Less Disaster Than I Anticipated: New Orleans

I had in my head, thanks to history books and too many movies, an image of a place a lot like Philly, having an old colonial feel topped off by a few decades of industrial decay, just with more of a swing than a beat- and wrought iron balconies. Maybe I was just seeing what I wanted to see, but I wasn’t completely wrong. I would have been all the way right if I hadn’t overestimated New Orleans’s ability to deliver filth. With everything I had heard about Katrina and Bourbon Street, combined with what I experienced in Philly, I expected a little bit more disaster than I got.  While there was plenty of graffiti accented by dead palm fronds, there were no piles of trash blowing down the sidewalk. Philly keeps its filthiest title.

Despite it being a Wednesday. I had to weave and squeeze my way around revelers and wanderers down the blocks around Jackson Square. In full disclosure the streets are quite narrow so they aren’t the hardest thing to fill, but the rows of second story balconies packed with people give those streets a gauntlet quality that could be either exciting or terrifying depending on the person, or people. I suppose if you consider both the walkers and the balconers it is either a multi level party or a 3D assault waiting to happen. I enjoyed it.

It is a place that feels like a place.img_9281

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Staying Grounded: I am so often wrong… at least initially

I had a very deep and brilliant thought this morning while in the shower. It was based on a scripture in Matthew and as this thought occurred to me I began mentally working through the application of this chapter and verse into my life, into my family’s daily life, and especially the implementation of my brilliance throughout all of society. This was important.IMG_3702

Then, once I was dried and dressed, I sat down with my mate’ and opened the Bible to the verse in question. Upon re reading it I realized it meant the opposite of what I had remembered and my entire scheme fell apart.

It was a valuable lesson.

I was not wrong in the spirit of what I was thinking, and definitely not wrong in motivation- I was looking to do good and be a better person. Yet when it came to these particular nuts and bolts, this little thought regarding implementation of Godly ideals, I was off-base. It is not best to be off base regarding God.

This is why we have these sorts of books. This is why scripture is called such and canonized. It keeps us grounded. There is among those with whom I commune, the recurring theme that the great value in this grounding is that the world is continually shifting, and it is this immovable type set that allows our footing to be securely on God’s ground. I don’t disagree but I would like to add that as I demonstrated this morning, it isn’t only the world that is shifting but us.

Or maybe most of us aren’t shifting in how “they” mean it regarding the world, in that God is in one place and the world is drifting and shifting away, but maybe we as individuals were never really as in line with God as we sometimes assume, and we need quite a bit of movement and improvement if we are to ever get on the right page. I find this thinking more productive especially considering most of us aren’t really all that exceptional; we are normal, which means that thinking about our own improvement rather than the requisite repenting of some imagined “other”, is more likely to bring us to the most applicable lesson.

Because odds are the things I need to work on are close to, or similar to, the things that those around me need help with also.

So I am glad to have something trustworthy in which to stay grounded, because no matter how fallible the translations in there might be, they are surely less fallible than you and me.

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America’s Got Talent: is a show that featured mostly foreign acts.

Sometimes, some things are worth standing out in the rain for an hour. One of those times was last Saturday and one of those things is, watching a live taping of America’s Got Talent. This was a surprise to me.

I am not the intended audience of variety shows. Or belted out R&B ballads, country music, sob stories seeking redemption through Hollywood stardom, or pretty much anything with sequins at the core. America’s Got Talent is pretty much all of those things and I went there in large part because my wife likes these things and I like being with her- but also because the alternative was an evening where I try to convince my 2 children to clean up after themselves.

So I went.IMG_7870

While I am not the appropriate target for all those things above, I have more than a healthy appreciation for live music well performed, no matter the genre. I also love a rowdy crowd, being around people who are actively doing the things they love, and most of all I appreciate things that are real. This event had all of those things as well.

For example the Philadelphian in me loves a crowd that is willing to boo. I also love a crowd that is willing to stand up and cheer for a child who needs a little help getting over cold feet. This was that sort of crowd. IMG_7911

The event was also surprisingly real.

What I mean by that is the set is crawling with cameras, producers, and we were able to sit in our chairs and watch as Simon Cowell asked performers lots of follow up questions in an obvious attempt to get those amateurs to say something a television audience might find remotely interesting. We got to watch an obviously professional band do a sound check with a fantastic song, then perform a completely different sob story song once it was show time, and then answer Simon’s question as to “why did you choose to come on this show?” by saying, “Because the producers called and invited us.”IMG_E7927

That was pretty real.

What was also real is that this show with America in the title only had one America born judge and 3 of the seven acts were from another continent…

Which in mind is how America should and could be.IMG_7944

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Black History Month:Gun Rights

It is important to know that MLK’s ideology of non-violence was only one aspect, one wing, of the civil rights movement, and it didn’t really work everywhere. It mostly worked on television. Down South and in person, especially in places like Lowndes County Alabama, what worked was guns.

MLK and the SCLC were for the most part a PR organization. They literally marched through town, took a literal beating, and got it broadcast on television worldwide. It helped build political will nationally and created a public outcry against injustice.democratrooster

At the same time SNCC had a different job. SNCC would come and set up shop in various jurisdictions long term. They were there to organize political participation among the local Black population and it was dangerous work. This sort of activity regularly, not sometimes, but reg-u-lar-ly resulted in a Black person being killed. One SNCC worker explained that when one of them would come to stay with a local family, that home would immediately come under fire. Actual gun fire. These homeowners could not call the police, because they were among those doing the shooting. The only thing that stopped the gunfire was when those inside the home started shooting back. This was not how it happened once but rather this is how it would go every time. So naturally, armed self-defense became a regular part of political organization among the Black people in Lowndes County. In 1964 the place had zero Black people registered to vote. By 1968 there were 2,500. It worked.

Due to high illiteracy rates all political parties were required to have a symbol. This allowed those who couldn’t read, the ability to identify the party for whom they wished to vote. The Democrat’s symbol was a white rooster and the words “White Supremacy For The Right”. The local Black population formed the Lowndes County Freedom Organization as their new political party. They intended to run candidates, register voters, and challenge the Democrats. They needed to declare a symbol and one member joked that they needed something that would eat that chicken- so they decided they would use a black panther.

Word got out that the Black people were serious so the Klan threatened to summon all of its members statewide to stop the formation of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. Come election day, the local authorities, and the Klan who had all been warned by the FBI that a bunch of young thugs from out of town were on the way to cause trouble at the polls, were all shocked when hundreds of old Black people carrying loaded weapons, showed up to vote.

The press went wild talking about this new Black Panther party and their guns. They left out the fact that the average age of the party was 55. One Black leader also pointed out that if the Alabama Freedom Organization was going to be referred to as the Black Panther Party in the news, the right thing would be to also call the Democrats the White Cocks. This request was not granted.NRA

The success of those humble Black farmers with guns gave a sense of excited hope to Black people nationwide. In Oakland CA, frustrated by violent policing, Black Panthers took their loaded guns to Sacramento and occupied the capital building. This completely freaked white America out and that same year California governor Ronald Reagan signed the Mulford Act banning the carrying of loaded weapons in public. Reagan was quoted as saying he saw “no reason why on the street today, a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons”.

That was 1967, one year before MLK was killed.IMG_1989.JPG

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Black Firefighters: Black History Month

America’s first firefighting company was founded in Philadelphia by good ol’ Ben Franklin in 1736.

The first “Black” firefighting company in Philadelphia was founded by a free Black man named James Forten 82 years later. Back then all firefighting was done by volunteers, no one was getting paid to extinguish flames. But still the white people protested against this new fire company and the city shut it down in less than a year.IMG_1297

The city started paying professional fire fighters in 1871, but none of those professionals were Black till they hired Isaac Jacobs in 1886. The catch was they didn’t actually let him fight fires, just clean the stables. Mr. Jacobs wasn’t satisfied being a stable boy, he wanted to fight fires, so he left the department after 4 years.

In 1905 Philadelphia hired its second Black fire fighter, Steven Presco. He insisted on fighting fires and was killed doing so 2 years later.IMG_1299

Twelve years later, in 1919 Philadelphia founded its first official Black fire station, Engine 11. Despite being designated as the Black station, Engine 11 was captained by white firefighters and not used to fight fires but was strictly restricted to city maintenance work. They were the city’s original pothole crew.

It was not until 1952 that Philadelphia officially integrated its fire department. That makes a full 134 years between the city’s first black firefighter and actual integration. What a long hard road full of death and humiliation to fight for the privilege of protecting people from fire.

Philly’s story is not unique and similar story lines played out in Virginia, New Orleans, and an especially interesting case in San Antonio.IMG_5303

The city of San Antonio formed a number of professional fire brigades immediately after the close of the civil war. Their cadre of companies included 2 engines run by freed Black men. The catch was the white brigades were paid by the city and the Black brigades were not paid at all. Yet they still functioned. That is until these two companies requested to be paid like the others and in response the city simply banned Black people from being in fire companies.

All of these stories illustrate a couple of different things. First, that there existed qualified and willing Black people since the very beginnings of American firefighting. Second, is that the obstacles to full Black participation in this form of professional, or public life, was not the Black people themselves but a combination of the general American population and the white people who ran city governments.

But despite the obstacles intentionally placed in their way, Black people continuously persisted and fought.

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Freshman, Snowboards, and That One Girl Tina Dixon.

I had always been artistically inclined but never thought myself the “artsy” type. I still don’t. But as a kid with no direction, and even less confidence, I started college as an art major thinking it was the only area where I possessed potential. The University in its wisdom paired freshman from the same majors into the same dorm rooms and so I found myself assigned as a roommate to an actual art major.

He was good. He could draw, drew on everything, and he was a little more in line with what some might assume an art major might be, at least more so than me. He played guitar, wasn’t much of a fan of anything established or authoritarian, and also, he liked to snowboard.

I’m going to start over in describing my roommate, and say that rather than him being what one might assume of an art major, he was absolutely what one might assume of a snowboarder.

And I liked him.

He taught me how to play a mildly inappropriate Green Day song on his guitar, we traded off attending and taking notes in biology class, and the two of us watched the Beavis and Butthead marathon while everyone else was studying for finals. I had at this time never attempted snowboarding, though living where I did it, was a normal thing to do. I had been too busy concentrating on things like football, the establishment, and submitting to authority. He didn’t mind so much. We had the whole art major thing in common, and he wasn’t ever a real chatty guy in the first place so lack of common snow sports wasn’t really a thing.

But he hung out with this girl…

This girl was friendly enough, pretty enough, but above all else she was a perpetually positive person who appeared to operate on the principle that everyone everywhere should learn how to board. If I recall correctly she wasn’t an actual expert, my memory tells me she wasn’t even all that experienced, but she rode, he rode, and she wanted to ride more and “so should you” was her mantra.

As an 18 year old I tended to assume there were types of people, and I wasn’t, so I existed in a perpetual state of not belonging. Normally this meant that if you were a snowboarder, and I was not, that you would do your thing and I would watch longingly from the sidelines contemplating my own awkward existence. But this girl who hung out with my roommate didn’t see people like that and without making me feel less-than, got to work trying to convince me to snowboard. I mostly wanted to play rugby, but on one day a group of guys I knew from high school came upon a set of free lift tickets and in contemplating whether or not I should take advantage, and weighing out the pros of a free pass and familiar faces compared to the cons of having to pay money to rent equipment, this girl stepped in and sealed the deal. She offered to loan me a pair of goggles, or gloves, or something I cannot recall exactly, but whatever bit it was, was enough to convince me to give it a try.

I was horrible. But everyone is horrible their first time snowboarding and somehow I still enjoyed it.

Then I left school. After one semester, or rather we were on quarters back then, so after one quarter with my snowboarding roommate, I left for a 2 year Mormon mission in Atlanta, and I didn’t keep in contact with anyone.

But I remembered.

When I returned to school all the faces were different but the mountains and the snow were still there. I was a little older, much more mature, but definitely still lacked direction, so I went back to the last thing I remembered liking.

I went snowboarding.

A lot.

I was never, nor will ever, be a physical risk taker and things like half pipes, rails, and cliffs never appealed to me but there is something magical about drifting through powder under the tram at Snowbird that just sort of shuts down your mind and carries you away into a blissful “now” unlike nearly anything else I have ever experienced. I was in love. I went with friends, I went by myself, I went almost every day save Sundays from the first day the resorts opened till that last day in May when the snow turned to rocks.

But then I moved down South where it wasn’t the same and I drifted into other things. It has been years since I’ve been on a lift and the last time I pulled out my goggles the foam fell apart. It was as if the dry dusty foam was my youth crumbling in my hands. I felt old.

Then I turned on the Winter Olympics to watch Shaun White win the gold and there was that snowboarder girl interviewing the half pipe champ of the world!

It was Tina Dixon.

I always knew her name but apparently didn’t pay enough attention or watch the right shows between then and now to know that that girl who was so positive and enthusiastic all those years ago wasn’t all talk or fluff or sparkle without substance but was a real life dream chaser. All of those great things about her back then, were really who she was, and if the television is telling the truth (of course it is) that is who she still is.

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My Support for Hyphenated Black People

Let me say up front that Black Americans have no need of my endorsement or recommendations in anything they might think or feel.

That being said, I am in full support of any Black American who prefers the identifier “African-American”, and here is why.

I often field questions, or rather suggestions, from various white people that “we” should all just be American with no hyphens or ethno-racial identifiers. This suggestion is normally given in the spirit, or with an expressed desire, that we should be a united, racist-free, nation. I appreciate this desire, share the hope of a day without racism, but reject the proposal, and here is why.

When the United States first formed as an independent country, those in power decided formally that to be “American”, or a citizen of the United States, a person had to be white. This is why the waves of immigrants over the years were able to shed their hyphens of Irish, English, German or otherwise and melt into that one word, American. Others had a tougher time.

This is why Arizona wasn’t allowed statehood till 1912. It had been “property” of the United States since 1848, with people living there for centuries previous, but the United States had a policy that there needed to be a critical mass of white people living in any given territory before it could be considered a state. The people living in Arizona were brown and it took a series of intentional settlements including land giveaways encouraging white immigration before white people had enough of a majority to be part of America. This critical mass of whiteness was attained around 1910, the application process took a couple years, and thanks to that ball getting started rolling, by 2010 Arizona had become 73% white.

As late as 1927, almost 60 years after the passing of the 14th amendment, the Supreme Court was still settling cases on who got to be considered white, which again, was a synonym for American. Lum v Rice decided that it was up to the individual states to decide who was and was not white (in this case it was a person from China suing to be white), in order to decide who got the full privileges of American citizenship. All because you had to be white to get those official privileges.

Most of us know the story of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s where Black Americans had to not only win legal battles but also take beatings from police officers in order to be allowed the same rights as other Americans, aka white people. Now if we keep in mind that these Black people’s families had been on this continent and participating in the building of this country every bit as long, and even longer, than many Irish, German, Italian, French, or even Iranian- all of whom assimilated by becoming legally white, we should take a closer look at what we suggest anyone do in order to assimilate.

Because back when Irish were shedding their hyphens, Black Americans were not only forbidden from full assimilation but also systematically prevented from pursuing success. So they forged their own ways to prosper.

While Black Americans were raising white children, cleaning white houses and having their labor exploited without constitutional protection, those same Black people were inventing jazz, laying a foundation for the discipline of sociology, reciting poetry over drum machines, fighting in American wars, penning novels, and helping send astronauts into space. All this while not being allowed the title of American, but rather Negro- or other words connoting their color with an added measure of insult. Consequentially Black people have developed a distinct culture that is very much American but distinct from that of those who were accepted as white/American historically. That deserves respect, honor and appreciation.

In the past the “distinctness” brought along by immigrant groups (which is everyone other than indigenous peoples) was absorbed, or allowed, by letting these “others” be swallowed by whiteness. Some groups wanted to be white but still unique, and America said “yes” giving them St. Patrick’s and Columbus days. In response to things like Columbus Day, other white people founded things like the Daughters of The American Revolution, but all of them were united under the banner of American whiteness.

All of that is, quite literally, history. So when do we move past all that?

Fair question.

In 1967 a group of Black Americans attempted to get past it and exercise the 2nd amendment. They formed a militia and bore arms for their own protection. America responded by taking their guns and passing gun control laws. These Black people claimed the guns were to defend themselves, and that they had a right to do so, and America said they did not have that right.

The next year, sans militia, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot for advocating Black citizenship. So we know that the past wasn’t history 50 years ago.

How about 9 years ago?

The election of a bi-racial Black man to the presidency of the United States was heralded by many as the moment when we as a nation were finally over our racist past. How ironic then, that the most prominent and persistent accusation against our Black president, the accusation by which our current president made his political name, was that he was not born in America. He was accused of literally not being an American. Which was very much in line with the messages America has sent Black people all along. The past is obviously not gone yet. Was the 41 years between MLK and Obama enough to have both erased 192 years of racial division and then drive it all the way back into divisiveness due to some Black people preferring a hyphen?

Or maybe the term African-American isn’t exactly the cause, but rather just a hindrance?

Considering the contributions and struggles of Black people in this country, and knowing that all the other assimilated groups very literally shed their hyphenated status in favor of whiteness, makes the request that African-Americans only claim the title American, smack of condescending insult. I do not say this as an accusation that anyone who has forwarded such a suggestion did so from a dark and cruel place- but not all insults are intended.

Black people should be able to claim full American status without having to do so in a way that has always been a nod to whiteness. If the only way to do this is to bring back hyphens for everyone- great. Do it. But I will not be the one to tell any Black person that they should reject or ignore the African heritage that my country has so intentionally tried to dishonor all this time. For a Black person to be able to claim both their African descent, their Blackness, and their full American status simultaneously, is in my mind the best American dream. It is long past time that we, as Americans, accept that our country is, has been, and should be, a nation of people from many places, who don’t all look the same, who do not all act the same, and who can claim the fullness of who they are- while being fully American.

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