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?

Marion
(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,
his.

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

Note from Niggerton

(Three years ago this month, I was inspired to write a piece I shared with a few at the time. An edited version is posted here):

 

     I told my wife I was in love with another woman.

     “Who is she?” she asked, turning away from the show she was watching on television. As I skimmed the paper for my new love’s name, my wife said “She’d better be very special”, and laughed.

     “She is”, I said, showing her my new love’s letter. “Her name is Jeanne Talpers. She even uses the same word I use about the same thing”

     “Well said”, said my wife after reading the letter. “She’s worthy. What word is it?”

     “The word ‘obscene’”, I explained. And with that, my wife turned back to her show.

      Here is Ms. Talpers’ letter in its entirety, published in our little local newspaper (The Washington Post, Sunday, February 20, 2011) under the heading “A voting rights lesson from Cairo”:

      “If Cairo can do it, why can’t we?

       Watching the jubilation in Cairo, I wondered why we who are disenfranchised in our nation’s capital also cannot take our cause into        the streets. Where are our young people who know the mysteries of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube? What if these powerful tools could be the key to our liberation?

      There are more than a half-million people in the District, and we pay taxes and send men and women off to war to spread democracy. It is obscene that we do not have the right to have a representative who can vote in Congress.”

      You can understand my being smitten, can’t you? Well, maybe not if you’re into that whole disenfranchisement thing and all. If, however, you believe in truth, justice and the American way, then Ms. Talpers’ words must make your heart sing. It might break her heart to learn her chances of getting what she wants are slim to none as long as she lives here in Niggerton, DC.

      Here is my definition of the word “nigger”: anyone who consistently does nothing about consistently being denied a bedrock right. Used in this context, the word carries no racial connotation whatsoever. A “nigger” can be of any ethnic background. Red, brown, yellow, black and white might be precious in God’s sight, but we’re all niggers here in the town where Ms. Talpers and I live. That’s all it takes, just being a legal resident of the capital of the free world (which has been called the Last Colony and the Last Plantation), a city in a federal district, not in any state and, therefore, denied the rights of a state by the Constitution itself. Yet the very thing that was anathema to our Founders, the thing that drove them to make radical declarations and wage a war of revolution – taxation without representation – seems to matter little, if at all, to the citizens of Niggerton. Day after decade after century, we go about our lives, compliant and complicit in our mistreatment.

     To make matters worse, this town also must periodically endure assaults from foreign invaders: the Republicans who occasionally win a majority of seats in one or both houses of Congress. They seem to delight in coming here and reminding us that not only does the Constitution allow them to exclude us from the democratic process, it also gives them the right to tell us what to do – or not do – even when it comes to how we spend our own local taxes. In their budget-cutting frenzy, the 112th Congress decided the city doesn’t need as much support as it actually does. Our local government is required to perform the duties and offer the services of a state, yet is prohibited by law from doing those things the way states do, by taxing income and property. Oh, sure, income is taxed, but as Post columnist Colbert I. King pointed out, only a third of income is taxed, not the two-thirds earned by non-residents who stream into the city every day and who use city services. And property is taxed too, but only 43 percent, not the 57 percent of the city’s land occupied by the federal government, foreign embassies and a plethora of non-profit, tax-exempt organizations. The decent thing to do, as the federal government usually does, is to compensate the city with a federal payment. The Republican majority in the House had the indecency to say no. It is not surprising that the first recorded vote of that Congress was an open protest vote forced by our nonvoting delegate; it is unsurprising because of its futility.

     Maybe I cannot fairly say we have consistently done nothing. Over the years there have been efforts by some, including a constitutional amendment enacted by Congress and sent to the states for ratification, where it died. Not one effort has ever borne fruit, and not once has a significant portion of the citizenry given the slightest sign of caring.

     I understand how easy it might be to forget to stand on principle when living in a city where people can luxuriate in every freedom but one, or where too many people still struggle with being have-nots in the land of plenty. This one principle in particular, however, makes the act of forgetting a disgrace and makes the name given to those who commit this act appropriate.

     I’m sure one reason I was drawn to Ms. Talpers’ letter was my own history of quixotic letter-writing. More than twenty years ago, I wrote an open letter to this city’s then-mayor, city council members and nonvoting delegate to Congress. I reminded them – some of whom were veterans of the civil rights movement – that nothing of such magnitude had ever been accomplished through mere words alone. I suggested that, as our elected leaders, we citizens would follow them into the streets and on to Capitol Hill to demand an end to taxation without representation, if only they would lead us. I pointed out that it was not as if I were asking them to march into the halls of Congress shouldering rifles the way the Black Panthers had done when they marched into the California statehouse. I also tried to assure them there was no need to worry that others would think badly of them, noting that there even had been many black people who thought the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was nothing more than a rabble-rouser.

     The response? How is this for irony: in this largely black, big “D” Democratic town, the only replies I received were from two city council members, both white Republicans. Even though their letters amounted to no more than a polite pat on the head and a “there, there now” as one might do and say to a distraught child, I remember thinking at the time that at least their mothers had raised them properly.

     The current mayor, at his inauguration, said he wanted statehood for the city. This, of course, is like saying he wants a slice of sky pie, but I think he thinks he meant what he said. Since then, he and other city leaders have participated in publicized displays of civil disobedience leading to arrests in an effort to highlight the issue. That certainly amounts to being more than just the latest HNIC (Head Nigger In Charge) acquiescing to the status quo, but if he and our non-voting delegate want to do more, they can. They could suggest something be done to relieve us of taxation without representation until we get representation, in whatever form representation finally comes. They wouldn’t have to strain themselves looking for an alternative to our present condition, since alternatives already exist for others who find themselves in a situation similar to ours.

     American Samoa, Guam, The Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, like Niggerton, all have nonvoting delegates in Congress. These U.S. territories also participate in the Food Stamp Program and Medicaid. They pay taxes as well, but here’s the thing: they don’t pay them to the federal government that’s denying them representation. In the Northern Mariana Islands, the income tax system is largely locally determined. Puerto Rico imposes an income tax in lieu of Federal income tax. American Samoa, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands use a mirror tax law under which taxpayers calculate their taxes based on the U.S. Tax Code but pay them to their governments. We here in Niggerton, DC pay more federal tax to the federal government than do several states. In the famous words of a famous native son of this city, it “makes me wanna holler, and throw up both my hands.”

     Taking my own advice regarding the need for more than words, I tried more. Like Cervantes’ dreamer, I resolved to raise a lance and joust with giants by imploring my fellow citizens to collectively do what we do best – nothing. The idea was to use the theme of playwright Douglas Turner Ward’s “Day of Absence” to our advantage. I thought it would be perfect for people too lazy or preoccupied or apathetic to march for their rights. They could do nothing for just one day, nothing – including not leaving the house to go to work or school or the corner grocer. Marching would be passé; sitting on your behind at home in protest would be the new radical chic.

     I cajoled a few relatives and friends into being my Sancho Panza. We formed a committee, set a date of absence, and mailed letters and pamphlets to as many local civic, social, political and religious organizations as we thought necessary. I even spent the last night before the big day leafleting windshields in neighborhoods of every quadrant of the city. From the questions I was asked in a telephone call from Washington Post reporter Steve Twomey, I surmised he didn’t appreciate my lack of concern for the impact on local businesses. He need not have worried. There was no impact on businesses or anything else. That day passed like every other, right up to this very day.

     Could anything like this happen in a place like – oh, say – Madison, Wisconsin? Few would argue that the protesters in Wisconsin were as desperate as those throughout the Middle East, yet they marched in Madison because they saw an intolerable injustice. Ms. Talpers didn’t give a shout-out to the involved citizens of that town, but that state’s frenetic, budget-cutting cum union-busting governor (though he ultimately prevailed) was provided a valuable lesson in how not to assume people will be niggers if you just step on them hard enough. Only niggers will be niggers.

     So, what will it take for the folks of Niggerton to really do something? Ms. Talpers wants to know the whereabouts of our counterparts to the fed-up, tech-savvy young revolutionaries we watched on the evening news. Well, if you’re living in town just long enough to get your degree, to clerk for a judge or to be an intern for a Hill staffer, maybe you don’t care about the rest of us. If you come into Niggerton every day, but return to the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia every evening over roads we – not you – have to pay for, does it matter to you that we are all Americans but not all equal?

     Maybe we should form a District of Columbia Liberation Front. You know, recruit some of the young folk whose anger is currently misdirected at other youngsters whose only crime is to live on a different block. We could redirect that energy where it can make a difference. After all, some of them already possess arms and have proven themselves skilled in the use of them. It would be right in line with all the bloviating about Second Amendment remedies. But that would be General George Washington’s way, wouldn’t it? In the streets of Cairo, with their Jasmine Revolution, the Egyptian people proved that ending the status quo can be accomplished in Dr. King’s way.

     It is with equal parts incredulity and amusement that I now look back at my inept, pathetic efforts. Maybe one day, in our own Cherry Blossom Revolution, Ms. Talpers and I will cross paths at some barricade while attempting to finally end this obscenity. I’ll have no idea who she is, and she won’t know me, but she’ll remember the former nigger wearing the biggest smile.

 

(In loving memory of Edward Calvern Adams, Sr., who was born in this city, on this date, in 1925.)

(A very special comment was made following this post. I think it only fitting that it be shown here.)

Lynn Talpers, Burlington , VT- Just a short note to let you know that Jeanne Talpers died December 14, 2012. – the same day as the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. She was passionate about many causes- gun control, gay rights and representation for the District of Columbia. She lived in the DC area for 70 years and helped it change in many ways. She picketed to end segregation at Glen Echo, she took part in all the anti-Vietnam marches, she volunteered at the Whitman Walker Clinic, was a founding member of DC’s PFLAG chapter (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). Up until her last months of life she volunteered at Obama’s correspondence office and at DC’s Holocaust Museum, trying to ensure that the downtrodden, both living and dead were not forgotten. She achieved many things, unfortunately not representation for DC. She never gave up. At her funeral, her son-in-law and daughter-in-law , accompanied by many nephews, led those assembled in “We Shall Overcome.” She was a wonderful woman, worthy of your love. She was also my mother. Thank you for reminding me of her spirit.

WTF?!

 

(This month, a break from the usual fare. In its stead, four short poems on Abrahamic themes)

Ape

A certain type of ape calls itself “Man”.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the one.

It believes it’s part of some divine plan,

that a god spoke a word and it was done,

thus enabling the ape to do the same,

to sing its dreams and make the songs take form,

finding happiness in fortune and fame,

or in providing shelter from a storm.

It has built ships that have sailed to the moon,

and others to study the oceans’ floors.

Yet, with just a wittily drawn cartoon,

it can sway the hearts of bigots and boors.

Perhaps it knows what it’s talking about.

It deserves the benefit of the doubt.

 

Exiles

We descend from the exiles of Delight,

refugees from the land they once enjoyed,

a land where they could not know what was right,

where knowing led to innocence destroyed.

Daughters and sons of those who wandered east,

we now dwell in the Valley of Shadows.

Some become the prey of the hungry beasts,

others learn the usefulness of arrows.

There are those who have left here heading west,

though old tales say their journey will be hard.

They who embark upon the Gardenquest

must face the burning sword of every guard.

The struggle will be worth the seeming strife.

Each victor will eat from the Tree of Life.

 

Brothers

Ishmael and Isaac are fighting again,

each one shaming himself in consequence.

Brothers by birth, they refuse to refrain

from fratricide, despite all evidence

there is no good end to their ancient war,

no peace to be found on their present path.

A time may come when they’ll have gone too far,

leaving both ruined in the aftermath.

The words of the prophets do not condone

this bloody feud which has slandered their names.

Guilt belongs to the warriors alone,

but many others perish in their flames.

What now for these two sons of Abraham,

the olive branch or the battering ram?

 

Wraith

I was born into a society

heavily steeped in lots of Christian lore,

but Truth grows at a tree’s velocity,

and Goodness is looked upon as a chore.

Mercy would be a real revelation

to some who claim adherence to the Faith,

and Wisdom would cause much trepidation

if it were voiced by this blasphemous wraith.

So, I make no attempt at being wise.

It is an attribute I do not own.

It is easier for me to revise

the words of one many claim to have known:

If you want a life not filled with sorrow,

seek the Kingdom, and all else will follow.

 

All works c. 2002

g. r. adams

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Will it Go ‘Round in Circles?”

     Okay. I know some will shake your heads and think Oh God, I hope the title aint a metaphor for this tale.” Well see.

     The tale is an old one, five-hundred years old, beginning when the kings and money-men and soldiers-of-fortune of western Europe started stealing most of the rest of the world. You know the story of those five centuries. There’s no need for me to remind you, especially since the Pope and the President have already done so.

      It would be more apt to say they have reminded some folk who are not poor that there are some folk who are. They didnt bring up the fact that generation after generation of thievery will leave ones victims and their descendants in poverty. Using their pulpits, sacred and bully, they only pointed out that said poverty still needs attending to. While acknowledging the help needed beyond our borders and seeing to it we at least do some of what we can, the President must focus (and be seen to focus) on poverty as a domestic issue. On that front, what can be accomplished with the current House? The Pope doesn’t have to limit his scope, but appears limited in what he can do. He can use the force of his moral authority to try and sway the laity toward greater action. He can give guidance to the priesthood on how to proceed. He canwhat?

     Lets get back to the western Europeans. They, and those living in the western European diaspora, enjoy a higher standard of living than everyone else. Mention is seldom made of how this has come to be, as if it would be discourteous to do so. Not talking about it, however, only increases the number of people who dont give the poor a thought, leaving them clueless as to why they happen to have it so good when others do not. They may be about to be clued in.

      Through the efforts of the President, the Pope and other world leaders, including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the UN Security Council is preparing to begin considering the International Affirmative-Action Initiative (IAAI). Through this initiative, the former colonial nations will each partner with a nation from among their former colonies. Both nations in each partnership will work together to increase self-sufficiency and raise the standard of living in those countries still struggling to support themselves. The initiative also requires the diaspora nations (including this country) to work to do the same for their own citizens whose current substandard conditions can be attributed directly to the colonization of aboriginal ancestors, the enslavement of African ancestors, or governmental discrimination against the descendants of either group. Reports indicate that once the Security Council acts, the General Assembly will move to approve the measure.

      Okay. None of that is real. Its all just a daydream, but sometimes just a dream will have to do until we can do better. When the gravity of fate pulls us around to a familiar point, a dream may be the only thing that prevents us from making the same mistake twice.

      For example: once upon a time, due largely to voting irregularities in Florida, the presidential election was thrown into question and had to be decided by an empaneled group. The Democratic candidate had won the popular vote, but the Republican majority on the panel gave the office to the Republican candidate instead. As Commander-in-Chief, that President’s decision on the use of the military endangered the lives of four million innocent men, women and children, and led to the deaths of thousands. This was the result of the election of 1876. When it happened to us all over again in 2000, were we ready? No. We had nothing, not even a dream.

      (Even the things weve done to others seem to circle back, but as things done to us. Consider what we did elsewhere on 9/11 in 1973, and what happened here on that same date in 2001; many of us, even though aware of the former, still never dreamed the latter could happen).

      There is no reason not to consider that some technological advance or other such advantage will find the worlds richest nations in a position similar to that of the old colonial powers in their relations with everyone else. What then? Historians and futurists, economists and social theorists, and others from many fields of study would do well to collectively answer a heretofore unasked question: what would the world be like today if those Europeans had engaged the rest of the world in a free and fair exchange of natural resources, goods, services and ideas? Who knows if it would be a world worth daydreaming about, but trying to figure that out might be helpful if its true heavenly bodies arent all that go round in circles.

(The recent, re-discovery of thirty-year-old letters from a Nigerian friend has provided an excuse to reprise a piece that’s nearly as old. Some of you will remember it)

 

Birthright: To Dance

     It was 1950. It was a wet, windy afternoon in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. In the St. George’s Park Tea Room, two black men were slow-dancing to “You’re the Cream in My Coffee”. Except for the two of them, the tea room was empty. One man was, at that moment, profoundly sad. The other desperately wanted to lift his spirits. I was disconcerted by the sight. On the way home from the theater, that last scene of Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold…and the Boys” stayed with me. Was that character’s response to his friend’s sadness a natural one, or had the playwright erred?

     An old tinge of resentment conjured by that scene was preceded by happy memories of the very event which had created that resentment. Like the characters of Sam and Willie in the play, those memories were of black men dancing. Also like Fugard’s characters, the dancers I remembered were Africans.

     It was 1978. It was a warm, clear night in Brussels. At the Free University, the Nigerian students were showing a film of “Festac ’77,” the second World Black & African Festival of Art & Culture which had been hosted by their country the previous year.

     I was particularly interested in the film because of all the wonderful stories I had been told about the festival by two friends who had attended. One thing my friends had told me about their trip had made an impression initially, but had long since buried itself in the recesses of my mind. It was brought to the fore quite dramatically when the film ended and the after-party began.

     As soon as the tables and chairs were pushed aside, and the evening’s disc jockey put on the first record, the newly created dance floor was full. Almost all of the students in attendance were men, and they were all dancing with each other.

     I sat in awe. What I was witnessing was completely beyond my realm of experience. Men dancing with each other was not new to me, but in America only a certain segment of the male population did so. This was something different, something new, and I was not aware of my place in the scheme of it until the Nigerian student who had invited me asked me to dance. My place was on the dance floor.

     It was while dancing that the rest of those stories told to me by my two friends came back to me. They had been stories of men who knew how to touch each other in ways we in this country either shudder at, or envision in vague utopias. It was while dancing that the resentment which has never left me began.

     My own memories of cultural transgression and recrimination go back to early adolescence. I used to kiss my father. I didn’t live with him, so I made it a point when visiting to hug and kiss him hello and good-bye. While this may have been acceptable in some parts of town, it was not so amongst the older boys in my father’s neighborhood. One of my older brothers pulled me aside one day and asked me not to do it any longer. He said it embarrassed him in front of his friends. I could see nothing wrong in what I had been doing. It was true that the uncle with whom I lived used to joke about my hugging and kissing my aunt and not him. I think he was only half joking, but the idea of kissing any man other than my father repelled me. Now, my brother was conveying to me the idea that all of it was abhorrent. I was dutifully shamed.

     A few years after that, the same brother became the first male with whom I ever danced. In addition to whatever new dance step was en vogue at the time, in Washington, D.C., we always had three standard dances: the slow drag, the bop, and the hand dance. My brother was at the age when almost every Friday and Saturday night was party time, but he didn’t know how to dance. He asked me to teach him the hand dance, and we spun each other around the basement for an entire afternoon. Perhaps he had progressed in his thinking. Perhaps he simply didn’t care, since none of his friends were there to make him feel embarrassed.

     It was through dancing that I made a conscious decision, at age nineteen, to go beyond the American cultural barriers of male-to-male relationships. A friend who had grown up in the same neighborhood as I, and had attended Sunday school, junior high, and high school with me, decided that I and two other old friends were ready to cross those barriers. He took the three of us to a party. En route, he cautioned us to prepare ourselves psychologically for something “different” and implored us not to embarrass either him, or ourselves, by seeming out of place. It was going to be a “gay” party.

     As new an experience as that party was for me, it all seemed quite natural. I don’t remember feeling any of the awe I was to feel seven years later in Brussels. I imagine it was because I understood “gay” men dance with each other. It would have been stupid of me to have been surprised. Yet, I was surprised, as well as momentarily confused, by the dancing Nigerians. Not only were all those “straight” men treading on my cultural taboos, they were unaware such taboos even existed.

     Discussing the subject of how men touch each other with a Ghanaian neighbor reminded me of other things my Festac-traveling friends had told me. “Male friends walk down the street arm-in arm,” they had said. “They even sleep together.” My neighbor explained that, in traditional African culture, men spend almost all of their time with each other, thereby developing intimate relationships. In fact, men are a society unto themselves, a phenomenon stemming from the ancient warrior tradition. Certain customs and rituals, including dancing, carried sacred magical connotations that necessitated the exclusion of women.

     When I asked him why African men living here don’t appear to relate to each other that way, he replied that such relationships were discouraged by the way Americans view them. Of course, the type of male relationships described by my neighbor are not unique to Africa. The Third World abounds in similar examples. Even Europe can boast of societies where men dance with each other and relate to each other in ways we don’t dare. Indeed, in some cultures dancing often appears to be the exclusive province of men. Although I find this freedom enviable, I am not blind to the social implications of such practices. As positive as they may be, they appear to be a correlate to the male chauvinism of Western society.

     There are some who would argue that my priorities are mixed up, that in an age where the larger society seems intent on murdering us politically and economically, black men in America need not concern themselves with daydreams of a new fraternal order. Their argument would be valid if not for one sad fact: when a black man in America is literally murdered, it’s almost always by the hand of another black man. Who’s mixed up?

     Is there any hope? My neighbor from Ghana believes that the closest thing here to traditional African society was black society in the South before the sixties. However, I see remnants of that tradition in today’s South. I have witnessed a natural closeness among men there that I haven’t seen anywhere else in this country.

     Though my neighbor may be unable to see beyond what he perceives as their decadence, I believe that the relationships among black gay men come closest to approximating those of African men. In fact, if one focuses only on the non-sexual aspects, gay men very well could be the vanguard in the march of American men toward a greater understanding, appreciation and love of each other.

     Civilization is based on the positive interaction of individuals living together in large numbers. “Individuals” is the key word. What hope I have must start with me. I’ve gone back to hugging and kissing my father. I do the same with other male relatives and friends.

     I have one friend with whom I’ve been very close since third grade, so close that many people think we’re brothers. I chose him to be best man at my wedding. We’ve spent hours on the phone with each other. We’ve taken long, story-filled walks – though never arm-in-arm. We’ve slept together in the same bed without any thought of having sex. I remember once dancing with him at a straight discotheque. The dance floor was so crowded that no one paid us any attention. We love each other very much. I hope we always will.

WWA

     The benefits of civility cannot be overstated. This can be difficult to bear in mind when confronted by those who make being civil seem overrated. One wonders if our current head of Health and Human Services had this experience when testifying two days ago before the House Energy and Commerce Committee regarding the troubled health-care website.

     Secretary Sebelius, a model of decorum and control, managed to maintain her composure throughout her questioning by committee members. Most likely, that is how she believed she should have conducted herself. Apparently, it is what most witnesses before Congressional committees believe, as most behave civilly even when such behavior is not deserved by those doing the questioning. Be polite, use your manners, act like your mother taught you some sense.

     Here’s a question: does anyone who has voted in excess of forty times to repeal the health-care law deserve a civil response while pretending to be concerned about its implementation. Having repeatedly proven one’s enmity, it takes an enormous sense of entitlement to then expect respect – a sense that can only be reinforced when such respect is forthcoming. The law’s detractors, the political theater they created with their questions and the nation’s interests all would have been better served had the committee been confronted with a WWA – a Witness With Attitude.

      It is doubtful Ms. Sebelius ever considered asking the President for permission to give the committee as good as she got. It is equally doubtful the President – Mr. Cooler-than-Cool – would have granted such permission had he been asked. For future reference, both should remember our history offers examples of those who were able to speak with civility while simultaneously giving off the unmistakable air of disdain for asininity.

      The bad taste left by watching the Secretary’s deferential performance was washed away later in the day. Quite providentially, while searching for a legal document among old piles of papers, I came across the draft of a play written years ago by a mentor and friend. It was based on the speeches, letters and verbatim testimonies of various American historical figures. The play opens with the great Paul Robeson’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in June 1956.

     In April of 1949, Mr. Robeson had given a speech in Paris in which he said black Americans would not fight for this country in a war against the Soviet Union, our World War II ally. He was subpoenaed by the members of HUAC, and appeared before them like a leviathan among Lilliputians. His testimony, like that of so many others before that committee (including my father-in-law’s) is essential reading.      

     When formally asked by the staff director, Richard Arens, if he was appearing in response to a subpoena, Mr. Robeson asked “Do I have the privilege of asking whom I am addressing and who is addressing me?” When Arens answered with only his name, Robeson followed with “And what is your position in such affairs?” When asked if he belonged to the Communist Party, Robeson noted it was “a legal party like the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.” When asked again, he answered “Would you like to come to the ballot box and see?” After being pressed, Robeson invoked his Fifth Amendment rights. Arens asked “Do you honestly apprehend that if you told this committee truthfully…”, but was cut off by Robeson who told him “… it is none of your business what I would like to do. So, forget it.”      

     International star that he was, Robeson briefly turned his attention to the cameras that were clicking away. He made a few jokes to the photographers, much to the annoyance of committee members. When a very upset Arens stated the proceedings were not a laughing manner, Paul Robeson summed up the sentiment most likely felt this week by Kathleen Sebelius. “It is a laughing matter to me.” he said. “This is complete nonsense.”

Tattletales

     According to one of the oldest tales we tell about ourselves, we know things we are not supposed to know. In a Mesopotamian version of the story, it is the knowledge of good and evil. As told in the Mediterranean region (as well as India, the islands of the Pacific and the Americas), it is the use of fire. Apparently, in certain instances, human ignorance has been seen by some as a necessity of human existence.

      A crucial component of the tale is how we come to know what we know. Someone who was not supposed to tell us, told us: a serpent, a coyote, a rabbit, a Titan. Often, the knowledge is imparted in direct defiance of those who have decreed the knowledge be kept from us, and the one who enlightens us is punished.

      It is no wonder a tale still told thousands of years after its origins allows us to see in it ourselves and our contemporaries. Adding the prosaic to the ranks of Prometheus, we have Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning. Their predicaments lead one to wonder what is more dangerous: defying gods or governments.

     Being prosecuted and imprisoned by our government might seem preferable to being bound to a rock on orders of Zeus and having one’s liver eaten by an eagle every day for eternity. Both may seem unwarranted and unfair to our modern-day heroes/villains. The rest of us are left having to make our decision based upon which side of that forward slash we stand.

      There is some question as to how much of it will be an informed decision. We don’t know why we aren’t supposed to know what we end up knowing. Is our national security really at stake if we know our government is secretly watching us for national security purposes, or if we discover some of our bombs in Afghanistan missed their targets? If so, why? Who has yet to hear a reasonable response from anyone anywhere in government? If there is a good reason, it is a reason known only to those who decided we shouldn’t know. That, in itself, is the problem for those like Assange, Snowden and Manning.

     This modern-day conundrum parallels the original. We still don’t know why the deity in Genesis thought it necessary to withhold information. To be generous, we’d like to think it was for our own good. To be practical, we’d have to acknowledge the reason offered smacks of class snobbery – God did not want us to be God-like.

      On the whole, we are nosy creatures who – having learned good and evil – have developed a pronounced sense of right and wrong. Some of us know things most of us don’t. Some in the know feel it is wrong to keep what they know from everyone else – and that the right thing to do is to tell us. Those who tell risk incurring the wrath of superiors who hold the opposite opinion.

      It seems gods and governments believe in the necessity of secrets. We create both, and must decide just how far that should go. When, in our somnolence, we complacently allow governments to go too far, we can thank God for those who choose to stir us.