Prophet Melvin?

In the mid 1970’s at the Oakland Ensemble Theater, about a year or two before he began acting in the television show The Love Boat, Ted Lange directed a production of Melvin Van Peebles’ musical depicting the underside of inner-city life, Ain’t Supposed To Die A Natural Death (Tunes from Blackness). To this audience member, it was mesmerizing, so much so that I had to see it a second time. I knew the 1971-’72 production on Broadway had garnered critical acclaim and Tony nominations, but I could not imagine how it could have surpassed what Lange had done.

It is the opening lines of the soliloquy ending the show that comes to mind so frequently these days. The piece was delivered directly to the audience, with bone-chilling bitterness, by the character of a bag lady. It began with the words “Put a curse on you. May all of your children end up junkies, too.”

For the past several years, reporters in newspapers and magazines and on television have made sure we know we are in the midst of an opioid-addiction epidemic. For some, no such reporting has been necessary. They know from personal experience – either their own addiction or that of someone close. If anything, the media stories show the problem is not an isolated one. We are at a point where these tales surface monthly, weekly, sometimes daily. Last week alone, there was a report on CBS Evening News about the prevalence in Ohio of the drug Carfentanil, used as an elephant tranquilizer, which is ten thousand times more potent than morphine and a hundred times more powerful than Fentanyl, the drug that killed Prince this past April in Minnesota. Fentanyl killed more than a thousand people in Ohio last year. Carfentanil has killed at least thirty people in the Akron area since early July. These two drugs often are used as an admixture (cut) for heroin.

Two days after that CBS story, MSNBC had an interview with Maine state representative Drew Gattine, chair of the legislature’s Human Services Committee, who said “…we have a very, very serious drug crisis, people are dying in our streets from heroin overdoses.” Mr. Gattine may or may not have been engaging in a bit of hyperbole, but he was deadly serious about what he recognizes as a problem.

Wherever you are, you know it is not a problem limited to Ohio and Maine. Depending on who you are, you also may know none of this is new.  One does not have to look back to the nineteenth century’s opium scourge in places as far flung as England or China. Some need look no farther than their own youthful days right here, wherein they or someone they knew had succumbed to heroin’s power. In doing so, they will recall there was none of today’s widespread compassion and concern. Instead, what they will remember is the launch of the war on drugs, a war that – as Jelani Cobb writes in the August 29th edition of The New Yorker – “has been a multitiered campaign that has enlisted legislation, private-sector initiatives, executive-branch support, and public will.” Cobb notes “it actually looks like a war, with military-style armaments, random violence, and significant numbers of people taken prisoner. It has been prosecuted throughout eight Administrations and has had the type of social and cultural impact that few things short of real warfare do. During the Civil War, more than a quarter of a million Southern men died, creating the phenomenon of a vast number of female-headed households throughout the region. Mass incarceration during the war on drugs has produced a similar phenomenon among African-American households.”

Again, depending on who you are, you know that heroin addiction in decades past never was limited to blacks. Neither was the opprobrium directed at addicts. White youths who trod what the larger society saw as troubling paths (civil rights; racial integration; anti-Viet Nam War activism; feminism; anti-capitalism; environmentalism; free love; flower power) sometimes were viewed as betrayers of either their race or class, of their families and upbringing, and therefore less worthy of the concern afforded them before. Being a junkie was just one more thing too many.

One reason people now show a concern lacking in the past is not just because of the prevalence of white, middle class addicts. Sure, the fact that addiction has caused that group’s premature death rate to increase considerably while it falls for other groups is certainly a factor in the push to help those who are suffering, but that push stems also from a mindset that sees something other than race or an affinity for the counterculture separating today’s addicts from those of yesteryear. It is the idea that junkies of the past just wanted to get high, but that today’s addicts are victims, that they are good, decent people who only sought to legally and legitimately manage pain, but were duped into opioid addiction by doctors and pharmaceutical companies, and – once the pills were no longer prescribed or available or effective – turned to heroin. This is a supposition that denies the fact that addiction often begins for anyone as an attempt to blunt pain, including the psychogenic pain common to us all. Addiction is both a preventable and treatable condition, and more of the resources needed to help those who were struggling should have been put in place long ago. Instead, incarceration often took precedence over rehabilitation, leaving us where we are today

It was Oscar Wilde who wrote “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”. That’s something to consider and decide for yourself. Van Peebles’ art was a portrait of lives ignored by those who should have cared but did not, not knowing what not caring would do, where it would lead one day. Now, as the saying goes, all lives matter. Some knew that all along. For others, arriving late and reluctantly to that realization has proven to be disastrous.

 

End Note:

There’s been a lot of talk by pundits and others lately about the idea of men making monsters. This, of course, has been in reference not only to the Republican Party’s creation of its current presidential nominee, but also of his supporters. Wisconsin radio host Charlie Sykes, a conservative, recently said of his fellow travelers that in their constant assaults on mainstream news media, they have wrecked the very idea of objective, knowable fact. He added “We’ve created this monster.”

Well, I don’t think this summer should pass without the person responsible for Mr. Sykes’ imagery getting a shout-out. It was exactly two hundred years ago, the summer of 1816 when she turned 19 on August 30th, that Mary Shelley gave birth to the idea that was to become her novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus.

Mr. Sykes said of the coming election “When this is all over…we have to go back. There’s got to be a reckoning on all this.” Victor Frankenstein fails in his attempt to kill his creation. We’d better hope Sykes and his cohorts succeed in killing theirs.

Big Daddy

(Note: It was brought to my attention that some may not have realized last month’s post – unlike all prior ones — was a work of fiction. This one is the usual fare, and – as sometimes happens – a poem follows.)

People given to contemplating and discussing the existence of a creator deity will invariably tell you such a deity should not be thought of in anthropomorphic terms, should not have words applied that would denote male or female because it would be neither. A variation of that theme holds that such a deity would be both. Either way, we live in a world where words still matter, including pronouns. They not only matter, their use can have enormous consequences. Yet, there are some who will argue that the use of a particular word for a deity does not matter at all. Really? Well then, let’s see.

What if, in the beginning, Goddess created the heavens and the earth? What if the reason we “shall not want” is because the Lady is our Shepherdess? What if it is our Mother “who art in heaven,” and it is the Queendom we should be seeking? What if Abraham’s deity, in generation after generation for thousands of years, had been referred to in feminine terms? By now, there would have been women as the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, the Grand Mufti of Mecca, the Pope of Vatican City and the president of the Southern Baptist Convention (assuming these divisions would have arisen at all). Still think the use of “She” instead of “He” wouldn’t matter?

The extent to which gender differences have embedded gender discrimination into everything we are and do might be unfathomable. Yes, human males tend to be larger and stronger than females. Yes, human females sometimes can be temporarily sidelined by menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and nursing. These two factors might have been what began the entrenched gender roles that have defined us since our prehistory, but something else sustains the status quo, leaving the march toward parity in the modern world unfinished.

We here in this country are now witnessing another leg of that march, and we are unable to use biology as an excuse for its laggardly pace. The slow advance appears to be completely cultural. How else to explain the nation’s first women nominee for the presidency? What other reason do we have? What is it about our vaunted American exceptionalism that tells us why we are decades behind Sri Lanka (1960); India (’66); Israel (’69); the Philippines (’86); Pakistan (’88); Germany (2005); and Liberia (’06)? England, the very country from which we sprang, had its first woman prime minister 37 years ago and now has its second – who won by defeating another woman. As for American women, Janet Rosenberg Jagan – born in the same hometown as Hillary Clinton – became president of Guyana in 1997.

To put our conundrum in perspective, consider a bit of our history many continue to experience first hand: the racial animosity felt by some whites toward blacks. We have some understanding of how deep and pervasive those feelings are and have been. Yet despite this, the right to vote was given to black men before white women. Of course, the franchise remained  a dream rather than becoming reality for most black men, but it was written right there in the Constitution. It was another half century before the same was done for women.

So, does arriving late to only the possibility of a woman president point to something unique about our culture? No, ours shares a basic trait common to all others – past and present: male prerogative is predominant. This is true even in countries that have elected women leaders. What uniqueness we may have lies in our struggle to extricate ourselves from the consequences of a prerogative not simply male, but wealthy, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant male.

A worrisome thought is the likelihood that a woman’s advance to the White House will be accompanied by a measurable downturn in opportunities being offered to women, and an increase in both subtle and overt offenses directed at women – including incidents of domestic violence. A woman President will be seen by some to be as much an interloper as the current black one, and may have to contend with the same sort of obstruction.

Beyond our history of machismo, what keeps us bound to outdated thinking? Is it merely satisfaction with the familiar or fear of an unknown and therefore uncertain future? These are possible answers, but unlikely ones, although they may serve as contributing factors. One likely possibility we should consider is religiosity. Something so fundamental to someone as her or his religious faith has a profound influence on how she or he views life and navigates the world.

Writer Lyz Lenz, in a recent essay in The Washington Post, shines a light on how the advocacy of what is known as “purity culture” had adversely affected her thinking and that of a generation of young evangelicals. She writes “Purity culture taught me I should be passed down from father to husband, more an inheritance than a human. I was taught that men are my cover and my shield, when for the most part they have been the ones causing damage through molestation, rape and abuse.” She went on to write that she was taught “my holy calling in life was to open my legs for one and only one and bear him children,” furthering the lesson “that more than my mind and my talents, my body was my greatest gift.

We know collective faith shapes societies. We have seen how faith has moved some to challenge social injustice, and how faith has moved some to deny the very existence of the injustice others claim to see. After all, why should women have the same rights assumed by men if the Torah or the New Testament or the Koran says they should not? Would any of those texts say anything of that nature if Abraham had decided to swear fealty to one of the female deities from among the ancient Mesopotamian pantheon instead of one of the males?

The one he chose has been many things to many people – “many people” meaning every Jew, Christian and Muslim in the world. God, supposedly, has said some things that give some people pause. In the book Isaiah (45:7), He is quoted as having said He creates evil. Imagine. This does not appear to be a deity to whom one would want to pledge one’s loyalty, but some of us do, believing He has some attractive and redeeming qualities despite some of the other things He says and does.

This is much like the man now running to be our President, who said people would still vote for him even if he stood in the middle of New York City’s Fifth Avenue and shot someone. He’s right. Goddess help us.

 

Loved One

I.

I want to come to you.

Tell me where you are

and I will come,

you, whom he loved like no other,

you, whom he held close.

You could ask him anything,

things no other would ask,

and he would tell you

things he wanted only you to know,

and you held his confidence.

 

II.

If you tell me where you are,

I will come to you.

You were with him

when they came and took him away.

You were the only one who stood

with the women at Golgotha,

where he told his mother

you were to be her son,

and she, your mother.

Only you were there,

watching with the women,

weeping with them

as the light left his eyes,

the life slipped from his body,

his love, lost,

leaving every part of you

wrenching,

rending.

 

III.

Let me come to you,

and hear you speak of love,

you, who heard he was no longer where he had been lain,

and raced there to see for yourself,

hurrying so quickly

you outran everyone,

getting there first,

but only looking,

unable to make yourself go in,

finally having to.

You knew then that love was not lost.

Those who have been loved as you would understand.

I want to understand.

 

IV.

When he came to you and the others at the sea,

attracting more fish than anyone could ever catch,

only you could see it was he who had provided such bounty,

telling the others it was so,

so that they, too, might know.

 

V.

Tell me where you are.

I want to come to you.

I want to see your eyes,

hear your voice

when you speak of him.

When others questioned your very presence,

he questioned them, asking

what was it to them

if he wanted you to be here

when he returns.

I want to learn about this love

that keeps you here, still.                               © 2016, g. r. adams

 

 


 

Revenge Fantasy

     Like most, you may be unfamiliar with Turner-Brown. Learning about it might make you wonder how something a Justice Department official calls “diabolical” has not been more widely reported. That may soon change. The Department is attempting to compel a private organization to turn over documents related to its operations. That attempt may make its way to a federal court, though legal experts scoff at the idea.

     Turner-Brown seems like something that could be found only in an underground comic book, but its possible connection to real-life deaths has elicited the continuing attention of the FBI. The term refers to the Turner-Brown Heritage Society, so named in honor of slave insurrectionist Nat Turner and slavery abolitionist John Brown. It also refers to an award the Society has been presenting annually for the past decade to five individuals or groups who have “performed exceptional acts” in the spirit of the group’s two namesakes. The recognition, given as part of the ceremonies at a grand banquet, comes with more than a thank you. Each recipient also gets fifty thousand dollars. It is the criteria for winning this prize that has caught the government’s interest, causing the group’s existence to become less obscure. Turner-Brown and its honorees never have tried to hide, but they never have advertised themselves. The Justice Department thinks it knows why.

     For the first few years, the Turner-Brown Award banquets were seen as an elaborate hoax, or a sort of left-wing performance art produced on an unusual scale. A quarter of a million dollars is a lot to pay for a yearly fantasy, a sum that made people begin to take notice – that, and the fact prize winners are honored for supposedly having killed people. The thing that began to intrigue authorities the most was the basic rule that anyone hoping even to be nominated for an Award had to provide irrefutable proof of his or her worthiness. No, there have been no severed heads on pikes prominently displayed during the annual gathering, but the Society claims to review verifiable evidence before bestowing an honor. The Justice Department would like to know more about that.

     Circumstantial evidence suggests the Turner-Brown Award recipients have earned every penny of their prizes. That evidence may have been provided in remarks made by a 2013 honoree, Ezekiel Roth, during his acceptance speech. It has been reported such speeches customarily include cryptic allusions to the speakers’ alleged deeds, but something Roth said that year from the dais in the banquet hall of Washington’s elegant Ellicott Hotel resonated two years later with a deputy sheriff sitting at his desk in Gilead, Texas.

     Harry Cooper had been nearly obsessed with the unsolved murder of a resident of his small town. The victim, Roger Thornton, not only had no known enemies, he had been well-liked enough to have been elected five times to the state assembly. That would have been an unlikely feat for anyone out of step with the sentiments of Gilead and its environs, but Thornton knew what his neighbors and constituents wanted and made sure they got it. His murder in his home was beyond mysterious, made even more so because he had not been robbed, but Deputy Sheriff Cooper knew something the public did not. The killer intentionally left a clue indicating the murder might have been politically motivated: a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution had been stuffed down Thornton’s slit throat.

     Cooper, by chance one day looking at Facebook, saw something someone had posted about “some crazy group that said it ‘honored true warriors defending the Constitution against its desecraters.’” There was a reference to Ezekiel Roth’s speech in which he spoke of “’the satisfaction drawn from watching an enemy of the Constitution consume its words.’” Cooper has said reading that made his “hair stand on end,” and would not leave him alone. He began to wonder if it was possible this group, “this Turner-Brown Heritage Society” was really about what it said it was. He learned he was not the only one who had begun to wonder. Despite being chastised by his superiors for his “wacky notions,” Cooper contacted the FBI and discovered there was a special task force eager to catch a break.

     The FBI, becoming curious about the claims of Turner-Brown, has had an unacknowledged presence at the Society’s invitation-only affairs. The Award banquets are said to be lively events, with moments of sobering solemnity, attended by the political and social activists who comprise the group’s membership and their guests, a few of whom are luminaries from the worlds of arts and letters, entertainment and sports. Bureau agents take note of every attendee, and record and parse every word of every acceptance speech. The agency, though having looked at any possibility of a connection to any known case, had found nothing. According to the reported statement of a Justice official speaking on the condition of anonymity, after Harry Cooper’s call from Texas the attitude among members of the FBI’s Turner-Brown Task Force became “Well, why not take another look at Roth?”

     Because Roger Thornton’s death had been seen by the authorities as a local matter, it had not reached the notice of the FBI or even state agencies. Cooper’s hunch changed that, and agents began to look for any case similar to the one in Gilead. They found four others, in four different states. They felt they were onto something. Each victim, like Thornton in Texas, had a copy of the Constitution stuffed down his slit throat. Also like Thornton, each victim not only had been a state legislator, they all had been considered leaders in the push to enact voter ID laws.

     In an editorial this past May, the Washington Post – not known as a bastion of liberal thinking – labeled voter suppression efforts in Texas “chicanery” and said those efforts were “…resurrecting Jim Crow-style obstacles to the ballot.” It stated further that a federal court has determined more than 600,000 Texans would be affected. In Gilead, Roger Thornton’s views on voter ID laws were well known. He seemed incapable of following the lead of those who believed such laws should be discussed publicly only in terms of guarding against voter fraud. This non-existent problem was to be the only talking point. Thornton never stuck to the script, and talked frequently and boastfully about the intended effects of the laws: to create an electorate more favorable to his way of thinking by eliminating the potential votes of those who might think otherwise. In 2011, he was quoted in the Gilead Gazette as saying “the trouncing of the opposing party in upcoming elections will be a testament to the benefits of my actions and those of my colleagues in Austin.” In the FBI’s estimation, someone like Thornton would have been an inviting target for someone in a group like Turner-Brown – if such a group happened to be engaging in more than just the free expression of speech. Looking at Roth more closely became an imperative.

     Ezekiel Roth has said he does not know if he is a marked man, but he assumes he is a heavily surveilled one. He has stated in interviews that when he began to hear from family, friends, co-workers and even old classmates that agents were asking questions about him, he wondered what took so long. Roth speaks with the laid-back air of a stoner, not with the fervor of a zealot, not even with the bravado afforded a man who was awarded a Bronze Star while serving six tours of duty in Afghanistan – which Roth was. Since the existence of an investigation began to be reported, making Roth a bit of a public figure, he has not been shy about extolling the virtue of the Turner-Brown cause.

     Here is Roth, from an interview on CNN: “People were killed just for trying to obtain the right to vote, sometimes people who already could vote but saw others could not. What? Am I supposed to stand by and let people be disenfranchised just because no one is trying to disenfranchise me? I don’t think so. How could I, after seeing some of my brothers-in-arms die while we were fighting to give people half a world away a chance to vote? No way. I can’t do it. People say they’re proud of me for what I did over there, but not as proud as I am for receiving a Turner-Brown Award right here. John Brown has been a hero to me since I was a boy. I was raised on the Bible, and it was obvious to me he was a prophet just like those prophets of old. He saw what was going to happen to this country and said it was going to happen and they killed him and it happened anyway – just like he said. The sin that was slavery was washed away with blood. There should be a national holiday for him. There was a blood sacrifice made by people in the 1960s, too, but people trying to take us back to those days need to understand that people trying to vote won’t be the ones bleeding this time. They think the only thing people can do to try and stop them is to fight them in statehouses and courthouses. Well, some people have moved beyond fighting nice. The financial backers, think-tanks, super-pacs and politicians behind the voter ID movement all think they’re safe, but they’re not anymore, not any of them.” When pressed to explain this last part, Roth demurs. He understands the limits of free speech, he recognizes the line beyond which lies self-incrimination.

     Roth would probably have to incriminate himself if the FBI has any hope of tying him to a crime. The investigation of him has yielded nothing. Members of the task force find this frustrating and infuriating, given what they believe to be a salient factor: Roth was not following his normal routine during any of the five murders he is suspected of being connected to. Once a month, over a five-month period, he was not at home, work, his girlfriend’s apartment or any of his usual haunts. In fact, according to his own taunting statement, he was not anywhere in his hometown of Chester, PA. Each time he was away, he supposedly was on a fishing trip with a group of friends, staying in a cabin in the woods near Lake Mayfield in Michigan. Roth says he assumes the FBI found no credit card activity anywhere, and learned through GPS monitoring that his cellphone and car – and those of his friends, all fellow Heritage members – were always there at the lake when throats were being slit elsewhere.

     The FBI’s empty hands has pushed the Justice Department to the embarrassing position of rattling its saber at Turner-Brown. To date, the Department has initiated no legal proceeding, doing nothing more than announcing it continues to build a case to present to the court, and warning that members of the Turner-Brown Heritage Society will be “subject to federal prosecution if found to be engaging in or abetting criminal acts.” This feeble attempt to scare the Society into turning over its records has become a source of derision in legal circles. It is generally understood Justice has no legal basis for requesting records. It also is obvious that turning over any documents would be the last thing the Society would do if it really does reward people for “creating enemy casualties in the battle against disenfranchisement.”

     That battle isn’t the only one being fought by the membership of Turner-Brown, as evidenced by the diverse areas of interests honored each year. In 2013 alone, the year of Roth’s award, his fellow honorees included Janice Aingsley, who focused on state legislators trying to impede women’s right to control their own bodies; Samuel Welles, who has said “dangerous police officers should be removed from communities by any means necessary; Margaret Harris, who decided people losing their island homelands to rising seas are owed something from people here who actively work against those trying to combat climate change; and James O. Johnson, who believes legislators who vote in favor of those trying to skirt clean air, water and soil regulations are guilty of attempted murder. It is a foundational belief of the Society that – were they alive today – Nat Turner and John Brown would not confine themselves to one fight.

     If Ezekiel Roth really is involved in the “diabolical” activities the Justice Department suspects he is, it is his response to the federal government’s inability to prevent state governments from enacting the voter ID laws he and the Turner-Brown Heritage Society oppose. Legislators who vote to approve such measures should bear in mind Roth’s words that they “…all think they’re safe, but they’re not anymore, not any of them.” How can they be, if there are some who are out for their blood?

( If there are questions concerning the content of this post, please review its title.)


Girls

Two of my sisters followed in the footsteps of two of our aunts and became school teachers. One went the traditional route of college right after high school. The other got married after high school, but decided to go to college and become a teacher when her youngest child turned 15. She has been teaching for 24 years now, and spends her summers teaching in a program called Girls Inc. The program, for girls 6-18, is designed to help them become “strong, smart and bold.” They study math, science, economics (including home economics) and foreign languages. They work to improve their reading skills. This is in Alabama, a state the rest of the country often finds good reason to deride.

Here in the nation’s capital, girls would not be even an afterthought were it not for the city being threatened with a lawsuit for ignoring them. A year-and-a-half ago, the schools’ chancellor said $20 million is to be invested in education initiatives for black and Hispanic boys, the highlight being an all-boys college preparatory high school to be located in an area with the city’s lowest incomes and highest crime rate. The possible suit may come from the American Civil Liberties Union, which studied the matter and determined that leaving black and Hispanic girls out of the picture violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The most damning thing about the controversy is that the the city’s own statistics make the case against its plans.

Numbers only lie when made to do so. The statistics provided in the ACLU report tell a truth: black and Hispanic girls are in as much need of help as their male counterparts. The unique struggles of girls have been known for some time. Some of that knowledge was gleaned from research conducted and published more than two decades ago right here. In Failing in Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls, the late Myra Sadker and her husband David Sadker – both professors at American University in 1993 – discuss the results of  three years of observations made in elementary schools in four states and the District of Columbia.

What was learned was striking. As the National Education Association reports, “Boys called out eight times as often as girls did. When a boy yelled out, the teacher ignored the raise your hand rule and usually praised his contribution. Girls who called out got reminders to raise their hands. Teachers valued boys’ comments more than girls’ comments. Teachers responded to girls with a simple nod or an okay,’ but they praised, corrected, helped, and criticized boys. Boys were encouraged to solve problems on their own, but teachers helped girls who were stuck on problems.”

Even studies critical of single-gender education have had to acknowledge the benefits that accrue to girls when in all-girl classrooms. The American Association of University Women’s Separated by Sex: A Critical Look at Single-Sex Education for Girls concluded that No evidence shows that single-sex education works or is better for girls than coeducation,” but notes that Some kinds of single-sex programs produce positive results for some students, including a preference for math and science among girls.”

If – as the Washington Post reports – the ACLU contends that it is unfair for the school system to paint the problem as a gender issue instead of a more broad racial one,” it is not alone in that belief. Sara Mead, a current member of the DC Public Charter School Board, wrote in Education Sector in 2006 thatThere’s no doubt that some groups of boys—particularly Hispanic and black boys and boys from low-income homes—are in real trouble. But the predominant issues for them are race and class, not gender. Closing racial and economic gaps would help poor and minority boys more than closing gender gaps, and focusing on gender gaps may distract attention from the bigger problems facing these youngsters.”

As someone who favors the idea of single-sex classrooms and schools, it is disappointing to learn that may not be feasible here. It is more disappointing to think the city will waste time fighting a losing court battle instead of moving forward with solutions based on evidence. After the D.C. attorney general initially said he would defend the city’s plans in court if necessary, he has since said he would review the subject. The chancellor plans to stay the course even though the rationale for doing so has been undermined by her own numbers, numbers that – for some reason – did not lead her to take into account the needs of girls when planning to improve the academic performance of minority males. As for the future of the city’s planned all-boys college preparatory high school, it may be necessary to look to our past. If you look at some of the old public elementary schools around town still standing, one end of those buildings have doors above which are chiseled the word Boys.” The doors at the other end all read Girls.”

American Genesis

Some
of our ancestors
were not
immigrants,
did not
scrimp
and
save
to book passage on ships
carrying them away
from poverty, persecution
for the promise of prosperity,
had been happy
in their homelands
through which flow
the Niger, the Congo,
were as content
there
as were the Lenape, here,
in the Hudson Valley,
the Cherokee, here,
in the Great Smoky Mountains,
the Chawasha, here,
in the Louisiana bayous.

Our ancestors
– coming neither as refugees
nor adventurers
to these shores –
were:
hunted, captured wild game,
herded, marched-to-market, penned cattle,
packed, shipped sardines,
sold, bought, bred livestock,
worked, beaten beast-of-burden,
freed, shooed-away strays,
reviled vermin, always in danger of the boot heel,
surviving,
living,
sometimes thriving,
yelling “Yes!” to the question
“Will wonders never cease?”

Do not ask
some of us
to tell our family’s immigrant tale.
Our forebears sought no fortune
in this place,
did not come
here
for freedom.

Split Decision

I once took a ferry across the English Channel from Dover to the Belgian coastal city of Oostende, and spent part of the summer in that country. My first trip to the capital, Brussels, was through the countryside and into the city on the back of a motorcycle. I marveled at the signs announcing preparations for the celebration – the following year – of the 1,000th anniversary of the city’s founding; I was from Washington, DC, a city not even two-hundred years old at the time.

The city I stayed in (with cousins living there at the time) was Louvain-la-Neuve. Eighteen miles southeast of the capital, the place seemed more like a small medieval town or village than city. Its close-in buildings of just two to four stories sat along narrow, winding, cobblestoned, pedestrian-only streets. It has a unique history, and I now wonder if that history may be a hindrance to the unity Belgium needs.

From my description of the town you may think it might be nearly as old as Brussels, but it is not. The first people ever to live there had arrived a mere six years before my visit – yes, six. If the current political campaigns here in this country are reminders of how Americans have remained divided over time, the fact that the city of Louvain-la-Neuve even exists is a testament to how humans divide themselves.

Belgians are divided mainly by language, separating themselves into communities speaking Belgian Dutch (the Flemish) or a dialect of French (the Walloons). Both groups have vied for power, influence and respect throughout the history of Belgium, a country that emerged as an independent nation in 1830 out of the European miasma of war, revolution and fallen empires. From the heights of governmental edicts all the way down to street signs, the dilemma of dual languages must be dealt with. When not done well, the consequences are substantial.

Consider Louvain-la-Neuve, for example. It is the very definition of a college town, as it was created solely to house the university that was built there. The town’s name is French for “New Leuven”, Leuven being the primarily Dutch-speaking town where the school was founded in 1834 – and remains today. Confused? It’s understandable if you are. Unable to bridge their differences, the leaders of the Catholic University of Leuven split the school in two in 1968, creating the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, which remained in Leuven, and the Université Catholique de Louvain, around which the new, French-speaking town was begun. This was not just an academic exercise. The school’s split contributed to the fall of the Belgian government.

That summer in Louvain-la-Neuve, I remember learning some of this history from students and residents who recounted the then ten-year-old breakup with all the indignation of the jilted. Now, twenty-three years after Europe became unified and Brussels became the continent’s de facto capital, the old divisions among the people of Belgium highlight the burden that country has placed upon itself. If Belgian Catholics could not get along with Belgian Catholics, if speaking Dutch or French is enough to separate them, how do they hope to manage the intricacies of integrating Belgians of North African descent speaking Arabic and practicing Islam? It is not as if that community does not have a need to be woven into the fabric of Belgium and, by extension, Europe.

I am reminded of that need when thinking of another story I was told while there that summer. It was about an Arab student who – while walking along a street in Louvain-la-Neuve one day — saw a young Arab boy. Surmising there must be an Arab family somewhere in town, and desperately seeking some semblance of familiarity, the student followed the boy home, hoping to find where he and his family lived. As it turned out, the boy was not Arab after all. He was my six-year-old cousin, an American. The student became one of a few befriended by my family.

We should view the recent terrorist bombings in Brussels with caution, but not as a cautionary tale. Their problem is not the same as ours. Successfully accommodating citizens who are neither of European heritage nor Christian by faith is something this country still hasn’t mastered, but — when compared to Europe — we seem to have gotten some of it right. This will remain the case, unless upended by the xenophobia being stoked this political season.

for Eric Metzner and Jackie Davis

Grace

One of the most controversial concepts of Christianity – difficult for many Christians and non-believers alike to reconcile – is the idea of salvation being available only by grace. Even after setting aside what one may think of the very idea of salvation (“Saved from what, exactly?” some may ask), one might still be disturbed, perplexed or offended by the notion that what one does in seeking salvation is nothing in comparison to what one believes. If this foundational teaching of the Apostles is true, what hope do we have of saving ourselves from the specter of a President Trump? Certainly, simply believing it can’t happen won’t be enough.

Nearly a year-and-a-half ago (“…and on the third day…”, November 1, 2014), I wrote about the first time I heard the expression “every nation has the government it deserves.” How can we know all that we know about this country and not consider the idea we might deserve Trump? Yes, we know our lofty ideals. We know also to what degree we adhere to them. This, alone, ought to cause us some concern.

Let’s, for the moment, say our nation’s future has nothing to do with anything ecclesiastical, that works – not faith – will save us from such an unimaginable fate as a Trump presidency. What, then, would that work entail? It would have to be more than you or I voting against him. Not even encouraging everyone we know to do the same would do much to help; you and I just don’t know that many people, and we may not have that kind of sway. We would be working against the mindset of a celebrity-obsessed populace that sent former Hollywood actor-turned-governor Ronald Reagan to the White House twice. Voters probably would have done the same for Hollywood actor-turned-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had he not been Austrian by birth. Reagan, unlike Trump, had much to offer beside his appeal as a former movie star, but it is doubtful most voters saw much beyond his silver-screen history. Americans go ga-ga for celebrities in much the way the British seem to swoon over their royals. (Of course, Americans being starstruck doesn’t explain how someone like George W. Bush got a second term in office after being shamefully foisted upon us the first time. See how things aren’t looking very promising?)

The truth is we who despair a President Trump find ourselves once again tied to the whim of compatriots we find difficult to understand and whose political behavior we are unable to predict. If presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont sincerely believes we are in need of the political revolution he calls for, he should understand such a revolution will not come about by only running for office – or winning it. What he hopes to accomplish with Congress requires an overhaul of that body, a massive Democratic re-alignment brought about by a tidal wave of voters washing recalcitrant Republicans out of their seats. Tell me, have you heard or seen Sanders call for or work towards that goal? Does he know of some other way? Do you?

The famous letter to the Christians living in the city of Ephesus sought to help them understand one of the basic tenets of their new belief system, that “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” That last part – the part about no one being able to boast about being saved – has an air of egalitarianism about it that someone like Senator Sanders might find attractive. It is doubtful someone like Trump would be enamored of the idea.

If “what is past is prologue,” we may have some unpleasant developments ahead. If we are unable to work to prevent it, if our faith in what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” is not enough, we’d better hope we are worthy of that aforementioned grace.