Juliet’s Query

 

Recently, someone asked the reason for my name. I thought I knew but decided to make sure.  As I thought about calling my mother and asking her how it was chosen, the telephone rang. Serendipitously, it was my mother, calling to check on me. I think she worries a bit more than usual, now that – after almost forty years of marriage – I am a widower. I told her I was okay, that I had been just about to call, and why.

“How did I choose your name?” she asked herself. “Let me think. How did I choose your name?”

After a moment, I asked if it had been because of the Hollywood movie star Gregory Peck, which I always had assumed. It was not strange for me to have done so. As a child watching a music show on television once, I had been amazed by the host announcing a singer named Julius La Rosa, the first and middle names of one of my younger brothers.

“Gregory Peck,” my mother said in contemplation. “No, I don’t think so, but I honestly can’t remember. It might come to me if I think about it. You know,” she said, laughing, “you’re going to have to excuse your 90-year-old mother’s memory.”

My mother and father had to choose names for four boys, three girls, and, then, two more boys. I was third up. For me, my name has never been anything other than something that serves its fundamental purpose without embarrassment. After all, it turns out that Gregory was Mr. Peck’s middle name; his given name was Eldred. But, who knows? I probably would not have cared one way or the other about that one, either. I mean, The Bard is right, is he not, about his whole rose-by-any-other-name thing? That is why I considered, during the Black Power era, changing my name as many were doing. I didn’t, which is just as well. I probably would have done the same thing others did: give up their given names for Arabic names in the mistaken belief that they were West African names, thereby dropping the names from Christians slave masters, only to pick up those from Muslim slave masters.

Today, on this Easter Sunday, I remember that Christians, apparently, love the name. There were sixteen popes who selected it; also, there are ten saints with the name. I discovered this at some point in my youth, after learning that names not only have meanings but are supposed to have meanings. I began to search for the origin and meaning of mine and read, initially, that the name is of Germanic origin. I later found that a consensus considered this incorrect, that the name is really of Greek origin and passed into Roman culture; I suspect that from the latter is how it made its way to those Germans known as the Angles and the Saxons. Regardless, the meaning, the same across cultures, has an ironic resonance today: woke.

Woke, or awake are just two of the synonyms commonly associated with the name’s meaning. Others include watchful, alert, and guardian. The one most often used is vigilant, which, most likely, is why the name became so popular among Christians; in a letter Peter the Apostle wrote to followers, he exhorted them to be vigilant.

As I write, I am reflecting on the fact that I have known others with the name, but not many. This seems as though it should be improbable, since it is not an uncommon name, but I remember my wife once saying that the only other Gregory she had known before me was a boy in her elementary school class.

My mother, who still cooks and cleans and does laundry; who – at her ninetieth birthday party — was on the dance floor in three-inch, red heels; and whose memory still surprises me, has yet to recall the reason for my name. My father died two decades ago. The reason for my name is and, likely, shall remain a mystery.

 

 

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Pre-panther

 

The excitement generated by the release of the Marvel Comics-based movie, Black Panther, brings to mind the man whose work of science fiction became the first by a black writer to make its initial appearance before the public as a novel. With the 1931 publication of his Black No More, George S. Schuyler becomes someone who presents an alternative to the sameness of accepted American literature. Before Schuyler, not only is there no black writer of science fiction whose novel had not begun in serialized form, there is also no black author who had written a satiric novel, and no black writer who demonstrates a mastery over what is called the “Master Discourse” in the manner which Schuyler succeeds.

Black writers certainly had produced works having non-traditional settings before Schuyler, but most of these works fall under the term “speculative fiction,” which includes the genres of fantasy and horror as well as science fiction.  Writer Jess Nevins, who sometimes writes articles focusing on science, technology, science fiction, futurism, and fantasy, gives a reader a history of how blacks have contributed to speculative fiction in a piece titled “The Black Fantastic: Highlights of Pre-World War II African and African-American Speculative Fiction.” Nevins points out that an early practitioner of the fantasy genre of black speculative fiction, that which deals with futuristic themes and alternate histories, is Martin Delaney who, in 1859 “in response to the slave insurrection panics of 1856 and the Dred Scott decision of 1857,” wrote Blake, a novel which “describes the heroic black revolutionary Henry Blake in his attempt to rouse black Americans into a slave revolt and establish a new black country in Cuba.” Blake certainly may be considered a work of alternate history, but it is not science fiction.

The same may be said of the stories collected in Charles Chesnutt’s 1899 The Conjure Woman. These tales, based on black Americans’ understanding of the traditional spiritual beliefs of West and Central African peoples, fall in the horror category (in much the same way as Roman Catholicism serves the purposes of horror for a writer like Dan Brown in his The Da Vinci Code). Schuyler’s fictional character, on the other hand, is a man of science who uses technology to accomplish his goal: to transform any paying black customer who wants to appear white.

To see an early example of a work of science fiction by a black writer prior to George Schuyler’s Black No More, a reader can look back nearly three decades before his book to 1902’s Of One Blood by Pauline Hopkins, whom Nevins calls “the most prolific African-American woman writer of her time,” and “one of African-American literature’s foremothers.” Hopkins’s work meets the definition of science fiction in that she imagines a modern civilization of “the direct descendants of the Ethiopia of 6000 B.C.E. and the possessor of advanced crystal-based technology, including suspended animation for the most beautiful in the city and technology-based telepathy.” Hopkins’s novel, however, began in serialized form. This leaves Schuyler as the earliest black writer of science fiction whose work – as said before – debuted as a published novel.

Oh, what a novel it is! While science and technology serve as needed components of its plot, it is satire that is essential to its purpose: to skewer the nation’s then-prevailing notions on race as it relates to identity by holding up a mirror to those who held those notions, albeit a distorting, funhouse mirror. And, who better than Schuyler to show how grotesque one’s image appears when seen on such a reflective surface? If forced to give a one-word description of the man, the word is iconoclast; iconoclasm is a necessary tool of the satirist. Michael W. Peplow, in his book, George S. Schuyler, quotes historian John Henrik Clarke on Schuyler. Clarke says he “used to tell people that George got up in the morning, waited to see which way the world was turning, and then struck out in the opposite direction.” In Black No More, this tendency serves Schuyler well. One can’t help but see how the satire does not simply bite, but chomps; the book’s title alone should suffice to demonstrate this.

Of course, presenting satire from a black American’s perspective was not something to which Schuyler could lay proprietary claim; Peplow, in a footnote to his article, “George Schuyler, Satirist: Rhetorical Devices in Black No More,” makes this plain by quoting W.E.B. Du Bois from the March 1931 issue of The Crisis. Du Bois writes that “American Negroes have written satire before, usually in small skits in columnists’ paragraphs.” Indeed, they had. In that same passage, Peplow goes on to note that “Elements of satire had appeared in the poetry, short stories, dramas, and columns of writers such as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, W.E.B. Du Bois, Wallace Thurman, and Rudolph Fisher,” but he categorically states that “Black No More was the first book length satire to be written by a black author in the United States.”

The evidence for Schuyler’s novel demonstrating his mastery over the Master Discourse may lie more in one’s perception than in anything tangible. A term coming from the field of psychoanalysis, the Master Discourse is based upon early 19th century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s master-slave dialectic and, when viewed as an external rather than internal (self-conflicted) process, may be seen as an interaction between two or more individuals. When applied to culture, it is not difficult to see how it relates to the dominator-dominated dynamic that plays out in American society between wealthy, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant males and everyone else. The Master Discourse, however, is but one of four postulated discourses, the other three being the “University,” the “Hysteric,” and the “Analyst.”

It is the Analyst Discourse which is significant here in that it is defined as an intentional subversion of the Master Discourse. As an example of how Schuyler does this, consider that by the end of Black No More, the stampede to become white is subverted by a new-found suspicion of and disdain for whiteness, even among the naturally white. This absurd turn of events is crystalized for a reader when Schuyler writes “…it was a common thing to see a sweet young miss stop before a show window and dab her face with charcoal.”

It is doubtful that those who shared the basic values and assumptions of the Master Discourse had ever encountered anything even remotely similar to the sensibilities of Black No More. Many American novels were published in 1931. William Faulkner’s reputation was made that year with the publication of Sanctuary. Fannie Hurst, the sometime-patron, sometime-companion of Zora Neale Hurston, gave us Back Street. There was Upton Sinclair’s Roman Holliday and Pearl S. Buck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Good Earth. Schuyler’s was not even the only science fiction novel published that year, but of all the novelists, no matter their genres, Schuyler was the only black. That alone constituted a challenge to the status quo, yet that challenge did not end there. It rightfully can be said his upending of the commonly accepted thinking of the dominant culture is further demonstrated by his showing a distinct sameness between black and white Americans. As pointed out by Jane Kuenz in “American Racial Discourse, 1900-1930: Schuyler’s ‘Black No More,’” “Schuyler’s depiction of the U.S., black and white, is uniformly bleak: a world in which everyone is subject to and motivated by the same ruthless social and economic forces and out of which select winners emerge by dint of their own corresponding ruthlessness.”

A reader familiar only with the then-accepted literature would see something new in Schuyler, something wholly different from the earnestness of writers like Anna Julia Cooper or Du Bois or Alain Locke. That any black should be able to write as cogently and elegantly as these and others would undoubtedly subvert the thinking of some of those ensconced in the ivory towers of the era; that Schuyler writes so ferociously must surely have been a revelation. Perhaps it will be revealed to modern readers who also enjoy watching the movie-screen exploits of comic book heroes.

Shall I…

eyeball

(I often am at a lost as to what I will write each month, not knowing what it will be until I come up with it. No doubt, that would have been the case again this month were it not for something I did in December, something I never had done before. That month, I wrote what I planned to post for February. Why? Only fate and irony have the answer to that. After re-reading it, I’ve decided to publish it as is).

Not long after I met my wife, I found among her books a little, palm-of the-hand sized, hardback volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I had no idea the book contained only a few of them, that he had written 154. At that point, I had read only a few of his plays and had seen a few on stage and screen, but my only encounter with his sonnets was having heard — more than a few times — that famous opening line of Sonnet 18. Now, here it was before me for the first time, in its entirety, and I had a chance to read beyond a line that had become something often recited as a joke.

I did not know at the time that there is a specific rhythm and rhyme in what he wrote and did not pay attention to it at first. My own stabs at poetry have no set order to it that I would be able to point out. When I read poets, I either like what they write or don’t. I like a poem for its own reasons and, whatever those reasons are, they are not based on any critical analysis.

Around the same time I discovered the sonnets, I joined six other aspiring poets (Gideon Ferebee, Gregory Ford, Essex Hemphill, Oliver Jackson, Andre Ramseur, and Garth Tate) to form what became Station-to-Station Performance Poets and Writers’ Collective. Eventually joined by others, we soon found ourselves performing poetry all over the city in nightclubs and coffeehouses, on the stages of theaters and street festivals, even in government offices – including the mayor’s. Jokingly one day, my not-yet wife asked why I had not written a poem for her. Jokingly, I wrote one. Having read her book of The Bard’s sonnets but still not knowing what a sonnet was, I titled the poem “Sonnet One.” It was a hit with her.

It was later that I learned a sonnet has a certain meter and rhyming scheme, and I began to see possibilities. Instead of being subject to the whims of inspiration alone, there was an actual blueprint based upon which a work could be built, so I tried my hand at building what I thought might sound like a romantic, Shakespearian-ish sonnet. I titled it “Sonnet 118”, still unaware Shakespeare had written 154, thinking at the time that – maybe — I would write a hundred, seventeen more. Ha! In the thirty-plus years since, there have been only five others, four of which I previously inflicted upon you poor readers in February 2014.

Anyway, we are nearing that time when some are prone to romantic notions, given that the 14th day of this month has become a hyped-up, Hallmark holiday. There is little care about saints when there is sex and/or chocolate to be had. So, in keeping with the spirit of that approaching day, I share with you Sonnet One (a misnomer) and Sonnet 118 (which very well may be a misnomer).

Sonnet One

Is it poetry you want,

ethereal sounds conjuring forgotten visions,

like: the wind blowing clouds but spoken out loud,

words that soar like birds,

smooth words, slick words sliding into place?

Why sit with pen in hand awhile when there is poetry in your smile,

when there is poetry in the warmth of your embrace?

Is it poetry you want,

chant of the Magi echoing the Music of the Sky,

like: the tides at their times but flowing in rhyme,

psalms that soothe like balms,

fine lines, glib verse gleaming bright as gold?

Why sit with pen in hand awhile when there is poetry in your smile,

when you are poetry for my eyes to just behold?

 

Sonnet 118

In daydreams, you and I lie in moonglow.

We are entwined; we are slowly moving.

It is just a trick of the mind – I know —

a sly, little jest once again proving

a thought, sometimes, is a mischievous friend,

conjuring scenes of that which cannot be.

I bid it, “Be still!”, it wants to pretend.

Reverie — sweeter than reality —

rushes forth, keeping common sense at bay;

such visions do not easily abate.

But, hope hovers near at the end of day,

and truth does not have very long to wait.

Fantasy becomes factual delight

when you, my love, lie in my arms tonight.

 

Word

 

“I know words, I have the best words.” Then-candidate Donald Trump, December 30, 2015, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

2017 ended with a plethora of news programs about our first year with Donald Trump as our President. One such program looked back to May 4th and a piece by conservative columnist George F. Will, who had written, “It is urgent for Americans to think and speak clearly about President Trump’s inability to do either.” In a later interview, Will said of Trump:

           “The question is whether or not the way he talks and the judgments he makes about matters of fact, history for example, suggests that he really is not capable of sequential thought, which is rather alarming in a president…but there comes a point at which this manages to be ludicrous without being at all funny when you have a president who …finds it impossible to put into simple, declarative sentences what he’s talking about.”

In that same interview, Will was asked to listen to and comment on an assessment of Trump made by Dr. Lance Dodes, a former professor of psychiatry at Harvard University’s medical school. According to Dodes, “Lying in the way that [Trump] does it, repeated, dangerous lying…is a sign of serious mental disturbance.” Declaring himself unqualified to validate Dodes’s diagnosis, Will declined. He had developed a disdain for what he described as a “gross abuse of psychiatry” when Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican nominee for the presidency, was being diagnosed from afar. Instead, Will said he is “just going by the evidence that the President continues to put in front of us in torrential amounts.”

The still-debated question is how did Trump become the President, a man who never had run for office, a New York real estate magnate and reality television star with a penchant for crudeness, lewdness, and disinformation and with no history of government service as either a civilian or a member of the military. There have been numerous attempts to ascribe his success to any number of factors (misogyny, racism, economic anxiety, simply having a hated Hillary Clinton as an opponent). Any number of those factors may very well have contributed. Still, if observers like Will and Dodes are right, how could it have happened? 2018 should be a time for those still pondering that question to consider the possibility that what they believe about Trump’s win and year-long tenure may be wrong, or that they may not have things quite right. For those who say Trump is crazy, there are those who say, “Crazy like a fox.” And, for those who say he is stupid, there are those who say he is far from that.

A bold prediction made in an article (“Understanding Trump”) months before the 2016 election by a man named George Lakoff comes to mind. Lakoff said Trump would become President with 47% of the popular vote; Trump won with 46.4%. This feat of prognostication would be no less impressive even if accomplished by a professional pollster, pundit, or political operative, but imagine it being pulled off by Lakoff, a cognitive linguist with a focus on conceptual metaphor. That Lakoff could see what the political experts could not should give those others pause – for a moment, at least – then galvanize them to discover what obstructed their view.

For nearly four decades now, Lakoff, Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics Emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley, has studied and attempted to alert others to the prevalence and significance of conceptual metaphors in everyday life. Conceptual metaphors are defined as ideas that are linked to others for a greater understanding of something. For example, such sayings as “Let me put in my two cents’ worth,” “He’s rich in ideas,” “That book is a treasure trove of ideas,” and “He has a wealth of ideas,” are commonly used phrases based on the conceptual metaphor (or abstraction) that ideas are money. Metaphors permeate and shape “…our everyday way of thinking, speaking and acting.” Lakoff looked at Trump’s use of this system of discourse and predicted the percentage of Trump’s win.

In a book (Thinking Points, A Progressive’s Handbook) written a decade before the article he wrote in 2016, Lakoff warned about the rise of authoritarianism in this country, noting that conservatives were in control of the terms of political debate. With Donald Trump now occupying the White House, and with his cabinet and judicial picks potentially touching nearly every aspect of people’s lives, looking at how he used language and conceptual metaphors is not only important, it is an imperative, particularly if there is any hope of making the problem of his election an aberration never to be repeated. Not only should the political class take another, closer look at Trump’s use of language, but also the ways in which his use was not matched by his opponents; in the case of Clinton, her campaign was warned about her deficiencies directly by Lakoff.

Given that some political observers have said they expect a record number of women to run for office in 2018, it is worth noting – as does Kathleen Ahrens in her book, Politics, Gender and Conceptual Metaphors – that research suggests conversation rituals are used differently; women aim to engage, men aim to win. The book notes further that gendered metaphors were used as a cudgel against Hillary Clinton when she ran for the Democratic nomination in 2008. The man who won the nomination that year, Barack Obama, had his own use of metaphor and skill at persuasion examined by Jonathan Charteris-Black in his book, Politicians and Rhetoric: The Persuasive Power of Metaphor. An important feature of that book is the author’s reminder that, in non-authoritarian societies, we are fortunate to be governed by words – which we can accept or reject – and not by whips.

We are faced with what should be an impossible situation. A man many believe to be too inarticulate and crazy ever to become President now occupies the Oval Office. How can this dichotomy exist? How can George Will and Dr. Dodes be right about Trump and, yet, he is President? Perhaps we should look for answers beyond those provided by the common consensus. Perhaps Lakoff and others in his field are on to something, that additional answers are to be found in the nexus of linguistics, cognitive science, and politics. Lakoff believes this might help a society avoid falling victim to demagoguery.

A thorough look at how conceptual metaphor was used – and not used – during the 2016 presidential campaign would aid progressives of all genders who seek political office avoid the mistakes made by those who have failed. As for that seeming master of the game now in the White House, we may have to consider the possibility that his sensational success may not be evidence of genuine genius; he may be an idiot savant.

A Voice

     Yesterday, while walking across UDC’s Dennard Plaza to get to a writing class in the College of Arts and Sciences building, I stopped to answer a call from my sister, a retired school teacher. She had just read something she said I had to read later for a good laugh, an article about the hilarious answers students have given to test questions. She read a few to me. They were really funny, some intentionally so, others given in complete innocence. One made me consider the ubiquity of irony. To the question, “Imagine that you lived at the same time as Abraham Lincoln. What would you say to him or ask him?”, the student wrote, “I’d tell him not to go to a play ever.” The irony was that the professor whose class I was on my way to when I stopped and listened to that story has been bringing Ford’s Theater to UDC and is doing so again in four days.

     The theaters in and around Washington, DC partner with local high schools and universities to provide and promote education in the theater arts (Woolly Mammoth with Howard University, Arena Stage with Georgetown University, etc.). Dr. La Tanya Rogers, a professor of English at UDC who is the former national vice president of the Black Theater Network, is the university’s go-to person for Ford’s Theater. She has been working with that theater’s arts education coordinator, Jennie Eng, to foster students’ interests and develop their creativity and skills. A couple of months ago, the two held an open workshop on campus to do just that.

     I did not attend. I thought I had escaped that exercise, but a few weeks ago, Dr. Rogers made the writing of a monologue an assignment for the students in her class. Only later did we learn Ms. Eng would be returning to campus and attending our class to listen to the monologues being read and to give feedback. That turned out to be an emotional experience for some students who had poured so much of themselves into their work. Some found it difficult to continue reading through their tears. My classmates had written impressive pieces, quite moving, and had left me wondering if mine was any good. I had gone in a different direction, had not placed myself in the work, and Ms. Eng had said early on that such work minus the self cannot be good.

     At the end of that class, we learned Ms. Eng would be returning this month to see students deliver their completed monologues in the school’s black box theater. I’ve already drafted a classmate to read mine in my stead, and have secured an understudy just in case. To the question, “Why won’t he deliver his own monologue?”, this student has no hilarious answer. See for yourself:

Eliza Speaks

     “Momma been prayin’ a lot, Pastor Anderson, prayin’ more than she always do. I can hear her when she think me and Lizzie are ’sleep, askin’ the Lord to save her two girls, save us and Daddy, but she don’t never say nothin’ ’bout savin’ her, too, so I always make sure to ask Him to save all ‘a us – if it’s not too much to ask. The Good Book says it’s not.

     “Lord knows we need His help. We need that and the other kind ‘a help her and Daddy been askin’ for, too. If the Lord got his hand in that – and why wouldn’t he – then I wish everything wouldn’t keep goin’ back and forth the way it’s been. One day we saved, the next day we ain’t. Momma say the same thing you say, Pastor, that we got to have faith, but she say that now we got to have faith in God and the gov’ment, too. She say the law is on our side, just like that last judge said it is, and that them Missouri Supreme Court judges is ’spose to set things straight. But I can tell the back-and-forth been botherin’ her, too, just like Daddy.

     “All Lizzie know is things ain’t right yet, thing’s ain’t finished, but Momma and Daddy keep on tellin’ her they will be. But you know Lizzie still a girl, Pastor, just seven, so they don’t see no need to worry her ’bout this. Momma talks to me about some of it, though, and Daddy do too, sometimes. I guess they finally gettin’ to see I ain’t a girl no more. Momma told me I was born in the year of 1838, so that mean I’m almost fifteen. She like tellin’ me ’bout how I came into this world, ’bout how her and Daddy was on the river Mississippi on a steamboat named Gipsy, and ’bout how I refused to wait ’til that boat docked. That was back when they was still with Dr. Emerson, back before he died and the Widow Emerson went back to live on her daddy’s plantation while she hired Momma and Daddy out and collected their wages. Momma say when they was on that boat goin’ down the Mississippi they was passin’ by a free state on one side and a free territory on the other. ‘Which mean you was born free, Eliza,’ she always like to say. What I wanna know, Pastor, is why — if I was born free and they was already livin’ in the free land – then why they got to keep tryin’ to convince judges that we ’spose to be free? Now, every night, I hear Momma tryin’ to convince God of that, too. She be remindin’ him that even the Hebrew children got free.

     “Momma do more than ask God to do somp’n, though. She said you was the one who told her ’bout how some slaves was going to court to get free ’cause slavery ’spose to be ’gainst the law in the free territory. She the one who got Daddy goin’. I remember when she first started talkin’ to him ’bout it. Daddy already had tried to do right and buy us from the Widow Emerson, but the Widow said no, so Momma said they had to do what white folk would do: sue. Daddy watn’t so sure ’bout the idea at first, said he didn’t see the gov’ment doin’ but so much for us in the first place and it could be just a waste ‘a time and might cause trouble just to ask. I knew Momma didn’t like hearin’ that ’cause she called him by his whole name, ‘Etheldred’, instead of just ‘Dred’ like she always do. She said, ‘Just how much trouble you think these girls and me is worth, Etheldred? How much trouble you think you worth?’ ‘Just let me think on it, Harriet,’ he would say. Watn’t too much of that or too long after that when her and Daddy started talkin’ to the lawyers ’bout going to court. But everything been back and forth, Pastor. One time we slaves, the next time we free. Now, ’cause the Widow is suin’ this time, we got to wait and see what them Missouri Supreme Court judges decide we are. Momma said if they go against us, there is nine more judges in Washington who get the last say-so. I wonder if they ever read that part of the Good Book in Matthew, 7th chapter, 2nd verse where it says, ‘For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged…’ They must ’a had, don’t you think so, Pastor? What good Christian man who can read ain’t read that? And Momma did say to have faith — same as you say.

     “But, you know what I don’t understand, Pastor? Last Sunday after church, folk was comin’ up to just Daddy, like Momma ain’t even had nothin’ to with it, and was tellin’ him how they was all prayin’ for him and prayin’ that those who got to decide things won’t just see what’s right but will do what’s right. Some said they thank God for men like him. I don’t think that was right to leave Momma out of it like that, but she didn’t say a word. She just smiled.”

War

     Of course, we know some events begin beyond our immediate sight: the explosion of a star in a distant galaxy, the mutation of a gene sequence, whatever is happening right behind you right now. Some events also begin beyond our immediate understanding. In 1981, when doctors in this country began seeing the strange illness compromising people’s immune systems, they did not understand it to be the global health crisis it would become. On December 26, 2004, although the indigenous peoples of the lands surrounding the Indian Ocean were aware of what it meant to see the ocean recede from the shore, very few of the other inhabitants of those lands or the tourists understood it was a sign to run for the hills; nearly a quarter-of-a-million were killed that day when a tsunami struck eleven countries.

     There have been events that we did not understand were the beginning of war. It was not difficult for Americans to comprehend it meant war when the Confederates bombarded our army’s fort in South Carolina in 1861, or when Japan bombed our naval base in Hawaii in 1941. In 1914, this country did not understand it would mean the deaths of more than 38 million people – including more than 100,000 Americans – when a 19-year-old militant in Bosnia assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Even the war that ensued from that assassination was not seen to be the prelude it was; issues unsatisfactorily resolved left resentments that rose to the level of war again in 1939, just 21 years after the previous one had ended. Over 400,000 Americans were killed that time; over 60 million people died worldwide, 3% of the planet’s human population.

     Did we know it meant war following Al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on New York City in 2001? It is doubtful. 9/11, like Fort Sumter and Pearl Harbor, was an in-your-face attack; we knew there was a need for a response, but did 9/11 lead us to understand that, because of the actions of a nebulous organization, we would invade two countries that never attacked us? Did we realize American servicemembers would still be dying in those countries nearly two decades later?

     The concern here is not the wars we have fought or are fighting, but the one many Americans do not seem to understand we now are in. It is as if we are like characters in a science fiction movie where we are moving so slowly it appears time has stopped and we are frozen in place while the story’s villains move among us at normal speed, taking advantage of the fact that we are unaware not only of their presence but of our own immobility. Rather than have us watch aghast as Boeing 767 jetliners full of people smash into skyscrapers full of people, our present adversary prefers stealth. Using the subterfuge of cyberspace, they take advantage of our internal civic discord and division to sow more. We may be in a time when we will need the equal of Lincoln or a Roosevelt and we have Trump, a man who has been warned we are under attack, but who cravenly refuses to either adequately address or even acknowledge this fact. Trump is aided in this abdication of his responsibility by a political base that sees the enemy the same as he does, as no enemy at all, as maybe a political ally even. After all, the enemy did help get Trump elected.

     It was reported that the enemy’s leader once called Trump “brilliant.” Translators (and, therefore, Trump) initially thought he meant brilliant as in “bright” or “smart,” not understanding that the specific word he used was meant to convey the idea of bright as  “shiny” or “flashy,” an apt moniker for the man. The leader himself later clarified his earlier comment, stating that he thinks Trump is “flamboyant.” So, let us not assume or pretend that the enemy’s intent was to get Trump elected. No, putting Trump in place was not the goal. Generally, they simply wanted to weaken what threatens them: secular, democratic civil societies that have free and fair elections, independent judiciaries and an unfettered press. Specifically, the goal was the damage sought by the leader himself, a man whose vindictiveness set in motion a plan to do political harm to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton who – in her role as Secretary of State – had dared to point out the problems found in Russia’s presidential election, thereby seeming to question the leader’s legitimacy. Assuming she would win the White House, he was intent on having her legitimacy questioned as well. It was more luck than skill that made his efforts to harm us so spectacularly successful here, a place so entrenched in partisanship that the portion of the electorate enamored of Trump does not believe in or care about that success.

     Here is a thought experiment involving 9/11 that might give more of us more of a perspective on what has happened to us. Imagine if — on that fateful September morning – only one plane had felled only one of New York City’s Twin Towers. Would our outrage have been any less? Suppose, afterward, that circumstances began indicating the possibility there were Americans in the still-standing tower who may have knowingly or unknowingly aided the plane’s hijackers. To what level would our outrage have risen? If what American intelligence agencies have found is true, the intrusion into the 2016 campaign for the presidency seems little if any different from the scenario just presented. To play that scenario out, half the people in this country on 9/11 would have felt no outrage because they didn’t particularly care for the fallen tower in the first place – or for the people inside. If you can imagine the degree of disgust and distrust most Americans would feel about compatriots who either in some way assisted Al-Qaeda or were content with what it accomplished, you may have some idea of the feelings running through the citizenry following the attacks on our political processes and the lackluster response.

     Those attacks were not unique to us. The enemy has tentacles it extends wherever it perceives a need.  Today’s historians can trace the start of World War I to the murderous act of a Balkan teenager. World War II began when Germany attacked Poland. Can the genesis of the current, low-grade world war be so easily pinpointed? Could it have been in 2008 when the enemy invaded its neighbor, Georgia, or in 2014 when it invaded its neighbor, Ukraine? (Those were no cyber invasions; they were the old-fashioned kind). Will it be said that the war began in recent years with the enemy’s interference in the internal affairs of France, the Netherlands, Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy and Germany?

     Those who know we are in a war are understandably reluctant to charge headlong into battle. There are no time-tested treaties or protocols in place governing the rules of cyberwarfare and, like the mutual destruction guaranteed by the use of nuclear arms, there might be formidable consequences resulting from battles fought in cyberspace. Ukraine got just a taste of this in 2015 when, two days before Christmas, the enemy took down part of that country’s power grid. Shortly thereafter, as was reported by David Sanger in The New York Times, the Obama administration “…warned the nation’s power companies, water suppliers and transportation networks that sophisticated cyberattack techniques… could easily be turned on them.”

     Because Trump publicly admires rather than admonishes the enemy’s leader, it leaves people hoping that others in government who understand what is happening are acting accordingly. But, in war or peace, governments need the support of the governed if there is to be any hope of success. Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, in an interview on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” pointed out that “…Russia has been, sort of, gathered around Putin, who has said Russia is at war with America and has been saying that for basically the last four or five years.” An overarching question for us is, “Can a war be won by those unaware they’re in one?” The answer to that is an easy “No.”

 

Same-old

     It was five years ago today that I began to post thoughts on this website, so it is fitting to consider the power of words and the ideas they express. What comes to mind are words spoken by hip-hop artist Chuck D a few weeks ago in an interview. The Public Enemy leader, sitting on the set of The Daily Show alongside his present-day collaborator, guitarist Tom Morello of the rock band Rage Against the Machine, had this to say: “We feel as musicians that we have the universal language and passport to tell the whole world to be accountable and responsible.” The idea of a universal passport is something we all should feel we have in our possession.

     Chuck D’s words had me thinking of ones written 61 years ago and recounted later by James Baldwin in his book, Nobody Knows My Name. Baldwin quotes W.E.B. Du Bois who is explaining by letter why he is not in attendance at the Conference of Negro-African Writers and Artists in Paris in 1956. “I am not present at your meeting because the U.S. government will not give me a passport.” Here’s the thing: Du Bois’s letter was read aloud at that conference; his words served as his passport. As you have just read a line from his letter, you can see that passport allowed him not only to cross borders but has enabled him to traverse time.  As another example of this, revisit his The Souls of Black Folk. Is it possible for someone today to read that 114-year-old work and not be struck by how timely it remains? If one has been paying attention to recent national news, it is difficult to imagine one could also enter Du Bois’s book and depart without thinking of the saying (best expressed in its original language), “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

     Consider the Republican Party’s ongoing attempts to place as many restrictions on voting as possible. As has been widely reported, some who are engaged in this endeavor have unartfully made known their true goal: to reduce the number of black voters. As if television news viewers had not seen and heard them say as much, they now insist on engaging in the charade known as The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity which is supposed to expose and to protect against the voter fraud they know does not exist. The Commission’s vice chair, Kris Kobach, made himself the poster child of voting restriction in his former role as Secretary of State of Kansas. In an interview this past May, Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, said, “You can tell that this is a sham commission just by the appointment of Kris Kobach, someone who has devoted much of his professional life to suppressing the vote…”

     Why this war on black suffrage? One need only look to the words of Du Bois. “Thus, Negro Suffrage ended a civil war by beginning a race feud.” And, why this feud? Again, Du Bois sheds ample light. “…there was scarcely a white man in the South who did not honestly regard Emancipation as a crime, and its practical nullification as a duty.” We know that feud was exacerbated 52 years ago with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. When President Lyndon Johnson, himself a son of the South, signed it into law, he knew the ramifications of what he had done. Just a year before, after having signed the Civil Rights Act, he later confided to an aide (as recounted by that aide, Bill Moyers, in his book Moyers on America: A Journalist and His Times), “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come.”

     Chuck D and Tom Morello have joined forces with Cypress Hill to form a new, super group named after a Public Enemy song, “Prophets of Rage.” Du Bois suggests something more: zeal. He writes that with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, “A million black men started with renewed zeal to vote themselves into the kingdom.” We, their modern-day heirs, should be so zealous. After all, Du Bois has warned of the consequences of complacency. “The power of the ballot we need in sheer self-defence [sic], —else what shall save us from a second slavery?” It remains a timely statement — and question. Hopefully, it allows us to see we have universal passports at the ready. We don’t have to be Chuck D or Du Bois to use them.