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Posts Tagged ‘justice’

Just about a year ago I attended the Association of College & Research Libraries conference in Cleveland and learned, at a free breakfast about using online sources sponsored by a vendor, about A. Philip Randolph. Prior to that, I’d never heard of him, even though he was a significant figure in American history, a labor leader, publisher who founded an important literary and political journal (The Messenger), and major organizer of the March on Washington. Martin Luther King, Jr., honored Randolph as “truly the Dean of Negro leaders.”  We should all question why American history books tend to leave Randolph out (spoiler alert: besides being black, he was a socialist).

The book I finished last night is by another major figure in American history who most of you won’t have heard of: Howard Thurman. He was ten years younger than Randolph, and also became an advisor to MLK. Thurman was a pastor, a professor of religion at several prominent universities, and an influential thinker and speaker.

Jesus and the Disinherited, one of Thurman’s best known books, is also one of The Computer Scientist’s favorite books, and our son also recommended it to me. A few weeks ago, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry quoted from it during his Easter sermon, and that reminded me that I had been meaning to read it. It’s taken me since Easter week to finish, even though it’s a short book. Partially because mid-June is looming (when my master’s dissertation is due), but mainly because it’s an intellectually and spiritually challenging book.

Thurman is very clear; that’s not the hard part. The hard part is the truths the reader has to face. Such as: “The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed. That it became, through the intervening years, a religion of the powerful and dominant, used sometimes as an instrument of oppression, must not tempt us into believing that it was thus in the mind and life of Jesus. . . . For years it has been a part of my own quest so to understand the religion of Jesus that interest in his way of life could be developed and sustained by intelligent men and women who were at the same time victimized by the Christian Church’s betrayal of his faith.”

The church had become a tool of oppression, one that perpetuated (and indeed still does in some places — maybe in all places) institutionalized racism, one that offered little to the poor beyond words, one that did not practice what it taught. And yet, Thurman describes a “new courage, fearlessness, and power” that comes from someone knowing they are “a child of God.” That is difficult stuff, all of it. That the church failed the disinherited, and yet, God worked anyway. That Thurman was faithful — so many were faithful — in spite of the church. That he then dedicated his life to helping others regain their own faith.

It gets harder. Thurman addresses fear, deception, and hate before closing with the very difficult work of love, about which he says, “It is the act of inner authority, well within reach of everyone . . . . merely preaching love of one’s enemies or exhortations — however high and holy — cannot, in the last analysis, accomplish this result. At the center of the attitude is a core of painstaking discipline . . . .” If you’ve ever tried to love your “enemy” — or just someone who really, really bugs you, this will ring painfully true.

I really can’t do this book justice in a few paragraphs. You should read it. Just be prepared to read slowly. It’s a good book for these weird times, because even though it’s hard, Thurman saw that real fellowship, based on equity and the kind of just love that “is a common sharing of mutual worth and value” is the only way forward. And it seems to me that’s what we need, in order to pull ourselves out of the mire we find ourselves in.

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Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story of Trial and Redemption by Benjamin Rachlin is this year’s Concord Reads (our community-wide read program) title. And it’s the reason I have bags under my eyes, because for the past two nights I have been compelled to keep reading long past the point where I should have put the book down, and then laid awake thinking about Willie Grimes, the innocent man of the title, and Chris Mumma, co-founder of the North Carolina Center On Actual Innocence, and a force for justice. Even though I’ve read other books about injustice (Just MercyThe New Jim Crow, Walking the Dog, The Other Wes Moorethis was still very wrenching.

Imagine your life taken from you by a wrongful conviction. Now imagine being moved constantly from prison to prison, and misunderstood by almost every single person you meet, judged and misdiagnosed by nurses and doctors and psychiatrists. Kept from your own siblings funerals. And imagine that even through all of this, you keep hoping that evidence is out there to free you, and you just have to remain true — never giving in to pressure, endless, insufferable pressure, to say you did the crime you didn’t do. The sheer number of times that Willie Grimes was either asked to confess or had a clueless member of the corrections world write a note in his record about his unwillingness to take responsibility — it’s mind boggling. It would make most people lose their minds, or their humanity, or both. Willie Grimes not only didn’t do either, he grew in his faith, he steadfastly continued to advocate for himself as best as he could, and when he was finally exonerated, he mowed other people’s lawns just to be helpful. In my view, he is truly saintly.

There are many other heroes in this book — Chris Mumma, for one, without whom Willie Grimes and many others would not be free. And she too faced obstacles that would defeat most people. Political wrangling. Egos among the people she assembles to form a commission in North Carolina to draft a process for considering post-conviction innocence claims. A mountain of said claims, and evidence that these were only a fraction of the cases out there. Barebones staff, no real power, very little budget. None of this stops her, and she is the definition of righteous. Although they don’t appear until nearly the end of the book, the crime victim’s granddaughters also seem like amazing people to me. They accepted that the man they had understood to be their grandmother’s attacker was innocent and spoke out about how grateful they felt for the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission’s work.

The people who should be ashamed of themselves is a longer list. They don’t merit any further attention.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Benjamin Rachlin is also a kind of hero for bringing this issue to a nationwide audience, and a very talented writer. This is an excellent book. One thing I admire tremendously as a librarian who teaches information literacy is the way Rachlin clarifies, in an author’s note before the book even begins, how and where he got his information and how readers can tell what are quotes from source materials and what are recollections of the people he spoke with. That kind of clarity is unfortunately not as common as it should be in creative nonfiction. Rachlin also excels at storytelling. I seriously couldn’t stop reading, even though I knew I’d be tired today.

Read this book. Tell someone else about it. Discuss it with people. Be prepared to cry, and to grind your teeth, and to mutter to yourself.

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I think this may be the most important book I’ve ever written about (this is my 342nd post and it will be ten years in August since I started bookconscious, plus I’ve had a couple of newspaper review columns and I review for Kirkus). I was chatting with a student in the library last spring, and he asked if we had Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: a Young Black Man’s EducationWe didn’t but I told him I’d order it. He said it was “life-changing,” which seemed promising, and we probably talked about a few other titles that I don’t remember now, but I wrote down then and made sure we had. It stuck with me that he called this one “life-changing” so when it arrived and made its way to the new book shelf recently, I took it home.

Mychal Denzel Smith was twenty-five when Trayvon Martin was killed, and he opens the book there, then revisits his teens and college years and reflects on, examines, dissects bias of all kinds and the political, cultural, and societal context of those biases. I knew I was privileged before I read this book, not only because my family lives very comfortably, but also because I am white. I knew, intellectually, that it is beyond unjust that because of the color of their skin, I really don’t have to be afraid of my kids ever being shot for walking down the street, or for driving, or for wearing a hoodie, or for having their hands in their pockets. I knew that homophobia is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our society’s lack of openness to or acceptance of the gender spectrum. I knew that our culture is not open enough about anxiety and depression and mental illness in general, that we say “they’re depressed,” instead of “they have depression” that we say “try living in the moment” to people whose moments are hellish. I definitely knew about misogyny and gender inequality.

Intellectually I knew these things and I thought my awareness and concern and letter writing and the occasional protest made me an activist and an ally. I’ve questioned some of the things Smith questions and I thought that made me a progressive thinker. But Smith takes the questions farther — he questions the very nature of bias and justice and presents a way forward where “. . . acceptance won’t just be external. Acceptance will become too weak of a word. We’ll only be able to describe it as love.” I can never say I understand what it’s like to be black, of course, but any of the things that I thought was aware of I have now seen through a young black man’s perspective, never to un-see. Smith, like all excellent writers, took me into his story, made me see through his eyes, and feel through his heart. His gift is that he speaks with honesty and intimacy, two things our society doesn’t really make room for in everyday conversation, certainly not in our schools or workplaces, but really, not even between friends.

From the slaughter of unarmed black people (men, but also women, as Smith points out, you just don’t hear about them as much) to the response to Hurricane Katrina and the outrage at LeBron James’ career moves, Smith unravels the long chain of bias that is choking our country. He writes about music and social media, family life and friendship, the problems we plaster over with platitudes even if we are supposedly making progress (mental illness, drug abuse) in America today. His writing is powerful, muscular, direct, and also emotional, nuanced, and sensitive.

My second child and I have had some disagreements about forms of protest I am uncomfortable with — violence (like destroying property or burning cars), and the campus protests that have prevented people with abhorrent views from speaking. When we went to the women’s march event in our town last January, they took a sign that said “Fuck the Alt Right” and I was concerned that the vulgarity would mean people would take them less seriously. (Quick aside, one of our woman senators was there and read the sign and gave them a fist bump, so there’s that!) I have told them, and their brother, that I feel as if you can’t be respected if you break the law or refuse to hear someone, and if protesters want respect, they have to be civil and work within the system. It’s what I read in Martin Luther King Jr.’s books; his belief in nonviolent protest led him to believe that if black people dressed well, spoke well, and behaved well in the face of dogs, hoses, spit, cudgels, and fists, they would win the hearts and minds of whites and rights would follow.

Which partially came true — and Smith acknowledges that. But he also made me face the fact that it’s also my own implicit bias to prefer this way of protesting. I’ve been immersed in a culture that values “respectability,” and conflates that with respect. As a woman I’ve been taught the same by our culture — don’t dress provocatively, don’t be insistent or demanding, don’t be loud, don’t be strident, don’t be ambitious, or you’ll be seen as a slut, a bitch, a harpy, a ball buster. No one will date/marry/hire/respect you. Here’s what Smith has to say: “We shouldn’t be seeking the respect of an unjust system that will not respect us on the basis of our humanity alone. We cannot allow those terms to make the fight for justice mirror our broader system that relies on the oppression of the least ‘respectable.'”  That was one of the passages I read that caused me to actually out the book down and exclaim to myself, “Wow. What the hell have I been thinking?” If you insert any category of people who are marginalized in our culture — black people, native people, immigrants, women, trans people, gay and lesbian people, disabled people — those are words to live by.

But Smith doesn’t leave it there: “Our challenge is to take the spirit with which we have fought for black men — cisgender, heterosexual, class privileged, educated black men — and extend it to the fight for everyone else.” Smith tells readers his goal is to “become an honest black man and a good black writer.” He is those things. We could work towards all becoming honest people and good human beings if 1) everyone read this book and then 2) lived with the words 3) took them in, and 4) did the work of trying to live by them. I’ve done step 1 and started step 2. As a person of faith, as a mother, as a woman, as a human, I don’t think I have a choice but to pursue steps 3 and 4.

If you read nothing else this summer, read Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching.

 

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It’s been almost two weeks since my last post; I have two reviews due for Kirkus tomorrow and both books arrived late last week, so I’ve been busy with those. Before that I was busy with the book I’m going to tell you about today — Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? by Martin Luther King, Jr. I chose this book for my “published the year you were born” title for Book Bingo; that said, I believe this book was written the year I was born and published a year later. This book is both uplifting and deeply disturbing.

Disturbing because I didn’t realize how little I understood the time it was written and because it was a disturbing time. The nonviolence of the movement MLK had founded was called into question when justice did not appear to be coming after federal legislation. Victories won on the national level did not mean equality in many communities. And the Black Power movement was not only questioning nonviolence, they were countering it. MLK writes of being booed by young black people in Chicago. I had no idea.

Why did I have no idea? Probably because white people wrote my history textbooks — and honestly, we never made it through the Civil Rights era in high school history class anyway. I guess I grew up thinking the civil rights movement was a success and that was all I needed to know. Of course I’ve since realized that is a trite and incomplete view of things.

Where Do We Go From Here is a moving book, as MLK passionately defends nonviolence as a tactic and gives eloquent and clear voice to where America — black and white — should go, together. The wisdom packed into this volume is almost overwhelming. King writes that “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.” And then he lays out, point by depressing point, all the ways American society is not governed by this kind of power, nor ruled by this kind of justice. That racism is so deeply ingrained as to be invisible, often leaving white liberals unaware of their deep-seated prejudices. Look around and you’ll see why it’s depressing — the same could be said of American society today.

King also wrote that poverty and militarism must be vanquished for all people, black and white, to ever come together and make a better world. That we are all linked, black lives to white lives, American lives to foreign lives. That we have to take care of the other in order to preserve ourselves.

I admit, I could not finish this book. The horror of realizing that a leader who saw what needed to be done to complete the work he’d started, saw that without economic justice there would be no racial justice and no peace in the world, was permanently silenced by just that kind of injustice and violence was more than I could stomach in the present climate.

But I know this: the thing that keeps me going is the belief that love eventually prevails, in the face of everything that stands against it. King knew it and refused to give up. It has to happen, as he writes, “The ability of Negroes and whites to work together, to understand each other, will not be found ready-made; it must be created by the fact of contact.” One person at a time, that’s what we’re here to do.

I’ve been struggling with coming to terms with a difficult person I have to interact with regularly. As an experiment in cultivating compassion, throughout Holy Week I prayed silently for that person by name and also prayed for understanding on my own part of his situation; what could cause this anger and bitterness and malice, and how could I respond? Could I turn my heart of stone (fear, resentment, anger, irritation, suspicion) into a heart of flesh? No matter what you think of prayer or God, know that this mindful, intentional shift in perspective worked. By the end of the week I was able to not grit my teeth when I faced him, to reflect with compassion on his misery rather than react resentfully.

That’s love correcting everything that stands against love. That’s justice. It’s not perfect. It’s not complete – it’s an action, correcting. It’s not done yet, and may not be in my lifetime. But things will get better, and if we look hard enough, and reflect carefully enough, they will have begun without us.

 

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Last spring I attended the Public Library Association conference and one of the speakers was Bryan Stevenson. His talk was tailored to the vast hall filled with librarians, (he reminded us of public libraries’ important role as one of the last egalitarian institutions in America) but much of what he said is in Just Mercy, the book he has just published.

Just Mercy is about Stevenson’s work as the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. EJI works to free the wrongly incarcerated, especially those on death row, and to bring about reform in a justice system that “continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent.” The book is remarkable not only because it is appalling that in the nation founded on principles of “liberty and justice for all” we have such a broken system, but also because the tireless work Stevenson and his colleagues do and the injustices they attempt to right both go largely unnoticed.

Stevenson writes eloquently and passionately about some of the people who have changed his life: Henry, the first death row inmate he met, who sang a hymn as the guard pushed him roughly out of the visitation room where he and Stevenson had spent more than their allotted time; Jimmy Dill, a man whose disabilities did not dissuade the state of Alabama from executing him, and whose stutter reminded Stevenson of a childhood encounter; Walter McMillian, one of the wrongly convicted whose freedom Stevenson won and who became a friend. He writes of the individual circumstances of these people’s lives and also of the broad and shocking statistics that bear witness to the lack of justice available to the poor, disabled, mentally ill, women, children, and minorities in our justice system. Stevenson equates today’s mass incarceration with slavery, racial terrorism (lynching and convict leasing following abolition), and legalized segregation as the most damaging racial injustices in American history.

Stevenson also writes eloquently about being afraid, angry, and broken: “You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, and injustice and not be broken by it.” This is the most stunning thing about Just Mercy. While Stevenson suggests, and has brought about, many specific reforms, his final prescription for ending injustice is so simple that there is not one person who can’t participate in it.”We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing.”

It’s that basic. We are all broken. Accept that, and we could be on the road to real racial and economic reconciliation. Reflecting on what he shared at Walter McMillian’s funeral, Stevenson notes, “Walter’s case had taught me that the death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill?

If you read Just Mercy you’ll conclude that we don’t. And you’ll conclude that racism is still pervasive in America today. As Nicholas Kristof wrote in his column about Bryan Stevenson last month, “THE greatest problem is not with flat-out white racists, but rather with the far larger number of Americans who believe intellectually in racial equality but are quietly oblivious to injustice around them. . . . We are not racists, but we accept a system that acts in racist ways.”

Embrace Stevenson’s call to just mercy, to compassion, to understanding and healing, and this can end.

 

 

 

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