Watch it now: Embrace of the Serpent

Recently, a friend heartily recommended that I watch a film called Embrace of the Serpent after discussing one of my favorites, Aguirre the Wrath of God, written, directed, and produced by Werner Herzog. Both of the titles mentioned above present a strikingly similar plot in the same geographic location: the Amazonian jungle. Aguirre and Embrace follow the all-too-familiar conquest and exploitation trajectory of indigenous peoples and their pristine, resource-rich, and sacred environment. 

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In Aguirre, the goal of the conquistadors is the city of El Dorado; in Embrace, the goal of the barons is rubber. In Embrace, directed by Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra, the only signs of the brutal rubber plantations are villages burned to the ground, only a few remaining indigenous groups (mostly the ones who do not resist the rubber barons), a strong distrustful and traumatic relationship between the natives and the whites, and scarred trees dripping out white, violent rubber. In one of the most gut-wrenching and gruesome scenes of the film shows the protagonist and hero of the story, Karamakate known by all tribes as “The World Mover,” along with another native named Manduca and the German botanist Theo Von Martius walk up on a rubber extraction area. The trees all have the telling marks of rubber extraction with buckets beneath them to catch the unrefined liquid. Manduca, full of rage and heartbreak from watching the bloody rampage in the Amazon over the past few years, runs screaming and cursing and thrashing through each bucket of unrefined rubber. Hearing the commotion, a native man runs up to the site. His is missing a foot and a leg from amputation and torture from the plantation owners. His eye has recently been gouged. He frantically hops about on his amputated limbs picking up buckets and desperately tries to scoop up the rubber that has been poured onto the leafy forest floor. The man then kneels in front of Manduca (the travel aide and companion of Theo Von Martius) and begs him to shoot him. He pulls the barrel of the gun right up to his forehead. Manduca, with resolve, says he will shoot the man to save him from more torture from the rubber barons. Manduca fires, only to see that the gun was not properly loaded or misfired. They leave the man still kneeling, pleading for his death.

 

The film switches back and forth from past to present. Karamakate is in both space-times.Karamakate is young when a gravely ill Theo Von Martius and Manduca land their canoe on his isolated patch of land. Karamakate lives in complete isolation–his tribe and village were wiped out because they fought the rubber barons. He is distrusting of all white men, for in his experience, they only bring guns, violence, and death. Karamakate is a healer. Known throughout the Amazonian villages as “The World Mover,” his powers are not a secret–even to botanist Theo Von Martius. The German scholar concerns himself with gathering and recording plants, recipes, stories, myths, art, and other dwindling cultural institutions unique to the indigenous peoples of the Amazon.

When Manduca first introduces Theo Von Martius to Karamakate, Karamakate staunchly denies any part in helping the sick white man. Then, Karamakate explodes in anger, lunging at the sick German’s neck, which is adorned with a necklace particular to Karamakate’s clan. Karamakate screams “Where did you get this?” Theo Von Martius answers that he got it from a tribe that is now existing up the river. Karamakate promises the man that he will help him find the sacred plant “yakruna” if he takes him to his villagers. The three men, Manduca, Karamakate, and Theo Von Martius set out on the river to find Karamakate’s people. Throughout their travel, they come upon a Spanish mission for children, villages full of people welcoming a familiar Von Martius, and villages smoldering, bloody, leveled. Von Martius, somewhere along the journey, becomes a subject that needs protecting by only Karamakate. Karamakate administers healing but temporary substances to the ailing Von Martius.
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The film then switches to an older Karamakate painting glyphs on the side of a rock. He is thigh deep in the river when a snake comes swimming past him. He senses something just like his younger self did in the beginning of the film as Manduca and Martius eddy out and approach him. This time, many years later, the white man is alone. He claims that he, too, is looking for the sacred yakruna plant. He explains to Karamakate that his illness is that he cannot, nor has ever, dreamed. The old Karamakate realizes that, in his interactions with this scientist from the United States, that in his old age and years of isolation, he has forgotten many of the recipes and traditions of his life. The American figure obviously has been taught how to make medicinal substances out of coca leaves and many other plants of the Amazon. Karamakate sees the American scientist, Evan, as a dream coming to fruition. The dream he refers to is his journey decades earlier with Von Martius. The old Karamakate has forgotten many things. He tells Evan that it is Evan who will lead the way to the yakruna plant, not the other way around. Evan is dumbfounded. They embark on their quest. They come across the same Spanish mission from Karamakate’s earlier journey. He and Evan get out of their boat and approach the mission to find an Apocalypse Now scene: a Brazilian man has assumed the figure of Jesus on the cross. His followers, now grown, were once the young children that young Karamakate, Von Martius, and Manduca encounter during the first journey of the film. The scene is delirious, unsettling, and full of Catholic imagery. There are signs throughout the mission that praises the priests who kidnapped the Amazonian children from their parents and villages. The signage claims that the priests brought God to savage cannibals. The scene escalates into a moment driven even further by a psychosis ailing the men who were taken as boys from their villages. Young Karamakate snuck away to teach the children the mythology of their culture–the tinctures and medicines and origins and uses for it all. But what he taught them was not enough. Their lack of mythology led them down a path of complete discord. Now, the children saved from savagery and cannibalism, are worshipping a figure whose flesh is consumed for communion. The effects of Catholic missions, money hungry rubber barons, conquistadors, etc., are felt strongly in this cathartic scene that see Karamakate and Evan escape the village while they mill around in complete hysteria after drinking a hallucinogenic substance mixed by Karamakate. Narrowly escaping the debauchery, Evan and Karamakate continue their journey down the river. To find out what happens, you must watch this gem!

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This description has no spoilers, for the meaning of this film is in every quiet moment, every pan-out, every crackle of a fire, bend in the river. The story is about cultural syncretism. It’s about protecting knowledge, but also not hindering anyone from it. It’s about remembering the actions of our ancestors–conquered or conquerors. It’s about defending what’s sacred, but destroying it when it’s threatened. It’s about the cycle of life and death–not fearing death and not taking each breath for granted.

Watch this beautiful film. The cast is just as diverse as the plants in the Amazon. The story as timeless as the Milky Way (part of the myth of the Great Serpent). The connection between humans as ancient as our first guttural grunts in communication.

I will leave you with director Ciro Guerra’s explanation of the origin of this title from an interview with Cineaste:

Cineaste: Does your film’s title refer to “the serpent” as a metaphor for time or of the Amazon? And why an “embrace”?

Ciro Guerra: In Amazonian mythology, extraterrestrial beings descended from the Milky Way, journeying to the earth on a gigantic anaconda snake. They landed in the ocean and traveled into the Amazon, stopping at communities where people existed, leaving these pilots behind who would explain to each community the rules of how to live on earth: how to harvest, fish, and hunt. Then they regrouped and went back to the Milky Way, leaving behind the anaconda, which became the river. The wrinkled skin of the serpent became the waterfalls.

They also left behind a few presents, including coca, the sacred plant; tobacco, which is also another kind of sacred plant; and yagé, the equivalent of ayahuasca, which is what you use to communicate with them in case you have a question or a doubt about how to exist in the world. When you use yagé, the serpent descends again from the Milky Way and embraces you. That embrace takes you to faraway places; to the beginning where life doesn’t even exist; to a place where you can see the world in a different way. I hope that’s what the film means to the audience.

 

 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Trumpet of Conscience

The subject matter of my blog was not a hard choice for this round. I checked out the book of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches titled Trumpet of Conscience. While I have read and listened to some of King’s well-known speeches, there are still many words of his that I have not read or listened to. Focusing this blog on the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. will not only be appropriate as we honor the day of his name, but will also serve as a relevant reminder of his urgent charge for all humans to unite and understand each other–not necessarily agree. As I have stated in my past blogs, our nation is arguably as divided now as we ever have been. There is no better time than now to turn to the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. While he urged that nonviolence was the most effective form of protest, he did not condemn those who resorted to riots or outbreaks. While he charges the white man as the African American’s adversary, he explains that it does not encompass the whole white race. Rather, he speaks about the adversarial relationship as something driven by morality (or lack thereof) rather than skin color.  We find ourselves in a political climate where so many things are classified dualistically–one or the other–no negotiation. Each stance is diametrically opposed to the other. We find ourselves in a large, echoing room, screaming over each other so someone will listen to our stance. In King’s words, he unites us to our very core–the only core that matters–the human core.

 

Below, in his speech titled Impasse in Race Relations any reader or listener can hear King’s willingness to approach any problem from all angles. Forgive the long block quotes; it’s rather difficult to convey his message with small excerpts:

“The arresting of the limited forward progress by white resistance revealed the latent racism that was deeply rooted in U.S. society. The short era of widespread goodwill evaporated rapidly. As elation and expectation died, Negroes became more sharply aware that the goal of freedom was still distance and our immediate plight was substantially still an agony of deprivation. In the past decade little had been done for Northern ghettos. All the legislation was designed to remedy Southern conditions–and even these were only partially improved. A sense of futility and frustration spread and choked against the hardened white attitudes.

“Nonviolence as a protest form came under attack as a tactical theory, and Northern Negroes expressed their dismay and hostility in a succession of riots.”

“The decade of 1955-1965 with its constructive elements misled us. Everyone underestimated the amount of violence and rage Negroes were suppressing and the amount of bigotry the white majority was disguising.

“The riots are now in the center of the stage, and are being offered as basis for contradictory positions by whites and Negroes. Some Negroes argue they are the incipient forms of rebellion and guerrilla tactics that will be the feature of the Negro revolt. They are represented as the new stage of Negro struggle replacing the old and allegedly outworn tactic of nonviolent resistance. At the same time some white forces are using riots as evidence that Negroes have no capacity for constructive change and in their lawless behavior forfeit all rights and justify any form of repressive measures. A corollary of this theory is the position that the outbursts are unforgivable, ungrateful, and a menace to the social order.

“I would like to examine both questions: is the guilt for riots exclusively that of Negroes, and are they a natural development to a new stage of struggle?

“A million words will be written and spoken to dissect the ghetto outbreaks, but for a perceptive and vivid expression of culpability I would submit two sentences written a century ago by Victor Hugo:

If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness

“The policy-makers of the white society have caused the darkness: they created discrimination; they created slums; they perpetuate unemployment, ignorance, and poverty. It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes, but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society. When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also declare that the white man does not abide by law in the ghettos. Day in and day out he violated welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he fragrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provisions for civic services. The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white society; Negroes live in them, but they do not make them, any more than a prisoner makes a prison.

“Let us say it boldly, that if the total slum violations of law by the white man over the years were calculated and were compared with the lawbreaking of a few days’ riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man.

“In using the term ‘white man’ I am seeking to describe in general terms the Negro’s adversary. It is not meant to encompass all white people. There are millions who have morally risen above prevailing prejudices. They are willing to share power and to accept structural alterations of society even at the cost of traditional privilege. To deny their existence as some ultranationalists do is to deny an evident truth. More than that, it drives away allies who can strengthen our struggle. Their support not only serves to enhance our power, but in breaking from the attitudes of the larger society it splits and weakens our opposition. To develop a sense of black consciousness and peoplehood does not require that we scorn the white race as a whole. It is not the race per se that we fight but the policies and ideology that leaders of that race have formulated to perpetuate oppression” (pp. 6-10).

Throughout the rest of this speech given for the Massey Lecture Series of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, King delineates each part of the race crisis in the United States and the main problems that are perpetuating the injustice practices and ideologies. In a hopeful but firm ending, King charges his listeners to fight for what’s right–that everyone be equal–that everyone who is in a position of privilege use that privilege to help their fellow humans:

“We may now be in only the initial period of an era of change as far-reaching in its consequences as the American Revolution. The developed industrial nations of the world cannot remain secure islands of prosperity in a seething sea of poverty. The storm is rising against the privileged minority of the earth, from which there is no shelter in isolation and armament. The storm will not abate until a just distribution of the fruits of the earth enables man everywhere to live in dignity and human decency. The American Negro in 1967, like Crispus Attucks, may be the vanguard in a prolonged struggle that may change the shape of the world, as billions of deprived shake and transform the earth in their quest for life, freedom, and justice” (18).

The next speech in The Trumpet of Conscience is titled Conscience and the Vietnam War where Dr. King, once again, brings to the forefront not the side that is better, but the moral, human, and compassionate analysis of the issues of violence, war, inequality, injustice, and death and the detriment inflicted on a nation claiming itself to be the land of the free. Speaking to the listener’s nature of “choosing sides,” King directs his charges not to stand on one side or the other, but to dig down to the root of the issue. He explains that while he condemns the war in Vietnam, he is not on the side of North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front nor is he against our soldiers. He states:

“Since I am a preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising that I had several reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the build-up in Vietnam, and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demoniacal destructive suction tube. And So I was increasingly compelled to see the war not only as a moral outrage but also as an enemy of the poor, and to attack it as such” (p. 22).

Dr. King goes on to exemplify is observant nature in the ways that he is outraged by the very fundamental rights being denied to those who serve a country in the name of freedom and democracy and justice:

“Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die and in extraordinarily higher proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southwest Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. And so we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. We watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor” (p. 23).
Throughout this wonderful book (and audio recording) of his speeches for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation between November and December of 1967, the reader can become enraged and outraged and angry. But right around the corner is a light shining. It is the hope that Dr. King could always see–the reason that the good fight is a lifelong path–that as long as humans can unite, we have the power to demand what’s right and good. Please check this book out from one of our libraries and listen to this man’s exemplary charges against his fellow humans.

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

with only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25% of the world’s prison population (see ACLU infographic at the bottom of this bl0g).

Several weeks ago, the Jackson County Public Library hosted a screening of Selma: The Bridge to the Ballot for the 50 year anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery. Those who marched were demanding their right to vote. Those who marched were demanding that their fellow Americans had rights equal to theirs. It was when I watched this documentary produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center that I realized much of my understanding of America’s civil rights era was static–stuck in the 1960s. That didn’t last long. Selma:The Bridge to the Ballot began to bear striking similarities to the current social climate in which we all live now. I had become part of a truly frightening thing–history forgotten on the old dusty textbook pages–then that very same history is once again repeating itself–right under my nose. When history is treated like a cyclical, dynamic, and multidimensional entity, current events can be seen through a lens that is not only more holistic in understanding but also vital to our understanding of justice, freedom, and equality. Justice, freedom, and equality granted to all citizens of the United States…not just a few. So, I ask myself, are all citizens of the United States equal? They should be. But not even on paper are we all equal.

Consider the police shootings of black men, a nation that is arguably as divided now as in the times of the Civil War, and the sobering reminder that racism is still alive, well, and thriving in the land of the free. Michelle Alexander aims her eagle focus on the incarceration situation in the United States. She directly links mass incarceration and our prison booms to inherent, insidious racism that pervades various institutions that were set in place to protect its citizens.

Leading up to the march from Selma to Montgomery, several oppressive institutions specifically in the south, were stifled, reformulated, and renamed in order to keep current with federal legislation such as Emancipation, Desegregation, Civil Rights, etc. In her book titled The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander takes the reader on a journey through the lives of Africans brought as slaves and indentured servants to the Americas, their fight for dignity, human and civil rights, their triumphs, their tragedies. She focuses her keen eye on the issue of mass incarceration of specifically black men (although she does acknowledge that the issue of mass incarceration is facing men and women, black and brown in this country).

Alexander starts her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by explaining social caste, the concept of race and how it began, white supremacy and how it justified and propelled the European slaughter and brutalization of American Indians and Africans (and later freed African American citizens). In the quote below, Alexander explains how both caste and class are understood and negotiated in the mind of America:

“We avoid talking about caste in our society because we are ashamed of our racial history. We also avoid talking about race. we even avoid talking about class. Conversations about class are resisted in part because there is a tendency to imagine that one’s class reflects upon one’s character. What is key to America’s understanding of class is the persistent belief–despite all evidence to the contrary–that anyone, with proper discipline and drive, can move from a lower class to a higher class. We recognize that mobility may be difficult, but the key to our collective self-image is the assumption that mobility is always possible, so failure to move up reflects on one’s character. By extension, the failure of a race or ethnic group to move up reflects very poorly on the group as a whole” (13).

In the quote above, Michelle Alexander gets down to the root of upward mobility in society and how it is possible for some and extremely difficult and unlikely for others. She explains that this misconception informs many people’s understanding of certain classes not as locked in and static, but somehow able to overcome the restrictions of class and caste. Below, she breaks down race in the United States much like she does class and caste:

“The concept of race is a relatively recent development. Only in the past few centuries, owing largely to European imperialism, have the world’s people been classified along racial lines. Here, in America, the idea of race emerged as a means of reconciling chattel slavery–as well as the extermination of American Indians–with the ideals of freedom preached by whites in the new colonies.

“In the early colonial period, when settlements remained relatively small, indentured servitude was the dominant means of securing cheap labor. Under this system, whites and black struggled to survive against a common enemy, what historian Lerone Bennett Jr. describes as ‘the big planter apparatus and a social system that legalized terror against black and white bondsmen.’ Initially, blacks brought to this country were not all enslaved; many were treated as indentured servants. As plantation farming expanded, particularly tobacco and cotton farming, demand increased greatly for both labor and land” (23).

So now she explains why race is so important in our society–our country. Race is something that shaped our country for good or ill, and that’s why Alexander urges that we simply cannot live under the false understanding that we are, in fact, in a colorblind society. Simply by understanding that most black people are here because they were brought in chains as servants and slaves, many of them and their ancestors and their descendants (still) perishing under awful circumstances, one cannot assume that we all have equal opportunities in this society. Below, Alexander explains the dehumanization phenomenon that occurs when already slave-powered imperialism and demand upon land and labor meets indigenous populations:

“The demand for land was met by invading and conquering larger and larger swaths of territory. American Indians became a growing impediment to white European ‘progress,’ and during this period, the images of American Indians promoted in books, newspapers and magazines became increasingly negative. As sociologist Kelly Kilty and Eric Swank have observed, eliminating ‘savages’ is less of a moral problem than eliminating human beings, and therefore American Indians came to be understood as a lesser race–uncivilized savages–thus providing justification for the extermination of native peoples” (23).

She then explains the trajectory that imperialism, slavery, and racism takes on–ultimately leading to the ideology of white supremacy:

“The notion of white supremacy rationalized the enslavement of Africans, even as whites endeavored to form a new nation based on the ideals of equality, liberty, and justice for all. Before democracy, chattel slavery in America is born” (25).

Emancipation was soon passed. The plantation economy was in shambles in the South. Poor whites began to see themselves better than their newly “freed” black neighbors, because, the few rights poor whites possessed were still much more. After the Emancipation, the economy was in shambles. Alexander explains: “Even among poor whites, the collapse of slavery was a bitter pill. In the antebellum South, the lowliest white person at least possessed his or her own skin–a badge of superiority over even the most skilled slave or prosperous free African American” (27).

But once Emancipation was enacted, the same story plays over again, just by a different name. Vague laws were created and vehemently enforced, creating an inmate population that led to “convict leasing,” a program that put convicted blacks on a bidding block for private bidders looking for labor:

“Once again, vagrancy laws and other laws defining activities such as ‘mischief’ and ‘insulting gestures’ as crimes were enforced vigorously against blacks. The aggressive enforcement of these criminal offenses opened up an enormous market for convict leasing in which prisoners were contracted out as laborers to the highest private bidder. Douglas Blackmon, in Slavery by Another Name, describes how tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested during this period, many of them hit with court costs and fines, which had to be worked off in order to secure their release” (31).

Through convict leasing programs, slavery was reborn–just under a different name. There were high death rates for the prisoners as well as no means to pay off debts. The private bidders who “bought” the laborers were even less invested in the laborers than slave owners were about their slaves, according to Alexander.

She goes on to explain that the harsh punishments for insignificant “crimes” resulted in the first of many prison booms in the U.S. The boom was mostly made up of young black males, resulting in what Alexander calls a new caste. An undercaste.

In the 1880s and 1890s, the Populist party gained momentum when they began to try and unite people among class lines rather than racial ones. After the populist party gained much speed and support by insisting that poor whites and blacks unite and demand social justice together, conservatives and liberals alike were alarmed. Conservatives saw this boom for the populist party as a reason to drive a wedge between poor whites and blacks again:

“Segregation laws were proposed as part of a deliberate effort to drive a wedge between poor whites and African Americans. These discriminatory barriers were designed to encourage lower class whites to retain a sense of superiority over blacks, making it far less likely that they would sustain interracial political alliances aimed at toppling the white elite. The laws were, in effect, another racial bribe. As William Julius Wilson has noted, ‘as long as poor whites directed their hatred and frustration against the black competitor, the planters were relieved of class hostility directed against them’’’ (37).

“The general public generally traces the death of Jim Crow (era) to Brown v. Board of Education, although the institution was showing signs of weakness years before. By 1945, a growing number of whites in the North had concluded that the Jim Crow system would have to be modified, if not entirely overthrown. The consensus was due to a number of factors including the increased political power of the blacks due to migration to the North, and the growing membership and influence of the NAACP, particularly its highly successful legal campaign challenging Jim Crow laws in federal courts.

“Far more important in the view of many scholars, however, is the influence of WWII. The blatant contradiction between the country’s opposition to the crimes of the Third Reich against European Jews and the continued existence of a racial caste system in the United States was proving embarrassing, severely damaged the nation’s credibility as leader of the ‘free world.’ There was also increased concern that, without greater equality for African Americans, blacks would become susceptible to communist influence, given Russia’s commitment to both racial and economic equality. In Gunmar Myrdal’s highly influential book An American Dilemma, published in 1944, Myrdal made a passionate plea for integration based on the theory that the inherent contradiction between the ‘American Creed’ of freedom and equality and the treatment of African Americans was not only immoral and profoundly unjust, but was also against the economic and foreign interests of the U.S.” (38).

After the Civil Rights Movement garnered support and success with the help of JFK and LBJ, Alexander explains that this moment of triumph was short lived. Just like in the past, slavery by a new name was emerging: “With the success of the Civil Rights Movement and the launching of the Poor People’s Movement, it was apparent to all that a major disruption in the nation’s racial equilibrium had occurred. Yet as we shall see below, Negroes stood only a ‘brief moment in the sun.’ Conservative whites began, once again, to search for a new racial order that would conform to the needs and constraints of the time. This process took place with the understanding that whatever the new order would be, it would have to be formally race-neutral–it could not involve explicit or clearly intentional race discrimination. A similar phenomenon had followed slavery and Reconstruction, as white elites struggled to define a new racial order with the understanding that whatever the new order would be, it could not include slavery. Jim Crow eventually replaced slavery, but now it too had died, and it was unclear what might take its place. Barred by law from invoking race explicitly, those committed to racial hierarchy were forced to search for new means of achieving their goals according to the new rules of American democracy” (40).

It is here that Alexander explains what she means by “new Jim Crow.”

“For more than a decade–from the mid-1950s until the late 1960s–conservatives systematically and strategically linked opposition to civil rights legislation to calls for law and order, arguing that Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of civil disobedience was a leading cause of crime. Civil rights protests were frequently depicted as criminal rather than political in nature, and federal courts were accused of excessive ‘lenience’ toward lawlessness, thereby contributing to the spread of crime. In the words of then–vice president Richard Nixon, the increasing crime rate ‘can be traced directly to the spread of the corrosive doctrine that every citizen possesses an inherent right to decide for himself which laws to obey and when to disobey them.’ Some segregationists went further, insisting that integration causes crime, citing lower crime rates in Southern states as evidence that segregation was necessary.

“Some segregationists went further, insisting that integration causes crime citing lower crime rates in Southern states as evidence that segregation was necessary. Unfortunately, at the same time civil rights were being identified as a threat to law and order, the FBI was reporting fairly dramatic increases in the national crime rate. Beginning in the 1960s, crime rates rose in the United States for a period of about ten years. Reported street crime quadrupled and homicide rates nearly doubled. Despite significant controversy over the accuracy of crime statistics during this period (the FBI’s method of tracking crime was changing), sociologists and criminologists agree that crime did rise, in some categories quite sharply. The reasons for the crime wave are complex but can be explained in large part by the rise of the ‘baby boom’ generation–the spike in the number of young men in the fifteen-to-twenty-four age group, which historically has been responsible for most crimes. The surge of young men in the population was occurring at precisely the same time that unemployment rates for black men were rising sharply, but the economic and demographic factors contributing to rising crime were not explored in the media. Instead, crime reports were sensationalized and offered as further evidence of the breakdown in lawfulness, morality, and social stability in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement”  (40-41).

Throughout this book, as you can see, there are worlds of knowledge regarding our current social state. Below is an infographic by the ACLU explaining the mass incarceration age in America. Alexander explains how laws like “three strikes you’re out” and mandatory sentencing, racial profiling, and more has led to the new Jim Crow era. Black men experience much harsher sentencing for minor drug crimes compared to white men. This is not a political issue that divides us among party lines. This is a humanitarian issue that must be treated like any other Human Rights issue across the globe. massincarceration_20110617_0

If you want to help, donate to Southern Poverty Law Center, ACLU, Black Lives Matter, and more.

LD

How Malala Yousafzai Changed the World

Education. It’s a word and an institution that has been tugged back and forth between different ideologies, time periods, political parties, and religious groups to name a few, and, depending on what area of the world it is cherished or challenged, can depend on a matter of life and death. For Malala Yousafzai, a young girl in the Swat District of Pakistan, her fight for the right to education was a matter of death.

Malala Yousafzai’s name was not common around the American dinner table before she was the unsuccessful assassination target of the Taliban fall 2012. Although her existence was not known by many at the time, she had been making major waves in the gorgeous area Swat Valley of Pakistan when the Taliban gained control of the region. At the young age of eleven, Malala began blogging for the BBC Urdu under a pseudonym where she challenged the Taliban’s stifling of women’s rights across the board. Malala, whose father owned and ran a group of schools in the region, focused her eloquent criticisms on a girl’s right to education.

It was a few years later that she suffered gunshots while riding her school bus from a Taliban assassin, ultimately launching her status beyond regional and specialized media coverage to a global fighter for peace and human rights. Prior to her surviving an attempt on her life, she was nominated by Desmond Tutu for the International Children’s Peace Prize. When word of her attack spread throughout the globe, many Pakistanis took to the streets to protest her attempted murder. A German broadcasting station called Malala “the most famous teenager in the world” after the shooting. Malala faced a long road to recovery and spent many months in a hospital in Birmingham, UK.

She never stopped fighting after being targeted by one of the most dangerous terrorist groups on the Earth. She was only more emboldened. Stronger. She was the co-recipient of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, making her the youngest laureate in history at seventeen. She spoke at the United Nations headquarters and demanded worldwide access to education. She was a major influence on Pakistan’s first Right to Education bill. On her eighteenth birthday in 2015, Malala opened a school near the Syrian border that educates young women from fourteen to eighteen years of age.

It’s these exemplary souls that deserve our attention, our inspiration.

Perhaps we’ve all been watching the news a little too much lately. So many large issues and even larger celebrity and political personalities are covered, but there are very few stories that focus on individual determination, hope blooming out of despair, one person making great, lasting, monumental changes for all of humanity. It’s exceptional girls like living, breathing, teenage Malala that deserves our undivided attention. Our undivided attention must not be geared toward division anymore.

Malala’s story can teach us to never feel like the task is too daunting–too formidable. With compassion for life, equality, and justice, change can be right around the corner if only we remember eleven year old Malala risking everything, publishing under a pseudonym out of fear of retribution, and immensely changing the world for the better.

Visit her page: https://www.malala.org/

 

 

 

On Janisse Ray, Environment, and History’s Knack for Repeating Itself

I have recently revisited Georgia-born author Janisse Ray’s work of nonfiction titled Ecology of a Cracker ChildhoodThe book’s innards are in the title as Ray alternates chapters where she recounts her  childhood memories with contrasting subject matter of the unique ecology of southern Georgia’s coastal plain otherwise known as the longleaf pine wiregrass ecosystem. Janisse Ray focuses her narrative on the connection she’s had with nature since she was a child growing up on her father’s junkyard in the small town of Baxley, Georgia. Janisse Ray’s childhood respect and love for the flatlands and rivers of south Georgia is what propelled her to become an environmental activist later in her life. She fought to save the Altamaha River as well as Moody Swamp of the Moody Forest Preserve. All of her works, poetry and nonfiction, deal with the ecological reality that is facing, has faced, or will face Georgia.

Ray’s understanding of humans, nature, and their effects on each other is well-present and striking in her childhood memories as well as in her accounts of the natural and human history of Georgia. She explains the detrimental consequences that followed after the industrial logging boom following the Civil War. The longleaf pines of the wiregrass ecosystem were logged nearly to extinction. To date, there is only a fraction of a percent of old-growth longleaf pine forests left in Georgia. Janisse Ray grew up right in the middle of the Southern Coastal Plain of Georgia in a mostly rural Appling County. She sometimes calls it ugly–because it is. It always has been, in a way. Georgia’s ugliness is attributed to its past: slavery, racism, environmental degradation, poverty, etc. Janisse Ray’s Georgia is a far cry from tall columns and extravagant plantations and gatherings–her Georgia is dilapidated, rusty, worn, cluttered, but still wild, beautiful, vast, and full of possibility.

Areas of Georgia, much like Ray’s hometown of Baxley, have time and time again acted as battlegrounds where people in power with interest in land and resources clash with resisting landowners and citizens. This situation played out when Europeans and members of the Creek nation were in contact with each other. The Creek people participated in the trade economy that began in Georgia when the James Oglethorpe and his colonists began to move in. Whitetail deerskin was one of the main commodities traded by the Creek. Toward the beginning of the 19th century, the whitetail deer population had been vastly over-hunted, the United States were pushing for the Creek to adopt a rancher/planter lifestyle to which many of them resisted, and ultimately, a civil war broke out that ended with a treaty signed over to Andrew Jackson (and also his namesake) that ended in the Creek ceding 22 million acres–much of which was in southern Georgia. Ultimately, the dispossessed Creek were rounded up and forcibly removed to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi.

The ghosts of Georgia will never forget the dark legacy that has plagued Georgia since before it was Georgia. When I was a student at Valdosta State University, a new battle was coming to fruition in the form of coal and biomass plants–projects that many were opposed to, many were open to, and many were utterly unaware. A land ripe with resources, possessing a significant number of people living below the poverty line and minorities, is the first place that is considered for energy projects that pose a risk to the drinking water, delicate ecosystems, and many other socio-economical aspects. Why? It’s called environmental racism. Environmental racism is a term that refers to the type of discrimination that occurs when low-income or minority communities are targeted for energy projects that pose a risk to their health and environment. This is playing out thousands of miles away over the Dakota Access Pipeline. The proposed pipeline is meeting resistance because it will go through sacred land, disrupt and destroy cultural resources, pollute drinking water, and more.

The Colonial Pipeline is yet another pipeline that has made the headlines recently when there was a massive leak in Alabama–causing gas shortages and water and land contamination. The Colonial Pipeline snakes through states like Alabama, Georgia, and other southeastern states and all the way up to the northeast. The state of Georgia has also made headlines for fighting off yet another pipeline called the Palmetto Pipeline that would go all the way down the Georgia coast. Community members of Savannah, Brunswick, Augusta, and other surrounding communities successfully but temporarily were able to halt construction on this project because of their environmental concerns. A judge ruled in favor of a temporary moratorium on petroleum corporations using eminent domain as a means to take land for pipeline projects. But this is not where is ends. There is yet another pipeline going through Georgia.

This time it is through south Georgia.

The very same south Georgia that was ceded by the Creeks. The very same south Georgia that was purged of most of its majestic longleaf pines and many of the creatures that were dependent upon it. The Sabal pipeline construction has begun on the land adjacent to the land my family has owned and tended since around the Revolutionary war. The family who owns the property adjacent to ours was given thousands of dollars to allow the pipeline to go through their land that is cow pasture, forest, ponds and streams, and more. If they were to resist the offer from the contractors, the land would be eventually taken as eminent domain. The Sierra Club has recently filed a lawsuit against the Sabal pipeline as it will go through several state parks, wetlands and watersheds, and act as a major threat to the quality of drinking water–most of which is in an aquifer beneath a layer of very porous limestone. As if a pipeline’s risk to water isn’t enough–limestone is a very absorbent material that will allow any leakages to readily seep into the water table.

It’s times like this that I turn to figures like Janisse Ray. In her writing, she laments the bygone days when huge, majestic longleaf pines stood like “batallions coming out of the mist,” and the many species that dwindled alongside their giant pines–their keepers. She does not, however, leave the reader with a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. She stresses the importance of family–no matter how dysfunctional. She focuses on the importance of activism and education when environmental and social issues arise. She does not ignore the fact that many conservation efforts are alive and well in all corners of this earth, and there is always a reason to hope and dream and fight for what is dear. She reminds us that nature and her creatures, including humans, are resilient and ever-changing.

Persepolis

“In 1951, Mohammed Mossadeq, then prime minister of Iran, nationalized the oil industry. In retaliation, Great Britain organized an embargo on all exports of oil from Iran. In 1953, the CIA, with the help of British intelligence, organized a coup against him. Mossadeq was overthrown and the Shah, who had earlier escaped from the country, returned to power. The Shah stayed on the throne until 1979, when he fled Iran to escape the Islamic Revolution.

“Since then, this old and great civilization has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism. As an Iranian who has lived more than half of my life in Iran, I know that this image is far from the truth. This is why writing Persepolis was so important to me. I believe that an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists. I also don’t want those Iranians who lost their lives in prison defending freedom, who died in the war against Iraq, who suffered under various repressive regimes, or who were forced to leave their families and flee their homeland to be forgotten.

“One can forgive but one should never forget.”

-Marjane Satrapi

Paris, September 2002

 

In the less than two page introduction of the graphic novel titled Persepolis, author Marjane Satrapi  provides a succinct synopsis explaining the political and cultural climate of Iran leading up to the Islamic or Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s. Just as she is quoted in writing above, Iran is balled up into many of our western understandings of the Middle East–a discourse that is usually riddled with overtones of violence, religious extremism, terrorism, etc. In the wake of several bloody attacks claimed by ISIS or ISIL just this year, the recent hostage switch in Iran, the Syrian refugee crisis and civil war, and fear-mongering western ideologies, the message conveyed by Satrapi through her autobiographical comic Persepolis is something we need now more than ever.

Generalized news accounts of conflicts, wars, political events, etc., are much more effective and humanized when there is some form of personal account or narrative to supplement with more macro narratives. Take, for instance, the haunting piece of photojournalism that has dominated the covers of newspapers, magazines, and online articles the past week: the photograph of a shocked, silent, and bloody 5 year old boy, Omran Daqneesh, who was rescued from the site of an air raid in the city of Aleppo. His numb gaze is the product of the Syrian civil war. There are many other children like him. Many other children, like Omran’s older brother who died in that same raid, or 3 year old Aylan Kurdi whose drowned body washed upon Turkish shores around this time last year, who are forever silenced. The photographs of Aylan Kurdi and later his morning father started an urgent conversation in Europe regarding the treatment and permittance of refugees fleeing Syria. The parallel between people like Omran Daqneesh’s story and Marjane’s in Persepolis is that readers and viewers can all see the effects of extremism on individual people–people who do not have a say in the trajectory of their own country’s embattlements.

Persepolis is both an autobiography and Bildungsroman. It begins with a young Marji who begins to explain how the revolution in Iran is affecting her and her classmates on a personal level. The great thing about graphic novels is how effectively an image can communicate information in a much more viscerally striking manner. In the image below, Satrapi provides the reader with a snapshot of events that led to the image that many of us attach to Iranian women after the revolution. The veil, or hijab.

satrapi_persepolis

As stated earlier, the importance of learning the rich history of certain countries and people is invaluable to our understanding and tolerance toward any given situation regarding human rights, religion, ideology, etc. Perceptions of Iranian people and culture is challenged when we see people like Kimia Alizadeh Zenoorin becoming the first Iranian woman to win a medal at Rio 2016 Olympics. Throughout her Taekwando match and after, she wore a veil or hijab which covered her hair and neck.

The matter of the hijab, chador, niqab, and burqa has dominated recent news stations as well. Over a week ago on a beach in Nice, France, a woman was forced to remove her burqini by four French police officers who were enforcing the recent and controversial ban on burqinis. Burqini is a term used for a type of swimwear that covers the entire body leaving the feet, hands, and face visible, allowing Muslim women to sunbathe, swim, etc., while covering their body. The burqini ban is mandated by French mayors as a result of the Bastille Day terrorist attacks in Nice earlier this summer.

Persepolis provides a context of humanism rather than terrorism when talking about issues dealing with the hijab and other topics related to Islamic cultural and religious institutions. While Marji rebels against the mandated veil because it does not fall in line with her’s or her mother’s beliefs, the floor becomes open for discussion and understanding when reading about a person’s individual experience with the sometimes controversial garment. In Iran, shortly after the revolution gained enough speed to begin mandating certain aspects of Sharia law, Marji is met with the same resistance and oppression that the sunbathing woman mentioned earlier faced when a group of women wearing veils chastises and threatens Marji for wearing her blue jean jacket and Michael Jackson button. In this book, the dichotomous world of right and wrong is surpassed–ultimately providing a space for considering the places in between two dichotomies.

Persepolis is usually catalogued in Young Adult sections of libraries, making way for young people to critically think about and process certain issues that are otherwise glossed over in all-too-predictable and inaccessible dialogue.

Bear in mind that this analysis of Persepolis is coming from someone who was born in 1989. I had no prior understanding or knowledge of Iran other than what has been in the news since I can remember. Persepolis is often times taught in high schools, an environment where students’s perceptions are constantly changing–their minds making room for both fictional and real human experiences.

Persepolis follows young Marji as she grapples with the changes in the political, social, and religious landscape of Iran. Marji idolizes various revolutionists, social theorists, and activists, including her uncle Anoosh who dies at the hands of prison guards of the revolution because he is considered an infidel. As Marji grows older and witnesses the country around her transform into an isolated country ruled by Sharia law, she only becomes more and more resistant to this transformation. She continues to rebel in various forms–from attending protests to wearing “westernized” or “decadent” clothing. Her mother knows how serious the revolution is. In a stingingly memorable part of this work is when Marji’s mother tells her that she is risking being imprisoned and executed. What’s worse, her mother warns her, is that virgins cannot be executed. This means that an imprisoned young woman like Marji would first be married to the leader of the revolution, raped, then executed. In fear of this brutal reality, Marji’s parents agree to send her to school in Austria. While Marji is keen on leaving the Islamic republic and its ideals in her past, she begins to realize that there are still so many aspects of Iranian culture that she is adamant about defending. She sees parts of herself “assimilating into western culture” and simultaneously gains pride in her heritage. Marji falls in love with Reza, moves back to Iran to attend university, challenges many inequitable institutions in her Tehran university, graduates, and, well, you’ll have to read the rest.

Though the images are provided in a stark palette of black and white, Satrapi presents the reader with a story that explores the gray areas. Please give this book a read. In honor of Banned Books week, which is upon us, this book has been challenged and banned in various locations.

Enjoy!

LD

Oryx and Crake

Hello all! Hope you enjoy my first blog post.

It took me a while to figure out what to write about. I need the content to be relevant, enjoyable, and “somehow related to Fontana Regional Library.” The process of elimination went like this: Books-Genre-Fiction-Science Fiction-Speculative Fiction-Climate Change Fiction-Margaret Atwood-Oryx and Crake.

Oryx and Crake is a 1984 of the 21st century. While Big Brother was imagined and eerily predicted by George Orwell in the 1940s, Margaret Atwood has imagined a future that is just as bizarre and frightening–a future that is both far-fetched and all too real. From gene-splicing to environmental degradation, this novel is captivating. Add a love story to this dystopian imagining, and the result is a stellar read.

Before I get started on my review of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, I must let you in on an important detail: HBO is in production stages of adapting Atwood’s MaddAddam book trilogy into a series. If nothing else, reading this futuristic, dystopian novel will have your mind churning as you try to envision its adaptation to television. The series is in production under director Darren Aronofsky who also directed films such as Black Swan (2010) and Requiem for a Dream (2000). Check out the latest write-up here: http://hbowatch.com/margaret-atwood-talks-hbos-maddaddam/

Oryx and Crake is the first book of Margaret Atwood’s trilogy titled MaddAddam Trilogy. Published in 2003, Oryx and Crake falls under the subgenres of speculative fiction (spec-fic) and climate-change fiction (cli-fi). Oryx and Crake is a novel set in the future. It is not, however a bright and shiny future that is reminiscent of The Jetsons, but something we’ve come to expect in our contemporary imaginations of the future–bleak. The setting is straight up Mad Max, The Road, apocalyptic type stuff.

At the start of the novel, we meet Snowman. Snowman is the last remaining human in a world destroyed. He is also the narrator. It is only through flashbacks that we meet any other humans or any other glimpse of the world before destruction. One intriguing aspect of this future world is that it is hard to pinpoint an actual moment in time that this is taking place. This future world could be as close as tomorrow or as far away as centuries. That uncertainty of time and future is one of the characteristics of speculative fiction and sometimes climate change fiction. There is a constant evaluation of whether or not this could happen to us now–whether or not we are already on our way to the world spread out on the pages of Oryx and Crake.

Snowman is between past and present as he indulges the audience in flashbacks of times past. The world he visits through memory is well on its way to destruction. Consumption by humans is at an all-time high while resources, ethics, and morality are at an all-time low. Gene splicing is rampant. While the practice started as an advancement in medicine, it quickly spiraled out of control when corporations began experimenting, buying patents, and developing products and procedures. Genes are spliced to have glow in the dark wallpaper, sea anemones spliced with chickens that quickly produce large amounts of poultry, organisms that grow skin so that humans can replace their old skin, etc. Each corporate gene splicing venture is labeled a quippy name–a reality we have all come to live as advertisements bombard every aspect of our public and private lives.

The tone of this novel is immediately environmental as well as political. While Snowman scans the beach around him in the first few pages, he notices various plastic bottles bearing advertisements, labels, etc. Even though the former life of Snowman (who we later learn to be Jimmy) is over, there are still many remnants of the past. There are still ubiquitous instances of advertising, branding, labeling.

Each technology becomes obsolete eventually–it is what makes a void of possibility for another world, reality, way of life. This is where Crake and Oryx come in. They are a part of Snowman or Jimmy’s past. We learn of Crake (otherwise known as Glenn) when Jimmy (Snowman) is replaying his past. He met Crake in school where they became friends through their enthusiasm for genetic studies. Glenn and Jimmy spend time together after school live-streaming videos of all sorts, playing games titled “Extinctathon” or “Blood and Roses.” “Extinctathon” is a game that gives the player scientific names of organisms, and the player must guess whether or not the animal is extinct or not. “Blood and Roses” plays like a trading game where “Blood” is the category under which the atrocities throughout human history are listed, and “Roses” is the category concerned with the advancements and positive outcomes throughout human history. These games are where Jimmy and Glenn name themselves Snowman and Crake (two extinct creatures in “Extinctathon.”

They finish high school and go to university where Crake (Glenn) fully immerses himself into genetic bioengineering studies. Crake progressively grows disillusioned and critical of the world around him as resources are poisoned, animals become extinct, human population grows, and genetic engineering is used predominantly for superficial reasons. Crake has something up his sleeve. He has been working on this project tirelessly until it reaches perfection. The end product is a group of human-like organisms appropriately called “Crakers.” They do not eat meat. They are not ashamed of nudity. They are non-violent, curious, and kind. They have no understanding of life before destruction. The Crakers are Crake’s legacy–his attempt to rid the world of problems caused by humans.

The Crakers are Snowman’s only companion in the world after destruction. While so similar to humans, they are so different. The Crakers view Snowman as something intriguing and bewildering and vice versa. What came before the Crakers and after is what this book is all about. Atwood paints this eerie future in a way that can be described as watching a car crash or blooper reel in slow motion. The story is just as much about how we got there as it is about where we end up.

Check it out!

LD