Tag Archives: racism

Government Policy vs Cultural Dialog

Umberto Eco

I have learned to distinguish between the policies of a government (or even the constitution of a state) and the cultural ferment at work in that country. This is why I later attended cultural meetings in countries whose politics I didn’t agree with. Recently I was invited to Iran by some young, open-minded scholars who are fighting for the development of a modern culture there, and I agreed, asking only for the visit to be postponed until the situation in the Middle East became clearer, because it didn’t strike me as sensible to find myself on a plane that might get caught in missile crossfire.

If I were American, I certainly wouldn’t have voted for Bush, but this doesn’t stop me from having continuous and cordial relations with various American universities.

Umberto Eco. Turning Back the Clock

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Umberto Eco on Racism

There is an expression that has become proverbial in English: “Some of my best friends.” People who start off by declaring, say, that some of their best friends are Jewish, usually come to a “but” or “however,” followed by an anti-Semitic tirade. In the 1970s there was even a play about anti-Semitism called Some of My Best Friends (running in New York). Those who begin with this expression are immediately labeled as anti-Semites—and in fact some time ago, paradoxically, I decided that the best way to begin any discourse against racism would be to start off with: “Some of my best friends are anti-Semites…”

Umberto Eco. Turning Back the Clock

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Thoughts on “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz

This book has been on my radar for a long time, and I have finally gotten around to reading it. It is one of those short books that is easy to read, but overflows with wisdom. I suspect I will be rereading it at some point.

Quite simply, Ruiz teaches that there are four agreements which one needs to make with oneself in order to attain personal freedom:

  • Be impeccable with your word
  • Don’t take anything personally
  • Don’t make assumptions
  • Always do your best

The book explores these agreements, showing how they benefit the individual who practices them.

Anyway, rather than talking about the agreements and their applications (something already done by many others), I wanted to discuss the one issue with this text.

On the title page of the book, there is a note, which reads:

Note: The term “black magic” is not meant to convey racial connotation; it is merely used to describe the use of magic for adverse or harmful purposes.

The term is used fairly liberally throughout the text, but one example of its use should suffice.

Depending upon how it is used, the word can set you free, or it can enslave you even more than you know. All the magic you possess is based on your word. Your word is pure magic, and misuse of your word is black magic.

(p. 27)

I felt compelled to discuss this with a close friend of mine, who is black and also a voudou initiate. I was curious whether he found terms like “black magic” or “dark arts” to be racially offensive. The short answer is “yes.” Essentially, using those terms reinforces the stereotype that the color black is synonymous with something evil or dangerous. He said he personally uses terms like “non-prana strengthening” to describe practices that others might label as dark magic. He said even though he often has to explain what he means, it better describes the effects of behaviors and practices that negatively impact one’s spiritual wellbeing.

Don Miguel Ruiz teaches that one should be impeccable with one’s word, which for me means being very careful with what you say and remaining ever cognizant of the effects that words can have. This applies to terms like “black magic.” To use phrases such as this without regard to the ramifications is careless in the least, and detrimental in the worst.

Thanks for taking the time to read my musings. I hope you all have a blessed day.

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Thank You, John Lewis

I was sad to hear that the great John Lewis passed away on July 17, 2020. In a time when we are still actively struggling for the rights of black Americans, it was an inspiration to look to him and acknowledge the difference one person can make. He will be sorely missed during these trying times.

I would like to go back and share links to the reviews of his graphic novel series March, which he co-wrote. The books are outstanding and I highly recommend them if you have not read them before. I’m tempted to read them again.

Rest in peace, John, and thank you for your service.

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Juneteenth 2020: Thoughts on “We Saw Beyond Our Seeming” by Maya Angelou

President Obama presenting Maya with the Presidential Medal of Freedom (Source: Wikipedia)

Juneteenth is also known as Freedom Day, and is “an American holiday celebrated annually on June 19. It commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union general Gordon Granger read federal orders in Galveston, Texas, that all previously enslaved people in Texas were free. Although the Emancipation Proclamation had formally freed them almost two and a half years earlier, and the American Civil War had largely ended with the defeat of the Confederate States in April, Texas was the most remote of the slave states, with a low presence of Union troops, so enforcement of the proclamation had been slow and inconsistent.” (Source: Wikipedia) To honor black artists and to show support for the continued struggle for human rights in this country, I feel it is appropriate to share my thoughts on this powerful poem by the late Maya Angelou.

We saw beyond our seeming
These days of bloodied screaming

Of children dying bloated
Out where the lilies floated

Of men all noosed and dangling
Within the temples strangling

Our guilt grey fungus growing
We knew and lied our knowing

Deafened and unwilling
We aided in the killing

And now our souls lie broken
Dry tablets without token.

As a white man in America, this poem hits me on a visceral level. It is not enough to sit back and silently feel sorry for our fellow humans who are being systematically assaulted, humiliated, oppressed, and killed because of the color of their skin. We have a responsibility to speak out against injustice and to show courage in the face of hatred. Doing nothing makes us all complicit in the subjugation of an entire group of people. And as Ms. Angelou succinctly states in the final couplet, when we turn away and ignore the suffering of others, we incur scars on our own souls.

I hope this poem inspired you as much as it inspires me, and that you will draw on its strength to take a stand against racism. For those of you who are interested, here is a short YouTube video of someone reciting this poem. Thanks for stopping by.

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Lady Mechanika: Vol.1

I was introduced to Lady Mechanika at a Free Comic Day event, where I received a free copy of one of the issues. I liked it, and then when I went to the Silicon Valley Comic Con, I met one of the writers and talked with her for a while, and became sold. I bought Volume 3 from her and she signed it for me. Which brings me to now, having just finished the first volume.

The graphic novel is lavish steampunk, and the title character is a smart and strong woman who is part human, part machine. In addition to the stunning art work, the writing is also excellent, augmenting the illustrations to drive the narrative of the story.

Anyway, I figured I would share a couple of quotes that I found interesting.

Our minds have mechanisms designed to protect us from those unbearable realities that life may at times lay upon us. When faced with horrors that threaten to shred our sanity, our minds defend us. Transporting us to a sanctuary within. A safe haven where nothing and no one can ever touch us.

As I read this, I considered the mind as a programmable machine. We feed in information, and that gets processed and generates usable data that allows us to navigate our world in what we deem to be the best and most advantageous manner. This may or may not be true. The human mind is so complex, and this analogy does not factor in collective consciousness, which is something I strongly believe in, but it is an idea worth at least entertaining.

People tend to fear that which they do not understand. This is a truth I have always known. At least for as long as I can remember, since I cannot recall a time before I was made into this unnatural form. They fear all who are different. Anyone who looks different, or acts different, or thinks different. All are ostracized and ridiculed… if not outright killed.

There is so much that one can say about this. Clearly, racism and xenophobia are just the tip of the “fear of the other” iceberg. There is also fear of those who have different political ideas, fear of those who may be sick, fear of those who threaten our established beliefs. So much of our society is driven by fear, and the flames of fear are stoked by a media that stands to profit from keeping people afraid. But for me, though, the most interesting line in this passage is “… I cannot recall a time before I was made into this unnatural form.” The more I contemplated this line, the more I began to envision our human form as our unnatural form. I truly believe that we are spiritual entities, embodied within these human forms. Is this temporal mass of flesh our true form, or is our real form something that we have forgotten, something we will recall once we pierce the veil? Again, a profound question that warrants contemplation.

To sum up, this is a fun, exciting, and stimulating read. I will definitely read more Mechanika, but I might hold off a bit until this virus thing passes. I really prefer to buy my books at a brick and mortar store, as opposed to the online monolith.

Thanks for stopping by. Stay safe, and keep reading cool stuff.

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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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