Black History Month: 13th

If I say “prison-industrial complex,” do your eyes start to glaze over immediately? Then 13th is the documentary for you. Ava DuVernay intentionally made a primer on this issue, a well-researched but still easily digestible 1 hour and 40 minute introduction to the history of the American problem of mass incarceration. It’s a hell of a history.


DuVernay and her interview subjects draw a clear line from slavery through to the present day prison set-up. I know a lot of (white) people think discussions of racism and structural discrimination focus too much on slavery, and can’t we as a country just move on? But people have been saying that since emancipation, and at no point have we ever reckoned with this foundational part of the United States, which means the underlying issues of systemic racism and oppression are never fully addressed, and we keep repeating the same terrible shit over and over.

The throughline runs from slavery to convict leasing to Jim Crow and lynching to prisons and the disenfranchisement and lack of possibilities upon release. The 13th from the title is the Constitutional amendment that abolished slavery and forced servitude — except as punishment for a crime. What the documentary makes crystal clear is that much of the oppressive, inhumane treatment from slavery carries over through these other forms, and the thing that allows that is the phrase in the 13th Amendment “except as a punishment for crime.” Just rebrand people as criminals and you can have much the same effect. It’s devastatingly simple and clear when you say it like that, and the rest of the film shows how it was done.

First, arrest people for vagrancy and put them to work rebuilding the South after the Civil War. Then push the idea of the black man out to rape white women, and the dangerous, immoral nature of black people in general; public lynchings are celebrated and black people move from the south to northern cities in the Great Migration, fleeing a life of terror. Set up an entire system to keep black people separate, second-class citizens under Jim Crow; the very fact that they are forced to use separate facilities for everything marks them out as alien and less than human. When the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s successfully breaks up this segregated system, and you have to drop the explicit racial talk, immediately implement coded terms so that “criminal” almost always means “black.” Start a “war on drugs” that punishes black people disproportionately, based on the drugs used overwhelmingly in poor black communities (crack cocaine) as opposed to rich white communities (powder cocaine). Represent black people on TV as criminals disproportionately. Introduce mandatory minimums and truth in sentencing and a 1994 crime omnibus bill that put more black people — especially men — in prison than ever before. Privatize prisons so that, through contracts with the prison corporations, the state is incentivized to jail people. Allow prison corporations to be part of a task force that writes legislation for lawmakers, so that laws favorable to the prison companies are put into place and those companies can profit from punishment. Put prisoners to work for little to no pay, producing many of the “Made in America” goods we’re proud to buy, and making it more difficult to extricate profit from the prison system (and here we see “prison-industrial complex”). When enough people get angry about the set-up of the prison industry, start “reform” movements that keep profit in the hands of the few and keep black people disenfranchised and not at liberty, for example by introducing more GPS tracking. Whatever strides black and brown people make toward true equality, adapt the system to disallow that. And always deny that any of this has to do with race.

DuVernay and her crew interviewed leading thinkers in American history, prison abolition, and race over the course of two years. She also interviewed people who may not agree with much of what her documentary is saying, including conservative politicians and a particularly hapless ALEC member. She apparently spent two hours talking with each interviewee, which is much longer than interviews usually go on for, and in this way she got more honest and in-depth conversations from people who might otherwise dissemble or evade. One of my favorite subjects is Angela Davis, who has made much of her life’s work about prison abolition, and other speakers who made me think and write down word for word what they’d said include Malkia Cyril, Bryan Stevenson, Jelani Cobb, and Michelle Alexander (whose book, The New Jim Crow, I have on hold at the library).

DuVernay’s artistry shows mostly in how easy to understand and yet challenging the documentary is, and how seamlessly she moves from one topic to the next, all within the larger topic. There are also some particularly affecting moments, like when the camera lingers on a photo of Trayvon Martin for a long time, burning this murdered child’s face into our retinas. Another is the heartwrenching and enraging sequence wherein she alternates between scenes of groups of white people at Trump rallies pushing and hitting black people and scenes of groups of white people pushing and hitting black people from the time of the civil rights movement and before, all while Trump talks to the crowd saying things like “Knock the crap out of him, would ya?” and “In the good old days, this doesn’t happen, because they used to treat them very, very rough.” It’s a brilliant bit of filmmaking and it places white people firmly in the spotlight: this behavior in 2016 is the same as the behavior in 1956, so everyone saying they would’ve been on MLK’s side back then, where are you now, when it’s just the same?

Today, the lifetime likelihood of imprisonment for white men in the United States is 1 in 17. For black men, it’s 1 in 3. ONE THIRD. Black men make up 6.5% of the US population, but 40.2% of the prison population. That’s what is meant by disproportionate. That is what is meant by an epidemic. That is what is meant by a broken system that systematically breaks down communities of color and steals the futures of generations of children.

Bryan Stevenson points out that “the presumption of dangerousness and guilt follows every black and brown person everywhere”; it’s this criminalization of an entire group of people that makes it possible for the majority of the country to care less about them — “oh well, they did something bad, they’re criminals” — and to ignore what’s done to them. As Jelani Cobb asks, “Whose life do we recognize as valuable?” The answer may well be in prison abolition — not reforming the system, but breaking it apart completely and finding a different way of approaching law, order, criminality, and the people involved. And it certainly lies in retraining the country to see people of color as valuable human beings, not as criminals or statistics or a problem that can’t be solved and doesn’t need to be heard. Malkia Cyril says, “Black Lives Matter… is about changing the way this country understands human dignity.”

13th is essential viewing for anyone who lives in the United States, but especially those who don’t see a problem with the prison system or who think #BlackLivesMatter is an overreaction — let this be the film that you watch in an evening and ponder for weeks to come.




Taking and Making: February 7

Today, I took in:

The Electric Peanut Butter Company’s Trans-Atlantic Psych Classics Vol. 2

a chapter in A People’s History of the United States

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution


I made:

two blog posts for Black History Month

Taking and Making: February 2

Today, I took in:

Groundhog Day

a chapter of A People’s History of the United States

several chapters of Over Sea, Under Stone


I made:

a post on The Hate U Give

some frankly adorable brownies with little Oreo groundhogs popping out of them (see below), which were enjoyed while watching Bill Murray undergo his Buddhist journey toward enlightenment in the classic 1993 film


Black History Month: The Hate U Give

Angie Thomas’s YA book The Hate U Give is one of those rare books that is perfect for all audiences — for black folks who want an honest reflection of daily reality for many of them, for white folks who want to be better allies in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, for white folks who don’t understand why #AllLivesMatter is bad. 

Starr is a wonderful main character, full of verve and love. She witnesses the brutal, sudden murder of her friend at the hands of a cop, and spends the rest of the book grappling with the fallout of that event. Starr is a black teenager living in the city and commuting to a nearly all-white prep school in the suburbs, and much of the novel involves Starr navigating those two different worlds and figuring out her relationships in both of them. She’s also a teenager figuring out romantic relationships, and a sister joking around with her brothers, and a dutiful daughter in a family that expects a lot from her. There’s a lot of easy humor and genuine affection in this novel.

Starr’s family and friends are well-drawn characters as well, written with a complexity supporting characters aren’t always given. But it’s important that they be complex, because this book is so grounded in the real world that if there were any false note, you’d notice it immediately. Instead, I cried and feared for Starr and her loved ones as they helped each other through some of the hardest things people have to experience.



Black History Month: Selma

Ava DuVernay’s Selma is apparently the first feature-length attempt at a biopic of Martin Luther King, Jr. I say “apparently” because it didn’t even occur to me that I haven’t seen a movie about him that hasn’t been a documentary — his voice, his words, his image are so omnipresent in the United States, especially during the federal holiday devoted to him and the month following it, that I didn’t even consider there wasn’t a major fictionalized version of him out there. But this is definitely a version of him we needed — one that contradicts the safe-for-white-folks version of him we see most of the time. DuVernay wanted to show King as a radical speaking truth to power, and in Selma, she succeeds.


In Selma, MLK is a larger-than-life hero and a flawed human, an irreplaceable leader and one part of a movement much larger than any individual. This is the kind of movie you want to see made about your heroes, where the sanitizing is kept to a minimum and there’s no melodrama or clumsy foreshadowing. It’s also cleverly kept to a short but important period in his life, with no sepia-toned flashbacks or tired story beats we see from so many moviemakers who seem to think that in order to capture the essence of an extraordinary person’s life, you need to show the entire timeline. Continue reading

The National Palace of Sintra in Portugal

Look up, because you might see something wonderful. If I were to make one of those dreadful inspirational posters, that’d be the caption and the photo would feature one of the ceilings of the National Palace of Sintra. Because “look up” might be bland life advice, but it’s just plain practical when it comes to this palace.

national palace sintra portugal

National Palace of Sintra, in Portugal

Sintra, a hilly region slightly northwest of Lisbon, has been used by rulers for centuries as a place to establish power and build pleasure palaces. There’s nothing left of the Al-Andalus building that was once here (luckily the so-called Moorish Castle up the hill is another UNESCO site you can visit). What remains today is a mostly medieval and Renaissance construction, with decorations and furniture ranging from the 15th to the 19th centuries.

national palace of sintra portugal

There’s a lot of mention in the castle of the Manueline style, which looks vaguely like it’s from the Tudor period (because I live in the UK and most of my sense of this type of architecture comes from here, Tudor is my reference point), and indeed the style is named after King Manuel I, who reigned 1495-1521, overlapping with Tudors Henry VII and Henry VIII of England.

I love when you can see different fields directly influencing one another in specific historical times and places — as in, this type of literature is directly related to the political turmoil of a time, or in this case, this type of architecture is directly related to the major expeditions of exploration Portugal was making at the time. Taking elements of the Gothic style, architects in the Manueline style added influences from places Portuguese ships had ventured to — especially India (which included Islamic elements, and of course the previous rulers of Sintra were Arab Muslims, the Moors, and so it’s all intertwined). The Manueline style also incorporated elements that referenced the Age of Discovery directly, including ships, anchors, items from the sea, and botanical flourishes. (This is especially apparent in the monastery in Lisbon — stay tuned for a post on that!)

Legend has it that King João I decorated the Magpie Room as a public rebuke: his wife caught him cheating, and he had as many magpies as there were women at court painted on the ceiling of this room, not because he felt guilty but because he wanted to chastise the women who gossiped about the affair.

Most of the rooms in the palace are by now known according to what graces their ceilings: the Swan Room, the Mermaid Room, etc. One room, however, has the most boring name but the most magnificent ceiling: the Coats-of-Arms room. Manuel decorated this ceiling with the coats-of-arms of the most prominent 72 Portuguese families at the time — although a couple hundred years later, one of those was removed, because members of the Távora family were convicted of plotting against the king. Oops.

The National Palace of Sintra was in use by the Portuguese monarchy up until the founding of the Republic of Portugal in 1910, at which time it became a national monument. A few decades later it was restored, and in 1995 it was listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO as part of the Cultural Landscape of Sintra. It’s open to visitors who want to catch a glimpse of royal splendor — even if it means getting a neckache from looking up.

national palace of sintra portugal


Where in the World Wednesday

Karl Marx grave Highgate Cemetery London UK

Highgate Cemetery, London, England; August 31, 2017

As McDonald’s workers strike for the first time in the UK, and workers fight for rights during the week of Labor Day in the US, seemed an appropriate time to post this