Friday, July 31, 2020

So Very Much to Learn

The Pacific Northwest summer soothes with days of rain and sun, of gray and brilliance. Yet this summer is unlike any other of my long teaching career. I am not basking in a period of rejuvenation, of cycling, of writing. Of simply enjoying my first grandchild. Instead it is a summer of COVID isolation and social unrest. 

It is a summer of change, and for me a time of intense study. I cannot totally disconnect from work because there is too much happening. So, I attend a few remote meetings each week, and I struggle to educate myself in order to understand the violence that fills our streets and the discord that questions the lack of social justice in the lives of my students, in the workings of my college, and in the structure my country.

I continue to work through my summer reading list, adding more titles as I go along. Earlier this spring, during my months of vision problems, I learned the joy of listening to audio books. Even though I can read again, I have continued the practice of listening, so I’m working through that list more quickly than I expected. So far, I’ve read: 

The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander
Heavy, Kiese Laymon
They Can’t Kill Us All, Wesley Lowery  
Me and White Supremacy, Layla F. Saad
Disgruntled, Asali Solomon
The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin

Currently I’m reading How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and Race, Empire,and English Language Teaching by Suhanthie Motha while listening to White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo (despite, or perhaps because of, John McWhorter’s critic “The Dehumanizing Condescension of White Fragility” in The Atlantic, July 15, 2020).
What have I garnered from all this reading? I’ll own that my understanding of the racial justice movement in America faded after Civil Rights. More recent events have made me aware of my ignorance of systematic racism. I decided to try to understand what has gone wrong, or rather what has always been wrong, for so many people in this country. I have found all of these books interesting in one way or another, but the most helpful of those I have dipped into so far is probably Michelle Alexander’s 2010 study of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration in America since the early 1970s. 

Digging a bit deeper online, I learned that during a 1994 interview, Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman was quoted as saying “the Nixon campaign had two enemies: ‘the antiwar left and black people.’” He then went on to explain “We couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.’” 

A few days ago, I came across the same quote on page 25 of Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist. It warrants repetition: “President Richard Nixon announced his war on drugs in 1971 to devastate his harshest critics--Black and anti-war activists. ‘We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news,’ Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, told a Harper’s reporter years later. ‘Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.’”

So began the war on drugs, the results of which are still being felt almost fifty years later. According to the Pew Research Center, while overall imprisonment rates have declined since 2007, “In 2017, there were 1,549 black prisoners for every 100,000 black adults – nearly six times the imprisonment rate for whites (272 per 100,000) and nearly double the rate for Hispanics (823 per 100,000).

According to Prison Legal News, “In 2010, the percentage of all Americans with a felony record was 8.11 percent (including three percent who have served time in prison), but for black males the rate was 33 percent (including 15 percent who have been to prison). Additionally, while the absolute number of people with felony convictions increased threefold between 1980 and 2010, it increased fivefold for blacks during that time.

On June 11, 2020 ABC News posted an article titled “ABC News analysis of police arrests nationwide reveals stark racial disparity” stating “In an analysis of arrest data thousands of police departments voluntarily reported to the FBI, in 800 jurisdictions, black people were arrested at a rate five times higher than white people in 2018.

Mass incarceration – America’s latest form of legal segregation – is the new Jim Crow of Michelle Alexander’s book title, but how can this be legal? What about Constitutional rights? 

A few days ago, when my husband shared a HuffPost article titled “The Supreme Court Built America’s Broken Policing System And It’s Working Just As Intended,” more pieces of the confusing puzzle of systematic racism began to fall into place for me. It is a long, detailed article, by Paul Blumenthal which begins:

“Police and the politicians who protect them get most of the attention in the movement to defund or reform law enforcement. But there’s another, more powerful force that’s allowed law enforcement to use force on citizens, stop them without a warrant, lock them up for minor crimes and even raid their homes without a knock.

The Supreme Court has spent the last 50 years affirming the power of police to legally take such actions. The system built by officials and sanctioned by the court isn’t broken; it’s working just as intended.”

I feel my rosy colored glasses shattering. I have lived a life of guilt and empathy, aware that my white skin gives me privilege and security others do not have. Still, I have been blind to the depth of systematic racism, inequity, and violence surrounding me every day. The fact that I got through eighteen years of American education having never been introduced to James Baldwin speaks volumes. I still have so very much to learn.

Friday, July 17, 2020

A Reading Event in the Time of COVID

Since February 2010 a small neighborhood coffee house in West Seattle called C&P Coffee has hosted monthly readings by poets and other storytellers under the stewardship of Leopoldo Sequel. On the fourth Wednesday of every month these events have showcased two featured readers followed by community mic - an opportunity for any and all to share their work.

This community event, dubbed PoetryBridge, flourished for ten wonderful years, and I was honored to have participated a number of times both as featured reader and as an open mic-er testing out new material. With time, came structure and a new website. The 10th Anniversary celebration was scheduled earlier this year, and I was looking forward to reading in March.

Then COVID-19 hit.

I've since learned that Leopoldo is not a man easily stopped. In April, he took PoetryBridge online with weekly Zoom readings, monthly gatherings feeling insufficient during these stressful times. Curating a weekly reading event is no easy task, and I am grateful to him for all his hard work.

I am very pleased to invite you to the next PoetryBridge Zoom event on Wednesday, July 22 at 7:00 pm. I'm excited to be sharing the featured reading slots with the talented writer and teacher, Priscilla Long.

If you are interested in becoming a regular PoetryBridge community member and receiving weekly updates and invitations, just go the website and follow the instructions.

If you'd rather try it out first, I will have the Zoom link on Wednesday and am happy to share it with you. Just email me soon at, so I can best facilitate a mailing.