Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at the Tate Modern

If you’re in London in the next week, and you’ve not yet visited the Soul of a Nation exhibition at the Tate Modern, let this be encouragement to see it before it closes on the 22nd. If that’s not you, let this be a way to enjoy some excellent art. Content warning: some of these images are violent. Super important and well done, but potentially disturbing. Copyright note: I believe this falls within the Tate’s photography requirements of “personal use.”

The Soul of a Nation at the Tate Modern is one of the most challenging, upsetting, and thrilling art exhibitions I’ve been to in years. Before you even enter the exhibition space, you can watch snippets of speeches from five leaders of civil rights, Black Power, and liberation movements (Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Stokely Carmichael, and Angela Davis). You see Stokely responding to MLK and Malcolm X, James Baldwin teaching Europeans about American racism, Angela Davis taking a broad and pragmatic view of how the struggle fits in her life and she in it. This introduction to the exhibition is small but important. It situates us firmly within the black community in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s. We’re not hearing what white people thought about the issues or what approach white people thought black people should take; we’re hearing how black people had this discussion amongst themselves, and the myriad approaches they took to dismantling systemic racism and building a better world.

soul of a nation black power art london

April 4 by Sam Gilliam

Once you enter the exhibition space, with the voices of cultural and political leaders still ringing in your ears, you immediately meet the artistic leaders. Let no one tell you that art and politics don’t interact: the Spiral artistic group was formed in direct reaction to the March on Washington in 1963, so members could discuss how to represent black folks in their art, and how to fight political battles in their art.

soul of a nation black power art london

America the Beautiful by Norman Lewis

soul of a nation black power art london

Processional by Norman Lewis (apologies for the slight blurriness)

My favorite thing about these two paintings by Norman Lewis is how they talk to one another. “America the Beautiful” on the left is a collection of white figures on a black background, which as you look more closely you see is a KKK rally, taking over the canvas and popping up almost randomly, like you never know where they’re lurking, intending harm. “Processional” on the right is a collection of white figures on a black background, which as you look more closely you see is an energetic crowd of people marching forward. It’s the Selma march, and as the museum placard suggested, the gradually widening scope of the view of figures is like a flashlight leading through the darkness. Two similarly simple approaches, two radically different results.

The next room cleverly combined art of the Black Panther group (mostly from their paper but also from posters they mass-produced to reach more people) and murals painted in black neighborhoods in cities across the United States — this room was “art on the streets,” art that was made to inspire and fire up. Some of the murals have fallen into disrepair, but I know I’ve seen some — or some like them — on the south side of Chicago, although I can’t recall if I’ve seen the Wall of Respect, one of the first murals to go up during this time.

Some of the stories behind the pieces I was familiar with, and others were new to me. I did not know about Fred Hampton — Black Panther activist shot to death in a raid by Cook County cops after being drugged by an FBI informant. I did not know that during his trial for conspiracy and inciting a riot as part of the Chicago Eight, Bobby Seale was ordered bound and gagged in the courtroom by the judge because the judge didn’t like his outbursts. (Also Seale’s later prison sentence was not for the original charges but for contempt charges the judge applied during that trial.) Archibald Motley, who painted “The First One Hundred Years” over a ten-year period, never painted again after he completed this work.

Other groups and collectives formed, including the Weusi collective, the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, AfriCOBRA, Smokehouse Associates, and many others. A few of the rooms in this exhibition feature work from just one or two groups, so you can get a good sense of the general approach and what they focused on.

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I Got Rhythm by Betye Saar

A room full of collage, sculpture, and found object art had some truly chilling pieces. Betye Saar’s work is deeply affecting — titles that seem carefree like “Sambo’s Banjo” and “I Got Rhythm” are attached to mixed-media punches to the gut. Each tiny item in each piece adds layers of meaning — the little crucifix at the bottom of a lynched man in “I Got Rhythm,” the toy gun nestled in the top of the banjo case so Sambo might have a chance of resisting and surviving in “Sambo’s Banjo.”

soul of a nation black power art london

Revolutionary by Wadsworth Jarrell

soul of a nation black power art london

Detail of Black Prince by Wadsworth Jarrell

Walking into the AfriCOBRA room midway through the exhibition was like walking into an air-conditioned building after walking for miles in summer heat, a relief. The AfriCOBRA manifesto was explicitly hopeful: they wanted an aesthetic of “rhythm,” “shine,” and “color that is free of rules and regulations.” They made works to lift people up, and they reprinted them for wide distribution, so that black people all over the country could be inspired by positive images of black folks. Which is not to say that this isn’t itself a challenge, because it certainly challenges the white supremacist myth that black people are inferior and not worth celebrating. And in fact most of the art was explicitly political as well, like the work by Gerald Williams reminding people “don’t be jivin” or Wadsworth Jarrell’s portrait of Angela Davis, made up of words from her speeches radiating from the center of the painting. Make no mistake, representation on your own terms is a powerful form of resistance.

One of the debates within the black artistic community at the time was whether abstract art could be considered part of the movement as a whole. Abstract artists argued that because the art was theirs, and they were black, it was therefore part of the political black art movement. It’s like improve in jazz, William T. Williams said, and then he painted Trane, named for John Coltrane, which I think is an excellent way to win an argument.

There was a room on photography and how different ways of developing film brought out different skin tones in the black subjects; there were connections to the wider Black Arts Movement and samples from poets who collaborated with visual artists; there were many reminders that one of the constant themes in black liberation movements of 50 years ago was an end to police brutality — for all those who want to talk about “how far we’ve come”; there was a Spotify playlist you could listen to on your headphones during your walk around the exhibition and which I listened to after, getting pumped up to Gil Scott Heron as I strode along the Thames. There was so much to see, read, and absorb. Much gratitude to the artists who fought the good fight and explored their own creativity during the 1963-1983 period explored here, and beyond.

soul of a nation black power art london

Bill & Son by Roy DeCarava

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Me Too

Me too.

Have you been catcalled walking down the street? Called “sweetheart” at work? Had to plaster a smile on your face while clients hit on you because “you’re in a customer-facing role”? Forced yourself to laugh along with the taxi driver because it’s dark out and he knows your address? Walked the last few blocks home with your keys out, grateful your mom taught you this but wishing she’d never had to?

Me too.

Have you said “I have nothing to wear” not because ladies are ditzes who buy too many clothes, but because you’ve still not found that magical outfit that will protect you from the leers and comments and gropings of strange and familiar men in the workplace, the subway, the bar? Have you worn what you wanted to anyway, and tried to not think “you knew what you were getting when you put this on” when the leers and comments and gropings appeared?

Me too.

Have you tried to turn the times you’ve been sexually harassed into comic stories – you have to laugh or you’ll cry? Have you kept the incidents that are too serious to be turned into a funny story to yourself?

Me too.

Did you at one time believe them when they said you were too fat or too ugly or too something for anyone to want to assault you? Did you feel somehow doubly betrayed when they assaulted you anyway?

Me too.

When you were assaulted, did you immediately remind yourself that others have it much worse, and that comparably what you experienced is not so bad? Did you not tell anyone for some time? Did you find it hard to name it to yourself?

Me too.

Have you noticed that I haven’t even used the word “men” once yet? Did you not notice because there’s no need to name the thing that is always there, the menacing presence that hovers on the periphery of your daily movements, and all too often forces itself into the center of your life?

Me too.

Are you deeply distressed that “a menacing presence” is a valid way of thinking about men, since statistically speaking they are the ones who harass, beat, rape, abuse, murder? Do you wish there were some failproof way to know if any man you meet is going to be one of those ones? Do you have many wonderful men in your life? Do you wish you had more?

Me too.

Are you wondering why more of the men in your life aren’t speaking up today? Wondering why you don’t see them taking concrete steps to intervene when they see sexual harassment, to call their friends out when they say something sexist, to take a friend aside and ask if they realize that what they’re doing is hugely harmful? Wondering why men aren’t proactively suggesting rigorous (not checkboxes-style) sexual harassment training at work? Why they’d still rather make a joke than a real change in their behavior?

Me too.

Are you reading this and feeling unseen and unknown, because you are a man or non-binary person who has experienced sexual harassment and assault? Or because a woman is the one who assaulted you? Or because your experience includes additional layers of abuse involving race, religion, ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, class?

I see you. I believe you.

Are you angry that even though we’ve said it over and over again, we’re being asked to say it again? Are you furious that it is on the survivors and victims to say something, that the harassers and abusers and rapists can continue on with their day unaffected – which is always true for them anyway? Are you livid that the norm is for their lives to be wholly unaffected by what they have done to you, while you’ll carry it with you for forever?

Me too.

Are you heartbroken by the sheer number of people who are posting today – and from such a wide swathe of your life? Have you seen your former teachers post, the priest of your childhood church, parents of your friends, community elders, not to mention what seems like every single one of your peers? Are you holding them all in your heart, including those who don’t use social media or chose not to post but definitely have experienced sexual harassment and assault?

Me too.

Are you holding a bit of hope that maybe this time, more HR departments will fire the harasser instead of retaliating against the whistleblower, more colleges will expel the rapist instead of punishing the victim, more people will say “we’re on her side” instead of “I see both sides and I’m sure he’s sorry,” more men will do the hard work of holding each other accountable instead of looking away and feeling guilty? That maybe more people who have felt alone now feel less so?

Me too.

 

Where in the World Wednesday

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Trafalgar Square, London, England; January 21, 2017

It’s International Women’s Day — wear red in support of women striking for equality, and if you’re a woman who can strike today, please do!

Here’s a quick primer on the day.

Advent Calendar for Social Justice

Check out the Advent Calendar for Social Justice here!

We have one month left before we’re in 2017, and although it’s tempting to just curl up into a ball until it’s over, we know that we need to prepare to live in a Trump world. (For the many people who see how this year has just pulled back the mask on what wasn’t all that well hidden to begin with – I hear you. I’m sorry it’s taking some of us so long to figure it out.) Okay, so let’s live in this world, let’s make it as good as we possibly can, and let’s do it together.

anarchy

I used to be a weekly churchgoer, and the rhythms of the church year still echo in my life. The season leading up to Christmas is called Advent. Advent is a time of preparation, during which Christians prepare for the coming of the savior of the world. They prepare for the end of the world as we know it and the arrival of a better world we can barely imagine. This year, we are preparing for what certainly feels like the end of the world, and it’s hard to see anything beyond it. Trump is the opposite of a savior, no matter how he brands himself in his populist speeches. So this year we need to prepare ourselves to be our own saviors, to save ourselves from what we’ve allowed to happen. (I’m speaking mostly to my fellow straight white cis folks here – people of color and queer folk have been doing the heavy lifting since forever.)

This election seems to have served as a wake-up call for many of us. It’s not right that it took a loss that will devastate so many lives and alter the fabric of our democracy to serve as such, but here we are. So now what? is the question I see most frequently on Facebook, Twitter, in the news. There are a lot of good answers out there, from better thinkers than I. Read them, discuss them with friends and family, take action.

But for what it’s worth, here is my “what now?” response. Advent is a time of preparation, so let’s prepare. For each day of December, I’m going to take concrete action that makes me more prepared to resist the Trump presidency, or that offers some resistance now, or that contributes something good and kind to the world. Some of these actions can be done anywhere in the world, and some are US-specific.

I also think it’s important to do a mix of overtly political and more community-building or “good deeds” type things. Especially if you haven’t been politically active before, you may find this a little intimidating, but what we’ve seen from the way Trump’s campaign was run, and now after the election, is that white supremacy, misogyny, xenophobia, and homophobia play a prominent role in people’s political decisions and everyday lives. Coaching Little League builds community, yes, please keep doing that — but also see how you can assist your local Black Lives Matter chapter, to build community in that way as well. And artists — keep creating, always. Artists are vital.

black-lives-matter

Will you join me for this month? Especially for people who wouldn’t normally consider themselves political, or who don’t have much experience with activism, I tried to make this an accessible collection of things to do that will show how easy it is to fit these things into our busy lives, and how it’s not that scary to do.

If you have suggestions, please comment. Share this with anyone you like. The key is to take action, and to do it together. So call your mom, talk to your coworker, make a new friend, and go all in. As Angela Davis recently said, “How do we begin to recover from this shock? By experiencing and building and rebuilding and consolidating community. Community is the answer.”

Here is where I was going to put the calendar, but I can’t get it to embed. So please click through to the Advent Calendar for Social Justice. Be sure to click on each day to see notes and useful links with further info for each action item.

This calendar is intended as a helpful tool for people who want to do something, but aren’t sure where to start. I hope it will help you sample different ways of taking action, so that in the new year, you’ll be better prepared to really dig in to volunteering, donating, and organizing roles. I’d love your feedback. I consider it a live document and will adjust it as necessary.

Shout-out to Liz and Emmett for providing excellent advice and action items.

niwj1nyd

Resources for Educating Yourself and Taking Action:
Accomplices Not Allies
A List of Pro-Women, Pro-Immigrant, Pro-Earth, Anti-Bigotry Organizations That Need Your Support
Oh Crap! What Now? A Survival Guide
Opportunities for White People in the Fight for Racial Justice
“We’re His Problem Now” Calling Sheet
What Educators Can Do to Support Undocumented Students
What to Do Instead of Calling the Police

Organizations Fighting the Good Fight:
350
American Civil Liberties Union
Amnesty International
Black Lives Matter
Campaign Zero
Council on American-Islamic Relations
Emily’s List
National Center for Transgender Equality
National Coalition for the Homeless
National Disability Rights Network
National Women’s Law Center
Planned Parenthood
Showing Up for Racial Justice
Southern Poverty Law Center
Sylvia Rivera Law Project
The True Colors Fund
Welcoming Refugees

Image 1. Image 2. Image 3.

 

The Lady and the Unicorn, a Lesbian Love Story

The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, masterpieces of the form from the late 15th/early 16th centuries on display in the Museum of the Middle Ages (formerly the Cluny Museum), have appeared in novels, poems, songs, and as some sharp viewer noticed, on the walls of the Gryffindor common room in the Harry Potter movies. Ever since George Sand rediscovered them and wrote about them in the mid-19th century, these tapestries haven’t been exactly obscure. And yet, no one knows quite how to interpret them. There are several theories, the most prominent being that they are about the five senses and the soul, since at the time the tapestries were woven, the senses could be seen as doorways to the sacred but also reminders of our base humanity. The final tapestry, which bears the inscription à mon seul désir (“to my one desire/love” or “by my desire/will alone”), is usually seen as the lady putting aside material things for higher ideals. It could also be about the lady preparing to give up her virginity (unicorns are symbols of chastity but that long horn is also a bit suggestive, so unicorns are generally sexually ambiguous). But these interpretations are all wrong. Clearly, The Lady and the Unicorn series shows the lady and her maidservant falling in love.

the lady and the unicorn tapestry paris

Okay, here’s our first tapestry, “Touch.” Our lady is bracing herself, holding on with one hand to the flagpole bearing her family’s crest, and with the other to the unicorn’s horn. The unicorn looks up at her calmly, secure in the knowledge that he is what she needs. She knows what’s expected of her, that she will be married off to a man, but she can’t even bear to look at him, to admit what her future will be. The lady is isolated, just her and the lion and unicorn, and one brave little bunny. Notice that many of the animals here are shackled, chained and unhappy.

the lady and the unicorn tapestry paris

Ooh, our lady and her maidservant meet here in “Taste.” Right away, the lion and unicorn are up on their hind legs, reflecting that feeling you get when you meet someone you’re immediately attracted to–you feel alert, alive, like you have to stand up and take more notice of the world. Notice that the animals are unchained and free now, and several of them have joined the women and lion and unicorn on the little island. Everyone feels like more things are possible now. The maidservant is offering up a bowl of sweets to the lady, literally offering up something sweet for the lady to taste. How does the lady feel about that? Well, she would never be so unrefined as to have her hair blown back, but her veil is waving about behind her. A little bird lands on an outstretched finger, a little symbol of freedom. Check out the look on the unicorn’s face; he knows that serious competition has just arrived.

the lady and the unicorn tapestry paris

In “Smell”, our lady and maidservant get to know each other better, as they hitch up their skirts for the work of the day, a gesture of intimacy we haven’t seen yet. Our lady, who before was so overcome with feeling that she had to glance shyly away from her maidservant, is now able to look her right in the eye. Our maidservant holds up a tray of flowers, from which our lady gathers blossoms to make into a garland. Delicate lady-flowers are definitely in play here.

the lady and the unicorn tapestry paris

Look, now they are literally making music together. In “Hearing,” our lady plays the notes on the organ while our maidservant works the bellows. This is a two-person job, and dare I say they have to be perfectly in tune with one another to do it properly? The lion is even sort of turned away to give them some privacy, although he can’t help peeking. The unicorn is coming around to the idea of this whole arrangement; the tilt of his head seems to be saying, “Go on, babe, I see what you’ve got going here.” Our wonderful maidservant looks frankly at her lady, as she has done in all the tapestries she’s been in so far. No maidenly shyness here; she knows what she wants and she’s looking right at her. I’m pretty sure we have not one but two goats on the little island as well (goats being well-known symbols of randiness).

the lady and the unicorn tapestry paris

In “Sight,” our lady bids farewell to the unicorn. Our maidservant isn’t here–she has tact–so our lady looks almost sorrowfully at the unicorn as she breaks it to him that this is never going to work between them. But look at him, he’s pretty sanguine about the whole thing. He rests his hooves on her legs and gazes at her with affection. He’s not going to get in the way. She holds up a mirror so he can see himself, and what he sees isn’t a reflection of himself now but as he will be in the near future–alone, maybe, but head held high and looking out for what’s next.

the lady and the unicorn tapestry paris

Finally, here we are on the final tapestry, which shows a little tent, a bench, and our maidservant holding up a big ol’ chest of jewelry for our lady. Perhaps she’s placing the necklace back in the chest because she doesn’t need material items to be happy, just the love of this woman. Perhaps she’s taking a necklace out of the chest to give to this woman as a token of her affection. Perhaps she’s getting undressed because they’re about to go inside that tent and get busy. But whatever she’s doing with the jewelry, it’s clear what she’s doing with her future: she’s building it with this woman, her maidservant becoming her partner. A little lap dog appears for the first time, a symbol of domesticity. The lion and unicorn hold up a long veil that looks remarkably similar to what women often wear on their wedding day. And now that ambiguous phrase overhead makes sense: à mon seul désirIt both means “to my only desire/love,” as she gives her heart over to her maidservant, and also “by my desire/will alone,” as she lives her life according to her own desires and not by what was expected of her. She still displays her family’s flags proudly, she’s not trying to reject them, and look she’s even still friends with the unicorn (in a he’s-bowing-down-to-her kind of way). But she knows what she wants, and she’s looking right at her.

#BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe: Resources for a Post-Ferguson America

Watching the murderers of Mike Brown and Eric Garner walk away unpunished in any way has been infuriating and heartbreaking. These two cases (and there are more cases coming to light every day, such as that of Tamir Rice) highlight the extreme racism and injustice at the root of American law and culture. Following people on Twitter and reading blog posts and articles linked from Facebook has helped me learn more and direct my energies and monies to movements that are responding on the ground (since I’m in London and can’t be there in person to march).

From blacklivesmatter.com

I’ve compiled some pieces here for Learning and Taking Action. This is mostly for my fellow white people, since a lot of this is explanatory in a way that people of color don’t need to hear because they’re living it. There are a range of pieces, from beginner to advanced stage anti-racism, so don’t be scared if you’re new to listening and talking about race in an informed way. Certainly I’m not any kind of expert, but a lot of the writers here are, so please take a look. I can especially recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates, Melissa Harris-Perry, Jay Smooth, Janet Mock, and Latoya Peterson as people to follow, read, and learn from.

Let’s not look away. Let’s look this straight in the face and tell it where to go.

Please go to the comments to share any other links you’ve found helpful.

From blacklivesmatter.tumblr.com

LEARN

If you’re only going to read one link from this post, read this one by the excellent Luvvie. It’s smart and comprehensive but succinct, and she uses funny GIFs.

White and not really understanding why people are so upset about Ferguson and Eric Garner? It’s probably because you’re mostly talking to other white people–that’s the norm in the US, as this article explains. Time to broaden what you read and who you talk to.

Here’s an even more accessible article on how acknowledging white privilege and working against racism doesn’t mean you have to hate white people, just the terrible racist system that white people put into place and now perpetuate.

The devastating new rules for being black in the United States. My friends have a baby not yet two months old, and knowing he’ll learn these rules makes me furious.

Eric Garner’s widow, Esaw, is not accepting the apology of her husband’s killer. She’s furious, she’s grieving, and she’s not letting Pantaleo make himself feel better by getting her to forgive him.

Bevin’s great collection of resources and reflections over at Queer Fat Femme highlighted this article, which reveals that #BlackLivesMatter is a specific movement founded by queer black women. It’s good to be aware of the origins of this widely-used hashtag.

Ta-Nehisi Coates continues to be one of the foremost writers on a lot of things, but especially race. Here he talks about Obama’s reaction to Ferguson, and what the system is set up to do and not do.

One piece of laminated plastic means this Vassar College professor experiences humiliating, dangerous situations rather than life-threatening situations –and he’s never allowed to forget it.

Don’t repeat the ignorant ‘but what about black-on-black crime?’ question. Coates has you covered.

The last words of some black and brown people murdered in the United States, in artwork.

We like to think that the non-indictments in the Eric Garner and Michael Brown case (and the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin) are evidence of flaws in the American justice system, but this straightforward piece argues that they’re just links in the chain of a justice system doing what it’s designed to do–oppress people of color for the benefit of white people in this country.

From blacklivesmatter.blogspot.co.uk

ACT

Steps to take as a white person if the Ferguson case is just shaking you awake to the trenchant racism alive and well in the United States. Self-educate and get involved! (I especially like the intro, in which the author Janee Woods wonders why so few reactions to the case appeared on her Facebook wall–something I wondered about when looking at my wall, too.)

You want facts to convince you of the unfairness of what happened? You want convincing that protests are worthwhile? Check out this post on how to talk about Ferguson and the aftermath.

Support people taking anti-racist action in the aftermath of Ferguson by making a gift to various organizations. ‘Tis the season, right?

Do you interact with kids as a teacher, parent, guardian, relative, friend? Here’s a great resource on how to talk with them about what’s been going on.

If you already consider yourself an active ally, take a look at this piece that challenges us to be accomplices rather than allies.

Don’t contribute to #CrimingWhileWhite–keep the focus on #AliveWhileBlack.

Visit Ferguson Action and Ferguson Response for actions you can join in on.

AND SOME HOPE

Look, redirect your money for militarizing police forces to these trainings instead, and eliminate police killings of citizens in under a decade! It truly is a culture we can change, not a given we must resign ourselves to.

Don’t Shoot rally at Howard University (From http://www.cbc.ca)

Labor Day: We Still Have So Much Work to Do

Happy Labor Day, fellow Americans! I hope you’re all enjoying barbecue with loved ones. For my friends outside the US who may not know, Labor Day is the American version of May Day; it used to hold a lot more power as a holiday recognizing workers’ rights, but now it’s generally seen as the the last party of the summer. Let’s take a moment to remember why we get to have the party.

Especially this year, when we’re remembering the March on Washington 50 years ago, I think it’s important to be grateful on Labor Day for the protections and opportunities we have, while we fight for the ones we’ve lost or haven’t gained yet. The nationwide attack on teachers–especially nasty in Chicago–in the guise of helping students. The “right-to-work” laws passed in 24 states (an amazing semantic victory for the right). The gender wage gap. Crippling student loan debt–and the recent doubling of interest rates on those debts. Blocked immigration reform. An unlivable minimum wage. Minimal support for new families, especially mothers in the workforce. Legal discrimination against LGBT folks. There’s a lot about employment in the US that needs fixing. (Click on those links to see groups that are taking action; you can join them.)

Obama’s speech this past Wednesday was pretty good, but the line that adapted MLK’s famous one is great: “The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own.” He then urges everyone to continue fighting the good fight, a point he makes in a lot of speeches but far too frequently contradicts in his actions as president. Still, he’s not wrong. The reason we have the workers’ rights we have is because people fought for them, and not just the union leaders and lobbyists paid to fight for them. People who were tired after a long day at work then went out and rallied in the streets, wrote to members of Congress, went on strike, made changes to local laws, talked to their friends and neighbors about what was going on, elected leaders who promised to fight the fight with them. You don’t have to come home from work tired and angry with workplace injustices and your lot in life. You can come home from work tired and happy with the work you do and the conditions you work in. You can come home from work fired up to make work a place you want to return to.

So raise a toast to the unions and workers of yesterday and make a pledge to join with the ones who are fighting for a better life today. Because Labor Day means a lot more than the last day of the season to wear white.

Two Days in Bangkok

If the title of this post put that awful song in your head, I apologize. My first night in Bangkok was as grating as that song, and the first day was kind of a wash, but things picked up for the latter half of my stay there. Including infuriating political discussions on a street full of escorts.

Wat Po

Wat Po

I arrived late at night and wandered around Khaosan Road, and the next day I moved across town to a quieter hostel. On the way, I stopped at the central train station to buy a ticket out of town, and not only was the ticket I wanted not available, but I had to change transit three times just to get to the train station and then twice to carry on to the new hostel. All with a 30-pound backpack on and the tropical heat making me dizzy. My mood didn’t improve when I checked in at the hostel and learned that the Grand Palace closes at 3:30pm and there’s no way I’d make it in time, so I’d have to try to go the next day, although I’d have to go early in the morning because I needed to leave town by noon so I could get my train out of Ayutthaya in the evening. Ugh, just writing about my poor planning and the inconvenience of the sprawling city is frustrating me all over again!

Buy coupons for your every need

Buy coupons for your every need

I decided the solution to my bad mood was ice cream, so I went to the Magnum Bar downtown. I bought an electronics converter for $5 from one of those odds n ends stalls near the train station, the kind of stall probably entirely stocked with stuff that fell off a truck somewhere. But that converter is still working today, keeping my electronics from frying in the changing voltages in new countries, so I’m not asking any questions.

That night, I went out with two women I met at the hostel; H and K* are both teachers in China, in a “small” city about 2 hours west of Beijing. (“Small” in China means only a few million people, of course.) We thought we were going to a ladyboy cabaret, but K’s phone directed us to Soi Cowboy, which is a street that combines all the stereotypes about the seedier side of Thailand: neon everywhere, girls wearing next to nothing idling outside their clubs, lackluster table dancing inside the clubs, old white men at all the clubs, and a general sense that everyone is trying really hard to pretend it’s all normal and not sad.

Soi Cowboy

Soi Cowboy

We walked the length of it–the only tourist women there except for a few middle-aged women we spotted with their husbands–and ended up on the patio of Cowboy, which had a cover band inside instead of dancing girls. H had a lot of uninformed things to say about gender and sex work, which frustrated me to no end. She kept asking about ladyboys: “What are they, women or men? What parts do they have? What are they, really?” Do your homework. Even a cursory glance at a guidebook will clarify for you that ladyboys (who usually refer to themselves in other terms, actually, like “kathoey” or “a second type of woman”) are usually biologically male, but their chosen gender expression is female. Asking what gender someone is “really” is hugely insulting, no matter the culture, but especially in a place like Thailand, where information is readily available on this prominent part of the population, it’s inexcusably ignorant.

Soi Cowboy bangkokHer other favorite topic for the evening was whether the women working here had chosen this life. She’d read all sorts of stories about the “white slave trade” in Southeast Asia, which… what. But she also thinks that some Thai girls, while not kidnapped for the sex slave trade like white girls from America (WHAT), are still forced into the job. If they chose the job, though, she was okay with it. I did a little “choosing from super limited options isn’t a true choice” (my main line when encountering “feminism is about choice” defenders), but mostly I was irritated that she insisted on talking about this while we were sitting right there. If this scene bothers you, that is perfectly understandable, but there’s no reason you have to stay here. As soon as we arrived, we could see it for what it was; babbling about how worried you are for these women as you drink cocktails they bring you is useless and almost insulting.

Medical diagrams at Wat Pho

Medical diagrams at Wat Pho

Anyway, when we steered clear of those conversations, we had a good time, and I was glad to have gone out for one night in Bangkok. (Oh no, I did it again.) The next day I went to the Grand Palace, but by the time I got there, every tour group in Thailand was shoving its way into the gates, and it was too overwhelming. I walked along the outer wall and crossed the street to Wat Pho instead.

Reclining Buddha in Wat Po

Reclining Buddha in Wat Po

Wat Pho (or Po) is a beautiful complex. It contains the largest reclining Buddha in Thailand, covered in gold leaf and housed in a building barely big enough for it. Pillars hold up the roof and split up the view of the buddha, which is too bad for taking in its magnificence in one look, but did give intriguing glimpses as I walked down toward the feet. The soles of the buddha’s feet are covered in intricate mother-of-pearl decorations, which were lovely. The rest of the grounds contain a massage school, a shrine to a seated buddha, and small stupas. There was also a small display on President Obama’s visit to the temple in November 2012, including the gift he brought with him–a candle from Chesapeake Bay. A candle? Really? A candle is what you get someone when you don’t know them well enough to know what to get them. Surely someone on the team could’ve tried a little harder.

The feet of the reclining buddha

The feet of the reclining buddha

After I walked around the wat, I collected my luggage, spent far too long finding a minibus, and got to Ayutthaya for a few hours of sightseeing before headed farther north. A whirlwind trip to Bangkok.

*Usually I use full names in my stories, but since I dwell on the negative parts of my time with H, I thought that imprudent.

Affordable Care Act UPHELD

Health care for everyone! I was disappointed Democrats aimed low when they passed the law and essentially gave a whole lotta money to corporations, but it is still worlds better than what we had before. People who are uninsured, poor, young; people with pre-existing conditions; people with uteri… people across the country benefit from the Affordable Care Act, and that is the victory here.

Obama’s chances vs. Romney’s come November is also a big deal, but should not be the main focus in this win for people’s health.

(But ok, for what it’s worth: Republicans will now say “I’ll repeal the law” rather than come up with a new plan, which is easier for them. They’ll say, “See, Obama DID raise taxes!” and that’s not great for Obama either. But Obama’s centerpiece legislation remains, and that’s going to do a lot for his chances, I think.)