Tag Archives: racism

Thoughts on “Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn” by Karen McCarthy Brown

This book has been on my shelf for a few years. I purchased it along with Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen (click to read Part 1 and Part 2 of my review of Deren’s book). I bought these books because they were recommended to me by a close friend who was initiated into the Vodou tradition in Haiti, and I was interested in learning more about the religion. I would later learn that Mama Lola was the manbo who initiated him.

The book is an excellent academic work. Ms. Brown is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Anthropology of Religion, so not only does she explore the mystical practices of the Vodou religion, but she also presents a moving look at the challenges that face Haitian immigrants in the US who struggle with poverty, racism, and discrimination. Having known many Haitians from my years living in Miami, I was able to relate to a fair amount of the personal stories presented in the book, having seen friends deal with the same types of struggles. Professor Brown does a great job explaining how popular culture, institutionalized racism, and organized religion all contribute to the negative stereotypes associated with Vodou.

American popular culture dwells on images of Vodou’s malevolence, an attitude as nonsensical as equating Catholicism to Satanism. The understanding most North Americans have of Vodou is derived mainly from its portrayal in novels, films, and television, where images of sorcerers, zonbi, snakes, blood, and violence abound. In the United States, the word voodoo is used in a casual and derogatory way to indicate anything on a spectrum from the deceptive to the downright evil. If it were not so clear that racism underlies these distortions, it would be hard to understand why this kind of stereotyping is tolerated for an African-based religion when it would not be tolerated for other religions.

The negative portrayal of Vodou in the press, in novels, and in travelers’ accounts began in earnest shortly after the Haitian slaves won their freedom, a period in which slavery was still practiced in the United States and in many European colonies. The argument was often explicitly made that the barbarism of their religion clearly demonstrated that Haitians were incapable of governing themselves—an argument used by the United States and several countries in Europe to justify their refusal to recognize the fledgling black republic. Racism is more covert and convoluted these days, but the stereotypes of Vodou still serve their purposes. One of the central ways such propaganda works is by characterizing Vodou as in every way the opposite of “true” religion, that is, of Christianity. This description is ironic, for people who serve the Vodou spirits consider themselves good Christians.

(pp. 110 – 111)

It is important to remember that Vodou is a rich spiritual tradition, and like any spiritual tradition or religion, when practiced in earnest, will instill the practitioner with spiritual values and promote individual growth. I love the way Maggie, who is Mama Lola’s daughter, explains this, emphasizing how having Vodou in her life helps her live in the world, and elevates her above mundane and meaningless human existence.

“You know, maybe if I wasn’t part of Vodou, I would not know so much about people. Maybe if I did not grow up in it, I would be just, you know, just like ordinary people . . . walking . . . like everybody else walking on the streets, up and down . . . and don’t know right from wrong.”

(pp. 298 – 299)

There is profound wisdom here, and something we can all learn from. So many of us are guilty of “walking,” and being lost in our self-importance while cut off from reality through the constant stream of digital noise. We have forgotten that we are spiritual beings having a worldly experience. I can still picture my old Haitian friends, and I remember distinctly how deeply spiritual they were, how caring and charitable. I think the world could learn from the Haitian people, about the importance of community, family, tradition, and spirituality.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope this post inspired you.

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Thoughts on “Burmese Days” by George Orwell

This book has been sitting on my shelf for years, waiting to be read. A friend of mine, Dave, gave it to me before he moved. Every time I would see it nestled among the other books, I would think “Oh, I should read that,” but then got sucked into another book. But finally, I got around to it.

Burmese Days was Orwell’s first novel, published in 1934, more than ten years before Animal Farm or 1984. It is a tale of British imperialism and expresses some of Orwell’s ideas which would become dominant in his later more popular works.

The central location in the story is an English Club in Burma, which has been instructed to start allowing native people in. The result is tension that seethes with racism.

“… Anyway, the point’s this. He’s asking us to break all our rules and take a dear little nigger-boy into this Club. Dear Dr. Veraswami, for instance. Dr. Very-slimy, I call him. That would be a treat, wouldn’t it? Little pot-bellied niggers breathing garlic in your face over the bridge-table. Christ, to think of it! We’ve got to hang together and put our foot down on this at once…”

(pp. 23 – 24)

This attitude of racial superiority is offensive on so many levels, but was the dominant paradigm at the time. This feeling of racial superiority is manifest in the concept of the “white man’s burden,” the belief that it is the job of the white man to civilize blacks and indigenous people. But as Orwell points out, this is nothing but a lie intended to justify the exploitation of people, cultures, and resources.

“Seditious?” Flory said. “I’m not seditious. I don’t want the Burmans to drive us out of this country. God forbid! I’m here to make money, like everyone else. All I object to is the slimy white man’s burden humbug. The pukka sahib pose. It’s so boring. Even those bloody fools at the Club might be better company if we weren’t all of us living a lie the whole time.”

“But, my dear friend, what lie are you living?”

“Why, of course, the lie that we’re here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of rob them. I suppose it’s a natural lie enough. But it corrupts us, it corrupts us in ways you can’t imagine. There’s an everlasting sense of being a sneak and a liar that torments us and drives us to justify ourselves night and day. It’s at the bottom of half our beastliness to the natives. We Anglo-Indians could be almost bearable if we’d only admit that we’re thieves and go on thieving without any humbug.”

(p. 39)

Orwell asserts that we have lots of freedoms, but these “freedoms” are only meant to be distractions, and that true freedom, and the freedom that matters, is denied.

It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a word in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard to even imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself.

(p. 69)

Orwell also addresses the relationship between money, power, and fame. People who are truly obsessed with money see it as a way to attain power and fame. This results in a vicious cycle of corruption where individuals will do anything and destroy anyone to get what they want.

“Money! Who is talking about money? Some day, woman, you will realise that there are other things in the world besides money. Fame, for example. Greatness. Do you realise that the Governor of Burma will very probably pin an Order on my breast for my loyal action in this affair? Would not even you be proud of such an honour as that?”

(p. 140)

The rest of the book reads like a Shakespearean tragedy. Plots are set in motion, tragic events unfold, and the book ends on a sad and unsettling note. But what is most unsettling is how little our cultures have changed. These prejudices, the disregard for others, and the striving for personal gain at the expense of others is still rampant. Orwell must be squirming in his grave.

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“Richard III” by William Shakespeare: Deformity and Evil

To really understand this play, you must have a basic understanding of the concept of the great chain of being.

For Medieval and Renaissance thinkers, humans occupied a unique position on the chain of being, straddling the world of spiritual beings and the world of physical creation. Humans were thought to possess divine powers such as reason, love, and imagination. Like angels, humans were spiritual beings, but unlike angels, human souls were “knotted” to a physical body. As such, they were subject to passions and physical sensations—pain, hunger, thirst, sexual desire—just like other animals lower on the chain of being. They also possessed the powers of reproduction unlike the minerals and rocks lowest on the chain of being. Humans had a particularly difficult position, balancing the divine and the animalistic parts of their nature. For instance, an angel is only capable of intellectual sin such as pride (as evidenced by Lucifer’s fall from heaven in Christian belief). Humans, however, were capable of both intellectual sin and physical sins such as lust and gluttony if they let their animal appetites overrule their divine reason.

(Source: Wikipedia)

To emphasize the importance of this concept, Shakespeare uses the word “knot” extensively throughout the text, symbolizing things from marriage to physical form. And just as Shakespeare and other Renaissance thinkers believed in the correspondence between the worldly and the divine realms, they also believed that the physical and the spiritual aspects of an individual were also knotted together.

Richard is a despicable character who seems to lack any redeeming qualities. He revels in his depravity and it is impossible to feel any sense of empathy for this person who is presented as the English equivalent of a Caligula. But what I find the most interesting is that Shakespeare establishes a clear connection between Richard’s physical deformities and his evil nature. In fact, during Richard’s opening soliloquy, the connection is immediately established.

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew’d up,
About a prophecy, which says that ‘G’
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here
Clarence comes.

(Act I: scene i)

We can contrast this with a description of Edward, whose physical beauty reflects the nobler qualities of a human being.

Hath she forgot already that brave prince,
Edward, her lord, whom I, some three months since,
Stabb’d in my angry mood at Tewksbury?
A sweeter and a lovelier gentleman,
Framed in the prodigality of nature,
Young, valiant, wise, and, no doubt, right royal,
The spacious world cannot again afford
And will she yet debase her eyes on me,
That cropp’d the golden prime of this sweet prince,
And made her widow to a woeful bed?

(Act I: scene ii)

And again, Shakespeare reiterates that an individual’s face, or physical expression, is a direct reflection of what that person is like inside, and the thoughts and feelings that the person has within.

I think there’s never a man in Christendom
That can less hide his love or hate than he;
For by his face straight shall you know his heart.

(Act III: scene iv)

In our modern society, we want to tell ourselves that we do not judge others by their appearances, when in actuality, we still do. Studies have shown that individuals are considered more trustworthy if they have a nicer appearance. And there is the whole issue of judging blacks and people who look Arabic strictly upon how they look. We are not going to change this part of our collective being overnight, but we need to acknowledge this tendency and work toward changing it.

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Hellboy and the B.P.R.D 1955: Secret Nature

I love when comics weave important social messages into the stories. This particular tale deals with racial discrimination, particularly directed toward African Americans.

Hellboy, a somewhat grotesque red monster, is on assignment with Woodrow Farrier, a young black man with a Ph.D in Biological Sciences from the University of Chicago. They meet and speak with a white rancher, who makes some disparaging comments directed towards Woodrow. Later, Hellboy inquires about whether or not this treatment bothers Woodrow:

Hellboy: Hey, about that? Does it ever get to you?

Woodrow: What? You mean the fact that people are more accepting of a big red guy with horns and a tail than they are a black man?

Hellboy: Yeah. I figure it can’t be easy.

Woodrow: Of course it’s not easy, Hellboy! Welcome to the world.

This short conversation speaks volumes about the plight of black people. It is high time we stopped judging people by their outsides.

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“March: Book Three” by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

This third volume concludes the trilogy, and it does so in a powerful and moving way. The story climaxes with the escalating tension in the civil rights struggle, which includes the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, where John Lewis was nearly beaten to death by Alabama State Troopers.

There is so much relevant and important commentary in this text, that I struggled with what to cover in my post (hence a lapse between when I finished reading and when I wrote this post). Rather than try to cover all the socio-political issues addressed in the book, I figured I would focus on a couple of sections that really stood out for me personally.

The first thing that really resonated with me personally was a section about the press and their focus on the white volunteers who were involved in the civil rights movement at the time.

There had been several complaints about the white volunteers trying to take over. It also left a number of people sore that the press had focused much of their attention on the white workers, often identified by name, shown working alongside nameless blacks.

(p. 53)

I had experienced something like this personally when I lived in South Florida and I went to protest the repatriation of Haitian refugees at the INS offices. I was interviewed by the news and featured prominently on television because they wanted to know why a white American was out there protesting with a large group of black Haitians. For me, it was a basic human rights issue, and I have to say I felt pained that the media chose to focus on me and not on the Haitians who were literally fleeing for their lives from the Duvalier regime.

The next thing that really struck me deeply was a conversation between Lewis and Malcolm X. Malcolm stressed that the real issue of the civil rights problem is economic, that it is the disparity between the rich and the poor, a rift that continues through this day and is the cause of much of the suffering around the world.

Malcolm talked about the need to shift our focus from race to class, both among one another and between ourselves and the white community. He believed that was the root of our problems, not just in America, but all over the world. Malcolm was saying, in effect, that it is a struggle for the poor–for those who have been left out and left behind–and that it transcends race.

(p. 136)

I also learned from the book that Malcolm was assassinated on John Lewis’ birthday, which was February 21, 1965 (Lewis was born on February 21, 1940).

Toward the end of the book is a touching section that depicts Lyndon Johnson’s speech announcing the federal government’s enforcement of voting rights. The speech is included in its entirety and is worth reading closely, but I just want to focus on one key phrase.

The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.

(p. 242)

In the recent election here in the U.S., and in past elections, I have been sadly astounded at voter apathy and the sense that many people have that their vote does not mean anything, or that it is better to cast a protest vote to send a message to the “establishment” instead of voting for the better of the two primary candidates. While I certainly empathize with the sentiment of these people, considering the vote as something frivolous or useless will ultimately lead to the loss of its power as a vehicle for social change. We must never forget that gains are slow coming, but that progress can be torn down very quickly.

Anyway, I highly recommend this graphic trilogy to all readers, young and old. The books are inspiring, infuriating, and important.

Here are links to my posts on the first two books:

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“March: Book Two” by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

This book opens with an image of two hands shaking: one black and one white. For me, that sums up what this book is about: reaching across the race divide.

This volume focuses on the increased violence that blacks faced as the civil rights movement gained momentum. It can be difficult to read at times, but the message is so powerful and important, that the story must be told. One part really pained me. It was depicting an attack on civil rights activists in Montgomery, AL on May 20, 1961. A mom had brought her young boy to the demonstration and was encouraging him to partake in the violence.

“C’mon… harder, Danny! That’s my boy… git him! Them eyes… git them eyes!”

(p. 75)

It’s an image I could not shake, and it reinforced what I already believed—that racism is taught. It is something that is passed down from generation to generation. I don’t believe that hatred is a natural state, but it is something that is learned.

Another thing that was not surprising yet resonated with me is how religion is twisted and used to justify hatred. This is evident in a quote from Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett.

“The Good Lord was the original segregationist. He put the negro in Africa, separated from all other races.”

(p. 114)

Without question, though, the most powerful part of this volume is John Lewis’ speech from the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. The book contains two versions of the speech. The edited version, which was the one he delivered, is presented with images in the graphic novel format. The original version, which was deemed a little too radical by some in the movement, is included as an appendix and is a great historical document.

The speech itself is too long to include here, but I encourage you to read it in its entirely. I will close the post with the closing words of John Lewis’ historic speech.

We will march through the streets of the south; through the streets of Jackson, through the streets of Danville, through the streets of Cambridge, through the streets of Birmingham. But we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today. By the force of our demands, our determination, and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated south into a thousand pieces, and put them together in the image of God and Democracy. We must say: “Wake up, America! Wake up!!” for we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.

(p. 171)

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“March: Book One” by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

This is the first book in a three-volume graphic novel about civil rights activist and Congressman John Lewis. I had heard this discussed on a couple podcasts that I listen to and it piqued my interest, so when I heard that Andrew Aydin, one of the writers, was doing a talk at a local indie bookstore, I went and listened to what he had to say. I was so moved and inspired that I purchased the first volume and had him sign it.

The book describes Lewis’ early days of activism, when he participated in the lunch counter sit-ins which were aimed at ending segregation. The stories of his past are presented as recollections from the Congressman on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration, showing just how far civil rights have advanced in less than 50 years.

Before I talk about the text, I want to say something about Nate Powell’s artwork. It is excellent and visually captures the pain and emotion of that turbulent time. In addition, the choice to do all the artwork in black and white symbolically represents the contrast and division regarding race at that time in American history.

While in college, Lewis became inspired by the Social Gospel, which essentially asserted that one must apply the spiritual values from the Gospel to address social issues.

I loved the new ideas college was introducing me to, in religion and philosophy–but I couldn’t stop thinking about the Social Gospel. Here I was reading about justice, when there were people out there working to make it happen. I started to feel guilty for not doing more. I became restless.

(p. 65)

Later on, Lewis recounts his first meeting with Martin Luther King, who agreed to help Lewis try to get into Troy State University. King makes Lewis aware of the risks involved in challenging the State of Alabama and the Board of Education.

King: To attend Troy State, we’ll have to sue the State of Alabama and the Board of Education. You’re not old enough to file a suit–you’ll have to get your parents’ okay. They’re going to have to sign. But if you want to go, we’ll help–we’ll raise the money to file those suits, and we’ll support you all the way. But you must keep in mind–your parents could lose their jobs. Your family home could be bombed or burned. You may get hurt–or your family may get hurt. I don’t know what will happen.

(p. 71)

While reading this graphic novel, I learned that during the civil rights movement, an organization called the Fellowship of Reconciliation (F.O.R.) published a comic about MLK that was intended to teach young people about non-violent resistance.

F.O.R. had also published a popular comic book called Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, which explained the basics of passive resistance and non-violent action as tools for desegregation.

(p. 76)

In his talk at the bookstore, Andrew Aydin told the attendees how he convinced John Lewis that the graphic novel format was the best way to tell his story. I am in full agreement. While the story itself is compelling and moving, it’s the images that make this such a visceral read. I encourage everyone to pick up this book and read it, especially in a time when intolerance seems to be rearing its ugly head once again.

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