Writing

White People

for Amiri Baraka

White people don’t wanna hear about struggle.
White people don’t want you to think. White people
don’t want you to think about struggle.
White people don’t want you to struggle.
White people don’t wanna hear about depression.
White people don’t wanna hear about revolution
unless it happened, mythically, in 1776,
unless it happened in a galaxy far far away.
White people wanna watch Star Wars.
White people wanna listen to Imagine Dragons.
White people wanna vote, don’t wanna hear about
Black people dying to vote, Black people
getting killed trying to exercise their right
to vote. White people wanna listen
to the blues, to jazz, to hip hop, to gangsta rap.
White people don’t wanna listen to Black people.
White people don’t wanna hear about Black people,
about history, about slavery, about white supremacy.
White people don’t wanna hear about it.
White people wanna watch CNN, MSNBC, Fox News.
White people wanna watch TV. White people don’t hafta
sing the blues. But they do, they might. To get paid.
White people want the money. They don’t wanna hear about
money, about inequality, about the lack of money.
White people don’t wanna hear about it.

White people don’t wanna think about the bombs we drop.
White people don’t wanna think about the wars we make.
White people don’t wanna think about the wars we make
to keep up business as usual, the status quo,
to keep the oil flowing, the fat pig greased.
White people wanna eat that barbeque.
White people wanna pay for that barbeque
with the money they make working 9-5 capitalism
in the capital of the War on Terror. White people
don’t wanna see the terror inherent in capitalism.
White people don’t wanna read these words.
White people don’t wanna see that shit.
White people wanna look the other way.
White people wanna turn on that TV.
White people don’t wanna hear about poverty.

No one wants to be in poverty.
No one should be impoverished.
Could we change that? White people been exporting poverty
and death for five hundred years.
Can’t change that. Can we change the future?

White people gotta turn it around.
White people need more than a heart.
White people get your head out of your ass.
White people look me in the eye.
White people see the world tremble in your terror,
see the blood, the bombs, the tears, the terror,
White people see the resolution, the spine, the humanity
unflinching in the face of 500 years of terror.
White people, don’t pass the buck.
White people, the buck stops with you.
White people, read some books written by Black people.
Read some books. Read some books written by some people
who are not cushioned by the system that you aspire to,
that keeps you comfortable, that pats you on the head
and tells you you are white, you are ok, the world is just.
White people, wake your asses up. Stay woke.
White people, white people, white people you are shameful.
White people, come out of the American Dream.
It is a dream.
White people,
Reality can be much more beautiful
than that damned dream.

Forward

The presidential campaign is over. I spent a while on Tuesday night clicking refresh on various electoral maps before going to bed and was relieved when I woke up at 1 AM. My wife was glowing under her Kindle.

“Anything?” I asked.

“Do you want me to tell you or do you want to see?”

“I want to see.” I put on my glasses.

The race had been called. Romney had conceded and Obama had won by a significant electoral margin and a small popular one.

You may have seen this quote kicking around Facebook, but it’s worth repeating:

We’ve bought into the idea that education is about training and ‘success’, defined monetarily, rather than to think critically and to challenge. We should not forget that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers. A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.

The quote is attributed to Chris Hedges.

Although it’s not something I focus on much these days, part of my issue with American culture is that everything is economic. Economy trumps everything, except defense and military adventures (see the presidency of George W. Bush for a salient example).

I write. I draw. I dabble in music. I enjoy the creative process in and of itself and have found it difficult to monetize artistic practice. At the same time, I’m concerned about institutional racism, poverty, corporate power, gender, and violence in its many forms. I’ve sought work that stimulates my creativity, but have not been overly interested in commercializing my creativity. I’ve also found meaningful employment in the social work field. I don’t primarily see work as a means of financial gain, but this definition of work is what our society indoctrinates into us. We monetize everything. We are ruled by financial markets. And this is such an ingrained assumption of our civilization that pointing it out is perceived as an act of naivety. I realize this.

When I define myself politically based on my ideals, I describe myself as a cooperative anarchist. I envision a society where people respect each other and practice mutual support. This is not reality. I compromise and define myself as a Democrat based on the viable options.

I feel good when I look at what President Obama has done with his first four years — and here I will suggest that everyone read The New New Deal by Michael Grunwald — and I look forward to what we will accomplish as a country in his second term. I feel hopeful about my prospects as a practitioner of the creative arts. This is not something that I’ve chosen to do as much as it’s who I am, and it’s taken me long enough to sort that out. I’m looking forward to working slowly towards my personal goals. This is a long-term project.

And that is one of the things that I’ve found frustrating about American political culture and American culture in general. We don’t acknowledge that change takes time, that things worth doing don’t usually produce instant results. As I watched Romney criticize Obama for his “failure” to deliver on the promise of Hope and Change in his first term, I saw a vivid illustration of the impatience and short-sightedness of America.

Sometimes I feel that Americans present an attitude of obliviousness regarding how good we’ve got it. Rather than be thankful for our first-world amenities and the security that we do have, we point to our lack. We compare the present to some idealized past or to a good era that we may have experienced in our personal lives. When I listened to Romney speak, when I saw the ads supporting him, I saw an illustration of entitlement. I saw people — and I’ll say it, white people — wanting more. Whining about their lot, ignorant that compared to so many throughout the world, they live opulent lifestyles.

But we are a nation of 300 million diverse individuals, and those of us who recognize our privileges or lack of privileges understand that not everyone is white and middle- or upper-class. We understand that our history is complex. It’s a story of struggle and triumph, of imperialism coupled with democracy, of slavery and freedom. It’s paradoxical. It ain’t easy. Why, then, should we expect our politics to be easy? To move smoothly?

Perhaps it’s because we were taught to remain ignorant of the complexities of our own history. Perhaps its because we’re required, in order to survive the market economy, to specialize, leaving little time for civics. Perhaps it’s both and more.

As a nation, we need to figure these things out. Electing Obama for a second term moves us in the right direction. I celebrate that. Today feels good.

But there’s still a hell of a lot of work to do.

Progress

“Progress” is a piece of flash fiction from my collection The Sentiments. It’s dark.

*

He sat in his house alone, pulling up floorboards. All around him, steam coursed through pipes; computers and televisions kept detailed time. The man was preoccupied. There was gold and oil under those floorboards — he knew it with the very denial and desperation that kept him moving. Tasteless coffee, bland and mildly warm, dripped from an IV into his arm. A network cable had been some time ago plugged into the top of his skull. The man’s glasses were filthy; his fingernails, hands, and forearms were flecked with blood. He hummed along to a lunatic jingle that was being pumped directly into his ears by wires that led into a pocket of his slacks.

He was a self-sufficient man. But time had recently turned against him.

In the room behind him, the floor had been systematically destroyed: peeled back, hammered, drilled with industrial machines. What once was the floor had become an excavated pit, dug at places to thousands of feet. In a corner, a bit of coal burned, providing warmth. Beyond the small glow, the land fell away and was filled with the specters of felled trees, dead trees, broken chain saws, thousands upon thousands of animal carcasses and rent bones, and the ubiquitous plastic and styrofoam containers that had once contained progress.

Ah, progress. But progress had choked, faltered, gone south, spoiled, was wintering somewhere, never to be seen again, leaving only this sour, seeping, steaming pit.

Progress

The man never looks back, continuing to dig now with his bare hands and hope, a grim and senile smile placed concretely on his skull, eyes wide, intent, searching the unfolding pits: It must be here, God. Progress, plastic–why have you forsaken me?

His body is only temporarily racked by sobs. Another man appears, as if from the sky, slaps him back into insensitivity. There is work to be done. The man sitting seems to sober, his eyes open and tearlessly clear. He resumes digging. That other man, the one who flashed in from the sky, was never here. The man in search of progress soldiers on.

Digging, he uncovers a corpse. It is unfamiliar, just a former person, burned beyond recognition and rotting. The man is buoyant and drags the corpse out of the pit.

Progress!

Taking the smoldering coals, the man lights the burnt and disfigured corpse on fire. It burns quickly, flaring powerfully, releasing mighty smoke. The man’s smile becomes keener, more cunning, and he hooks a hose just so to catch the burning smoke, to harness the fire. He busies himself with several more hoses and soon a whole system of hoses and pipes oxygenate and consume the flaring, flaming energy of the expendable body.  The trapped potential energy of the corpse is vacuumed into the bowels of the house, filling the ribs of pipes, which hiss and swell, chortle, percolate, and sweat steam. The televisions brighten; ones that had gone to static now broadcast news footage: attractive anchors with whitened teeth and skin, talking comforting lullabies in sing-song voices, singing reassuring hymns about stocks and progress.

For a moment, all is well, all is normal.

The floor is all but gone and the pipes are rumbling. The corpse snuffs out as the technology powers up and up. The house digests the energy of progress, and then sighs.  There is an anti-climax of collapsing expectations, of technology powering down.

Computer screens dim, televisions flicker cold.