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.



Black History Month: The Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is an absolute pageturner; I read it in three days. The most immediately recognizable “oh that’s different” thing about this novel is that it posits that there is an actual, physical railroad ferrying slaves to freedom underneath the earth during the first half of the 19th century. But for me, the most notable thing about this novel is its approach to historical truth: everything written here is true, just not in the time that Whitehead writes about it.


“Now that she had run away and seen a bit of the country, Cora wasn’t sure the [Declaration of Independence] described anything real at all. America was a ghost in the darkness, like her.”

Continue reading

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.


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.


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.


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:
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.


A Stowaway From the Past: A Real Family Christmas

Hello dearest fellow travelers! I posted this musing on the original reason for the season last year, but since I feel pretty much the same about it now and am about to begin my time off of work, I’m re-posting it today. Also, stay tuned Thursday for a brand-new post, with video!

I went to church with my family every week for eighteen years, so even though I don’t practice anymore, I’m very interested in the theories and workings of Christianity and people who believe. Don’t get all upset that I’m going to proselytize at you just because I say “Jesus” a lot in this post. Oh and in case any clarification is needed, Pastor Kit graciously allowed me to read the written version of her sermon and quote from it, but don’t take that to mean she endorses any of the rest of this post. That religious right rant is all me, so don’t hold it against her.

Two years ago, I was sitting in my parents’ church on Christmas Eve when the priest, Pastor Kit Carlson, blew my mind. In her sermon, she suggested the idea that Jesus was not born in a lonely stable, but rather in a house full of extended family. Apparently, when Luke writes in his Gospel that “there was no room at the inn,” the word he used for “inn” was actually kataluma, which is more accurately translated as the guest room, or the upper room. And he’d used a totally different word for “inn” later on, when talking about the Good Samaritan, indicating that he wasn’t talking about an inn when he said Mary and Joseph couldn’t stay in the kataluma. The couple was returning to Joseph’s ancestral home for the census, after all; it is more likely than not that he had many relatives in town. Surely those relatives were ready to squeeze in and make room for Joseph and his very pregnant wife, and since there was no space available in the guest room, Mary and Joseph settled down in the main room on the first floor of the house. The homes of the time and region had a split-level first floor, with one side reserved for the humans and the lower side reserved for the animals. There was a gap in the wall between the two, and straw was placed here for the animals to eat. So Mary goes into labor, the women of the house gather ’round to help with the birth, and when Jesus arrives, he is indeed “wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger” — it’s just that the manger happens to be in the family home, rather than in a cold outdoor cave or stable.


the traditional nativity sceneThis family picture was photoshopped

This could really change how we think about Jesus not just as the son of God (however you may feel about that), but also as a human, someone who was part of a larger family from his very first breath. As Pastor Kit said, “Jesus was not born into a simple nuclear family. Jesus was born into a clan… And this was how God chose to come into the world.” Obviously the Christmas story is one chock-full of symbolism, whether that symbolism indicates to you a larger truth or not. What does the symbolism of the traditional story say to us as opposed to this new view?

The usual way of looking at the story has Mary and Joseph as social outcasts, their only visitors people driven to the stable by supernatural forces. Only a few special people noticed how special Jesus was, and everyone else was cruelly indifferent or outright hostile to him and his parents. He had a hard and lonely road laid out for him, and that was clear from the start.

But if we look at the story from this new perspective, everything changes. Sure, the family still flees the country because King Herod is after them, but other than that, his parents are not rejected or treated badly. Jesus isn’t born into an uncaring world, but rather one full to bursting with extended family (all of them likely sharing conflicting advice with Mary the moment he pops out). His life path is still a difficult one, but the man who preaches love and peace for all humankind might have believed in these concepts more deeply based on a childhood full of both.

Perhaps Jesus’ extended family bickered a lot, or perhaps they got on well with one another. Maybe they blamed Mary for becoming pregnant before her wedding to Joseph or maybe they accepted the story that Jesus was a premie. The family might have been close or only seen each other once in a blue moon. Regardless of the exact make-up of the family, if they were there at Jesus’ birth and the days that followed, they were an important part of his early life. No matter what kind of family we’re born into, there’s no denying that they shape us, and now we can see how this might have been true for Jesus too.

the delightful family from "While You Were Sleeping"
Welcome to the world, kiddo! Here’s your family

A final note: Not to get too political (not that that’s a surprise on this blog, eh?), but I also think Jesus born into a large family can have implications for Americans in particular. Christians throughout history have clung to the idea of their persecution in the early days of the faith, and there are varying degrees of accuracy to that. However, the religious right in America is steadfast in the belief that this applies to contemporary America and themselves all the time. They seem to truly believe that they are being persecuted for their beliefs, despite the fact that Christianity is overwhelmingly the dominant religion in this country, and God is mentioned in our Pledge of Allegiance, our presidential oath, etc., not to mention you can’t get elected in this country without swearing up, down, and sideways that there has never been a more devoted follower of Jesus than yourself. Despite the fact that it’s non-Christians who continue to bear the brunt of intolerance, the religious right remains convinced.

I’m not saying there’s a direct line between the nativity and this false belief, but think about it: In the traditional story, Jesus and his family are turned away from inn after inn, ignored by their neighbors, and chased out of the country by a ruthless leader intent on their destruction. Jesus is all the more special because only a few recognize his specialness. Too much time focused on how special you are as compared to everyone else, and you can start to treat everyone else badly, which let’s face it, the religious right is really good at doing.

Okay, I know I’ve lost some of you here, and granted, it’s not the most well-thought-out theory, but man, they get so angry and exclusive, despite all Jesus’ actual teachings. They talk about a human family, but they make that family smaller and smaller — no gays, no non-Christians, no powerful women, no one too different from a narrowly defined category.

What if they thought of Jesus being born into a large, loving family instead? What if many people witnessed the birth and celebrated it? What if instead of being a misunderstood prophet from the start, Jesus was an appreciated addition to the family, despite the odd signs and portents surrounding his conception and birth? What if Jesus’ problems with fitting in only came later, and in the beginning his family accepted him for who he was and what he meant to them? What an inclusive way to view the virgin birth. What a wonderful way to start a story.

American Christians, instead of feeling put-upon and misunderstood, can look at this story and see a new way to view their current situation: just like all of us, they are born into this large, loud, extended family of humanity, and just like all of us, they can grow up and give back to this weird and wonderful family with love and joy. Just like Jesus.