Lisken Van Pelt Dus is a poet, teacher, and martial artist, raised in England, the US, and Mexico, and now living in Massachusetts. Her work can be found in such journals as Conduit, The South Carolina Review, Qarrtsiluni, and Upstreet, and has earned awards and honors from The Comstock Review, The Atlanta Review, and Cider Press Review. Her chapbook, Everywhere at Once, was published by Pudding House Press in 2009, and her first full-length book, What We’re Made Of, is due out from WordTech Communications’ Cherry Grove imprint in May 2016.
I had the pleasure of reading with Lisken at a local poetry event several years ago (we think it was Upstreet Magazine in Pittsfield, but we’re not sure!) where I purchased the above-mentioned chapbook. Recurring images of birds and mountaintops give this collection its uplifting, spacious, graceful character. Like a rushing wind or forest stream, human life is constantly in motion, swept along and altered by the passage of time. “It’s only/January but already birds are practicing song.” The poet’s mission, and her gift to us, is to pull over her bike in the field, or pause at the summit, so that we notice our place on the cosmic wheel and experience a moment of gratitude.
The chapbook is unfortunately out of print, but some of its poems will be included in her forthcoming book, including the two below, which she has kindly allowed me to republish here.
A number of us had gathered
in the curious way the world has
of gathering people, a random
rightness hovering, and then
what we all hoped for
though we could not name it,
sunshine in the dry altitude,
and conversation, and silence
resonant with a depth that made us
listen as if to reach the bottom of it.
At night the moon
scoured the hills and terraces.
Day warmed slowly. We followed
goat tracks up until we reached
a spring, its drinking trough filthy
with horseshit and roiled mud.
We stopped to watch a kestrel dive,
traded stares and greetings
with leathery goat-drivers on horseback,
scaled rocks like steps
to the top of the dusty hill-side.
One hill rose higher still.
The sign said Propiedad Privada but
the barbed wire was mostly trampled
horizontal. This was open land.
We walked into the sky.
This much is accurate.
What happened next
cannot be described so simply.
I too would have thought it impossible:
we reached the top but kept walking,
higher, as if we could fly by striding.
The hill that had seemed so tall
dropped away from us, flap
of wind-whipped ribbons
on huge crosses falling inaudible,
goat-bells paling. I saw
the wind itself rise to lift us.
In the distance the town grew smaller.
To this day I don’t know
how we returned or even if
we came back to the same land
we had left. Dust still clings
to my boots and hawks
still call sharply at the sight of prey.
The sun rises each morning
and the moon cycles.
A number of us depart
and reunite. Two are me.
Flight of Starlings
From the bay window in our living room
it looks like dozens of starlings
have just flown into your workshop below me,
dive-bombers launched from the trees
to the snow-free ground under our eaves.
I imagine them in there, winging
among the tools, perched on the table saw
or pecking at jars of screws and wall plugs.
One loses a feather. When you come home
you’ll find a filigree of spindly footprints
in the sawdust, and the black iridescence
of the bird’s absence. It is something
utterly other, this feather, this bird.
It’s from another place, a place we
can’t get to–it can’t happen
any more than we can go back
to a time before loss. But somewhere
a bird is balancing effortlessly on a branch
or in the air, without that feather.
In Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind, “Tara” was Scarlett O’Hara’s family plantation, a symbol of the supposedly idyllic (for white people) Southern way of life before the Civil War. The poet Catherine Sasanov references this pro-slavery myth ironically, tragically, in the title of her chapbook Tara (Cervena Barva Press, 2008), not as a vanished Eden but as confession of white America’s original sin.
This exquisite, penitent chapbook unearths lives overlooked by official histories. Upon discovering that her Missouri forebears had owned slaves, the poet undertook the task of reconstructing the latter’s stories from the scraps of information in local records. The incompleteness of the narrative stands as an indictment of white America’s lack of care for black lives. Suburban development appears as the latest form of erasure of the graves on which civilization is built.
Most of the poems in Tara are also included in Sasanov’s subsequent full-length collection Had Slaves, which won the Sentence Book Award from Firewheel Editions and was published by Firewheel in 2010. Thanks to both publishers and the author for permission to reprint the poem below.
On Reading the Missouri Slave Narratives Collected by the Federal Writers Project
(for Elizabeth Herndon Sharp, 1839-1945)
Missouri, 1937. The year white folks armed
with pens, with paper,
come to excavate memory’s shallow grave. Get paid to sift the slavery from it.
Before the old mouths die out around their stories. So they can lay their words out to dry.
So fresh, the spit still shines on them. Light cuts and bruises insisting how
Black thought exits through the teeth–
Eye dialect, written by men, by women, who never read the Braille
whipped into an ex-slave’s back. Look at the way each word is strained
through the minstrel show in their heads: Honey,
mama’s gwan way off, ain’t never goin to see her baby agin.
They ask about belief in ghosts, get scared when surface
wanders towards them white: black girls perfect as a glass of milk
whole towns choose to hold upright, so the one drop theory won’t spill out.
In spite of dust storms, failed banks, plagues of locusts,
did the called-to-ask give thanks to Jesus for a present as perfect as this Great Depression
to make our past look good? In Missouri,
1937, they invite themselves onto 92 porches, eke child slaves out
of 80-year-old women, 90-year-old men. Pens poised for the moments
dripping with nostalgia. Pages buckling beneath the weight:
Ole Mistress, slopping children’s meals in a pig trough.
Old Master, dragging a sick man from his cabin,
throwing him living in his grave:
We’ll come back in about an hour, he should be dead by then.
(What children see while running errands.
What children wrest from beneath their eyelids
so they can drop to their knees and eat.)
Bloody footprints across the floorboards.
A toddler crawling into her mother’s coffin, Look at my pretty dress.
How close can I lean in and listen
70 years away from voices
bound into a book? Where my family’s slaves died out
outside its pages. Where no one came to slide a sheet of paper
underneath their words. In Missouri, 1937,
my father’s tucked into its southwest corner,
lives on a campus called the forty acres. He learns to think
he’s years, not blocks, away
from the last slave linked
to his family. She’ll wait till 1945,
while no one tries
to take down her story.
I’ve touched the edges of her unmarked grave,
beat my hands against its dirt and howled.
But why should she get up, answer now
this trace of slaveholder
in my blood: distinct though distant,
watered down. What runs this pack of words across
the thin ice of the page.
In the Christian calendar, Pentecost celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit into the world. As recounted in Acts 2, the Spirit enabled a diverse gathering of early Christ-followers to hear the gospel simultaneously in all of their languages, healing the disunity of human tribes that began with the Tower of Babel story.
Nancy Craig Zarzar’s prizewinning chapbook Waiting for Pentecost (Main Street Rag, 2007) depicts intimate relationships cleaved by silences, frustrated by communication barriers both psychological and inter-cultural, but capable of being healed by empathy. Divine grace helps some of these characters find the willingness to enter into another’s strange mental world, like the husband who alone appreciates the creative visions of his stigmatized, mentally ill wife. Others remain on the opposite side of the barrier, perhaps because their intentions were not as pure, like the male narrator who is intrigued by his hairdresser’s quiet daughter.
Main Street Rag’s editor has kindly given me permission to reprint the title poem below.
WAITING FOR PENTECOST
I was married beside the river,
to the babble of strange-throated birds.
My husband, whom I hardly knew,
took vows in his language, and I in mine.
How strange, that words are only sounds.
That night his dark hands murmured across my body,
as if meaning were a kind of Braille on the skin.
But he could not find me there.
At last, we grew accustomed to the silence—
my tongue would not hold his language.
When I spoke, he softly drew his hand across my lips
and smiled, as if unwilling
to untangle the nonsense.
Then his mouth came down,
putting out sound like a candle.
In the heavy afternoons,
we passed purple fruit and loaves of bread
across the ocean of our table.
A green parrot in a cage muttered to himself-
a stranger had taught him to speak.
At dusk, when the winds gathered over the water,
I listened for birds calling,
but they seemed to have become mute.
I think the birds here mate secretly,
and live alone.
Once, I dreamed as my husband spoke
his words became colored serpents
whose bellies glistened with tangled markings.
They encircled my throat and hands,
then wound around my head to cover my eyes.
I must have screamed in my sleep,
for when I awoke,
his tentative fingers were brushing my throat.
At last, a sound he understood.
Sometimes in my loneliness
I imagined we were suddenly grafted together at the temples—
a man-woman exchanging secrets through our blood.
One thought could move our four hands.
I am sure there are creatures as strange
wandering in the labyrinth of our woods.
Now I have been married for ten springs.
Each year I wait for a Pentecost that never finds us.
I often dream those tongues of fire
have burned the masks off our words
so we can touch and read their faces.
But in this world, in the shadow of the Tower,
we must choose between babble and silence.
At night, in our attic bedroom,
I sit alone by the window,
yearning for something to break itself with sound.
I am answered by his breathing,
like the brush of nothingness.
I watch as the river darkens,
carrying swans and refuse toward the sea.
Full disclosure: Ellen LaFleche is my dear friend, writing critique partner, Winning Writers judging associate, and bohemian style icon. When you read her poems, you’ll wish she was in your life, too. Gorgeous and inventive as her language is, it is never merely pretty for its own sake. Her body of work has a mission of dignifying and illuminating the lives of real people, particularly blue-collar workers and women.
In her latest prizewinning chapbook, Beatrice (Tiger’s Eye Press, 2014), the tides of the sacred feminine seek an outlet in the cloistered body of Sister Beatrice, a working-class mystic. The convent offers both refuge and confinement—the paradox of a women-ruled society where women must de-sexualize themselves. The ascetic environment cannot quench the vitality of Beatrice’s imagination, which finds golden-faced gods in copper pans and lust’s soft satisfaction in a raw quahog.
The press does not have an online order page, so contact Ellen directly to purchase a copy for $10 at ElLaFleche@aol.com. Please enjoy these sample poems below.
The day after scattering her mother’s ashes in the ocean, Sister Beatrice goes quahogging
Clouds arranged in blurred
bands of coral and pink like lipstick samples
on the back of the Avon Lady’s hand.
Twenty years inside
that tomb-shaped nun boot
but Sister Beatrice’s foot
remembers its childhood skill–
how to stalk the quahog,
big toe trawling the tide
like a predator’s snout.
Cool wind whirling off the waves
in salt-loaded squalls.
Sister’s veil flaps so hard around her skull
it muffles the crackle of foam,
the slap of kelp and jetsam.
The clam she captures is still
alive, breathy and warm
in its hinged brown casket.
The clam-flesh dampens under her finger,
its belly slack as love in its puddle of juice,
elegant neck recoiling
from Sister’s tender pinch.
She knows the danger
of eating it raw. But Beatrice swallows,
the head-tilted gulp
a remembered pleasure in her throat.
to roll down the esophageal slide,
just a tidal rush of sand
and delicious clam-water
splashing under her tongue.
CHALICE OF SALVATION
Before bringing Halloween treats to children at the homeless shelter, Sister Beatrice joins the other nuns for a party in the rec room
she’s Father Beatrice,
swaggering with manly elegance
in a long black cassock,
white collar fashioned from a toilet-paper
tube coiled around the throat.
Mother Superior has turned herself
into a lion
tamer, ferocious in her tux
and tails, her whip of shredded Easter
ribbons whooshing over the stunned
head of a Cowardly Lion nun.
Sister Veronica is a paper maché
chalice, spray-painted gold, studded
with ruby and diamond rhinestones.
Father Beatrice places his priestly
hands on Veronica’s goblet hips,
lifts her high over his head for adoration.
Father begins to waltz,
slow-dancing around the rec
room, the holy chalice
pressed against his heart.
Until the Mother Superior
pries them apart
with the tip of her whip.
June is poetry chapbook review month at Reiter’s Block! I’ve been catching up on my large collection of small press gems, some newly published, some winners of contests from a few years ago. Like an exquisitely arranged plate of sushi, the chapbook is a perfect way to savor the bold, exotic flavors of poetry in a manageable portion size. The thematic interplay among the poems can be more apparent in a shorter, focused collection.
Roberta Beary’s Deflection (Accents Publishing, 2015) is a resonant, poised collection of free verse inspired by Japanese poetic forms. The book embodies the haiku aesthetic of saying much with little, of self-restraint as testament to depth of feeling. The majority of the poems deal with loss: the end of a relationship, the death of a parent, a son’s transformation into a stranger who makes risky choices. Yet the austere poetic style gives the reader a breathing space to assimilate each stab of insight before the next comes. The haiku-like three-line stanzas that interrupt or close certain narrative passages offer a welcome shift, a moment to be mindful of beauty that exists apart from our personal dramas.
She has kindly allowed me to reprint the following poems. I was particularly struck by the final image in “Before the Outing”, which sheds a more sympathetic light on the parents’ discomfort with their son’s orientation. Whether the narrator’s perception of danger in this partnership is true or a projection, it suggests that homosexuality unsettles people because male sexual desire makes its object vulnerable.
BEFORE THE OUTING
my son’s boyfriend
three words i practice saying
alone in my room
not to see
still you step back
from my son
and his boyfriend
mother tiptoes around
with knife in hand
my son’s lover dissects
the last white peach
May is the month of Mary every day in May
be sure to wear something blue in Mary’s honor
that never was it known that anyone who fled
to thy protection implored thy help or sought
thy intercession was left unaided patent leather
shoes are not allowed because boys must be
kept free from temptation to thee do I come
before thee I stand sinful and sorrowful always
remember your guardian angel despise not my
petitions but in thy mercy hear and answer me
the baby face
in my wallet
I honestly don’t care what happens to Don Draper. My girl Peggy found love!
“Mad Men”, a TV drama that was truly a work of art, came to an end last Sunday with the season 7 finale “Person to Person”. The most-debated question on the Internet is whether self-destructive genius Don Draper found enlightenment after his emotional breakthrough at Esalen, the New Age retreat center, or returned to New York to create the iconic 1971 “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” ad. Style mavens Tom and Lorenzo have pointed out telltale costuming similarities between the real-life ad and the characters at Don’s encounter group.
As Oscar Wilde would say, “To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.”
In my view, the ambiguous ending challenges us to examine our beliefs about the appearance of sincerity in art. The finale wrapped up most of the main characters’ storylines on a surprisingly upbeat note, giving us more closure and optimism than we’ve grown to expect from serious literary dramas. Was the final shot of the Coke ad supposed to challenge our enjoyment of happy endings–a jab from the show’s creators saying “This is fan-service, you asked for it, but remember this isn’t real“? The territory of simple, straightforward emotional catharsis has been so successfully colonized by advertising that a great deal of postmodern high culture is devoted to remixing those sentimental images in a degrading or dystopian fashion. The contemporary art museum is Don Draper’s wastebasket.
On an alternative reading, irony and sincerity are both performances. Our emotions are genuine but our expression of them is formed by social cues. Mass media bombards us with images of how to be whatever we are. Even if we don’t watch TV, we are watching other people who do, to figure out how to present ourselves in a way they’ll understand. George Saunders took this insight to extremes in his poignant, horrifying story “Jon”, where teenage lovers in a market-research prison camp literally can’t look at the moon without a commercial for Rebel CornBells playing in their brain implants.
Like me, Don is compulsively creative. He makes art to understand his feelings and to run away from his feelings; to connect with others and to substitute for personal relationships. (In that sense it’s an extension of his sex addiction!) I’m certain that if I’d wrecked my life, had a tearful breakdown in a therapy group, and found inner bliss on a mountaintop, part of my brain would constantly be observing myself throughout those experiences, thinking “What does this feel like? How can I describe it? How can I use it in my next writing project?”
In other words, the impulse to produce something worldly, even commercial, out of your moment of enlightenment doesn’t mean that enlightenment wasn’t genuine. And on the flip side, boundary-less emotionalism and flamboyant devotion to spiritual practice can also be a mask for egotism, passive-aggressive power, and seduction. I would have been more worried about Don (not to mention the women around him) if he’d instantly transformed into a smiling guru who hugged everyone. It was both funny and creepy to hear the middle-class hippies at Esalen using what I call the “group therapy voice”, the breathy, spaced-out delivery that disguises backstabbing judgments as vulnerable I-statements. 45 years later, it’s as much a pose as Betty Draper’s helmet hair and fatal cigarette.
I prefer to remember her this way.
For me, the show’s multi-layered ending could mean that we don’t have to concede the field of sincere feeling to McCann-Erickson. We can become conscious of the fact that our aesthetic nihilism is a defensive reaction to the emotional manipulations of Madison Avenue. “There is no Real Thing” is not necessarily any truer than “Coke is the Real Thing”.
Peggy Olson is my hero because she was always real. Whereas Don succeeded by presenting himself as whatever people wanted to see–so successfully that he lost sight of his own identity–Peggy succeeded by not caring what others thought of her. Her ego is in her work, not in her performance of “Peggy Olson”.
Which doesn’t stop her from being fiiiine.
New York City fans: There’s a “Mad Men” costume exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria till June 14. Next month, I will be in the presence of the holy relics of Peggy! Hail thee festival day!
UPDATE June 6: I went to New York City Ballet on Saturday night with my father and stepmother, and who should be sitting next to us, but the lovely Elisabeth Moss herself! She was so gracious to me when I recognized her, and signed my program. I didn’t want to seem crass by asking for a selfie with her. It was beyond my wildest dreams merely to be in the Real Presence.
I also didn’t tell her I have two of these prayer candles. Because that would be weird.
The Alabama State Poetry Society’s annual writing contest offers numerous awards for poems in various styles and themes. The ASPS has a long history of supporting emerging and local writers. For the past three years, I’ve sponsored their David Kato Prize, for poems on the human rights of LGBT people. The prize honors a Ugandan activist for sexual minorities who was murdered in a hate crime in 2011. He was the advocacy officer for Sexual Minorities Uganda; follow and support their important work on their website. The ASPS has kindly permitted me to publish the winning poems here.
by Sylvia Williams Dodgen
An inexplicable moment, how did it happen
so quickly in such an unlikely place
or did it happen at all?
For I had seemed to hold my breath
not to dispel that surreal slot in time:
a sweltering summer midnight,
the corner of forty-second and tenth,
edging Hell’s Kitchen.
Following a bow-tied foursome
in white top hats and tails
into a pharmacy, the magic began.
The foursome asked for novelties.
I veered off and met a tall young man
in platinum wig, Marilyn style,
arrayed in light blue plastic bubbles, neck to thigh,
long legs gartered in silver hose with tiny bows,
ascending from stiletto heels,
taps clinking, as he moved along the shelves,
a larger-than-life Marilyn in moveable bath.
Gliding by, “Love your outfit, darling.”
“Yours too,” I smiled, rounded the aisle and
met an older woman in floor-length, rainbow vest,
hugging a cat in a pink crocheted cap.
Wagging his paw, the woman said, “Say, ‘hi’, Sunny.”
I smiled at Sunny
then moved to stand in line behind white tuxedos
The young man in bubbles approached from behind
followed by the rainbow clad woman,
carrying her cat and a bottle of wine, like pots of gold.
Our collage exuded such energy the
air around us hummed.
I grinned and felt my hair roots lift,
my skin shine, as though I were a polished lamp,
with genie inside.
Bubbles whispered down to me,
“Feel the vibe? It’s show time,”
and burst into John Lennon’s lyrics.
Exiting tuxedos turned and sang in unison,
“Imagine all the people, living for today,”
Bubbles raised his arms and began to sway.
by Debra Self
My husband, our two children and I
passed through Indiana
as we traveled back home from vacation.
A cacophony of harsh sounds
emitted from Steve’s stomach
in rhythm to the girls’ bellies
so we pulled over at a Bar-B-Q dive.
As we walked in and sat down,
people began to stare at us
to the point of rudeness.
Then, instead of a waiter,
the manager walked over.
“Are you two gay?” he asked.
“Why, yes, sir, we are,” I replied.
“Then you need to get out.”
We were incredulous.
“Excuse me?” I blubbered.
“Did you not see the sign
on the door when you came in?”
“It says that due to my religious beliefs,
I do not serve faggots. So get the hell out!”
Other people sitting around also began
name calling and yelling for us to leave.
Some even threatened to take away
our daughters. One woman actually tried
to grab them from us.
We gathered the girls, rushed to the car,
and quickly jumped in. The people had followed
us out and as we sped off, picked up rocks
and threw them at the car.
Both girls sat in my lap crying
as Steve carefully drove home.
We happily left the dust of Indiana
The Man Jesse
by Myra Ward Barra
Regretfully, Jesse was gone when I entered the family,
A young man, I’m told, who painfully dwindled away.
His loved ones often speak of him:
“Jesse, our brother with HIV.”
“Our cousin, Jesse, who had AIDS…”
“Jesse, my gay son who passed away.”
Over the years, I came to know Jesse in my own way,
Through thumbprints of his life, Jesse made himself known.
Once his siblings placed him in a box and took a photograph.
He was a rosy faced doll, a child’s present, gift wrapped.
Through his writing, I met a poet with incandescent light in
the darkness, a lamp of life glowing during bleak hours.
In a glossy, clay figure, I saw a potter transferring his thoughts to his hands,
forming a pudgy man in plaid clothes and a perky hat.
In a home video, Jesse was a ballroom dancer,
Pulling his grandmother to the floor, his free-style hair falling east and west,
His Versace tie swaying to Glenn Miller.
There was Jesse the animal lover, best friend, big brother, avid skier,
New York graphic designer.
Jesse deserves to be recognized apart from his illness.
Jesse was born a baby, lived with purpose, and died a man,
Jesse was not his disease.
(Roberta’s birthday, December 2006.)
I blog often enough about how my childhood with my bio mom resembled Disney’s “Tangled”. Today I want to celebrate someone who makes Mother’s Day a joyful occasion for me, despite the painful memories we share (or perhaps because we can share them): my mom-of-choice, Roberta “Bib” Pato.
(Roberta and I celebrate her freedom from 34 years with my bio mom, February 2011.)
Bib moved in with my bio mom and me when I was about 5. I wasn’t allowed to call her my other mother, though she certainly was. We were closeted, albeit not very convincingly, and my bio mom approached motherhood with a “no other gods before me” attitude. So she was my “babysitter” in public, and my “dad” when we affectionately joked around in private.
She taught me how to cook by having me chop vegetables and read aloud recipes from Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey’s 60-Minute Gourmet. Mmm, chicken with shallots and asparagus! She drove me to school in a succession of clunky American-made station wagons, and then in the little red Toyota that served us faithfully for 14 years till I totaled it as a student driver. She was a beloved teacher in the NYC public elementary schools for 30 years, from Lower East Side ghetto schools where the children came from homeless shelters, to the Upper West Side, where she faced down a system that assigned children of color to the classrooms that were perceived as less desirable.
(Roberta’s wedding to her now ex-husband, 1968, with her mom Bea at right. She makes a cute femme, but it didn’t stick.)
Since starting her new life in 2011, she’s become the center of social life in her apartment building, co-founding a tenants’ association and making many friends who are film professors, religious scholars, writers, and more. They know they can knock on her door at any time of night for a slice of cake and a binge viewing of lesbian soap operas on YouTube. She’s amassed what is probably the largest collection of lesbian films in Northampton, which is really saying something.
(One of those “gay for you” romances that is so common in the movies, not enough in real life! But I might kiss Lena Headey if she asked me.)
As an active member of Old Lesbians Organizing for Change (OLOC), Roberta has attended conferences in Oakland and St. Louis, and (though she is staunchly pro-transgender rights) plans to visit the last Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival this summer. Not bad for someone whose ex-partner wouldn’t let her leave the house! The “classy old dykes” whom I’ve met through Roberta have given me a new sense of solidarity with other women and a gratitude for feminist heritage. For Pride Weekend this month, Roberta and two of her OLOC friends produced playwright/actress Terry Baum’s “Hick: A Love Story”, a brilliant show about Eleanor Roosevelt’s closeted romance with journalist Lorena Hickok.
(Northampton Pride 2014. She raised “L” this year too!)
Last but not least, she is the world’s most devoted grandmother to the Young Master:
(Roberta holds Shane for the first time, April 2012. Look how tiny!)
(Christmas/Roberta’s birthday, December 2014.)
Some grandmothers are always second-guessing the kid’s mom, but Roberta never criticizes. When I start to worry about the Young Master’s development or behavior, her unconditional love reminds me that Shane is perfect just as he is. Look at that face, right?
Thank you, Roberta, for showing me what a mom should be! We love you!
Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam shecheyanu v’kiy’manu v’higyanu lazman hazeh.
I met prison librarian and youth advocate Jane Guttman 10 years ago when she invited me to teach a poetry workshop at the Juvenile Court School in San Bernardino, CA. Before then, I’d never had personal contact with prisoners. I unconsciously accepted the myths and fears that popular culture promotes about people who wind up behind bars. But I said a prayer, walked in there, and all those mental barriers dropped away. They were just kids–vulnerable, troubled, painfully sincere about their writing, grateful for books that could give voice to their feelings.
Jane has been working with criminal justice professor Richard Ross on his new website, Juvenile-In-Justice, which collects the stories of at-risk youth in their own words. Poverty, racism, under-resourced schools, and dysfunctional families create a deadly undertow that few can rise above. The system often fails them by throwing them in jail instead of providing support services. They become statistics and stereotypes to justify extending the prison-industrial complex. Juvenile-In-Justice shows us their faces, and their souls. Read these stories and let your heart be opened.
From “Welcome Home, Ronald”:
…At seven PM on Saturday night Ronald called. “I’m free Richard…I’m breathing free air.” Ronald Franklin, age 20, is now free after seven years—all of his teen-age years. Four and a half were spent in TGK while Ronald awaited adjudication. This isn’t a misprint. Yes, there is a sixth amendment and the right to a speedy trial, but in the case of adolescents, this is often compromised…
…I went to visit Ronald at a facility run by G4S, a private corporation that’s contracted by the state of Florida. In spite of being approved by his public defender, his mother and Ronald himself, I was turned away at the gate. Ockachoobee has 55,000 residents and 33,000 are incarcerated—but that’s another story and another time.
Ronald is free today, reconciled and living with a mother who was addicted for decades. Living around some of the roughest communities in the country: Miami Gardens, Liberty City, a Miami far from South Beach where privation and poverty are the norm. He is no stranger to subsistence living. For the past seven years the State of Florida spent $1.95 a day to feed him. Ronald will make it. He is planning on enrolling at Miami Dade Community College. He wants to do something with his life.
This is the second time I’m here. I’ve been here three months now. The first time I was 15 and here for a month. I got tired of the stuff at home so I ran away. I survived by breaking into houses. So I’m here mostly for B&E and burglary. I live with my mom and stepdad. My sisters are both 6. And then I have a younger sister. My mom’s about 40. My dad died of heart attack when I was 4. My mom was doing crack and abandoned me and my sisters. I was staying in a foster home for two or three years. My little sisters and me were abandoned. We almost starved to death…
…They said I had behavioral problems and would break toys, push around my sisters, and go off by myself. I was so angry I would strip the bark off trees. They put me in children’s hospital. I was angry at the situation and my mother. I sometimes don’t want to see her, most times. She would badmouth my grandmother. She’s a tough one. Several times she would leave us all without food. I would get extra food at school for the twins and I got in trouble for that. She would leave my 8-month-old sister unsupervised. Where was DHR? I don’t know.
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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” sums up the state of social justice in America this week. Attorney Mary Bonauto of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) eloquently argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that denying marriage rights to same-sex couples violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection clause. Meanwhile, African-Americans and allies took to the streets of Baltimore to protest the never-ending death toll of black men killed by police brutality.
The Baltimore protest was sparked by the April 12 death of Freddie Gray, an unarmed 25-year-old who panicked and ran after police made eye contact with him, and who died from a spinal injury sustained during his arrest (and possibly from police withholding his medication). It continues a nationwide groundswell of outrage that started with the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and Eric Garner in NYC last year. See the story at Colorlines, a black-owned news site. For reasons I’ll get to in a minute, I don’t trust the mainstream media on this one.
As many supporters of the protests have pointed out, there’s been more outrage over property damage than lost lives. When white college students trash their town because…uh, something about football? or St. Patrick’s Day? whatever, dude…the media portrays it as a big carnival. But black citizens standing against injustice are labeled “thugs”.
At the Poetry Foundation website, Jericho Brown rips into this racist double standard in “How Not to Interview Black People About Police Brutality”. Brown’s numerous poetry honors include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Whiting Writer’s Award, and a nomination for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Men’s Poetry. Watch the 4-minute CNN clip of Wolf Blitzer’s interview with Baltimore activist Deray McKesson (linked in his essay) and then read Brown’s tremendous takedown.
If you want to see nonviolence that’s anything but passive, it’s McKesson not blowing his stack in reaction to Blitzer’s persistent race-baiting questions. A superhuman effort that should never have been required. Contrast that to the white interviewer’s self-serving invocation of Martin Luther King Jr. to tone-police the protests. It reminded me of the way that Jesus’s message of nonviolence is twisted by abusers to keep their victims passive, as described here by Christian feminist blogger Sarah Moon.
From Brown’s essay:
Let’s be honest about white people’s attraction to Dr. King in the 1960s and your attraction to him today. If King’s mode of protest was the only protest occuring during his time, white people would not be such huge champions of him. He helped to create for you in your early adult years and for me before I was born a possibility for living in this nation without it being burned down. I think you know as well as I do that plenty of King’s contemporaries had ideas other than non-violence.
Your love of King is not a real love of him. Instead it is a fear of violence (and dare I say, of retribution). You NEVER mention his name on your show until you see the threat of violence. But as soon as someone in an understandable rage sets something on fire, you have the nerve to say “Dr. King” like he’s the token he never meant to become. Aligning yourself with King in this way in 2015 makes you an apologist for police brutality against black people, an apologist for police to murder black people and get away with it, and an apologist for a system that continues to structurally support these injustices.
Your point of view, your smug tone in this interview with Deray McKesson and other interviews suggests that Dr. King’s example of getting harassed, beaten, and arrested SHOULD be anyone’s ONLY option. Don’t you think people put in dire circumstances should at least have more options than what was available to them 50 years ago?
Before we reach the age of 20 in classrooms around this country, we learn how violently the Americas were colonized, and we learn how violently our founding fathers revolted against the Crown. When are you going to bring up the fact that the violence of rebels that founded this nation is taught as justice? When will you be honest about the fact that we are free to owe violence a great debt when that violence is perpetrated by white people?…
…Please stop saying Martin Luther King, Jr.’s name if you’re not going to be honest about his existence on this planet. You throw his name around like he was some sort of saint who never wanted to whip a white cop bloody. Certainly, you have to know that this would have been impossible. Restraint is the exception for any human being who lives at risk.
The non-violent arm of the civil rights movement that white people love so much consisted of highly trained men and women capable of taking a beating. While I am glad those men and women did the work they did on this planet, I am always hurt to know that’s the work they had to do. Wolf, I want you to have the sense to be hurt, too.
And now for some good news. GLAD’s website summarizes the high points of oral argument before the Court on Tuesday. At issue in Obergefell v. Hodges was whether the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The full transcript is also a worthwhile read, and not too technical for non-lawyers. Justice Ginsburg astutely observed that the definition of marriage has already changed from legalized male dominance to equal partnership, so there’s no longer a reason to restrict the partners’ identities by gender. Even conservative Justice Roberts chimed in with the suggestion that this was “a straightforward question of sexual discrimination”. This framing would avoid the need to create a new protected class based on sexual orientation in Equal Protection law, a move that the Court’s conservative bloc wouldn’t buy.
My favorite zinger came from Justice Sotomayor during the respondent’s oral argument. John Bursch, an assistant attorney general from Michigan, made the case on behalf of state marriage bans. He argued that if our culture starts defining “marriage” based on adults’ feelings for each other, rather than their duty to their biological children, straight couples won’t feel that it’s important to get married and support their kids. To which the Justice replied, “Why would a feeling, which doesn’t make any logical sense, control our decision-making?”
Justice Sotomayor and Abby the Fairy wish you a happy Northampton Pride tomorrow!
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