Ibram X. Kendi: Stamped from the Beginning

            It comes as no surprise to anyone living in the United States today that America is still racist.  If anything, it feels like racism, a practice some believed had had died, came out of its box on November 9th, where it had been lurking on the edges, waiting for such a moment, fooling many well-intentioned people—both white and black. 

            But not Professor Ibram Kendi, who argues that racism has been alive and well in the U.S. all along, even gaining strength, perhaps, by unwitting but well-meaning individuals.  He writes, “so many prominent Americans, many of whom we celebrate for their progressive ideas and activism, many of whom had very good intentions, subscribed to assimilationist thinking that has also served up racist beliefs about Black inferiority.”  How can this be?  It’s easy when people accept ideas about inferiority without question, or talk about freedom but not equality, or by making African Americans responsible for ending racism rather than putting the onerous where it belongs—on whites. 

            Kendi has a simple, straight forward definition of a racist idea:  “it is any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way,” and he tracks these ideas from the 15th century, when Europeans first began to capture Africans to enslave them through the present day.  He also asserts that racist actions came first, followed by the ideas that justified those actions. 

            First came the action, usually based on some capitalistic venture that would benefit a few individuals at the cost of others, and then later others would create an intellectual rationale that made those racial actions acceptable—or worse, required by society.  While the racist ideas were more obvious in the past, such as those given by southerners in regard to the Black Codes, enacted after the Civil War, where politicians argued that the “codes” were necessary to regulate blacks because they were “naturally lazy, lawless, and oversexed.”  But that today’s racism, while less overt, is no better, where politician’s cries of “law and order,” or “war on drugs,” or “tough on crime” are just another form of Black Codes, inherently racist ideas circulated in society meant to oppress minorities. 

            Few public figures, even those considered progressive like Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Barrack Obama, escape Kendi’s critique.  These men and others are called out for what he calls “uplift suasion,” the idea that blacks could work to lift themselves up to white expectations and standards, inherently defining white culture as “better” and something to which everyone should aspire. 

            With racism and racial ideas so widespread in society, how can Americans ever hope to move forward?  Kendi argues that, “In order to be truly antiracists, we must also oppose all the sexism, homophobia, colorism, ethnocentrism, nativism, cultural prejudice, and class bias teeming and teaming with racism to harm many Black lives.”  In short, we must use intersectionality to oppose all hate at once.  It’s not an easy task. Kendi admitted his own racism in the book, saying he had been “fooled by racist ideas” and that “I did not fully realize that the only thing wrong with Black people is that we think something is wrong with Black people.”

            The way forward is with careful consideration—of the ideas that we hold, both conscious and unconscious and the assumptions we carry because they are so pervasive in society.  We must fight hate and know that it is the responsibility of people with privilege—whites, especially white men, and the educated—to lead this battle.  White people are responsible for ending racism and racial ideas because, after all, they are the ones who developed these ideas in the U.S. in the first place. 

Timothy Snyder is Trying to Stop American Fascism


Timothy Snyder’s brief book, On Tyranny:  Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, serves as a good starting point for conversations about the United State’s march toward fascism and how individual citizens can recognize this fact and possibly stop it. 

Snyder has shot-down the notion of American exceptionalism in recent interviews, arguing that Americans are no wiser than Germans in the early 1930s and that what happened there (election of Hitler, mass genocide, and world war) could easily happen here. 

If that gives you pause, look at the evidence Snyder lays out:  Trump has no respect for democracy or the institutions that uphold it, he lies and argues that these untruths are, in fact, truths, he makes accusations but provides no evidence to support them, again acting as if everything he says is fact.  Snyder calls this “a world of alternative factuality” and argues that this is what could allow the U.S. to shift from a democracy to a fascist regime before many people are even aware the change is happening. 

But it’s not too late to recognize what is occurring and stop it.  Snyder offers twenty suggestions for the average citizen to engage in that can stop the slide.  His advice ranges from getting to know strangers (it’s difficult to persecute people you know) to defending American institutions and civil society groups by joining them.  He warns us to avoid loyalty symbols—like those dreaded red “make America great again” hats—that are used to exclude and to mark those who are “accepted.”  He also recommends that you and your family have a passport.  It’s important to travel abroad and experience others’ cultures. 

Also recognize when a leader (Trump) exploits situations to shut down civil liberties and know that these situations could be generated for just this purpose.  Be wary of paramilitary forces that will arise that will enable a governmental shift (local law officials are being drawn into ICE deportation raids in many states.) 

Do not tolerate or normalize the abuse of language.  Both Hitler and Trump use language that serve only their own interests and reject any kind of opposition. 

On Tyranny is a brief (128 page) book that provides a short overview on what you can do to resist Trump’s agenda and America’s move toward fascism.  Read and discuss it now with your friends and neighbors. 

Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In: "Women, Work, and the Will to Lead"

“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”  This phrase forms the basis of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.  Sandberg argues that many factors have held women back from taking leadership roles in the workforce, including their own unwillingness to “lean in” to the work. 


I knew exactly what Sandberg meant by this and what she meant when she said that women “leave before they have to leave” when it comes to combining family and work. 


I was finishing my Master’s degree the same week my first child was due, and I had little idea what to do next.  An opportunity became available in my department for a job that I believed I was uniquely qualified for and would likely love—but it would mean moving and might be only a temporary opportunity, lasting anywhere from two to ten years.  With a husband who had no interest in moving and a new baby on the way, I didn’t even bother to apply.  I couldn’t see how I would make it work.  It would likely mean a break in the marriage and that worried me primarily because I was uncertain about my economic future—new babies tend to do that to a person. 


Fast forward a few years and the marriage ended in divorce.  I had found only part-time work teaching and was struggling financially.  I regretted deeply not applying for that position.  It might have sent me off on a satisfying career path and led to bigger and better things, but I held my own self back, unsure how I would combine the job with an intransigent husband and a new baby. 


If I had taken Sandberg’s advice, I would have applied for the position and then figured out how to make everything else work. 


Of course this is easy for Sandberg to say.  She has a supportive husband who seems to meet her half way on housework and childcare.  She also has degrees from elite institutions, and she waited until she was older to have children. 


But these are all just excuses I’m making for my own inability to take charge of my life.  I have degrees from good institutions.  I divorced a man who had no interest in being an equal partner and my children are now grown and becoming independent.  At forty-eight, I’m set for a renaissance in my career and my ability to pursue my own interests and goals. 


As a middle-aged woman, I’m much more secure in my own ability and desires.  I know what matters to me, and I’m more willing to stretch myself to reach for it.  And perhaps that’s the most important take-away for me from Sandberg’s book:  figure out what you want and don’t make any excuses in getting it. 


But even if I overcome these internal struggles, it still doesn’t mean I’ll be successful or emerge as a leader.  Society continues to uphold “brick walls” against women who push to take on leadership positions and until we knock these walls over, it won’t matter whether women lean in or out or lose their fear. 

What we must do is combine these approaches.  We must encourage women to trust themselves and to push hard against their internal fears of balancing work and family.  Then we must organize and fight to deconstruct the barriers society has erected to keep women out of leadership positions.  


See the Ted Talk that started Sandberg on her Lean In journey.  

Join or start a Lean In circle



Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America"

What would the world be like if Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator and Hitler admirer, had become president in 1940? 


This is the premise on which Roth’s The Plot Against America lies and the book creates an interesting counterfactual tale of Jewish persecution in the U.S. that never reached the crescendo of that in Germany but reveals that if the circumstances were just a little different, might have. 


Could the U.S. tip over into such destructive hate?  Can a majority of people be whipped up to persecute a minority group?  History reveals that the answer is yes, of course, and there are countless examples, including some in the U.S.  So postulating that pogroms or genocide could happen in the U.S. today isn’t that difficult. 

Charles Lindbergh in Germany in 1937

Charles Lindbergh in Germany in 1937


And this is where I found Roth’s book most interesting.  The narrator is the young Philip Roth, who at nine, loses his childhood and his innocence when he realizes that the things he assumed were solid and could be counted on, could not.  That every institution and every governmental assurance could disappear in the few seconds it took to move one individual out of the White House and another in.

And it’s a lesson we are learning today.  During the period between the election and the inauguration, I had countless people tell me not to worry.  They argued that Trump couldn’t really “do” anything because of that whole idea of “checks-and-balances” and the Supreme Court and Congress.  I patiently explained to them that, in fact, all these artificial stops could be repealed, replaced, or eliminated by someone with a mind to do so. 

And certainly in the last sixty days, Trump has given it a good go.  But miraculously to date, these very institutions have been the bulwark holding Trump and his agenda back.  The court system is fighting.  The ACLU is fighting.  The people have risen and are fighting.  They are fighting to save each other and a very flawed system, but a system on which we all believe in and believe can be improved upon. 

And ultimately, this is what Roth’s novel reveals.  Though he uses some slight of hand to bring down Lindbergh and even offers a possible justification for his actions against the Jews, it is ultimately the systems and institutions that have developed over time to preserve and increase democracy that save it—in Roth’s fictional world and in our world today.

If there is a lesson to be taken from The Plot Against America, it is that we must strengthen the systems we often condemn.  We must lend money and time to make them better and stronger.  They are the thing that keep democracy floating.  So volunteer.  Serve on someone’s campaign, knocking on doors and getting people out to vote.  Give money to the ACLU and to Planned Parenthood.  Fight for organizations that fight for the people.  If you want to make America great, dedicate your time to maintaining the organizations that protect us all. 

Yaa Gyasi's "Homegoing"

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Author Yaa Gyasi has crafted one of the most emotionally heart-wrenching books I’ve encountered in a long while, not because the structure of the novel is unique or unexpected, but because the topic—slavery and its long shadow—is handled in unexpected and often lyrical ways.  As one of the most celebrated books of the past year, Homegoing is a remarkable debut novel that left me breathless, unwilling to put the book down and yet alternating between anger and tears.  

The novel begins with the story of two half sisters who live in Ghana, one who is Fante and the other Asante, and their paths diverge as one, Effia, is married to a white man, the acting governor at Cape Coast Castle, a central staging zone for slaves being sent to the Americas and the other, Esi, is captured in a raid and being held at the Castle awaiting her deportation and a life-time of enslavement at the hands of white men.

The story follows the family history of these two women down the generations, beginning in the 1770s reaching through time until today but unlike other slave narratives that progress over a long-span, Gyasi has covered new ground, avoiding the expected tromp through the Civil War, for example, and instead going into the less-often discussed areas of African American history, such as the prison convict system instituted during the Jim Crow era, which was another form of slavery but by a different name. 

While I have studied and read about Africans brought to the Americas and enslaved, I have given little thought to those left behind in their home country who were complicit in the slave system, kidnapping and selling their fellow Africans to Europeans for profit and protection.  It is easy to assume that these people had it better or easier than those transported the thousands of miles under brutal conditions but while the experience was different, it was, perhaps, no better, at least in the long term.  And this is one of the highlights of Gyasi’s book in that it forced me to confront these assumptions.  Slavery was a terrible system, whether you were the one enslaved or the one doing the enslavement.  Whiteness or collusion with whites offered definite privileges but came at a cost; guilt, for example, that haunted the people involved.


The book takes a long view of history, illustrating how current racial problems have deep roots, some going all the way back to the 1700s.  Race relations in the U.S. will never be settled until these problems are addressed, brought out into the public and acknowledged in some meaningful way.  Pretending that slavery, and all its variations after it became technically illegal, did not exist has created a sore that cannot heal.  At least not until Americans accept their role in this crime.  We are all complicit and the weight of the sin still weighs on our collective souls. 

For more reading in this area, see Phillis Wheatley’s poems:  https://www.poemhunter.com/phillis-wheatley/

Wheatley was born in Africa around 1753, kidnapped, and brought to Boston.  She was a house slave but was educated by her owners and became a poet.  She is the first African American slave to publish a book.

There is also Olaudah Equiano’s account, Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789):  http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/equiano1/menu.html.  Equiano was also kidnapped as a child, sold into slavery, and transported to the Americas. 

And consider Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, a book that Yaa Gyasi said inspired her years before she began working on Homegoing

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this novel . . .