May 22, 2016
“And there it is again—
beauty the brave, the exemplary,
-Mary Oliver, “Peonies”
I’m in Boston recharging my batteries after a long semester. I spent several hours at the Boston Common and the Public Garden. Students from various local high schools were promenading around the Duck Pond, before heading to prom. The boys were in tuxedos, of course, acting as the ground for the figure of the girls, resplendent in gowns of teal, crimson, and cream. They reminded me of the Winged Victory of Samothrace.
Elsewhere, wedding parties were getting their pictures taken at the verge of the pond, and allowing large groups of sighing tourists to look on, gratis, that their hearts might break a little bit. Two swans were nesting. There was also music—”sudden music,” I call it: a flamenco guitarist on the bridge, someone else playing “Moon River” on a saxophone.
And then, inexplicably, the bells in the Arlington Street Church rang out the “Ode to Joy,” and the miracle was complete.
“Imagine a vast sheet of paper on which straight Lines, Triangles, Squares, Pentagons, Hexagons, and other figures, instead of remaining fixed in their places, move freely about, on or in the surface, but without the power of rising above or sinking below it, very much like shadows—only hard with luminous edges—and you will then have a pretty correct notion of my country and countrymen.” -Edward Abbey, Flatland (1884)
In July of 2013, Dustin Cable, from the Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia, gave the world an invaluable document: The Racial Dot Map.
The map displays 308,745,538 dots, one for each person residing in the United States at the location they were counted during the 2010 Census. Each dot is color-coded by the individual’s race and ethnicity…Whites are coded as blue; African-Americans, green; Asians, red; Hispanics, orange; and all other racial categories are coded as brown.
One could spend all day reading Cable’s map. I zoomed straight in on Rochester, NY, where I live. The map reveals the racial topography; natural and man made boundaries carve up the surface like an X-Acto knife:1
The purplish semicircle to the southwest, pushing out into the Genesee River, is the University of Rochester. Across the river to the west is the 19th Ward, almost solid green. The green and orange dots continue in a clockwise arc toward the northeast, in an area known as The Crescent. In a 2003 article in the New York Times, Michelle York reported that “[t]he crescent is home to 27 percent of the city’s residents and 80 percent of the city’s homicides.” According to the article,
The reasons behind the burst of violence…include the lagging upstate economy, a steady migration of residents to the suburbs and a growing number of abandoned houses prone to become centers of drug sales and use. Rochester also has a school system that performs poorly. Only a quarter of high school freshmen last four years and graduate. Some 93 percent of school-age children live in poverty…
Just south of The Crescent, past the sharp boundary of East Main St., is a wedge of deep blue—the upscale East End. According to its web site, “The East End…is Upstate NY’s premier destination for fine dining, nightlife, entertainment and the arts, doing business and living an urban lifestyle.” Blue dots scatter to the east, south, and west, dissolving into seemingly thin air.
I zoomed out from the Rochester map and started scrolling to the left, to visit Buffalo, when a tiny, dark blip caught my attention. At first, I thought it was another scratch on my antediluvian MacBook, but it was moving. So I zoomed in:
The blue sprinkles at the top represent the village of Attica. The rectangle at the bottom center is Attica Correctional Facility; the smaller one to its right is Wyoming.
At this point, it became like a game, as I zoomed out and scrolled around the map. Whenever I encountered a dark spot, I zoomed back in for a closer look. It was always a densely populated polygon, situated near, or in, a field of scattered blue dots. Here’s Gowanda:
And so on. Try it with your own state. For best results, click on “Remove Map Labels” first, to let these color-coded shapes speak their own hard truths.
For example: Things have not improved in The Crescent since Hill wrote her article. If anything, they’re worse. Paul Jargowsky, in a 2015 report for the Century Foundation, titled “Architecture of Segregation: Civil Unrest, the Concentration of Poverty, and Public Policy,” found that Rochester has the 4th highest Black concentration of poverty in the United States, jumping from 34.2% in 2000, to 51.5% in 2009-2013. Buffalo came in at #6. Syracuse was #1.
What this means for the cycle of incarceration is clear. In the words of Tony Gaskew, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and Director of the Criminal Justice Program at the University of Pittsburgh,
The road to redemption for an incarcerated Black male returning to his community is paved with temptations, disappointments, and failures. When he goes home, unemployment will still be high. Our educational system will still be broken. He will still have the greatest opportunity to be victimized by a person within his own community of similar race or ethnic background. There will still be more liquor stores than schools in his neighborhood.2
James Baldwin captured this process in his short story, “Sonny’s Blues“—which is itself almost 60 years old—during a cab ride shared between the narrator and his brother, who had just been released from prison: “So we drove along, between the green of the park and the stony, lifeless elegance of hotels and apartment buildings, toward the vivid, killing streets of our childhood. These streets hadn’t changed…”
And we wonder why recidivism rates are so high.
“These neighborhoods,” says Jargowsky, “are not the value-free outcome of the impartial workings of the housing market. Rather, in large measure, they are the inevitable and predictable consequences of deliberate policy choices.” The Racial Dot Map reveals the consequences of those choices. The problem is clear, hard with luminous edges. Can the same be said of our national resolve to fix it?
April 10, 2016
March 26, 2016
If you analyze the format of a Wikipedia page, you’ll see that, at the top, there’s the main concept, and the page becomes increasingly detailed and fractured the further down you look.
Well, as my dream opens, I’m looking at the very bottom of a Wikipedia page—at the “External links,” probably—and then I begin visually scrolling up, higher and higher, with an increasingly urgent need to reach the controlling Word, where all the scattered instances will finally fuse together into One, the only One there is.
I woke up about 2″ from the top.
Anyway, sometimes I think that the secret of academic writing is not to look for examples to support a thesis, i.e. “cherry picking,” but to allow examples to suggest a meaning, to hint, tantalizingly, at a concept, just as they are wont to do in waking life. Similarities propose a marriage; resemblances suggest a unity. Find 3 or 5 or 7 of these things and you’ve got yourself a paper.
I just watched a YouTube video of Collin Raye’s 1993 country classic, “That’s My Story,” while I was doing some research. (It’s complicated.) At the beginning was an ad for Tough Mudder. I never watch the ads, but the text of this one caught me. Here it is:
Immediately, I was reminded of a number of similar texts we went over in my ENG101 sections just this semester. The first is an entry in the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, “Yu Yi”:
Some Mudders might find it strange—or annoying—to be lumped in with the existential lyricism of the Dictionary, but tough. It works.
A second example is “Cycle of Fear,” an article in the New York Times where Tim Kreider writes about how he deals with his anxiety by bicycling at high speeds through Manhattan traffic:
I’m convinced these are the conditions in which we evolved to thrive: under moderate threat of death at all times, brain and body fully integrated, senses on high alert, completely engaged with our environment. It is, if not how we’re happiest — we’re probably happiest in a hot tub with a martini and a very good naked friend — how we are most fully and electrically alive.
I could go on. There are many other examples, but they all add up to one thesis: something’s missing, I know not what. Is it a nostalgia for a fresh and exciting world? A fealty to some atavistic trait long forgotten? A longing to express a kind of immediate, pre-linguistic experience that language itself has absorbed into its dry concepts? How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem all the uses of this world.
We seem to have gotten everything backwards.
Pick the cherries first, then dream of red.
March 13, 2016
It hardly seems necessary to counter the assertion by Republicans that they are still “the party of Lincoln,” but what the heck.
I’m rereading some of Lincoln’s speeches and letters, and finding passages that, if uttered today, would make him Enemy #1 to today’s Republicans. These are from his July 4th Message to Congress, in 1861. The whole thing is a refutation of the secessionist argument, but these parts stand out:
This sophism derives much, perhaps the whole of its currency from the assumption that there is some omnipotent and sacred supremacy pertaining to a State—to each State of our Federal Union. Our States have neither more nor less power than that reserved to them in the Union by the Constitution, no one of them ever having been a State out of the Union…
Having never been States, either in substance or in name, outside of the Union, whence this magical omnipotence of “State rights,” asserting a claim of power to lawfully destroy the Union itself? Much is said about the “sovereignty” of the States, but the word even is not in the National Constitution, nor, as is believed, in any of the State constitutions. What is a “sovereignty” in the political sense of the term? Would it be far wrong to define it “a political community without a political superior”?
Tested by this, no one of our States, except Texas, ever was a sovereignty; and even Texas gave up the character on coming into the Union, by which act she acknowledged the Constitution of the United States and the laws and treaties of the United States made in pursuance of the Constitution to be for her the supreme law of the land.
Ted Cruz would have a field day with that one.
The States have their status in the Union, and they have no other legal status. If they break from this, they can only do so against law and by revolution. The Union, and not themselves separately, procured their independence and their liberty. By conquest or purchase, the Union gave each of them whatever of independence or liberty it has. The Union is older than any of the States, and, in fact, it created them as States.
More to come, probably…
February 26, 2016
February 8, 2016
“Never forget where you are.”
That’s one of the first things I was told when I started teaching classes in the prison. Initially, the warning seemed absurd; if you’ve ever been in one of these places, you know that you can no more forget where you are than you could if you were to suddenly materialize at the bottom of the ocean. It was also vaguely threatening, redolent of sudden attacks, and covert manipulations by desperate, irredeemable men. For the record, I have never experienced any of those things. But there is wisdom in the warning, nonetheless, and I often receive stunning reminders of “where I am” just as I begin to feel comfortable.
For instance, last week we were talking about deductive reasoning, and what can happen when you try to make a deduction based on imperfect evidence, or no evidence at all. I admitted that the very first time I entered the prison I had thought to myself, Here there be monsters, but where? That got a laugh, plus several nods of the head. Then, I asked if they had had any deductions about college before actually starting the program. (For many of the students, “college” might as well have been “Timbuktu” for all they knew about it.) I was expecting answers that touched on anxiety, course load, fear of the unknown, etc.
Instead, one student said, “I remember wondering whether or not the teachers would treat us the same as their other students.”
“Do you mean if we would ‘dumb down’ the classes?”
“No, I meant if you would treat us like everyone else does.”
“Treat you like inmates.”
This wasn’t the first time I’d experienced something like this. A few years ago, right in the middle of a presentation on APA style, one of the students raised his hand and announced, quite calmly, “Mister G., I have question about ethos.”
Now, a question about ethos should not be surprising in a composition class. But this was Science Writing. Ethos had not been mentioned once since the start of the previous semester, when I’d casually mentioned it as one of the elements of persuasive rhetoric. To have it come popping out of the underbrush at that point was a shock.
I lowered the strip of toilet paper I’d been using to clean the White Board, and waited.
“You said that ethos means ‘good character.’”
“Well, given who we are,” he continued, gesturing vaguely to the rest of the class, “why would anyone ever read anything we write?”
Experienced teachers know the occasional need for an extemporaneous “Plan B,” that sudden, vertiginous swerve down a road you never saw on the map, but which you must navigate at high speed with only slight pressure on the brakes. In the prison classroom, it’s always Plan B. Every text hits bone. Words have consequences. Rhetorical concepts, long ago discarded as boilerplate, are discussed endlessly, dissected and rebuilt, not just in terms of essay writing, but of freedom, justice, identity.
Your lecture notes are worthless, then. So are the skills of which you were once so proud. Even if you used to thrive on spontaneity, challenge, and surprise, your intellectual agility means nothing when you have been stunned into silence by a grown man who has been made to feel worthless. At that moment, you will remember where you are.
And why you’re there.