The Great White Hope, circa 2012

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I love movies.  One of my all-time favorites is the 1970 film, The Great White Hope, which found onscreen success after a heralded theatrical run on Broadway.  Venerable actor James Earl Jones starred in both the stage and film versions as a  boxer named Jack Jefferson.  Jefferson was a fictional character, but he was based upon the real-life experiences of Jack Johnson, heavyweight boxing champion, .

For some reason, the political news of the day has me thinking a lot about this movie.

If you have never seen this classic, you ought to check it out.  Jones, a magnificent actor whose voice is part of cinema history as the dangerous Darth Vader, is onscreen in pure masculine glory as a champion boxer.  And although the script took some creative license with the actual facts of Johnson’s life, it stayed true to the fascinating dramatic tensions of a man who wanted to be the best in his field.

More recently, an excellent PBS documentary by Ken Burns, Unforgiveable Blackness, explored the facts of Johnson’s life.  It turns out that the facts of Johnson’s life are more compelling that the fiction.  In 1908, after a 14-round fight in Australia, Johnson fought and defeated a Canadian boxer, Tommy Burns, to become the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world.  So unthinkable was it to sports fans and commentators in these segregated times to accept this new champion that a backlash emerged.  One of the most prominent voices to rise opposing Jack Johnson was that of sportswriter and novelist Jack London, who may be best known for his fiction, Call of the Wild.  London was a vivid writer, and not above a bit of high-blown language.  He could also turn a memorable phrase. He coined one of them, as he spoke of the “disgrace” of  an African-American in a newspaper column, by calling for a “Great White Hope” to defeat Johnson.

Media commentator and screenwriter John Ridley does a brilliant job of detailing the way in which media, sports hype and London’s influence helped to elevate Johnson’s eventual match with a White fighter named Jack Jeffries to epic proportions. Johnson was not criticized for his boxing techniques or performance.  Instead, he was demonized for his “audacity” win the title.  He was attacked for everything from his appearance, his personality, and his choice of women. By the time they met in the ring, audiences no longer saw this as a contest between two individuals, but as a referendum on morality and universal life values.

Fast-forward to August 19, 2011, when Kansas congresswoman Lynn Jenkins openly stated that the Republican Party was struggling to find a “great white hope” to defeat President Obama in the 2012 election—only to apologize for her choice of words.  I don’t believe there has been any real apology for the actual sentiment.

So why have I been thinking about this movie a lot lately?  Watching the Republican primaries bob and weave their way through each state only heightens the comparison.  Political rhetoric describing the primary season debates among the candidates illustrates the virulent “fight” analogies in place as the Republic contenders describe how they want to “knock out” Obama and remove him from the White House.  And, although the election of a U.S. President is a serious thing, the way it as being discussed as a choice about our “way of life” has inescapable undertones.  Still, studies show that the Republican primary season continues to be fraught with uncertainties about who the best candidate should be. It seems that many are still hoping for the perfect colossus of a candidate who will appear upon the political stage and obliterate all opposition.  From the list of previous hopefuls who have dropped out, to the names that are still being bandied about, to the roller coaster-like results from the state caucuses, it seems clear that all of the misguided yearnings for a “great white hope” will be thrust upon the last man standing.

I’m not the first to call attention to the racial undertones of this election season, nor will I be the last.  But this discussion is more than skin-deep.  Because if there is a parallel between the mediated opposition Johnson experienced and what Obama faces now, it is also based on competence and even excellence.  There are no attacks on someone like, say, African American rapper Flavor Flav, despite Ann Coulter’s misguided attempt to compare him with the President. Pure buffoonery is not as threatening compared to serious intent.

Jack Johnson was a target, in part, because he was an enormously talented man. Besides his prowess in a tough sport, he was an inventor who registered a patent for a popular tool. After he retired from boxing, he headlined a traveling vaudeville show that both capitalized on and poked fun of his boxing career.  Turns out, he was a talented entertainer too.

Maybe the political debate will shift more to performance and fact issues and away from hysteria and hype as time goes on.  Any takers?

In the meantime, I just can’t help thinking of that movie.

2011: A Personal Christmas Story

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Christmas fell on a Sunday this year, and this juncture presented an eloquent coincidence.  A day of rest merged with a day of celebration, and I enjoyed the chance to experience Christmas in a way that surprised me in many ways.

Probably like most of us in the United States, I typically face the approaching Christmas season with anticipation and dread.  I look forward to the absence of a work schedule, the presence of special family and friends and the joy of unexpected gifts.

On the other hand, I chafe at the increasing commercial pressure that comes our way to “buy” into the Christmas season.  Halloween costumes are barely off the shelf before green, red and white decorations spill out from the shelves, punctuated by glistening tinsel and shiny bulbs.  Then, the relentless sales messages bombard us, promising an array of bargains and sales that we become convinced we cannot live without.  This season, “black Friday” sales reached a new level of intensity and debate as retailers pushed the opening hours to a new early hour—the midnight of Thanksgiving Day.  In fact, employees for Target Corporation sent thousands of written protests objecting to the first-time store policy requiring stores to open at midnight, and employees to cut short their own Thanksgiving celebrations in order to be ready for work.

In 2011, we saw a rising number of increasingly popular public demonstrations to “occupy” financial centers and outdoor venues to call attention to stark social and economic inequalities among us.  Time Magazine even named its “Person of the Year” for the ubiquitous protester as appearing in nations, cities and towns around the globe.

What a challenging time to think about celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, who belief tells us was born of poor parents and in the most humble of circumstances.  I tried to imagine, from time to time, what it might be like to conceive of a baby born today who might have potential to change the world in profound ways, only we wouldn’t know it.  It was a challenge a lot of times to contemplate a spiritual message in the midst of Santa-driven messages.  Maybe, Santa has the more aggressive public relations publicist than Jesus.

In our home, Christmas was especially meaningful, and challenging.  Eight weeks ago, we welcomed two girls, ages 12 and 14, into our home as our adoptive daughters.  So the time leading up to the holidays was tinged with an extra layer of frenzy and anticipation.

I would love to say that this time has been marked by a seamless transition in which two strangers to us walked into our home and we all instantly blended into the iconic family image that artist Norman Rockwell captured so famously in his many paintings and prints.  But truthfully, the time so far has been marked by episodes of great joy punctuated by tension and disagreements.  And one our most intense disagreements came the night before Christmas Eve.

Our Christmas Tree touched the ceiling and was loaded with presents underneath.

We worked through it, and the experience taught us a lot about each other, parents and siblings, as we continue to work on becoming the family we know we can become.  I don’t mind admitting that, as I walked past our Christmas tree packed with a ridiculous amount of packages and stuffed stockings for the family, that I thought, “maybe we should dial this back” so we wouldn’t appear to reward bad behavior.

But when Christmas day came, our three children (including our grown son) were at church with us and after the early services, reveled in the multiple gifts and surprises my husband and I had planned.  And then it hit me.  Christmas giving is not about Santa’s “naughty or nice” formula, but about the unmerited grace of God.  We cannot possibly try to earn our blessings, but we do have the daily opportunities to bless someone else, just because we can.

I hope that your Christmas was all that you wished for. Please share if you can.  If not, remember we always have tomorrow to live the message of Christmas, regardless of the date on our calendar.

Jerry Sandusky: Opportunity, Race and the Language of “Service”

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By any measure, the furor surrounding Jerry Sandusky is a public relations nightmare.

Jerry Sandusky. Photo credit: Associated Press

Sandusky gave his first interview last night about the       controversy for NBC and he did not do himself any favors. The former defensive coach is accused of some pretty horrific acts against young boys, and the grand jury  indictment report describes reported offenses against eight boys in very graphic ways.  In the process of the current investigation, a long-time college president and beloved football coach from Penn State have been fired, and the original CEO of the nonprofit agency, at the center of this tragedy, The Second Mile.   Both organizations are scrambling to distance themselves from the long trajectory of these events while trying to maintain public confidence in their institutions.  It will not be easy.  In another example of official distancing, mega-bookseller, Amazon now reports that the popular Sandusky biography with the now too-ironic title, Touched,  is unavailable for purchase.

Reporter Sarah  Ganem, who has written about this previous accusations against Sandusky, details in a recent article the long, circuitous route to a day when accusers would be taken serious.  Like a highly contested football in a championship game, the questions and suspicions about Sandusky were tossed around from one set of hands to another.  Only in this game, there will be no winners.  And, one of the persistent questions is how could it have gone on so long?

Here’s a clue, taken from the Second Mile’s own website. When Sandusky founded The Second Mile, its stated goal expressed online was to provide children with “Help and Hope.”  Over the years, Sandusky was celebrated as some kind of hero, and the accolades gained the most traction when describing his “charitable” work.  The co-author of his biography, Kip Richeal, lauded Sandusky’s achievements for “ underprivileged” and “at-risk” children and recently admitted in an interview that  “I want to believe it’s not true…the person I knew, I never ever saw anything like that.”

Many other journalists and commentators surround Sandusky with the rhetoric of super-humanity because of this work with this charity.  But look at the faces of the children on the organization’s site.

Home page for the Second Mile

While they may be representative, not actual photos, of youth this agency targeted, they speak volumes about why they were ignored, and why they are invisible still. They are young.  Some are female. The codewords “underprivileged” and “at-risk” too often substitute for people of color and people of all racial backgrounds who are poor.

And what happens when a seemingly upright white guy like Sandusky comes along? He is given a virtually unlimited “pass” for his actions because anyone like him who willingly hangs around the likes of these forgotten children must be heroic.  Because the reality of race in this country–still–is that if you are white and you don’t want to diversify your life socially, you don’t have to.  Whiteness protects you, and defines you.  Scholars Danielle Endres and Mary Gould describe this in more depth in an article about whiteness and service that cautions how those of us in the classroom might be unintentionally setting up environments that may be reinforcing the very differences we are trying to bridge.

I read the details of the Sandusky indictment and my stomach turned.  I wondered how long his actions and behaviors would have gone unquestioned if his group of kids were labeled “gifted and talented,” or  “middle-class,” or “leadership achievers” or other euphemisms we have for other children.   I believe the Second Mile may have the right idea, but the wrong language.  These children need access, along with “help” and “hope.”   I have come to believe that good mentoring rests upon the quiet ways in which a person with “access” to a larger life can share these pathways, by example and demonstration, with children whose own views may be limited.  Visiting a college campus, for instance, or having a home-cooked dinner instead of a drive-though burger, are among the things that I count as access.

Sandusky is accused of using his access to take advantage of children who were vulnerable and unaware because of the lack of pathways from their lives into broader worlds.  I am waiting for the statement somewhere in his defense that goes something like…..”I may have made some mistakes, but look at how much good I have accomplished.  What would have happened to these children without me?”  What, indeed?

There will be many lessons to be learned from this tragic situation, but one of them has to be that we refrain the historic impulse to paint white intentions as good intentions without reasonable scrutiny.  Good mentors, great social services, and strong families come in all colors.  If we are all in the game, we can help hold each other accountable.

What other lessons do we need to learn from this tragedy?  I hope you will share.

Soledad O’Brien: A Destiny for Diversity

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I recently returned from the 2011 conference for the Public Relations Society of America, which was held in Orlando, Fl.  The allure of all things Disney was potent, but I found myself absolutely entranced by the meetings, conversations and networking at this powerhouse conference.  Over 3,000 people aligned with the public relations profession—as practitioners, educators or college students—attended this meeting and the energy was palpable.

As is the custom at such meetings, there was a dizzying selection of workshops and special presentations, and I attended as many as I could squeeze into the two-and-a-half days I was there.  For me, though, one of the highlights was the keynote presentation by CNN reporter, Soledad O’Brien.

Soledad gave a very impassioned call for communicators to enliven the facts of a story with more narrative  storytelling approaches, and implored the PRSA audience to embrace the conference theme of  “imagine, create and inspire.”

But, there was more to her story, as she elegantly wove her personal story into the narrative of her speech.  Soledad recounted her family heritage as the daughter of a Cuban mother and an Irish father, recounting some stories about how here parents came to form their bond.  As she told it, her father approached her mother repeatedly for a date, and was routinely turned down by this proper, Catholic young woman.  When she finally relented, they attempted to go out to restaurants that routinely refused to serve them.  Estella ended up inviting Edward for a home-cooked meal, and the romance blossomed from there.  When this couple decided to marry, interracial unions were still illegal in some states, including they one in which they lived.  So they traveled to Washington, D.C. where such marriages were legal, but returned home to resume a life that was for a long time afterwards, was not legally recognized.

History tells us that interracial marriages became universally legal in the United States with the Supreme Court decision in the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case – settled the year after Soledad was born.  Sharing her family story smartly allowed Soledad to teach by example.  She could have railed against the injustices of an unfair law.  Instead, she told us stories that in their uniqueness reminded us simultaneously of their connections to us all, through the shared human experiences of love, commitment, and triumphs over adversity.

One can see the influence of Soledad’s personal story over her current work with the In America series.  These documentaries explore underrepresented communities through the prism of race and other differences.  What Soledad illustrates through her work so brilliantly is how communicators can intelligently tell stories that report on racial identity as a part of what animates people’s lives, decisions and social standing in the United States.  This is the future of diversity: complex, compelling, and integral to how we communicate about, and to, each other.

This is the theme of transactional public relations and this blog—that there are relevant stories all around us where we negotiate identity along racial lines.  Our challenge is to recognize these stories, to share them, and to empower our communication with these narratives.  We discuss a lot about the need for “relationship-building” and “dialogue,” but without a protocol for accounting for race, our exchanges can be, at times, counter-productive.  I’ll say more about this later.

Something Soledad did not mention—and in front of an audience of potential publicists—was her newly formed foundation to provide scholarships for girls between the ages of 15 to 21.  A project that she and her husband initiated, this effort is raising funds and hopes to solicit applications from girls in 2012, according to an Essence Magazine article.  Making opportunities for young women striving to find their identities through education sounds like a grand project, indeed.

What is your story?  What opportunities exist out there for more transactional communication?

Voices of Protest: Sounds of A New Generation

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For more than four weeks, we have been watching the daily evolution of the Occupy Wall Street  movement play out in the media. Protests began in New York City, as protesters frustrated with the economic imbalance in our society, took their complaints to the doors, literally, of the bankers and brokerage firms they found culpable. Over time, these complaints have gained momentum, as kindred protests have been born in more than 100 cities, including Denver, Oklahoma City and Boston.

Some critics complain that these organic protests, which have found their ways into other city streets across the country, have no real agenda, no real leaders, or no real purpose. Media analyses raise questions about the outcomes as they try to imagine the look of success through the eyes of the participants.

During my college years in the 1970s, I became inspired to join the movement to free Nelson Mandela, who at that time was serving a life sentence in a South African jail.  I didn’t have a leader; I didn’t have a precise agenda.  But I, like millions others over the long years of his imprisonment, were moved to speak with the full force of our bodies to protest something we knew was wrong.

Today, everyone know Nelson Mandela as a hero and beloved first president of the post-apartheid South Africa.  Who knew?

Growing up, I learned stories of my parents days of protest as they were on the forefront of marches and boycotts for civil and human rights in the face of desegregation they faced.  I guess protest is something of a family tradition.

Members of today’s generation have found the impetus for their righteous indignation in these protests, and I support them.  As I follow the course of this organic movement, I ran across a blog post on Reality Sandwich that so masterfully expressed what is at stake that I am moved to share it here:

Charles Eisenstein: Occupy Wall Street: No Demand is Big Enough

Oct. 6, 2011

Looking out upon the withered American Dream, many of us feel a deep sense of betrayal. Unemployment, financial insecurity, and lifelong enslavement to debt are just the tip of the iceberg. We don’t want to merely fix the growth machine and bring profit and product to every corner of the earth. We want to fundamentally change the course of civilization.

For the American Dream betrayed even those who achieved it, lonely in their overtime careers and their McMansions, narcotized to the ongoing ruination of nature and culture but aching because of it, endlessly consuming and accumulating to quell the insistent voice, “I wasn’t put here on earth to sell product.” “I wasn’t put here on earth to increase market share.” “I wasn’t put here on earth to make numbers grow.”

We protest not only at our exclusion from the American Dream; we protest at its bleakness. If it cannot include everyone on earth, every ecosystem and bioregion, every people and culture in its richness; if the wealth of one must be the debt of another; if it entails sweatshops and underclasses and fracking and all the rest of the ugliness our system has created, then we want none of it.

No one deserves to live in a world built upon the degradation of human beings, forests, waters, and the rest of our living planet. Speaking to our brethren on Wall Street, no one deserves to spend their lives playing with numbers while the world burns. Ultimately, we are protesting not only on behalf of the 99% left behind, but on behalf of the 1% as well. We have no enemies. We want everyone to wake up to the beauty of what we can create.

Occupy Wall Street has been criticized for its lack of clear demands, but how do we issue demands, when what we really want is nothing less than the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible? No demand is big enough. We could make lists of demands for new public policies: tax the wealthy, raise the minimum wage, protect the environment, end the wars, regulate the banks. While we know these are positive steps, they aren’t quite what motivated people to occupy Wall Street. What needs attention is something deeper: the power structures, ideologies, and institutions that prevented these steps from being taken years ago; indeed, that made these steps even necessary.

Our leaders are beholden to impersonal forces, such as that of money, that compel them to do what no sane human being would choose. Disconnected from the actual effects of their policies, they live in a world of insincerity and pretense. It is time to bring a countervailing force to bear, and not just a force but a call. Our message is, “Stop pretending. You know what to do. Start doing it.” Occupy Wall Street is about exposing the truth. We can trust its power. When a policeman pepper sprays helpless women, we don’t beat him up and scare him into not doing it again; we show the world. Much worse than pepper spray is being perpetrated on our planet in service of money. Let us allow nothing happening on earth to be hidden.

If politicians are disconnected from the real world of human suffering and ecosystem collapse, all the more disconnected are the financial wizards of Wall Street. Behind their computer screens, they occupy a world of pure symbol, manipulating numbers and computer bits. Occupy Wall Street punctures their bubble of pretense as well, reconnects them with the human consequences of the god they serve, and perhaps with their own consciences and humanity too.

Only in a hallucination could someone imagine that the unsustainable can last forever; in puncturing their bubble, we remind them that the money game is nearing its end. It can be perpetuated for a while longer, perhaps, but only at great and growing cost. We, the 99%, are paying that cost right now, and as the environment and the social fabric decay, the 1% will soon feel it too. We want those who operate and serve the financial system to wake up and see before it is too late.

We can also point out to them that they sooner or later they will have no choice. The god they serve, the financial system, is a dying god. Reading various insider financial websites, I perceive that the authorities are flailing, panicking, desperately implementing solutions they themselves know are temporary just to kick the problem down the road a few years or a few months. The strategy of lending even more money to a debtor who cannot pay his debts is doomed, its eventual failure a mathematical certainty. Like all our institutions of exponential growth, it is unsustainable. Once you have stripped the debtor of all assets – home equity, savings, pension – and turned every last dollar of his or her disposable income toward debt service, once you have forced the debtor into austerity and laid claim even to his future income (or in the case of nations, tax revenues), then there is nothing left to take.

We are nearing that point, the point of peak debt. The money machine, ever hungry, seeks to liquidate whatever scraps remain of the natural commons and social equity to reignite economic growth. If GDP rises, so does our ability to service debt. But is growth really what we want? Can we really cheer an increase in housing starts, when there are 19 million vacant housing units on the market already? Can we really applaud a new oil field, when the atmosphere is past the limit of how much waste it can absorb? Is more stuff really what the world needs right now? Or can we envision a world instead with more play and less work, more sharing and less buying, more public space and less indoors, more nature and less product?

So far, government policy has been to try somehow to keep the debts on the books, but every debt bubble in history ultimately collapses; ours is no different. The question is, how much misery will we endure, and how much will we inflict, before we succumb to the inevitable? And secondly, how can we make a gentle, non-violent transition to a steady-state or degrowth world? Too many revolutions before us have succeeded only to institute a different but more horrible version of the very thing they overthrew. We look to a different kind of revolution. At risk of revealing the stars in my eyes, let me call it a revolution of love.

What else but love would motivate any person to abandon the quest to maximize rational self-interest? Love, the felt experience of connection to other beings, contradicts the laws of economics as we know them. Ultimately, we want to create a money system, and an economy, that is the ally not the enemy of love. We don’t want to forever fight the money power to create good in the world; we want to change the money power so that we don’t need to fight it. I will not in this essay describe my vision – one of many – of a money system aligned with the good in all of us. I will only say that such a shift can only happen atop an even deeper shift, a transformation of human consciousness. Happily, just such a transformation is underway today. We see it in anyone who had dedicated their lives to serving, healing, and protecting other beings: people, cultures, whales, children, ecosystems, the waters, the forests, the planet.

In the ecological age, we are beginning to understand that we are connected beings, that the welfare of any species or people is aligned with our own. Our money system is inconsistent with this understanding, which is dawning among all 100 percent of us, each in a different way. I think the ultimate purpose of Occupy Wall Street, or the great archetype it taps into, is the revolution of love. If the 99% defeat the 1%, they will like the Bolsheviks ultimately create a new 1% in their place. So let us not defeat them; let us open them and invite them to join us.

If Occupy Wall Street has a demand, it should be this: wake up! The game is nearly over. Jump ship while there is still time. In my work I meet many people of wealth who have done that, exiting the money game and devoting their time to giving away money as beautifully as they can. And I meet many more people who have the skills and good fortune to earn wealth if they wanted to, but who likewise refuse to participate in the money game. So if I sound idealistic, keep in mind that many people have had a change of heart already.

Some might call these ideas impractical (though I think that nothing other than a change of heart is practical), and seek to issue concrete demands. Unfortunately, though no demand is big enough, yet equally any demand we would care to make is also too big. Everything we want is on the very margin of mainstream political discourse, or outside it altogether. For example, it might be within the range of respectable policy options to tighten standards on industrial-scale confinement meat operations; but how about ending the practice completely? Congress wrangles about whether or not to reduce troop levels by a few thousand here and there, but what about ending the garrisoning of the planet? Any demand that we could make that is within the realm of political reality is too small. Any demand we could make that reflects what we truly want is politically unrealistic.

Shall we fight hard for something we don’t even want? It is fine to make demands, but the movement cannot get hung up on them, much less on practicality, because any remotely achievable demand is far less than what our planet needs. “Practical” is not an option. We must seek the extraordinary.

We might come up with a list of demands, something we can all stand behind, albeit each with a secret reservation in his or her heart that says, “I wanted more than that.” I encourage those in the movement to recognize such demands as stepping stones, or landmarks, perhaps, on the road to an economy of love. Let us never mortgage a greater to a lesser. The means of the movement, more than the ends, will be the genesis of what comes after the debt pyramid collapses. Occupy Wall Street is practicing new forms of non-hierarchical collaboration, peer-to-peer organization, and playful action that someday, maybe, we can build a world on.

We must learn the lessons of Egypt, where a people’s movement started with the amorphous demand to end intolerable conditions, and, as it discovered its power, soon turned to demand the ouster of the president. That demand would have been too big at the outset, too impossible; yet at the end it proved to be too small. The dictator left, the protestors went home without creating any lasting structures of people power, and, while some things changed, the basic political and economic infrastructure of Egypt did not.

Occupy Wall Street should not be content with half-measures, even as it encourages and applauds the tiny hundredth-measures that might come first. It should not let such concessions sap the strength of the movement or seduce it into neglecting to foster its organizational network. Occupy Wall Street is the first manifestation in a long time of “people power” in America. For too long, democracy has, for most people, meant meaningless choices in a box. The Wall Street occupation is stepping out of the box.

Our job is to take a stand for a world that is truly beautiful, fair, and just, a planet and a civilization that is healing. For a politician or a financier, even a small step in this direction takes courage, for it goes against the gradient of money and all that is attached to it. I think that the task of Occupy Wall Street is to provide a context for that courage, and a call to that courage. With each step taken, the necessity of far larger steps will become apparent, along with the courage to take them.

To those holding the reins of power, let us say, We will be your witnesses and your truthtellers. We will not allow you to live in a bubble. We will not go away. We will show you who you are hurting and how. We will make it awkward to do business, until your conscience cannot stand it any longer. We know, in the beginning, many of you will try to escape us; perhaps you will leave Wall Street for suburban corporate offices on private land where there is no “street” for us to hit. You might also retreat further into your ideologies of globalism and growth that deny the obvious. But nothing will stop us, because our tactics will constantly shift. In one way or another, we will speak the truth and we will speak it loudly. Where speaking the truth becomes illegal, we will break the law. We will not wait to be invited. We will enter, in some way, every physical and ideological fortress.

The truth is dwindling rain forests, spreading deserts, mass tree die-offs on every continent; looted pensions, groaning burdens of student debt, people working two or three dead end jobs; children eating dirt in Haiti, elders choosing between food and medicine… the list is endless, and we will make it no longer possible to hold it in disconnection from the money system. That is why we converge on Wall Street, and anywhere that finance holds sway. You have lulled us into complacency for long enough with illusions and false hopes. We the people are awakening and we will not go back to sleep.

Sometimes, you read something that you wish you had written.  This is one of those moments for me.  Yet, this story continues to unfold in surprising ways.  Today, Mayor Bloomberg and the firm that manages Zuccotti Park, the central launching site for the protests, made the right decision.  When it seemed as if the protestors would be forcibly ejected to clean the park, a late-breaking decision emerged that will continue to unfold.  Indications are that property owners and property occupants will collaborate on a plan to clean the environs.

In this highly mediated age, the Occupy Wall Street gives us a sense of the familiar, while inventing a vocabulary and experience all its own.  More stories and observations have yet to come, as these voices sing the songs of protest for a new era.

Banned Authors, or the Freedom to Challenge Ideas

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From September 24 through October 1,  Banned Books Week supports people who love books by celebrating our freedom to do so.  This annual observance is always held during the last week of September, and it calls attention to books and the authors that write them.  One of the many national sponsors for this event, the American Library Association, offers a detailed historical account of how this observance came to be, and an explanation of issues at stake when we allow books to be banned.  As ALA explains it, protesting the content of a book is one thing.  But banning—which advocates the complete removal of a book from existence—is an extreme response that challenges our rights to participate in an exchange of ideas under the First Amendment.

Reading and writing are influential activities, and the power to control these has been a contested idea over the centuries.   One creative approach that University of Oklahoma has chosen to promote, and celebrate, the impact of a diverse array of books, is through its Books That Inspire exhibition in the first floor foyer of the Bizzell Library on the main campus.   Annually, the library director invites faculty and staff members to nominate a book for the exhibition with an essay explaining the book’s impact and meaning to the reader suggesting it.

I am thrilled and honored to be included in the Fall 2011 exhibit, and Banned Books Week gives me yet another opportunity to celebrate my author of choice, Toni Morrison.  According to statistics that have been accumulated about such things, Morrison has the dubious distinction of writing three titles that are among the most frequently challenged books by authors of colorThe Bluest Eye, Beloved, Song of Solomon.

The Morrison book I selected is Paradise, which has not been banned (yet!), but to my view, is an elegant and gritty rendering of so many of the topics she loves to challenge.

Paradise is a novel set in 19th century Oklahoma

It was also a 1998 reading selection of Oprah’s Book Club, and one of the most nuanced interpretations of Oklahoma history and culture that I have ever read.

Here is my essay nominating this book, which is part of the exhibition:

Toni Morrison’s novel, Paradise, imagines an Oklahoma landscape that tells a global story, and raises ageless questions.  How do we form bonds of friendship and family?  What makes us fight to protect the place we consider to be the  “home” of our heart’s desire—our own intimate “paradise?”

I personally love Morrison’s writing.  I relish the push and pull integral to her prose.  I accept that she builds her words to be read, parsed, and re-read multiple times. 

Paradise begins with the murder of a woman, and we spend the rest of the novel following Morrison’s circuitous path to uncovering the reasons why.  Set in 1976, in the fictional all-black town of Ruby, OK,  the novel introduces us to the men and women of this small settlement on the edge of obscurity.  Right outside its boundaries, in Convent, is a smaller community of independent women, bound by their mutual pain and expressions of spiritual faith.   The novel opens with violence and crime, through which the shared histories of these two different types of “home” become revealed.

Ruby, OK may be a fictional site, but as Black newspapers recorded, and history tells us, Oklahoma was once a thriving magnet for black towns—more than 50—larger than any other geographic site in the emergent United States.   As the novel tells the story of Ruby from its beginnings, the town’s evolution follows along the currents of our most significant national events: revolution, constitution, relocation, slavery, lynching, and civil unrest.  By the end, Ruby’s future is uncertain and Convent’s past is exposed.    But we understand, in a profound and layered way, the ache and hopeful yearning for the “beloved community” – that idealized place of acceptance where, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “…brotherhood is a reality.” 

What I learned from reading Paradise is that home can be a castle or a hut, but if we’re lucky, each of us can experience the quiet joy of knowing a place to call our own.  Paradise moves me because Morrison captures so poignantly that longing for a home where we feel safe, free and whole. The novel’s tragic events underscore the dangers of desire gone awry. However, reading Paradise while living here teaches me about Oklahoma’s emotional core—the longing for safe places that brought diverse people together in contention and cooperation. I get why people sometimes move, and why others never leave.  It’s all about home.

Celebrate Banned Books Week and read something by a banned author that can inspire you.

Scenes From a 9/11 Journey — 10 Years Later

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During the weekend of September 11, 2011, my husband and I traveled from Oklahoma to the Philadelphia area on family business, in the midst of intense media coverage and public observances about the terrorist attacks that changed our nation.

Act 1

I love the Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City.  It is a easy to navigate, designed with brightly-lit interiors, and provides about the most trauma-free experience through airport security that I have so far experienced.

Right past the security screening, bright hallways guide passengers to their destinations in the Will Rogers World Airport.

On Saturday, September 10, I arrived at 5:45 a.m., expecting a modest trickle of fellow travelers.  Instead, we found a virtual avalanche,  with rolling streams of people moving with bags through the large terminal spaces.  Lines approaching the security checkpoints were long and inching along.  More than one person around us complained about how “slow” we were moving.  I couldn’t help myself.  I caught the eye of a fellow traveler and said is slight exasperation, “We have chosen to travel on the weekend of 9/11.  Why are we surprised that things are taking longer?”.  He nodded in agreement, and said that he was going to New York and fully expected even more scrutiny when he arrived there.  It’s the way it is, we agreed.  Now.

Act 2

We are still migrating through airport security lines, edging closer to the conveyor belt of inspection.  I notice that the area is thick with Homeland Security personnel, not just participating in the screening, but as vigilant observers.  When it was finally my turn to stack belongings in the grey plastic tubs, I became lost in the ritual—laptop out, shoes off, purse on the side, jacket folder, hold on to the boarding pass…and then I heard a voice calling me by name.  I saw Michael S., one of the Resident Advisors we worked with during our stint of living as a family in Couch dorm, wearing a TSA uniform.  Only the moving conveyor belt between us kept me from grabbing him in a big hug.  Graduated and married, Mike said he was now working his way through graduate school.  I pelted him with as many questions as possible, feeling guilty for each distraction it posed from his work.  His fellow workers seemed forgiving of this lapse.  As we were chatting, another screener yelled out, “Rose Rock?”  I realized he was speaking to me.  I smiled back, and confirmed that the object he was screening wrapped in a small box was a bit of Oklahoma’s unique geology.  My bag made it through the process and I was finished.  I wished Michael well and reassembled myself for the long flight back East.

Act 3

I grew up in Philadelphia, and my memories are palpable. It was like scratching a familiar itch to see the span of the bridges, the length of the freeways, the city landscapes bumped up against some rolling country stretches.  The foliage radiated in intense shades of green, although some of the leaves were beginning to change into their Fall colors.  Not far from Philadelphia, the Flight 93 National Memorial for the passengers and crew members of  this United airlines flight was preparing itself for crowds and somber observances over the weekend.  This ground likened to the place were the Gettysburg War was fought, took its place as part of the iconic, sacred public sites the National Park Service manages for us all.  In nearby Bucks County, the official Pennsylvania state 9/11 Memorial was also open, with specific tributes to the Pennsylvanians who died during this terrible attack.

On morning of September 11, 2001, I was living in Texas preparing for work when the phone rang.  My mother said, “Turn on the TV.  Planes are flying into buildings!!”   Those of us in more removed parts of the country were trying to figure out what was happening to our country and why.  I think about the Flight 93 passengers and crew members who realized so much sooner than the rest of us the horrific intents of their hijackers, and they took action.  The enormity of their bravery still leaves gaps in my vocabulary to describe.

Act 4

Life goes on, with a hiccup.  We breeze through areas with cozy houses and children playing on the street, Italian restaurants with a variety that we miss, and posters for upcoming Oktoberfest celebrations, such as the big festival in Mifflinberg, PA, as well as much smaller galas in towns throughout the region.

We are passing through a mall, when suddenly, lights flash and the alarms sound.  Everyone is ushered quickly out of this huge shopping complex into the parking lot.  Within minutes, we are told we can go back in.

Moments after evacuation, visitors enjoy the food court at a popular mall outside Philladelphia, PA. Photo by: M.G. Carstarphen.

According to a passing security guard, smoke triggered the fire alarm and it was a false incident.  But since, it happened on September 11, 2011, we had to wonder, at first, if there was more to this coincidence.  Happily, there wasn’t.

Act 5

Homeward bound.  We are en-route to our flight, but first, we need to return our borrowed vehicle from Enterprise before boarding a shuttle back to the Philadelphia International Airport and the terminal for our flight.  While we wait, this Enterprise office provided boxes of free Philadelphia soft pretzels.  Even though they were served with without salt, without mustard and without the heat that only a warm over can provide, these soft, doughy surprises were as amazing as only the Philly brand of pretzel can make them.  It was a little taste of childhood that made the stresses of modern travel just a bit more bearable.

Finale

Hours later, in the night’s darkness, we are on the last push home, waiting in Dallas for the short commuter flight to Oklahoma City.  As we mill around waiting for the flight, another gate deplanes nearby, I spot another recently graduated student, Meredith,  busily pulling her luggage with a sense of purpose.  For some reason, I expected her to veer over to our waiting area for the same flight.  Instead, she bustled out of the security door, in the direction of baggage claim, ground transportation, and live outside the airport.   Then in hit me.  Students don’t stay in school forever.  Tragedy doesn’t have to paralyze a nation for eras without end.  And, as written in PS. 30:5, sorrow may linger for a while, but joy can return if we are patient.

Many fine editorials were published in the media that weekend, such as this New York Times commentary, that reminds us of the tug-and-pull we still continue to feel about the past and the future meaning of September 11, 2001.  I still remember the enlarged sense of community we all felt in those days when resilience won out over fear, and commonalities triumphed over alienation.  And, I still believe.

Chile Pepper Time: Of Food and Frontiers

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Every year around this time of year, a small town in New Mexico celebrates the peak harvest of its most renowned crop—the Chile pepper.  In Hatch, Chile peppers provide an occasion for a parade, the coronation of a Chile queen and many other festivities.  For pepper aficionados,  Labor Day weekend signals the prime time to purchase peppers that have reached the peak of their flavor.

For miles around, these Chile peppers show up in grocery stores and supermarkets, piled high in glorious green mountains of heat.  There are bushels of mild, medium and hot peppers, as in this display in the Mexican Mercado-style store, Pro’s Ranch Markets in El Paso, TX.


Fresh Hatch peppers spill over huge bins in a Texas market. Photo by M.G. Carstarphen.

Of course, one can’t eat all the peppers at once.  One way to preserve them is to have them smoked (free!) onsite where you buy them.

Then, you can separate them into manageable portions and freeze them. This is our family tradition, one that provides us with tasty chiles for a year.

Millions of Americans flock to restaurants servicing Mexican food every year, from the fast food giants that have made their fortunes from this unique cuisine, to the small, family-run restaurants in every community. The history of the chile pepper reminds us that this spicy vegetable originated in the Americas, and has been part of Indigenous and Mexican cuisines for centuries.

[If you click on my “chilemovie” link below, you will be able to download a short PowerPoint video of chile peppers roasting in an open air market in El Paso, TX]:

chilemovie

So, it is curious to me how eagerly some of us can disconnect our love for Mexican cuisine from respect for people of Mexican descent.  We know the joys of foods seasoned with chiles because of our common histories.  In fact, the town that eventually became Hatch was once part of Mexico, and as this wonderful PBS documentary details, war and conquest changed the boundaries between the United States and Mexico forever.

Another view of shared cultural histories comes through in an amazing piece of research by USC Professor Félix Gutiérrez, called Voices for Justice, resulting in a multipanel display and a new CD that Gutierrez makes available upon request. This project traces 200 years of the Spanish press in the Americas, beginning with the first known newspaper in the Spanish language founded in 1809.

Food nourishes us, and it can also educate us.  Follow the path of the Chile pepper. It might surprise you what you can learn.

Evonne Whitmore: In Lieu of Monuments

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I do not know if you believe that such things comes in “threes.”  But, days after I thought about the loss of musical icons I admired, I learned about the up-close-and-personal death of my good friend and colleague, Evonne Whitmore.  She was a journalism educator who taught at Kent State, and from the article posted online by the Kent State student newspaper, she will be sorely missed.

But, I already knew that.  When the news came over a listserv I manage for one of the groups in our professional organization, AEJMC, it hit me squarely in the gut.

Von, as we called her, was one of those women who was truly a force of nature. Calm on the outside with a perpetual air of sophistication, she had an amazing smile and a rolling laugh when she was tickled about something.  I remember the times we had meals together at conferences and business meetings—one especially nice seafood lunch, as I recall.  Like me, Von was a “returning student” who decided to go back to school and pursue her doctorate after living multiple other lives as wife, mom, working woman, community service volunteer, especially through her AKA sorority.  She had begun an electronic portfolio of her accomplishments, which is awe-inspiring to peruse.  This website, like her life, is prematurely interrupted, with links that remain unfilled.

A  little more than a year ago, I learned from her that she had ovarian cancer.  She found out about her illness, she said, while she was overseas on a Fulbright fellowship, one of the most prestigious academic honors one can acquire.  She said a chance viewing of a news story about the disease and its symptoms caught her attention.  Her husband, who was with her, helped her connect those fearsome dots, which she later confirmed through medical examinations and tests.  Still, a year ago, even while she endured intensive treatments, she made it a point to come to AEJMC, continue with her leadership posts, and encourage others.  Her skin was darkened by radiation, and her smile was just a little more tentative.  But the Von’s spirit was still very much intact.

The impact of her legacy was nicely described by another colleague, George Daniels, in his blog, so I won’t dwell on the details here.  There are scholarships and other tributes being established, and Von deserves every bit of this attention and more.

There are some rare people who devote so much time in service to others that many may wonder how they did it, or even why.  I believe Von’s DNA impelled her to make a difference.

She may never get a statue, or a street named in her honor.  But, the words of praise, the scholarship, and the mighty influence she had on students’ lives will mark their own trails.

If you have had a Von in your life, consider yourself lucky.  If he or she is still with us, maybe you have a few words of tribute of your own you would like to share.

Nick & Jerry made music and history

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This week, we lost two musical giants, literally within a beat and a song between them.  One was Jerry Leiber, who was part of the musical team of Leiber and Stoller.  Jerry was the one who created lyrics to Stoller’s music, and their list of hits runs long.

The 78-year-old artist had more hits than I have listened too, I confess.  But, he is the man behind one of my all-time, favorite songs, Stand by Me.   The 1986 soulful version sung by Ben E. King is the ultimate anthem of loyalty, and love.

The other loss was Nicholas Ashford, half of the Ashford and Simpson team that rocked the charts with hits for artists like Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye.

Like Jerry, Nick was the poet of his team, the one who found just the right words to fit the right beats.  For me, and millions of his other fans, the song that just sums up the Ashford & Simpson magic was the one they recorded, Solid As A Rock  This is a grown-folks love song that tells you what it takes to keep a relationship going after the thrill of the chase is a memory.

When Jerry shared his background in interviews, he told his story of a Jewish kid who loved Black Music  and grew up in a poor African American neighborhood in Baltimore.

Nick grew up in Michigan and grew up in the Black Church, with the power of gospel music as his inspiration.  He found his way to Harlem where he met his future wife, Valerie, and together launched a successful career and marriage.

Jerry and Nick came from two different worlds but they shared a love of musical styles that came from the same alchemy of blues, rhythm and pop and African American traditions.  Their hits made devotees out of listeners all over the globe,  crossing boundaries with each ton 10 hit they created. Our debt to their combined talents is enormous.

Sometime soon, treat yourself.  Listen to some of their hits with a glass of something sweet and hopefully immersed in even sweeter memories.

That’s what I’m doing tonight.