Tag Archives: race

523. Monkeying Around

This is about accuracy in discourse, and therefore applicable to writers, but it won’t seem so at first. Stick with me a few paragraphs and you’ll see.

The last week of August, there was a primary in Florida. In the aftermath, Ron DeSantis said the voters would “monkey this up” if they voted for his black opponent, and was slammed for making a racist comment.

Really?

I remember the Monkees, back in the Precambrian. Their theme song contained the words

Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees.
People say we monkey around.

I knew they were a fake band, but I never realized they were racists.

Knee-jerk liberals (that’s me, by the way) can look pretty silly when we overreach. Even people I respect were calling the monkey reference a racist dog whistle, and maybe it is. But let’s apply a little logic, in the form of Occam’s Razor.

What is the simplest and most likely explanation for the statement? There is no old saying “monkey this up” but there is an old saying “monkey around” and it is a simple extension to make that “monkey around and screw this up”. Millions of people have said that over the years, with no racial intent. My guess is that DeSantis was thinking “f—- this up”, and cleaned it up for television.

But I could be wrong. I don’t know the man and what I do know doesn’t impress me. “Monkey this up” may in fact be racist code, with built in plausible denial. If so, it worked beautifully. By assuming the worst, the liberal press has given the man massive publicity, and come off looking like fools.

As writers, on the other hand, we are in the business of not being misunderstood. See, I told you I would bring this around to writing.

Recently, I was revising an old novel. A young man and woman were about to move into a physical relationship, which was not not a love match. She was more excited than he was, because she lived in a small village, and he was the first male of her own age she had seen in a long time. He was planning to travel on in the spring, alone. He would tell her that in another line or two. This is what I wrote, years ago:

When he loosened the strings of her robe, she did not protest.

When I wrote that, the image in the mind of a reader would have exactly matched what I meant to say. There would have been no thought that he was forcing himself on her, or that she was reluctant in any way. In point of fact, if you had read a few sentences before and after, she was steaming.

That was then. Now, in the age of #Me Too, the phrase did not protest might be read differently than I intended when I wrote it. So I changed the line to read:

When he began to loosen the strings of her robe, she moved to hurry the process.

That is a pretty subtle change. To my mind, the two lines mean exactly the same thing, but they might not mean the same thing to a modern reader.

Readers read what we say, not what we meant to say. Communication isn’t entirely in our hands — readers do misread from time to time — but we have to do our best not to monkey things up. And no, that was not a racist dog whistle. That’s just me kicking the liberal press one more time for falling into a trap.

(Some) politicians (may) be in the business of doublespeak. They may bask in the comfort of plausible denial. Writers are not in that business. Our job is to say what we really mean, so skillfully that the reader is not confused about our intentions.

That is actually a fairly hard job.

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522. First Black Astronauts

Dr. Ronald McNair, Guion Bulford, Frederick Gregory

I recently saw Leland Melvin’s new book Chasing Space and got a chance to look it over. It’s a good book, although in full disclosure I won’t finish it. I read and write for a living. so my time is limited. Additionally, I have already read more than dozen astronaut bios, so this one lacks newness for me, even though it might be just what you are looking for.

It got me thinking about the first black astronaut, if there were such a thing. We all know who the first woman astronaut was — Sally Ride. That is, if we continue our cold war prejudice against the Russians and ignore Valentina Tereshkova.

It would be neat and tidy if there were a first black astronaut, but it isn’t that simple. If you type the question into Google, it will return Guion Bluford. We’ll talk about him in a second, but there were others that came before him.

Ed Dwight was chosen by John F. Kennedy to join the astronaut corps. He was an Air Force test pilot with a degree in aeronautical engineering. While in training, he was the target of racism. When Kennedy was assassinated, Dwight withdrew from the astronaut program. A few years later, continued harassment led him to retire from the Air Force altogether. He became a noted sculptor in a second career.

Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. was the next African-American astronaut. At Edwards Air Force Base, Lawrence investigated unpowered glide return characteristics using an F-104 Starfighter, contributing greatly to knowledge necessary to the Space Shuttle program. He was assigned to the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, but before he flew in space, he was killed in a crash landing while acting as a pilot instructor to a trainee. When the MOL project was abandoned, many of it’s astronauts transferred to NASA, where they became the backbone of the early Space Shuttle missions. Lawrence would almost certainly have been among them.

The “first black astronaut” falls out this way.

Ed Dwight was the first black astronaut trainee.

Robert Lawrence Jr. was the first black working astronaut. Remember that most of any astronaut’s time is spent in training and on-the-ground research. Actual flight in space makes up a tiny fraction of an astronaut’s career. Lawrence was as much a real astronaut as Roger Chaffee who died in the Apollo One fire just before his first flight.

Guion Bluford was the first black astronaut to actually fly in space in 1983 aboard the Challenger. He participated in four shuttle flights.

We also have to add Ronald McNair to the list of firsts. He was the first black astronaut to die on a space mission, when Challenger exploded. It was his second space shuttle mission.

Before 1978, there had been fifty-some American Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts and an additional few dozen assigned to other missions. Of, these only Lawrence had been black and there had been no women.

An up-to-date list of black astronauts can be found here. There are fourteen: Guion Bluford, Ronald McNair, Frederick Gregory, Charles Bolden, Mae Jemison, Bernard Harris Jr., Winston Scott, Robert Curbeam, Michael Anderson, Stephanie Wilson, Joan Higginbotham, Alvin Drew, Leland Melvin (whose book started this post), and Robert Satcher.

There are an additional eight who, for various reasons, never flew is space. Lawrence and Dwight are on that list.

I, Too

Here is a poem for the day after the Fourth of July. Langston Hughes wrote this in 1926.

I, Too

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

Apparently, it isn’t tomorrow yet. But tomorrow is coming, and it’s up to us to help it along.

poem for the fourth

Poem for the Fourth of July

I look out of the mesh
Out of the cage
and I do not see my mother
and I do not see my father.

We are so many here
So crowded
I smell the stench of fear
I hear the low hum of hopelessness

We came for refuge
.          Where is it?

I wrote this poem on June 18th and put it in line to appear on July 4th. When you read this, Zero Tolerance may have been reversed. If not, we all have work to do.

[It has, but only somewhat, and we still have work to do.]

498. Living in the Promiseland

There is a winding road across the shifting sand
And room for everyone living in the promiseland
Willie Nelson

I began this website in the fall of 2015. It was to be about writing, particularly about writing science fiction, and I had no intention of responding to political events.

Fat chance of that happening, given what has happened in America since.

In fact, I had written about twenty numbered posts when events in the world forced me to stick some personal political comments in between posts 10 and 11. It was called Walls Against the World. It wouldn’t be the last time I had to interrupt my regular programming to speak out.

That was the day after Hungary closed it’s borders to Syrian refugees. It reminded me too forcibly of the Russians closing Hungary’s borders in 1956, to keep Hungarian refugees from reaching the west and freedom.

East Germany had built a wall across Berlin in 1961, and then-candidate Trump was running on the promise to build a wall across the border with Mexico. I didn’t buy in. At the time I said, “Hitler would be proud. East Germany would understand. Russia is laughing.”

Was that only thirty-three months ago? Time flies when you are running from a forest fire.

I opened that post with these words:

          Have you ever asked yourself, “How could Germany have been fooled into following Adolph Hitler?” The answer is on your television this morning, and it is Donald Trump.
          I’m not saying that Trump is a Nazi. I don’t see him as evil, merely foolish. But the techniques that have brought him to prominence are the same techniques that Hitler used.

Then Trump won and here we are. I have tried since then to be fair and at least somewhat balanced. After all, he was elected by the American people (aided by Putin and Comey) and the Democrats hadn’t given Americans much of an alternative.

I have resisted calling Trump evil, and I have resisted refusing to see why many Americans chose to vote for him. I understand them; I just don’t understand him. I have not called him by the H****r word, even as Trump has become increasingly dictatorial. I have tried to avoid pointing out that Hitler was initially elected to office, before he took over everything.

All that was before Trump opened concentration camps on the Mexican border in the name of Zero Tolerance. We haven’t seen this in America since 1942.

Maybe I’ll send the White House a copy of Willie Nelson’s Living in the Promiseland. At least I would if I thought it would do any good.

Give us your tired and weak and we will make them strong
Bring us your foreign songs and we will sing along
.               from Living in the Promiseland

467. Steel Drivin’ Man

So we come to the end of another Black History Month. I have said some new things, and repeated some posts that could not be said better. This is one of those repeats; it originally appeared as 88. John Henry, January 28, 2016.

The battle goes on, not just for “blacks” (who aren’t fully black) and “whites” (who aren’t fully white), gays, Latinos . . . the list goes on. If life permits, I’ll be back next year, beating the same drum. I won’t be here forever, but when I’m gone, you will still be here. It will be up to you then.

I have always wondered why John Henry is a folk hero.

Maybe it’s just a folk song. Maybe it isn’t supposed to make sense. I never worry about the fact that Stewball “never drank water, he only drank wine”; I do have a tendency to overthink things.

But let’s look at the facts. John Henry is big, strong, uneducated and very black. Symbolically black, even. As a ”little bitty baby” he picks up a hammer and accepts his fate. He works himself to death for white folks, while they stand around and bet against him. Then his wife takes over when he’s dead, and the story goes on unchanged.

Sounds pretty damned Jim Crow to me.

A technical point here, so it all makes sense. As a “steel drivin’ man”, John Henry is not spiking down rails to ties. He is digging tunnels. He is swinging a doublejack, a two handed medium weight sledge hammer. He is hitting a star drill, which is a steel rod about a yard long ending in a hardened cross bit. Every time John Henry hits the drill, another inch of rock is pulverized in the bottom of a hole. Between each stroke, his assistant turns the drill an eighth of a turn.

Men with John Henry’s job spent their days drilling holes in the face of a tunnel. Those holes were then filled with black powder or dynamite, depending on the era, and blasted. Then the drill men moved back in to do it all over again.

Imagine working in near darkness, covered with sweat and stone dust, breathing in the fumes from the last blast, damp and cold in winter, damp and hot in summer. Tough for John Henry; terrifying for his assistant, holding the drill steady, turning it only in that moment when the hammer is drawn back, and knowing that if John Henry ever misses, he’s dog meat.

It gets worse.

It is useful to those in power to have a large population of the powerless and hungry. Slaves fit that bill very well; so do new immigrants. Today we have the working poor, who are kept humble by the myth that if you can’t make it in America, it’s your own fault. You aren’t working hard enough (see post 5.Labor Day).

Immediately after the Civil War, white southerners found a way to get back some of their power and some of their slaves. They simply arrested and imprisoned newly freed blacks, then rented them out. They invented the chain gang. If you are trying to find historical reasons why blacks fill our prisons and why our police are so often corrupt, chances are pretty good your research will lead you to those events.

What does this have to do with John Henry? In searching for the man behind the legend, writer Scott Reynolds Nelson’s* discoveries suggest that John Henry was one of these convict-slaves.

John Henry was a man who could not break his chains, but was still a man for all that. His status as a black hero makes sense.

Still . . ., if I were borrowing all this to make a story, I would rewrite it so that John Henry used his hammer to brain the overseer. But, of course, the real John Henry could never do that, and today’s black community would not accept such a cheap answer, or such an easy road to freedom. It would not match up with their own experiences.

History is usually uglier than anything we novelists can invent.

——————–

*Scott Reynolds Nelson. Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend.

466. Nothing But White

The first African slaves arrived in America in 1619. That’s 399 years ago. If we count twenty-five years as a generation, that’s 16 generations.

Now, lets look at you and your ancestors. Chances are, they haven’t been in America for 16 generations. In fact, this being the internet, chances are you aren’t even in America, so let me explain.

Here in America, whether you are white or black is a big deal.

If you are from India, or Indonesia, or the Philippines, or just about any place else in the world, you are likely to have your own racial and ethnic issues. Your tangle may be different from our tangle, but it’s probably just as tangled.

Being black or white in America isn’t as big a deal as when I was a kid, but it’s still big. And that is true even though there is probably no American black who is actually, fully, and truly black. Don’t take my word for it. Here is what Langston Hughes, negro poet,  said in his autobiography:

You see, unfortunately, I am not black. There are lots of different kinds of blood in our family. 

Being white in America is a big deal too, in the other direction. And that is true even though very few whites are actually, fully, and truly white. Don’t take my word for it. In 1895, speaking against defining whiteness in the new South Carolina constitution, Congressman George Tillman said:

It is a scientific fact that there is not one full-blooded Caucasian on the floor of this convention. Every member has in him a certain mixture of… colored blood…It would be a cruel injustice and the source of endless litigation, of scandal, horror, feud, and bloodshed to undertake to annul or forbid marriage for a remote, perhaps obsolete trace of Negro blood.

A generation later, several southern states did define race, declaring that one black ancestor, however distant, was enough to turn a white man black. It was a sad day for those perceived to be black, and a bad day for truth.

Back to your ancestors. You had two parents (we’re speaking biologically here) and they had four parents and they had eight parents . . .; up the line 16 generations, that’s just under 33,000 ancestors sending their DNA down the line.

Can that be right? Let’s look. The first generation is you, alone, and for the rest we will need a chart.

generation     number of ancestors

               2                     2
               3                     4
               4                     8
               5                    16
               6                    32
               7                    64
               8                  128
               9                  256
               10                512
               11                1024
               12                2048
               13                4096
               14                8192
               15                16384
               16                32768

You have 32,768 great . . . great grand parents. If you are a “white” person in America, what are the chances that not one of them was out of Africa?

If you are just of the plane from rural Norway with ancestors going back unbroken into antiquity, as soon as you have a child with an American who has been here, that child’s number becomes 16384. You can run scenarios to lower the number, but it will never drop below BIG.

All right, let’s say you are a member of the Aryan Nation, and your father and his father were Klansmen all the way back to Appomattox Courthouse. You only marry white girls, and only natural blondes at that. What are the chances that her thirteenth great grandmother wasn’t partly black and passing for white?

You don’t think so? Your ancestors knew better back in the 1800s.

Let’s go at this from the other direction. Suppose one black woman was made pregnant by her master in the first generation. How many of her descendants would carry at least a trace of African DNA? All of them. How many would that be?

Historically, women bore many children, and many of them died while young. Let’s say that the average woman had four children who lived long enough to have children of their own. That original black woman would have one billion, seventy three million, seven hundred forty one thousand, eight hundred twenty four descendants.

You don’t believe me? Get out your calculator. No, better make it a spreadsheet. You don’t think I did that math with pencil and paper, do you?

What are the chances than none of those children passed for white, and begat a line of offspring who are convinced that they are actually, fully, and truly white?

Let me put it another way —

Donald Trump is partly black. David Duke is partly black. Steve Bannon is partly black. You’re partly black. I’m partly black.

And my relatives just disowned me. That’s mighty white of them!