June Jordan’s I Must Become A Menace to My Enemies

Maria Rosales mentioned this poem on Facebook, and it strikes me as just the thing for a day like today, where we are somehow supposed to go on despite the fact that the people who hate us do not want us to go on. Please go check out June Jordan’s web page, too. And buy her book to support the work.

I Must Become a Menace to My Enemies

Dedicated to the Poet Agostinho Neto,
President of The People’s Republic of Angola: 1976

I will no longer lightly walk behind
a one of you who fear me:
Be afraid.
I plan to give you reasons for your jumpy fits
and facial tics
I will not walk politely on the pavements anymore
and this is dedicated in particular
to those who hear my footsteps
or the insubstantial rattling of my grocery
then turn around
see me
and hurry on
away from this impressive terror I must be:
I plan to blossom bloody on an afternoon
surrounded by my comrades singing
terrible revenge in merciless
I have watched a blind man studying his face.
I have set the table in the evening and sat down
to eat the news.
I have gone to sleep.
There is no one to forgive me.
The dead do not give a damn.
I live like a lover
who drops her dime into the phone
just as the subway shakes into the station
wasting her message
canceling the question of her call:

fulminating or forgetful but late
and always after the fact that could save or
condemn me

I must become the action of my fate.

How many of my brothers and my sisters
will they kill
before I teach myself
Shall we pick a number?
South Africa for instance:
do we agree that more than ten thousand
in less than a year but that less than
five thousand slaughtered in more than six
months will

I must become a menace to my enemies.

And if I
if I ever let you slide
who should be extirpated from my universe
who should be cauterized from earth
(lawandorder jerkoffs of the first the
terrorist degree)
then let my body fail my soul
in its bedeviled lecheries

And if I
if I ever let love go
because the hatred and the whisperings
become a phantom dictate I o-
bey in lieu of impulse and realities
(the blossoming flamingos of my
wild mimosa trees)
then let love freeze me

I must become
I must become a menace to my enemies.

Barbara Jordan’s 1976 DNC speech , Black history, Women’s history, LGBTQ history getting made, all at once

With HRC’s presumptive nominee status, people have been remember Shirley Chisolm, who was the first woman to run for president (in 1972). These conversations, and the upcoming convention, have me thinking about Barbara Jordan. I remember her 1976 convention speech like it was yesterday: I was only just in elementary school, but my father was a local politician and he watched the conventions, both sides, obsessively. I thus did, too. To a little kid with a bad stutter and poor diction, she lit up my mind.

Barbara Jordan’s speech was a work of art. And I loved it: I loved the way crowd came alive. I loved the Texas theme song. I loved her pastel mint suit with the unapologetically frilly neck doodad. I loved how the crowd loved.

I still make my students in my social policy class watch the speech because it wasn’t always shameful to discuss the welfare state in American politics, and people should see and remember the work of Black of politicians. I still point people to it whenever I can because she was incredible. It’s also good to remind people that many of the problems we think we only have today have been with us awhile.

Less well known is that Ms. Jordan seems to have had a lifelong partner, which makes me happy.

She only lived another 19 years after this speech, which she gave when she was 40. Too young, damn it. Neither she nor Representative Chisolm lived to see President Obama in the Oval Office, which makes me sad, because they helped him get there.

It was a historic moment, it was a very good vision for the welfare state, and she was magnificent:

Part I

Part II

Part III

Coates and the case for reparations

Ta-Nehisi Coates published an excellent explanation of the case for reparations to African Americans in the Atlantic. Here is the original article, which is excellent, except for the quote from Deuteronomy (read the quote from Locke instead) and here is a link to Coates discussing the contribution with Bill Moyers.

Something more than moral pressure calls America to reparations. We cannot escape our history. All of our solutions to the great problems of health care, education, housing, and economic inequality are troubled by what must go unspoken. “The reason black people are so far behind now is not because of now,” Clyde Ross told me. “It’s because of then.” In the early 2000s, Charles Ogletree went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to meet with the survivors of the 1921 race riot that had devastated “Black Wall Street.” The past was not the past to them. “It was amazing seeing these black women and men who were crippled, blind, in wheelchairs,” Ogletree told me. “I had no idea who they were and why they wanted to see me. They said, ‘We want you to represent us in this lawsuit.’ ”

For instances above, there is no real principled objection. I doubt we’ll ever manage to pull ourselves together enough to pay reparations for slavery; there are too many people in America whose families came long after slavery ended, and it’s too easy for people to get sidetracked on–as they have in the comments–the distance between those wrongs and contemporary conditions. But there are survivors and families that remember the many wrongs committed against African Americans that Coates outlines; we aren’t taking about paying money to the 5th generation removed of former slaves. In these instances, we still have people alive and their children who themselves lived through sharecropping, the slave labor of southern prisons, and property seizure; and we still have people alive who participated in those wrongs. There’s no principle of justice that denies them compensation for the real economic loss that these wrongs inflicted.

Blair Kelley over at the Root has collected a nice set of links to prior research on reparations, as well. He finishes with:

After all, how might we account for the cost of the scars Callie House wore on her back, the price of the terror of a lynched son or the value of a mortgage never granted? How could we begin to calculate the costs?

Actually, Randall Robinson attempted to get there with his book, published in 2001 but still in print, called The Debt. The point of reparations is that we can’t ever really compensate for the terror of a lynched son, and we know that. If we were just trying to cover economic loss, the gesture would be compensation–not reparation. The point of reparation is to acknowledge the wrongs have both a social and economic aspect, and that you aren’t walking away from either by a) flinging a check at somebody’s feet and walking off or b) apologizing and walking off…but sticking around, facing the wrong, and trying to recover.

#ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 entry #13: Ella Howard

This week’s entry is definitely in the “urban” rather than in the “planning” component of my challenge, as Ella Howard is a historian at Armstrong Atlantic State University. I read and used her book in my class on the Urban Context this year:

Homeless: Poverty and Place in Urban America, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

and I am thinking about using it in my class on urban social policy and planning in the spring. It’s framing in Chapter 1 helps illustrate the social welfare approach to housing: “The institutions that address poverty embody the values of their creators.” For my students thinking about how to state a strong argument you can spend the rest of the book supporting, here it is.

Dr. Howard’s book centers mostly on the Bowery, and I particularly like how the book uses that perspective–i.e., looking at the Bowery–as the place where federal, state, and city institutions attempted to reform and regulate homelessness. Her time period focuses predominately on the Depression onward, though she starts us at around the turn of the city in New York–1890s onward–in their attempts to figure out what to do with homeless men and women. The history deepens from the Depression era onward, and then goes decade by decade as there are important shifts in public policy that, nevertheless, always seem to be motivated by two internal tensions: 1) the desire to be humane to those in need, but not too humane, because, you know, dependency, and 2) the need to deliver services in place with the pressures to make sure the homeless move on, not be there, move somewhere else. Chapter 2 explores the treatment of the transient homeless during the Great Depression. The Depression was a game changer in multiple ways. First, economic hardship meant that more people than ever before struggled to maintain housing, and second, it saw the shift of policy response to homelessness to federal housing programs rather than, simply, local relief.

One major factor in serving those without homes concerned changing perspectives on alcoholism and mental illness, with religious and secular approaches to problem coming more into conflict as the century progressed. Organizations like the Salvation Army downplayed therapy or other, secular solutions, at the same time that homelessness became the object of social scientific study.

In the 1960s, the focus became increasingly spatial with urban renewal and ‘slum clearance.’ Most of my students can recite urban renewal history (more mindlessly than I care for) about how communities of color were destroyed to make way for highway projects, but few people ever think about the homeless men and women targeted by the program. Here is where the federal involvement in urban policy gets even more dicey, as local officials came to the conclusion that while homeless men and women may have to exist ‘somewhere’, skid rows were both unsightly and unhygienic. The feds put $5.4 billion into urban renewal programs from 1949 until 1966. As Howard points out, Eisenhower epitomized the federal problems: many people, like Eisenhower, favored urban renewal projects, believing them tickets to urban growth that would ‘lift all boats’ and yet viewed public housing with extreme suspicion. The result is a whipsaw we still live in: the desire for urban growth and population increase without the commitment to increased supply of affordable shelter, and by the 1980s, more affordable units were being destroyed than created in urban centers. Homelessness became viewed as something to be fixed:

Throughout the twentieth century, urban residents by and large did not want homeless people living in their neighborhood ,nor did they wish to fund residential programs to offer continued housing assistance. The homeless were to be returned to “normal” life rather than being placed in supported living conditions.

p. 122.

The Bowery escaped urban renewal due to widespread resistance to it in New York, including Jane Jacobs and others, who viewed urban renewal for what it was: a state-sponsored real estate development strategy that selected easy political targets for private commercial gain with specious public interest rationales. The plan for Cooper Square would have removed 4,000 beds; the plan failed, but eventually, efforts to redevelop the Bowery will win out. It will just take real estate markets a few more decades to make this happen.

Before we get there, however, Howard treats us to yet another means of dressing up old wine in new bottles in the neotraditional, punitive ways in which social science and media constructed narratives around men and women without homes and the neighborhoods that served homeless populations, like the Bowery. Here you get a strong flavor of American studies in Howard’s background as she connects older, more overly judging frames for impoverished people with the lurid, exoticed narratives constructed in particular media outlets. These are old ideas about danger and lack of hygiene dressed up for the spectator world of mediated imagery. Social science approaches were little better, framing individuals according to mainstream values of functionality and–a shocker–always finding their homeless subjects wanting. Nonetheless, good research conducted out of Columbia also began spending real time and energy with people living in the Bowery to understand how social life functions in homeless districts.

The later chapters of the book, like the earlier ones, are excellent, but they felt like less of a revelation to me as I had lived through many of the policy changes and conflicts of the 1980s and 1990s. I remember the federal and state withdrawal from homeless programs, particularly the deinstutionalization of those with serious mental illnesses. That policy move prompted the very public conflict between New York Mayor Koch and New York Governor Hugh Carey, whereby Koch viewed his city’s increasing number of homeless people as a direct result of the state making homelessness into a city problem. As Howard notes:

The Koch and Reagen administrations and the advocates for the homeless agreed on a single point: each supported the expansion of the private, religious-affiliated homeless shelters. p. 208

And thus nearly a century later, theories about serving homelessness return back to its religious, voluntarist roots. By then, the Bowery had become, like many places where poverty exists, the spatial exemplar of ‘edginess’ that nightclubs, musicians, and other artists exploited as a means to commercial success. In the end, New York’s real estate boom will erase the Bowery, and Mayor Guiliani will capitalize on security narratives as a means to simply regulate homelessness out of New York so that, as in most contemporary cities, homeless people are simply expected to slide through the shadows of the city, in perpetual motion.

I highly recommend this book both for its subject matter and as an exemplar of just how good a dissertation book can be.


Mark Edmundson on campus rape

I’ve been reading through Mark Edmundson’s Why Teach this week, and this paragraph caught my eye:

Colleges are even leery of disciplining guys who have committed sexual assault, or assault plain and simple. Instead of being punished, these guys frequently stay around, strolling the quad and swilling the libations, an affront (and sometimes a terror) to their victims.

This is a chapter where Edmundson has described the consumer universe of the corporate campus. Grade inflation? Looking the other way for cheaters? Come on. When campuses look the other way for felonies, they aren’t going to worry much about the other contours of character formation.

I’m officially tired of the “Things you shouldn’t say to Whomever” lists online

I really do understand the desire to forestall the rudeness of racist questions–I really do–in the original entries in “Things you shouldn’t say” genre. And in some ways, the effect of these have been good by making it clear: people educated about race don’t ask these things.

But now I think we’ve started undermining the efficacy of the original message with silly things like “Things you shouldn’t say to people without children” and the like. I have no children. It was not by choice. I have dealt with my fair share of shitty comments from people over the years. But I delight in other people and their families despite my grumpy anti-social demeanor, and nobody promised me a rose garden. Parents say clueless things. Non parents say clueless things other times. If you are not really part of an oppressed group, it’s your job to engage in conversation to help people get a clue if they don’t have one, and then move on and forgive once you have. It is also your job to obtain clues when you should. For those facing oppression, the cluelessness of dominant majorities is different and more damaging than the simple fact that people don’t understand special, special me and the fact I haven’t had children. Oppressed groups have told us again and again, left us many clues, about the nature of their oppression and their differences. Not getting a clue there is all-too-socially-accepted.