Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Heritage and Sickness: A Letter to My Man Nic


I checked your blog about the Song of Lawino and I am really happy that you read it. I never really completed my own text about the effect that this book had on me when I read it in Uganda. Probably because that time was so depressing for me that I have been reluctant to share it or put it into words that carry the significance. But your writing about the book woke me up a bit, so I want to address your experience with my own.

Yeah, so I got sick in Uganda. Silly sick. Doctors could not quite diagnose the style and there is some speculation that medical tests inadvertently caused my ailment to intensify. It sucked. I spent a lot of time in bed, as I was unable to stand or walk for long periods. There was a while that I couldn’t even read, as I was plagued with massive headaches. From beneath the bug net, my mind was in a permanent state of replay.

I thought of Sister Rosemary, who jokingly asked me one day what I thought about my skin color. I guess nuns can read minds, since I had been soaking the thought that I am comparatively light-skinned when measured against the Gulu populace. I told her that I wished I was darker, which is strange, since I usually endorse the plurality of colors. Me and my family are all different shades and it is this diversity of hue that I thought I held dear. What was happening to make me think such a thing? “Your color is perfect,” she said. Why wasn’t that my answer? I now thought to myself in bed as I waited for the codeine to affect my style.

I thought of my name. Most of the cats that I introduced myself to here had trouble pronouncing it. This was, of course, East Africa. My name is from West Africa, which is other tribes, other languages, other worlds. Still, I felt some underlying surprise along with the disappointment that everyone I met had a European name. It was my first glimpse into the nature of my own unacknowledged expectations about being on the Continent, expectations that ran against what I knew to be true. I knew better. But my knowledge could not overpower my experience, or my desire for particular experiences. I was hopeful for something. But hope is a sin.

And, of course, I thought of religion. There was a moment when I and a friend were sitting with a nun who spoke with great reverence for the indigenous religious practices of the Acholi. But she did not know exactly what these practices were. She only had echoes of the tradition and a desire to investigate. While in Atiak, I asked a man about old school practices. He said that he didn’t know much about them, as “the missionaries who came thought our culture was Satanic.” The leader of the rebel group that plunged Northern Uganda into war claims that he wants to build a society based on the Ten Commandments. At night, the victims of the war who reside at the school danced and sang songs to Jesus. They were the most beautiful songs I have ever heard. And yet the images of Jesus in Gulu offended me. This is the image of the man who will save them, the man to whom they pray. The white man who is also God.

I say that I was thinking about these things. They were really just indistinct formations that ran across my pained mind like poorly mixed watercolor. Drugs do that. Eventually, the haze lifted enough for me to think clearly. Kind of. So I picked up Lawino.

What I read in those pages were the tragic renderings of a perspective that had already been faded by history. To me, it wasn’t a song or even a poem. It was a death knell. It was the echo that, for some reason, I was listening for in the people of the town that this book is supposed to be about. So yeah, it was a punch in the face and a kick in the stomach. Reading that book in Gulu, my emotions and secret desires finally aligned with my knowledge: I would never observe this idillic style for which I hoped. I should not have been trying to see it in the first place, for it was not ideal at all. It was just free of the West. And how could I have expected to be free of Europe? It is where I am from. In fact, my desire to see it, my hope for a glimpse of the original, for the untouched, for culture, was a vulgar European construction in the first place. My own personal Safari. Finally and fortunately, my hope was extinguished. Lawino’s song saved me, kind of, even as it made me feel hopeless.

Many miles away, you went through something similar, it seems. You felt the force of the text as I did. But it seems that we drew different conclusions. You said that you felt pretty bad after reading the text, until finally you were able to cast it aside as an attack on your identity. I wonder if I could persuade you to continue feeling bad.

You have said a couple times on your blog that you worry about enforcing your perspective on people. I had much the same worry when I rolled up to Uganda. I am the West. In Africa, I represent affluence and influence. People ask me for money and guidance knowing nothing about me other than that I am from America. And I am not even a missionary. The temptation is great, I learned, to want to just tell people what they should be doing, or take the lead in developing a project. A project that I have the luxury of leaving at any time, since my being here is optional.

I met a lot of cats here who were all about helping. The place was, after all, in dire need of help. Infant mortality was ridiculous. Unemployment sucked because the economy sucked, nobody has money for school or health care. The situation is straight bollocks. But you know what else is bollocks? People’s ideas of what it means to help.

The history of Europe and Africa reflects badly on everybody involved. On governments and religions. On men, women and children. On missionaries and anthropologists. But most of all, these historical spectacles and horrors set up a pattern of interaction between the empowered and the powerless. It is a pattern that we, the helpers are all to excited to continue: My knowledge is superior to yours. I will come and transform your culture, your nation. And when I leave you will be more like me than any african drummer in a church could ever deny. So yeah, keep practicing my religion, because it is more true than anything you have ever known. And please practice medicine and government like I do, because your old school styles are senseless according to my standards, which are, of course, the only real standards. I don’t care that the Savior doesn’t look like you. Because he looks like me, which is fitting, because it is in his Name that I save you. And you will thank me for it just as hard as you fought my ancestors to leave you alone.

My homegirl says that most of the cats who roll up to Africa to try to help are much more focused on themselves than they would ever admit. The missionary tour or the peace corps campaign is more about their “white identity development” than it is about helping cats, she says. Perhaps this is why so many people have asked me about how my trip to Uganda changed me personally instead of asking me what Uganda was like. Like my going to Uganda is some badge of honor that solidifies my good will and humanity. I know of straight up racists who have gone to “minister to all nations”, I think to myself. How can we arise from this milieu and conclude with certainty that we have helped anything at all?

And my answer to this question, after looking at the pure bullshit that went down with so-called helpers in Uganda, is that we can’t. We need a new way to go about this, if we are going to go about it at all. And casting off serious criticisms as works of fiction that dissuade one from the unconditionally good task of “helping” is not that way. That is the old way.

I hope that you feel the sense in my words instead of just their anger. Lawino is a serious glimpse, not into old school Acholi style, but into our assumptions about the perspectives we manifest when we invade other spots with our plans for action. In Uganda, I worked with some people who not only did not want to repeat the colonial cycle, but may have found a good way not to. I think that you can do the same thing. But I don’t think you’re in the clear yet. And I certainly haven’t worked out my own troubles.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Why We Should Protect Marriage

Looks like most of us are going to the polls in a few days. Thought I might share some thoughts on one of the things on which we (in Florida, anyway) will vote.

Amendment 2 is known as the Defense of Marriage Amendment. Specifically, it writes into the state Constitution a denial of the possibility of marriage between individuals of the same sex. There are already laws prohibiting same-sex marriages in Florida. But so long as these laws are not in the Constitution, it is possible that a judge, perhaps, can rule them unconstitutional and allow gay people to marry. As such, it is our decision as to whether we want the law to be written into the constitution. I've been thinking that maybe we shouldn't.

The first thought that I have about why this should not be the case is the immediate similarity between the notion of prohibiting gays to marry and the old school laws that prohibited intermarriage between people of different races. That is, the law just seems like a reflection of well-worn prejudice that comes down to us from history. I tend not to like racism. Racism is nothing other than the dislike and exclusion of a person on the grounds of race alone. So, it looks to me that the opposition to gay marriage is a result of the irrational dislike of gay people for no other reason than that they are gay. My grandma came up before there were laws based in equality between races. Which means that she was forced to live a life without certain possibilities that are open to me. I would hate to think of myself as a person that deprives others of possibilities that I have. It seems like that would make me a jerk. I would be the 21st century equivalent of the cat who screamed at my grandma to go around back in order to get some snacks from the diner. There are, however, responses to the problem that I raise. It comes from the F.A.Q. At According to the site,

"Bans on interracial marriage were about keeping two races apart so that one race could oppress the other. Marriage is about bringing two sexes together, so that children get the unique love and nurture of both a mom and a dad. Having a parent of two different races is just not the same as being deprived of your mother—or your father. Race and ethnicity are not inherent properties of marriage. Gender on the other hand is an inherent property of marriage."

Other material on the site supplements this claim. It seems to indicate that, since there is something "natural" about the joining of two different sexes in marriage, and since nature is the ultimate guide to the moral order, we should not act against nature to allow the possibility of gay marriage.

This argument is perplexing on many levels. First, it is unclear to me that marriage is only about providing children love. I mean, I have been married. I don't really remember my wife and I talk about having kids. I don't even remember talk about having kids before we got married. But hey, maybe that is why we got divorced. Second, while it is the case that laws against interracial marriage had its basis in the oppression of a race in particular, it is far from clear that this is not the underlying function of laws against gay marriage. To oppress is to deprive one of options, especially when those options are freely enjoyed by others. I suppose that some are tempted to defend the view that it is not oppression because there is something natural about members of different sexes marrying. But this claim is also a bad one. To say that "man and woman" are "inherent" in marriage is to make a simple mistake in reasoning. Marriage is a social practice. That is, it is the kind of thing that we legitimate with our own actions. Sometimes those actions are traditional and sometimes we break with tradition and form new practices. Because of the whole civil rights status with my grandma and mother, I am by no means an unconditional defender of tradition. And I don't think any good person can be. I also know that if a thing was necessarily inherent in something, there would be nothing that we could do to change that. Three angles are necessarily inherent in a triangle. Gender is only inherent in marriage if we all agree that it is. So, at best, it is contingently inherent. Which is why we have to vote on this thing in the first place. And it is just the lack of inherence, it seems to me, that makes it possible for me to vote to oppress, some more, the people who want the kinds of things that I have already had. And which weren't even that great.

The Yes2Marriage site also seems to assume that every gay person who gets married will immediately go out and adopt some children. I guess this is possible. But I have met gay cats with children. And these kids are some of the best kids I know. Valedictorians. PhD students. All around cats who are smarter than me on any day of the week. In addition, I recently read a book by a gay guy who along with his boyfriend adopted a son. I am hard-pressed to say that his account of how he raises his child is any measure of bad. This is just my experience, but it only takes one counter-example to falsify a claim about impossibility of something.

The more I think about it, the more it seems that people are against gay marriage for traditional religious reasons. They just believe that God has somehow commanded them to not allow gay people to marry. Maybe marriage itself is a religious thing, after all. But if all of this is true, I don't see how marriage has anything to do with the State Constitution. I don't see how I could have been an atheist and still have been married. I also don't see why people would go to the trouble to produce such bad reasons why we should prohibit gay marriage. Just say "God told me so" and I won't have to look all through your site in search of a good argument.

Anyway, the upshot of all of this is that my commitment to equality entails that I want gay people to have the option of marrying. And in this lies the notion of protection. If marriages, that is, contractual monogamous relationships that are set to never end, are worth getting into, then every competent adult person should have the option. To deny people this option is to demean marriage, to make it a tool of oppression rather than a legitimate way to express love or get benefits or be miserable. If we want to "protect marriage," as the claim goes, we should probably strive to let everybody in on it, regardless of sexual preference.

So, homies, Vote no on 2.

Oh, the book is called The Commitment. It is written by Dan Savage.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Road Reflection 4: The Dark

Had a bad dream the other day. I lost track of a friend in an old hotel. The place was completely unlit, having no power and no occupants other than myself and, hopefully, my friend. I dashed feverishly from floor to floor and room to room in an effort to find her. Believing that I saw her silhouette in a doorway, i ran up to discover the nothingness that only an empty hotel room can offer. When I turned to leave, the deep, black shadows strewn about the hallway moved toward me, springing against all sense into extension, grabbing me and holding me at bay until a knife appeared from the blackness and plunged deep into my stomach. The darkness betrayed me.

The images of the dream simmered, until tonight I was finally overtaken by the feeling of falling that accompanies mystery, sexual infatuation, despair and games of billiards. I slid my jacket over my flesh and rolled out onto the streets in an attempt to make peace with something.

The person who rides without destination discovers that which lies hidden on the road. From an empty road that runs alongside the local interstate, I turned to a street that ran under the overpass to another road that dead ends just a hundred yards later than a sane person is willing to travel at night. I stopped in the middle of the parallel overpasses and shut off the bike. Even through the earplugs under my helmet I could hear cars pass overhead, transitioning from the airy whoosh of the solid highway to the hollow moan of elevated concrete support beams. A few powerful lamps over the interstate brightened the clouded sky; if not for the decisive darkness behind the last stop sign before the dead end, I would not know if it was dawn or midnight. aside from the jagged asphalt, overgrown bushes and trees marked the valley between. This place was uncared for. And I was alone.

The solitude was brutish. The cars passing overhead knew nothing of the man beneath them. They were moving along and my joy or distress would not turn them from their paths. For some reason I felt like I was back in Atiak when i thought this. Maybe because the IDP camp had no electricity and, being unlit, it existed unseen from above.

I stood for a while. Until references to Kundera and Frost left me. Until i could no longer conjure that damn Bacon painting. Until the Bon Iver song playing in my head finally came to an end like only memories can. And there, for the shortest moment, I closed my eyes and waited for the dark to keep the promise of the nightmare. When I opened them, I saw only my machine, dormant and warm. ... Its engine echoed across the bottom of the overpass. Perhaps somewhere in a nearby neighborhood a person who was trying to sleep quietly cursed as I shifted to second gear. But I was soon gone from that earshot. And the dark did not follow.

When I was in college, i would go on long walks across Tallahassee. My favorite place to stop and chill was an old grave yard close to downtown. No matter how much the city was celebrating, no matter how loud the songs of Homecoming, that place was as still as the storm after it woke jesus from his sleep. Maybe the gaping graveyard calm resented my absence. I don't know if the feeling is mutual.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Road Reflections 3

A while back, on a bright day, it became clear to me that the serious relationship I was in would come to an end. Distressed, I commiserated briefly with a friend over the phone. Then I grabbed my helmet and gear. Before I could mount up and rock exit, he called back and told me quite simply: Right now, the motorcycle is the best and worst thing for you. I said, yeah, I know, then I put foot to trail. I rode for a long time that day. Without much in the way of skills, on roads I didn’t know, with nobody. Solus Ipse. If I needed to escape, to literally flee at great speed, this trip to nowhere was just what I needed. If I needed to think about things and take action, well. I would run out of gas sooner or later. Since then, the inner toddler in me has seen fit to name my bike. But all of my machines have had the same name: Pharmacon. A medicine. Also, a poison. Something one might need to be healthy. To which one can get addicted.

There are some times when the need arises. Since there is no such thing as silence, the curdling quiet of the night simply amplifies the chain-rattling ghosts of my flaws and failures. Why should one listen to voices that pull downward? They must be drowned by an engine, or perhaps some wind. From here, the world looks quite different from my experience of it usually. On an empty county road bordered only by tall trees, the dark would eat me if it could. It would just stamp me out until I was all shadows. The light from my headlamp fends it off. The road resents the noise of my exhaust, it’s tired of me laying my problems across it. It already has enough road kill. Sometimes, when it is really late, so late that I am the only thing on the road, I just stop. I turn off the engine and just sit on the side of the road, listening. Trying to hear for the voices that put me on this journey in the first place. They are dull. But they are not extinguished. I can’t slide those faders any further down. So I just bring some other tracks up until it is time to shut the whole console down. Thus, I ride until exhaustion, so that I can do nothing but sleep when I get home. Or I just ride until daylight, when I am safe in the noise of a turning world. It is an effort that gets me through for a time. But we all know what a bright day can bring.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Road Reflections 2

Corners are all serious. It is here that we concentrate heavily, that we challenge ourselves and each other, that we expand our skills through the management of risk. A careful use of attention in these circumstances reveals a world of road seldom noticed by the the regular four wheeled motorist. Small swaths of sand. Small potholes. Changes in the texture and composition of the asphalt- all of these things are endlessly scrutinized by the rider. They affect our decisions about where to start the turn, what path through the turn we will take, how quickly we will complete it. The scope of this calculative review is matched only by its brevity, for one cannot complete a turn looking downward. One must look where one needs to go. WIth the corner style complete, we transition to cruising. And cruising is Cruising. The mind wanders. One is immersed in the scenery. Don’t be confused, the way is clear, as the song goes. This is how we ride the long straight stretches of road. We prefer chillful openness to a drag strippy madness. Most of the time, anyway.

On the stretch, I looked down to the tachometer. For some reason, I didn’t immediately see the dial. Instead, I was presented with an image. Six white letters. “ahamaY.” It took me a second to realize that it was the reflection of my chest. I was looking into a mirror. What a strange gestalt, I thought. Behind the glass is the rpm status. But for a moment, I denied myself its truth. Then we passed a woman who was pulling a little girl in a radio flyer on the side of the road. They both looked at me. Then I felt it. I was reminded.

Once me and the moto homies were talking about the visors through which we peer from our helmets. I’m a better rider when I wear the dark visor, I said. Not just because the necessity of the dark visor means that visibility is high. Because my face is obscured, replaced by a mirror, essentially. It is existentially masochistic. The revelation of the face is prevented. From the third, people only see the rider as object on bike. They can draw no conclusions about race or political leanings. There can be no first impression. That which is faceless is a thing. And that thing is precisely what I want to be. So I become the object, with its calculations, its purpose. I deny my own freedom to be otherwise. But the Green Ninja responded to my style, like, yo, we are better because the dark visor precludes the judgments of others. It gives us the opportunity to better express our freedom. It is like being alone in a dark corridor. When can look through whichever keyhole we wish. This absence of existential restriction leaves us free to put all being points into the task at hand; so, really, we escape the masochist tendency to be what the other demands that we be.

As the next turn approached, I wondered whether me and my homie really disagreed. Then I let the clutch in, downshifted two gears, and let it out. The tension between the engine and the back tire made me wonder what it would be like to have a slipper clutch. Up ahead, the Red Ducati leaned over and began to disappeared around the corner. Long and thick dreads danced from beneath his helmet, like snakes who could not decide whether they loved or hated. I followed, with a mind to wheelie out of the corner. Couldn’t quite hack it though. Couldn't bring myself to apply that much gas. Though the front end did dance a bit.

Back in chill mode, we passed other bikes on the road. Cats without helmets, whose passengers had no helmets. Do they think that little of their companions? Or that highly of their skills? I wondered what they thought of the leather that covered me from head to toe as I passed them. Maybe I look like a squid to them. At a stop light, I read a sticker on the helmet of some other rider: “This bike eats Hondas and shits Yamahas.” It’s just that kind of divisive arrogance that makes the motorcycle lobby in this state so ineffective, I thought. Maybe if we were more concerned about helping each other out instead of asserting some stupid ideals of brand or type superiority we wouldn’t have to worry about the anti-biker bill that became law last week. Besides, his bike is slow and stupid looking.

The ride ended and I rolled up to the crib. I was a mess. A dirty helmet made dirtier by sweat and two hours of heat caused my face to break out. I was sore all over and my back hurt in all the usual places. My leathers were splattered with all manner of dead bug. I smelled like gasoline. As I looked at the bike, I had the feeling that I had arrived from a long and adventurous journey, like I had been somewhere for a long time and was just rolling up to sight that soothes sore retinas. I’ve never understood why that is. But the feeling is kind of nice.