Once more unto the breach

Unless you’ve been completely zoned out recently, you know the American-made mess in Mesopotamia has gotten messier, so much so that our cooler-than-cool President has become heated enough to dispatch bombers not only back to Iraq, but to Syria this time as well. Did he have a choice? What was the alternative? These are questions we will debate (but probably not definitively answer) for some time to come.

One premise that has been and will continue to be proffered is that we have no business involving ourselves in the Levant’s centuries-old, religious civil war. Let the original combatants have at it, let the victors take the spoils. The counter-premise is that we can’t be certain the victors will be amenable to our way of life, so we had better try and control the outcome as much as possible. Add to this all the hooey about “those Muslims” and “their Islam”.

I was reminded, a few years back, that even hooey must be placed in proper context. A reader’s comment on a news website suggested that the purveyors of anti-Muslim bias should either acquaint or reacquaint themselves with the history of Christianity at the tender age of fourteen centuries, the age Islam is now. I knew what he meant. Years ago, research for an on-again-off-again project had me immersed in a bit of regional history. We don’t even have to go back to the Christianity of the 1400s. The English-speaking Christian world of the 1600s will do just fine.

The land on which this city sits was once home to the Algonquian-speaking Nacotchtank people. I don’t know if there was any religious animosity between them and the other Piscataway groups in the area, but by 1632 people well familiar with religious strife claimed the land for their own, courtesy of a royal charter granted by King Charles I of England. Thus was born Maryland, meant to be somewhat of a refuge for English Catholics chafing under the Church of England – the Anglicans. “Refuge” may be a bit of a stretch. In 1644, a Protestant uprising began a two year period known as the Plundering Time, when Protestant forces roamed the colony, robbing citizens at will and taking Jesuits back to England as prisoners. The Calverts (The Lords Baltimore), Maryland’s ruling family, regained control in 1648. The following year, the Maryland assembly passed the Maryland Toleration Act, mandating religious tolerance in the colony for the protection of Catholics and others at odds with Anglicanism.

In 1650, the Puritans, the Taliban of their time and place, revolted against the Maryland government, setting up a new government prohibiting both Catholicism and Anglicanism. During its time in power, the Puritan government persecuted the colony’s Catholics. Every original Catholic church in the southern part of the colony was burned down by mobs. In 1655, in an attempt to end the Puritan revolt, Lord Baltimore sent his Catholic army against the Puritan army in the Battle of Severn, thirty miles from where I now sit and write. The Puritans were triumphant, and remained in power until 1658 when the Calverts once again regained control and re-enacted the Toleration Act.

Maryland’s history even shows how religious and political upheaval an ocean away can cause turmoil here. What was known as the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688, the time when the Protestants William and Mary replaced the Catholic King James II on the English throne, led to the Protestant Revolution in Maryland. The Lords Baltimore lost control of the colony for the next twenty-five years, during which time the Toleration Act was permanently repealed, Catholicism was against the law and Catholics were not allowed to hold public office. (This is much like what we did when we invaded and destabilized Iraq, purging the Baathist Sunnis from the ranks of government and the military and driving them into the arms of what has become ISIL). There was no religious freedom in Maryland until after the American Revolution.

“Freedom” can be made into a relative term. It remains to be seen if anything approaching the “absolute” will emerge in the Middle East. Even the Maryland Toleration Act had its limits. It sentenced to death anyone who denied the divinity of Jesus.

Summer’s End

(This summer seems to have passed without ever making its presence felt. Here is a story about a past one.)

It was so hot,
Venus thought she’d better not
venture outside her door.
She piled ice into her biggest pot
and put it on the floor
in front of the fan.
“Got to keep cool, if I can.”

Venus sat still in her chair,
waiting for cooler air,
running wrinkled fingers
through gray hair.
Beads of sweat lingered
at her brow.
“Got to keep cool, somehow.”

Ten were dead already.
The killer heat had held steady
at one hundred, one degrees.
Venus had begun to feel heady
and weak in the knees.
She hadn’t felt good all that day.
“Got to keep cool, someway.”

Venus soon dozed,
nodding gently, eyes closed,
not thinking of the melting ice
or the threat it posed,
thinking only of how nice
it is in the coolness of dreams,
of how cool everything seems.

Venus dreams of long-past days,
of sunbaths and gentle waves
from late morn to early noon
on the shore of Chesapeake Bay.
She dreams of picnics in late June,
and of having to decide whether to go
with either this or that beau.

Venus sees her husband’s face,
laughing in some unfamiliar place.
He had been gone for more than a year,
taking a love full of grace
that lacked all fear.
He turns to her with an outstretched hand,
and she begins to understand.

The blades of the fan continued to spin.
Tepid water sat where ice had been.

c. 1982 g. r. adams


I recently watched a television program in which a black character had her pronunciation of a word corrected by a white character. The word was “ask”, mispronounced as “ax”. The setting was the 1950s, and the characters were an upper middle-class housewife and her household help. As the employer explained, her concern was for her newborn. The young actress portraying the servant conveyed a barely discernible displeasure and quiet humiliation. My sympathy lay with the mom.

I don’t remember the first time I heard about teaching English as a second language, but I remember it was long before I ever heard the term “Ebonics”. It was like a light turning on. Why, I wondered, had a similar approach not been taken for some black students? That “light”, I’m ashamed to say, never grew brighter than a recurring thought, brought to mind this time by the convergence of that television show and a news story about some young black men blowing job interviews because of poor grammar.

If I seem to have overcome the dilemma that is the English language, I assure you I have not. It is a constant struggle. I have a bit of an easier time writing than I have speaking, but neither one is without effort and my efforts are not always successful. Four hundred years after African slaves were brought here from their native-speaking lands, too many of their descendants still have trouble mastering standard English. Yes, there’s a story behind that. Learning was prohibited during slavery, and for a hundred years after slavery those descendants were given much more to worry about in their lives than things like syntax. There was little evidence any benefits would accrue to precise elocution. At times, in fact, the opposite was true. Being “articulate” could be dangerous in the presence of whites who could neither define nor spell that word. Still, some blacks became English teachers while others remained Ebonics speakers. Fortunately, deficiencies in diction and grammar are not necessarily an impediment to effective communication – as many a rapper will attest.

It’s questionable how much any of this matters. Languages change over time. The English of Beowulf is not the English of The Canterbury Tales, both of which seem to have been written in foreign languages when compared to the English of Othello. William Shakespeare’s English doesn’t read the same as Mark Twain’s, and Twain’s wonderful writing has begun to seem archaic to some modern minds. Change in a language is not something that only happens over long periods of time, but from moment to moment as well.

At present, we seem to have unknowingly yet collectively decided a few picayune points – none of which have anything to do with slang. I don’t know when or why it began, but for some time now I’ve been plagued by noticing things I’d prefer not to notice. Increasingly, I hear fictional characters and real newscasters, talk-show hosts, pundits and others say things they ought to know better than to say. I put some of the blame on their writers. If, for example, your job is to put words in the mouth of Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham on Downton Abbey, it shouldn’t be grammar no English aristocrat would be caught dead using. At least, that should be the case, but even Julian Fellowes, the creator/writer of Downton (and, himself, a Baron and member of the House of Lords) occasionally forgets. It is either that, or he enjoys the idea of having an old man yell at the television.

So, for the sake of sanity, I’m asking everyone to rethink just a few, small things. First, I want people to lie down again. No one lies anymore. Everyone lays all the time. People are more than welcome to continue to lay anything they want, but I want them to lie when appropriate. Also, I want this request to remain between you and me, not between you and I (no matter what you and I may think). Finally, keep this in mind: others may complain about the state of the language less often than I, but that does not mean they have “less” complaints; it suggests they have fewer.

See? It’s just a short list, perhaps a pointless one if we already have reached the tipping point. If that’s the case, we’re well on our way to a new English. I have no idea what it will be like, so don’t ax.

Body Slamming

A few days ago, the DC Poetry Project sponsored an open-mike reading at an eatery where I happened to be helping the owner. I liked some of the poetry, but it is what I heard afterward that fascinated me: stories of mothers and their recalcitrant daughters.

The tales of fathers and sons are ones we usually hear. Even the stories of single mothers and their sons are not news to our ears. There is no shortage of literature describing the relationships between mothers and daughters, but I had not previously been privy to much of what I heard the other day.

After the poetry reading ended, a few of the participants sat around engaging in conversation, one subject easily flowing into another. This one included a few young women talking about what happened to them when, as teenagers, they had the temerity to attempt to buck their mothers. These were all dynamic, successful, professional women who seemed to bear no enduring damage from their experiences. Instead of rancor, their stories were told with great hilarity.

One young woman talked about mouthing off at her mother one moment and, in the next, being pinned against a wall, her throat gripped in the tightening grasp of a woman she no longer recognized, thinking “Oh, God, I’m going to die!” Everyone listening to the tale could not help but laugh along with her as she told it.

Her sister recalled being out past curfew with friends and determined to rejoin them once she went into the house to retrieve something she wanted. As her friends waited for her outside, her mother greeted her calmly at the door and made it clear to her that she would not be going out again that night. She tried to make it clear to her mother that she would, indeed, be going with her friends. What came next, she never saw coming. With what appeared to be no change in her tranquil demeanor, her mother picked her up and body slammed her on the living room floor. Stunned, the young women said she was just grateful her mother was kind enough to have not done so in front of her friends, who wondered why she never emerged again that night.

All of this reminded another young women of what happened to her whenever her “attitude” triggered her mother’s default mode: a hand to the throat that lifted her from the ground.

None of these women found any fault in what their mothers had done; the fault was their own. They weren’t mothers themselves, and did not speak about how they would respond under similar circumstances. Is the past always prologue?

My only familiarity with such stories came from my wife, who adored her mother. Even so, she describes herself as an occasional pill, drama queen and thorn in her mother’s side. She says her mother usually had the hide of a rhinoceros, but even she would, at times, succumb to the urge to put a mouthy daughter in her place: a slap to the face, a blow to the ear.

I don’t remember any of my women friends relating similar tales (not to say they didn’t have them to tell). When queried, one told me about the moment in her life when that sort of punishment came to an end. She believes every woman remembers that moment in their lives. Hers happened while standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes as her mother beat her with a belt. She acted as if her mother weren’t even there. This was eerily similar to a childhood friend whose “moment” came while sitting at her vanity brushing her hair. She never missed a stroke, ignoring the strokes of her mother’s belt. My wife remembers grabbing her mother’s hand to stop her.

Since the poetry reading, I’ve taken an informal poll of young women coming into the eatery, asking them about their experiences with their mothers. Most of their relationships seemed to coincide with the pattern followed by my mother and sisters.

I had no memory of my mother going through any of this with my sisters. As a little girl, one was full of an energy that sometimes exhibited itself as a contrariness requiring the occasional spanking; when she began holding her breath until she passed out, there were no more spankings.

Their adolescence seemed drama-free, so, to test my memory (and theirs), I telephoned a sister as well as my mother and asked them to recall those teenage years. Apparently, my memory was correct. My sister said none of them ever gave my mother a reason to jump on them. My mother said she was blessed in never having to go through any adolescent tumult with any of her daughters. The one time she had to object to anything involved my youngest sister, who was a young married woman at the time. Separated from her husband for a brief period and staying with my parents, she thought it would be okay for a male friend to come to the house and pick her up. My mother said she and my father told her that as long as she was a married woman living in their home, that sort of thing was not okay. Boring, right? Thank God for boredom.

I’m also thankful for those more eventful stories. Some of the poetry that day was good, but I had to point out to the young women that the passion with which they told their tales means there is great poetry to be found in their stories of warrior moms.

A Lesson from Ms. Angelou

Early in the career of The Boondocks cartoonist Aaron McGruder, I happened to catch part of a television interview in which he was holding forth on the subject of racism against blacks in America. When he made mention of how it was not the same in Europe, my thought was “Ah, the innocence of youth.” I realized it was the ignorance of inexperience that allowed him to believe such a fallacy, and that someone as smart as he would one day learn otherwise. In my youth, I had learned otherwise, and my teacher on the subject had been Maya Angelou.

My lesson began one evening in Rome. I had traveled there from Vienna by train. Earlier that day, while waiting to change trains in the northeastern Italian seaport city of Trieste, I made the fateful mistake of drinking from a water fountain. By the time I arrived at the station in Rome, I felt so weak I had to sit on the floor while waiting in line to exchange currency. My first evening in that city was spent entirely in bed. Fortuitously, I had traveled abroad with a copy of the third volume of Ms. Angelou’s autobiography, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry like Christmas, which – coincidentally – included an account of her first trip to Europe. It was both medicine for the sick, and an eye-opener.

While touring as a member of the cast of Porgy and Bess, she experienced first-hand what Mr. McGruder thought he was explaining to a TV host and audience: how “wonderful” blacks were treated in Europe in contrast to in America. Ms. Angelou, who had been treated quite well, believed this to be the case also – until she learned differently. She had been invited to a party in the home of a Parisian doyenne. She was greeted warmly upon her arrival, but when her hostess learned that the two men accompanying her were not black Americans but were French West-Africans, the atmosphere cooled considerably. It was at this point Ms. Angelou learned the French held people like she in high regard, but did not extend such regard to blacks from the French-held colonies.

All of this happened before the Information Age in which we now live. I’m sure that, had she been privy to documents later made available to the world, Ms. Angelou would have had no reason to invest in the myth of an egalitarian Europe welcoming to blacks. During World War II, which had been over barely a decade before Ms. Angelou’s trip, the Germans already had given the lie to such notions, as evidenced by how black Germans were treated under the Third Reich. Also, while German soldiers had no reason to be welcoming toward enemy soldiers of any color, blacks often were singled out for special treatment. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum reports “Black prisoners of war faced illegal incarceration and mistreatment at the hands of the Nazis, who did not uphold the regulations imposed by the Geneva Convention (international agreement on the conduct of war and the treatment of wounded and captured soldiers). Lieutenant Darwin Nichols, an African American pilot, was incarcerated in a Gestapo prison in Butzbach. Black soldiers of the American, French, and British armies were worked to death on construction projects or died as a result of mistreatment in concentration or prisoner-of-war camps. Others were never even incarcerated, but were instead immediately killed by the SS or Gestapo.” (This last point is reminiscent of what Confederate soldiers did to captured black Union soldiers during our Civil War).

I had read and heard stories of how great things were for black Americans in Europe. I suppose it was no different for the young Mr. McGruder, who is now forty. For many black American writers, painters, dancers, singers, musicians, and intellectuals (as well as the odd traveler), it was all true. It was the work of a great writer who taught me how much more there was to the story, and the importance of looking for the “more” to be found in any tale. Ms. Angelou has been dead for four days as I write, and still she rises.

Going, going, …

I admit to holding prejudiced thoughts , and to the fact that they are difficult to discard. I attribute it to all those years of Sunday school (which – I’ll have you know – I attended voluntarily right through high school). I attribute it also to legendary movie maker Cecil B. DeMille and his The Ten Commandments, but – most of all – to novelist Leon Uris, who captured me at the age of 13 or 14 and wouldn’t let me go.

One evening, while my aunt browsed the clothing in a small, cramped second-hand shop, Uris’ Exodus caught my eye among the used books. I suppose it was the title, but the cover made it plain it was not going to be like the Bible book of the same name. It absorbed me completely. More to the point, I absorbed it.

So, as time passed and I became less of a self-involved adolescent and began to pay a bit more attention to what else was happening in the world, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict presented a dichotomy with which I had to contend. Even with a fuller understanding of the history and the legitimate grievances of the Palestinians, I still felt a reflexive, visceral need to defend the right of Israel to exist. Even with example after example of Israeli intransigence and transgression, my allegiance remained with them. I know writing this will cause some readers to shake their heads. I understand what is felt in the gut will defy those seeking logic.

I don’t think the Israel-right-or-wrong crowd understands the importance of keeping such supporters. I suspect America, Israel’s greatest ally, has many among its citizenry who feel as I do, but we are a different sort from others here who claim to love that country. For them, Israel has to exist in order to be destroyed, thereby fulfilling Christian prophecy and paving the way for the so-called Second Coming. If that is love, it is love couched in the most callous terms. The rest of us, who would like to see Israel succeed in perpetuity, can envision that success only if we are able to see concrete and equitable measures being taken. It has been much too long since we’ve seen anything like the Camp David Accords.

No doubt, this probably is similar to what Secretary of State John Kerry was trying to convey a few days ago when, speaking in private, he said “A two-state solution will be clearly underscored as the only real alternative. Because a unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second-class citizens — or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state.” Who, in their right mind, would dispute this? Not the current Israeli Justice Minister, not even the former prime minister. To a certain crowd in this country, however, the word “apartheid” went off like a bomb. To some in that crowd (read “politicians”), it was faux outrage, an attempt to cause political damage or score political points. To others, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, it seemed to be an affront. Despite the State Department’s spokeswoman reminding everyone that Secretary Kerry “certainly didn’t say ‘is’”, AIPAC’s reaction was to say “Any suggestion that Israel is, or is at risk of becoming, an apartheid state is offensive and inappropriate.” That was mild-mannered compared to some of the vitriol spewed following Kerry’s use of that dreaded word.

There is some irony to be found in this. Before it was decided that Palestine had to be the place for a Jewish homeland, the early Zionists considered (among other places on Earth) the borderlands between Uganda and Kenya as a possibility. It is not that much of a stretch of the imagination to believe that might not have worked out well. Would a form of apartheid have arisen there as a matter of course? South Africa, the country which created that pernicious system in word and deed, was home to some of the first Jewish settlers in Palestine, and its apartheid government was the first to recognize the new state of Israel. Former editor of The New Republic Andrew Sullivan, a man who has said he believes “in the dream of a free and Jewish state in the ancestral homeland,” recently had the temerity to point out that the current situation in Israel “has now lasted a year longer than the apartheid regime in South Africa – and, unlike that regime, looks set to continue indefinitely.” For this, he was taken to task yesterday by writer David Harsanyi in The Federalist, who felt the need to point out that Mr. Sullivan “was famously accused of anti-Semitism a few years back.” Such is the nature of the discourse.

My continued support is based on my hope that Israel will do the right thing, that it realizes it is not in a game of chicken to see who blinks first, that it understands it has to be the bigger “person”. Without that hope, my reflexes lag. I doubt I am alone among supporters in feeling this way. Writers like Uris carried millions of readers to the Promised Land, but Israel has to do its part to stanch our exodus.

Prison Time?

(Note: a new poem follows this post)

Today was primary day in the District of Columbia. As some of you know already, the winner of the Democratic primary for mayor always has gone on to win in the general election. This time, that might have been an iffy proposition. “Iffy” seems the best way to describe the situation in which we might have found ourselves this coming fall if our current mayor, Vincent Gray, had emerged as the winner, given that his attorney believes he will be indicted for political corruption. His victory would have presented quite a lot for a general electorate to forgive, perhaps too much.

Of course, we do live in a town where – with enough love and loyalty – you can become mayor, go to prison for smoking crack, and be re-elected mayor. Why, then, should the threat of a mere indictment slow a politician down? Well, first, any politician (other than former mayor and current DC Council member Marion Barry) should ask him or herself if he or she engenders that sort of support. I’m thinking the answer should be “no”, but what do I know? Mayor Gray obviously believed otherwise, hence his failed try for another term.

The thing that concerns me is not the race for mayor, it is the wording of the charging documents should Mayor Gray be indicted. It will be the same wording of any indictment of any resident of DC. If you are charged with a crime in this town, it is not you vs. the District of Columbia, it is you vs. the United States of America. What concerns me is what happens when people are sent to prison from here. If found guilty, you will not be sent to DC’s prison, as there is none. You will be sent away to one – or a few – of many federal prisons. The irony is you may have been convicted of breaking a federal law you had no part in passing, not even through your delegate to Congress, as your delegate does not have the right to vote for or against anything.

Yes, I know this suddenly has begun to seem like the same drum I beat last month, but between then and today I was given a stark example of how disenfranchisement can be deadly. I was contacted by and met with two investigators from the Capital Habeas Unit of the Federal Defender Office, in town from Philadelphia to seek assistance in their quest to save the life of a DC resident on death row in Texas.

Shara Davis and Rick Ruffin, angels of mercy doing God’s work, somehow managed to track me down after being given my name by their client, who was a juvenile placed on a brief period of probation under my supervision twenty years ago. As an adult, he was convicted of a crime here in DC, then shipped to Texas where he was convicted of a murder in prison and sentenced to death. Try as I might, I can’t say I was of any help. The most I could offer beyond what they already knew was my memory of the community in which he grew up. A question Ms. Davis asked highlighted the consequences of “our” prison system. She asked if anyone had bothered to do what she and Mr. Ruffin were doing, had anyone from Texas contacted me. It was rhetorical and real at once. You know the answer, don’t you?

DC’s once-upon-a-time prison, the Lorton Reformatory, was ordered closed in 1997 by an act of Congress (of course), and housed its last inmates in 2001. Passage of the National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act (Orwellian enough for you?) required DC felons to become the responsibility of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Since then, families with loved ones in prison, including my own, have to travel great distances to see them, or give up on keeping that kind of contact. If something goes horribly wrong inside some distant prison, who’s coming to DC to seek some clarity before life and death decisions are made? Will the next mayor find such a question to be real or rhetorical?

If all this makes you think I’m an advocate for DC having its own prison once again, I have to tell you I’m a conditional advocate. Lorton was a nightmare, and not just because it was a prison but because it was a nightmarish one. Those who spent time there, then headed off to the “feds”, will tell you they were thankful for the difference. DC is not unique in that regard. Those who have experienced the differences between state and federal prisons will tell you the same thing today. It might be impossible to overcome the inherent troubles which would be attendant to a local prison, but to assume that would be to assume the Washington of 1997 is the same as the Washington of 2014. We would have to admit we remain incapable of operating such a facility in a responsible manner, and stick with the status quo. If that’s the case, we should consider asking Congress to meddle in our affairs even further, and order the feds to operate a prison locally. After all, it is “us vs. them”, isn’t it?

(from the ancient Egyptian word for “beloved”)

He was revealed to be a leader of the people as a boy,
an activist before he knew what that was.

And, when he knew,
he was revealed to be a leader of the people as a young man,
an actor on their behalf, their voice, their champion,
a provider of fishes and loaves when needed,
but poles also, and a way to the water.

And as he moved among the people,
their pain became his, their troubles,

And in their turmoil he took a bullet,
and thrived,
and moved among the people,
and remained their champion.

And the people did not see his pain, his trouble,
his turmoil,
as if the leaders of people are free of human life,
as if no one had ever given us Agamemnon, or Lear.

And when the nexus of untamed desires and the unforgiving
brought him low,
he rose, and returned to the people, and remained
their champion,
an elder,
revealed to be a leader of the people.

c. 2014
g. r. adams