of the American Dream, we are left with a nightmare.  Our motherland's finances are in disarray.  Globalization has made our world smaller, but we know not the intimations of our closest neighbors, and we court psuedo-politicians who have not a clue what Uzbekistan is. Whether supporters are conscious of it or not,  Thoreau's indignant spirit lives on in current non-violent protests.  I do not need to iterate why the Occupy movement is gaining ground;it is simply an economic model of Supply and Demand.  The demand for justice is increasing, but the supply of equity has decreased, thus the market is volatile and subject to fluctuations like demonstrations, walk-outs, and strikes.  The dissatisfaction with oligarchy has spawned inklings of anarchy, reminiscent of early 20th century labor reform activism.

For those of us who cannot make it out to participate in the movements, there is another  the type of disobedience that hits closer to home.  Divested of public displays of outrage and mistrust, it shows up in the daily ongoings of raising children struggling to make a name for themselves in the world of adults. As a parent, I often wonder if it is worth it to keep count of all the times I need to tell my kids to go to bed on time and to stop punching each other.  Has anything I have ever said worthy of moral compliance even made it between their ears?  Outside of  my peripheral vision, do my children adhere to aphorisms like, "Be good"  "Love yourself", "Treat others as you wish to be treated?"  We hope that our progeny, who look so much like us become the sum of our best and most shiny parts.  We teach them about oppression and the wicked and awkward ways of the world, and to stand up for justice, but we do not know what they do with these lessons.  Are they really listening when we are trying to have an important chat about what the 99% means while they are only using 10% of their brains to hear what we are saying?  Lost in my query, I received a call from the school principal that answered my questions.

My daughter along with a posse of four girls was caught tagging the bathroom walls.  I usually get calls from the nurse about fevers and stomach aches, so talking to the principal was an anomaly.  He said she was contrite and quickly confessed to her misdeed.   According to her and against her better judgment, she felt coaxed into it, and not wanting to be the party pooper, she acquiesced.  One girl wrote a threat to a classmate.  One scribbled amorous initials, "m.k. plus n.r".  The two others wrote things that didn't make sense. What did my daughter write?

"Love Yourself."

"Never deface public property" was not on my list, but my daughter has been listening to me.

As is such, to live a life of principle and with a commitment to justice is challenging. Many of us are just trying to hold down a job in order to pay the bills.  To live by principle means that our word is our bond, and if we say we will do something, be there, or speak up, we will not lie.  It requires that in our routines we apply meaning and self-awareness to all we do.  It means that despite the noise and distraction, we still listen.

In the introduction to Walden, scholar Michael Myer writes of  Thoreau,
"...he clearly shared Emerson's belief that each generation must discover the world through its own eyes rather than than through the eyes of previous generations..."
If we are to learn anything from history, it is that we must make a clean break from the repetition in two ways.  The first way is to regain consciousness.  There are still too many of us who, fed up with the implosive nature of politics, unplug from the discourse and settle for apathy.  We need to keep putting pressure on our elected officials and not be afraid to asks tough question of our government and of ourselves.  The second and most important way is to finally do away with  the American Dream.  Enough with altering the language in order to reclaim it or rename it. It's time to put to death the obsession with the pursuit of material comfort and an imagined could-be life.  The American Dream is a lie and an illusion fed to us to keep our wires hooked up to a large machine that when it eventually breaks down, will take us with it.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


It is easy for me to capture the memories of my childhood.  Mostly, I am laughing and playing.  I am innocent and naughty.  I am sleepy and wide awake at the world that loves the little-ness that is me.  I am skipping then quickening my steps and running to the edge of the horizon only to stop abruptly.  The sunlight whose trail I  have followed has disappeared and all that is before me is darkness.  I am scared, but fearless.  How bad can it possible be to plunge head first into adolescence?

Adolescence began for me the day I learned what conceited meant. A playmate walked up to me in the schoolyard and told me some "she said, she said" business about how I walked around like I loved myself too much.  I looked like I was too proud.  It did not occur to me that walking with an erect spine, shoulders soft, did not bode well for an eleven year old girl.  My body belied my age and at the same time my mind was hastening at such a pace that my body could not keep up.  All girls mature like this, and no one talks about it in sex education classes in a way that she can open her mouth and say, "Yes, that is me."  She hears that all of this development is normal and age appropriate, yet no one bothers to inform the media, bullies, teachers and parents.  Girls are persona non-grata in their own skin.

The truth was that I did not love myself, nor did I necessarily hate myself.  I was a quiet and disciplined student who could calculate the exact moment to raise my hand in class so I did not look too intelligent or too sassy.  I admit that my carriage and deameanor were a result of ballet and a maternal,West Indian upbringing unspoilt by the urban environment in which I lived.   I was not conscious of the way that class and immigrant status separated the "just Blacks" from the hyphenated nationalities Blacks, which culminated in me being shoved, fingered, and whispered about on the playground.  There were plenty of second generation kids like me in my town.  I just happened to be the one who was last to get picked in line for the teams.

Conceited followed me into middle school and changed the way she looked. Her modus operandi transitioned from a vocabulary word dangling at the end of a sentence to a striking  presence attached to my backpack.  The shoving and the back-stabbing continued, as this is developmentally normal and age appropriate. Between the tears tucked away before I got home and the the careful glances beyond the edge of my locker I noticed something. I was not alone.  I felt lonely because I was silent in a sea of teen outrage and rebellion.  Looking down at my feet taking hurried steps from one class to the next, I did not see  the growing trend of kids in the hallway who could not find their place in this social morass.  Kids like Pooh-Bee who was the Big Man on Campus--a light-skinned homeboy from the projects. He was the kid who made Beat-boxes on his desk instead of doing social studies.  He moved through school with quixotic charm and handled the administration in Machiavellian terms.  Pooh-Bee hung out in the back of classes with his b-boys making unwelcomed gestures and comments that are not worth repeating.  Imagine a tall, good-looking kid swaying down the hallway with all the cool kids in the latest hip-hop fashion flanked at his side.  Now, imagine this in slow motion.  That is who Pooh-Bee was.

Our school required all students to pass water safety class by eighth grade promotion, which meant that a student needed to be able to swim the length of the pool.  I loved to swim and within my class I was one of the few who advanced quickly to diving from the deep end.  Strong swimmers could opt out of the water and play board games until the period ended.  Except for those who did not know how to swim.  They were shuttled and roped off in the shallowest end of the pool.  Pooh-Bee did not know how to swim.   From poolside, I watched in discomfort the horror on his face.  His slender body stood frozen and shivering in the water.  Beginners kicked and splashed around him, but the instructor could not get Pooh-Bee to move.  In literature, this is called irony.

I thought Pooh-Bee was king and the rest of us were pawns guarding his position on the chessboard.  Too busy holding up our end of the bargain to act like the blacks you see on TV and in the news, we missed the cue card that told us, "Now, be yourself..."  We were thrown into the game not knowing that we were getting played.  Games are predictable because there is an objective, and it is clear who wins at the end.  Life at age fourteen did not move at a leisurely and stimulating pace of a card game.  We were rushing to get out of Algebra and writing essays in incomplete sentences.  We flipped the bird to teachers who mistook our back-talk for insolence instead of intellectual inquiry.  And as for the girls who wore tight blouses and short skirts--our bodies belied our age, and trust me, we felt just as uncomfortable looking that way as you did looking at us.

The misery of being a teenager in a rundown city felt like it would never end.  Well meaning teachers, Sunday school lessons, and politicians moonlighting as motivational speakers told us everything was going to be okay.  Eventually.  Pep talks sounded like a co-eds pledging a sorority.  They just have to memorize a few lines of history, get through being publicly humiliated, and agree to have their liberties suspended so they can earn their pins and the admiration of fellow sorors.  Eventually is adulthood with a smattering of therapy on the side.  I am glad not to be in my Adidas shoes from back then, but I secretly desire a do-over. My personal time machine would make me the Queen piece on the chessboard.

For writers, penning adolescence is cathartic, but can also be an act of civil disobedience;  It is uncouth and illegitimate to write personal narrative, especially one that is confessional.  The writer must distance herself from the subject and adopt an objective view.  What happens when the writer is the subject?  The personal becomes political.  As part of my redress,  I have created a running list of the names of other kids with whom I attended middle school.  Next to their names are nick-names, if any and their infamy.  For example,  Nicole, aka,  Little Dolly Parton because her breast were too huge for her petite frame.  Or, Sherrod, pulled a knife on the science teacher and held it to his neck because he did not take too kindly to white, upper class people acting like they knew better than him.  Robin, pregnant twice by age fifteen, DYFS took her children.  I remember them like they were my friends with whom I have lost touch and long to reconnect.  Our only acquaintance was on the board where we stood on the black or white squares waiting for the hand of fate to advance us.  Waiting was our act of solidarity.

To write about adolescence is to tell the story of political and social unrest. The oppressors are big and bad, care little for those living at the margins, and are uninterested in leveling the the playing field.  There can only be one winner and multiple losers.  I wonder whatever happened to Pooh-Bee.  I am sure he learned how to swim, but am not certain if he learned the rules to be able to master the game.

For me to admit defeat is synonymous to martyrdom for a generation of baby-boomer grandchildren whose lives played out like an archetype in The Breakfast Club.  I refuse to wave a white flag and to chalk up circumstances to a coming of age ceremoniously passed down from one generation to the next.  Rather, I am the Grandmaster.  Confidence in my abilities has grown as the awkwardness of adolescence has disappeared. However, the memory of her attaches itself to my pawn.  The dark corners and edges of the board remind me of the horizon.  I stare past the fullness of  the sun contemplating my next move.