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2017-10-21 04:23 am

Art Manuel: Unsettling Canada




Unsettling Canada - A National Wake-Up Call sounded like something I'd want/need to read from the minute I heard about it. A collaboration between two First Nations leaders, Arthur Manuel - a vocal Indigenous rights activist from the Secwepemc Nation - and Grand Chief Ron Derrickson - a Syilx (Okanagan) businessmen, it is touted by the publishers as bringing "a fresh perspective and new ideas to Canada’s most glaring piece of unfinished business: the place of Indigenous peoples within the country’s political and economic space."

Much of the writing on Indigenous rights and
Indigenous activism in Canada is not accessible to someone like me, who can pretty much only read ebooks. (I can read a physical, bound book, but only very slowly, stopping the minute my breathing begins to be affected, which in practice means three or four paragraphs a day, and that means only one or two such books a year, so I pick only the most important books to be read in this manner.) So I was delighted to find an ebook copy of this available from the library.

The book is written from Manuel's voice, wth advice and input from Derrickson. He begins with a rumination on the land of his peoples, what settler-colonialists have called the B.C. Interior, and on his work with the Global Indigenous People's Caucus - in particular, the presentation of a statement on the 'doctrine of discovery' to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The doctrine of discovery is a poisonous piece of European colonialist legalism which says that a European sailing along the coast of the land and seeing the rivers flowing down from the interior had, by virtue of their 'discovery' of evidence of that land, more right to it in law (European-derived settler law, of course) than those peoples whose ancestors have lived on, gained nourishment from and stewardship to, for generations.

It's a law that has no justice or even sense of reality behind it. It can only exist if you pretend that Indigenous people never did. Yet it is the basis by which most of the land of the American continents were taken from the people inhabiting those continents, and it lies at the root of land claim discussions even to this day.

Manuel goes on to speak briefly about his family - George Manuel, his father, was a noted Indigenous activist but not very present during Manuel's early life - and his youth, which included time in residential schools due to his mother's long hospitalisation and his father's absences.

These two strands - the history of Indigenous land claims, and his father's legacy of activism, come together in the narrative of Indigenous resistance to the Trudeau government's Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy - the 1969 White Paper.

"Ironically, the impetus for unity [among Indigenous activists and organisations], and what finally put my father into the leadership of the National Indian Brotherhood, was provided by the Trudeau government's Indian Affairs minister Jean Chrétien. In June 1969, Chrétien unveiled a legislative time bomb that was designed not only to destroy any hope of recognition of Aboriginal title and rights in Canada, but also to terminate Canada's treaties with Indian nations. ...

The statement sparked an epic battle that did not end in 1970 when the Indian Association of Alberta presented its counterproposal in the Red Paper. In many important ways it was the opening shot in the current battle for our land and our historic rights against a policy designed to terminate our title to our Indigenous territories and our rights as Indigenous peoples. The White Paper of 1969 is where our struggle begins."

The White Paper, in essence, sought to end all concept of Indigenous nations, abrogate all treaties, eliminate the concept of sovereign lands held in common by an indigenous nation, and force full and complete assimilation - ending by cultural genocide the disappearing of the Indigenous peoples that no previous strategy had quite managed to accomplish.

Resistance to the White Paper was strong. Indigenous leaders formally rejected the government's position, declaring that nothing was possible without the recognition of the sovereignty of Indigenous people and a willingness to negotiate based on the principle that "only Aboriginals and Aboriginal organizations should be given the resources and responsibility to determine their own priorities and future development." But although the paper was withdrawn, the positions it espoused have continued to resurface, recycled and repackaged, in government negotiations with Indigenous peoples to this day.

In 1973, however, a Supreme Court decision gave Indigenous peoples a tool for fighting the White paper proposals. In a 3-3 decision in the Calder case, the Supreme Court declined to set aside the provisions of the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which stated that Indigenous peoples living on unceded land - which at that time included most of what is now Canada - had sovereign rights to that land, which could not be set aside by government fiat, but only surrendered via treaty. While a contested victory, and one that was less useful for many nations who had been tricked into giving up more rights than intended in colonial treaty negotiations, this decision still established the legal concept of the sovereignty of Indigenous nations which would eventually lead to more fruitful legal arguments.

Balancing between historical, academic perspectives and personal recollection, Manuel traces the story of the struggles of Indigenous peoples to reclaim their rights and build a new partnership with Canada over the past 50 years. As he examines the history of court arguments and governmental negotiations over issues of sovereignty, land claims, and other key points of dispute between Canada's Indigenous Nations and the Canadian federal and provincial governments, Manuel clearly and concisely explains the legal concepts involved at each stage. In so doing, he weaves a chilling narrative of repeated attempts to, quite literally, extinguish the rights, and the existence, of the original landholders in the interests of corporate exploitation and gain - a neo-colonialist project that would finish off what settler colonialism began.

Events that for many white Canadians passed by without any comprehension of what they meant to Indigenous peoples - the James Bay hydroelectric project, the repatriation of the constitution, the Oka crisis, Elijah Harper's lone stand against the Meech Lake Accord, the Nisga'a Treaty, the Canada-US softwood lumber disputes, the Sun Peaks protests, to name a few - are placed in a coherent context of colonial oppression and Indigenous resistance.

Manuel also places the struggle of Indigenous peoples in Canada within an international context, that of the "Fourth World" - defined as "Indigenous nations trapped within states in the First, Second and Third Worlds." He recounts his father George Manuel's role in the creation of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, which led to the establishment in 2002 of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples - a document fiercely opposed and flagrantly ignored by Canada and the other major colonial nations, Australia, New Zealand and The United States.

What makes this book so important - and so accessible - is the insider perspective that Manuel brings to the narrative. He and members of his family were intimately involved with many of the key actions and negotiations; his personal knowledge of the dealings behind the scenes fleshes out his factual accounting of the events he witnessed and participated in. Manuel's personal lived experience makes this more than just a relating of legal points and bureaucratic counters, it allows the reader to feel the profound injustices faced by Indigenous peoples in their struggle to preserve their rights and their identities and their fierce determination to succeed.

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2017-10-09 01:47 am

Amy Bai: Sword



Sword, by Amy Bai, sounded like something I'd really enjoy as a pleasant diversion - a fantasy world with a mysterious prophesy, and a girl with a gift for the sword. It took a while for me to get into it - the characterisations of the three key characters are a bit inconsistent, the early pace was a bit slow and there's not quite enough incluing to understand some of the motivations of the characters fir what they say and do. The protagonist - Kyali Corwynall, daughter of a general and one of three potential heirs to the throne - and her father have lots of cryptic conversations that really don't give us a lot if insight into what's going on, which I found somewhat annoying.

Once the scene is set, however, the author plunges us into a fast-moving section where the young hero is sent away to learn advanced swordcraft and control of her magical Gifts from a tribal people renowned for their skills in both areas. I like young hero with a destiny training sequences, so this was good for getting me properly settled into the story.

The other two main characters are Kyali's brother Davin, who also has some kind of jagical gift and is also the first person born with the dapacity to be a Bard (the capital 'B' tells us, or so I assume, that his future involves more than just singing pretty songs at court) her close friend, Taireasa, daughter of the current ruler. Rulership in this society seems to be passed down through some sort of tanistry, as the heir is theoretically chosen from one of two families - Taireasa's, and Kyali's. However, in practice, it's almost always someone from Taireasas family.

There is of course the prophecy, of serious doings involving the Sword, the Song and the Crown, which once Kyali started military training with her father, everyone associated with the three young prospective heirs.

Yes, cliches abound, but it's rather engrossing, even if there were times I wanted to take Kyali, Devin and Taireasa and shake the stupidity of thinking they were keeping secrets to protect each other out of them.

The story ends in a strange place - after a significant personal victory, but with the fortunes of the protagonists at a nadir. It feels like there should be at least one sequel, or, given the whole Sword, Song, Crown thing, two - but it's been three years since the book came out and not a word about any sequels that I can find. Perhaps Bai only wanted to tell the personal story, or perhaps she has writer's block, or perhaps the book didn't sell well enough.... Time may provide an answer. But I do want to know more about these three.

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2017-10-08 09:16 pm

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States



Reading about the history and ideology of racism, colonialism, and other global projects of oppression seems to be my thing these days. I think it has something to do with the frightening rise of right-wing, white supremacist, and fascist politicians and movements around the so-called developed world, and watching the slow erosion of democracy, compassion, justice, even humanity itself, as I define it. I've always been a left-wing, social justice sort of person, but now I find myself compelled to learn more about my enemies and the ideologies, institutions and actions they have, and still do, espouse, propagate and defend.

One of the books that's been a part of this reading project is An Indigenous People's History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. In this volume, Dunbar-Ortiz seeks to decentre the white settler narratives of the establishment and growth of the United States, and present instead a narrative that centres the indigenous perspective.

In her Introduction, Dunbar-Ortiz states:

"Under the crust of that portion of Earth called the United States of America - "from California... To the Gulf Stream waters" - are interred the bones, villages fields and sacred objects of American Indians. They cry out for their stories to be heard through their descendants who carry the memories of how the country was founded and how it came to be as it is today. It should not have happened that the great civilizations of the western hemisphere, the very evidence of the western hemisphere, were wantonly destroyed, the gradual progress of humanity interrupted and set up on a path of greed and destruction. Choices were made that forged the path of that destruction of life itself - the moment in which we now live and die as our planet shrivels, overheated. To learn and know this history is both a necessity and a responsibility to the ancestors and descendants of all parties."

She goes on to describe the ways in which land - the idea, the metaphor, the physical reality of the soil and water we live on and the resources it holds - is a key concept in understanding American history: "everything in US history is about the land - who oversaw and cultivated it, fished its waters, maintained its wildlife; who invaded and stole it; how it became a commodity ("real estate") broken in pieces to be bought and sold on the market."

Dunbar notes that the connection of white invaders/colonists/settlers and indigenous dwellers with/to the land means that the relationship of white and indigenous peoples is not one of racism - or not exclusively so - but also of colonialism and imperialism, and, as a consequence of the outright theft of land, genocide. Recognising this means "rethinking the consensual national narrative." She goes on to say:

"Awareness of the settler colonist context of US history writing is essential if one is to avoid the laziness of the default position and the trap of a mythological unconscious belief in manifest destiny. The form of colonialism that the Indigenous Peoples of North America have experienced was modern from the beginning: the expansion of European corporations, backed by government armies, into foreign areas, with subsequent expropriation of lands and resources. Native nations and communities, while struggling to maintain fundamental values and collectivity, have from the beginning resisted modern colonialism using both offensive and defensive techniques, including the modern forms of armed resistance of national liberation movements and what is now called terrorism. In every instance they have fought for survival as peoples. The objective of US colonial authorities was to terminate their existence as peoples - not as random individuals. This is the very definition of modern genocide as contrasted with premodern instances of extreme violence that did not have the goal of extinction. The United States as a sociopolitical and economic entity is a result of this centuries-long and ongoing colonial process. Modern Indigenous nations and communities are societies formed by their resistance to colonialism, through which they have carried their practices and histories. It is breathtaking, but no miracle, that they have survived as peoples."

Dunbar-Ortiz begins her history of the United States with a discussion of the conditions that prevailed among indigenous peoples prior to the arrival of European colonists. She describes the major groups of nations in North and Central America, and the variety of agricultural and land management practices, trade patterns, governmental structures, and other key aspects of the many civilised nations that covered all the habitable Iand of the continent.

She goes on to examine the European roots of colonialism, from the appropriation of land and exploitation of labour that formed the basis of the feudal system, to the colonisation of states such as Scotland, Wales, Catalonia and the Basque Nation, to the Crusades, which married Christian zeal to conquest for profit. As she notes: "The rise of the modern state in Western Europe was based on the accumulation of wealth by means of exploiting human labour and displacing millions of subsistence producers from their lands."

Having perfected the techniques of colonialism with Europe itself and the lands closest to them, these states set out to increase their wealth, expanding "... overseas to obtain even more resources, land and labour" through the conquest and colonisation of the Americas, Africa, the Pacific, and much of
Asia. The increased need for labour - both at home to convert stolen resources into wealth, and in the colonies as support for the military and developing capitalist classes, and then as settlers to develop the land taken from indigenous peoples - was supplied through the appropriation of the commons and the enshrinement of private property which forced small subsistence farmers off their land.

Dunbar-Ortiz also locates the beginnings of white supremacy in the "colonizing ventures of the Christian Crusades in Muslim-controlled territories and to the Protestant colonization of Ireland" as well as suspicion of Conversos and Moriscos - Iberian Jews and Muslims who has converted to Christianity. As she observes, "The Crusades gave birth to the papal law of 'limpieza de sangre' - cleanliness of blood - for which the Inquisition was established by the Church to investigate and determine." Dunbar-Ortiz goes on to describe the result of this - the imagined alliance of 'old Christians' regardless of class against the potential contamination of the body spiritual by new Christians of questionable devoutness and 'purity' as "the first instance class leveling based on imagined racial sameness - the origin of white supremacy, the essential ideology of colonial projects in America and Africa." A brief discussion of the colonisation of Northern Ireland and the racislisation of the indigenous Irish as lesser products of creation, descended, like people of colour, from 'apes' rather than men demonstrates the ways in which this imperial project - combining land seizure, 'white' settlement, resource exploitation, racialisation of native peoples and religious ideology - is a precursor to the British colonisation of North America.

In discussing the subjugation of the Americas, Dunbar-Ortiz delivers a critique of the 'disease theory' of the massive depopulation of the continents. While agreeing that the introduction of new diseases into the microbiological ecosystem of the Americas played a part in the genocide which literally decimated the population of the Western Hemisphere, Dunbar-Ortiz notes the almost constant state of war, and the multiple conditions of colonialist practice that increased susceptibility to disease in a previously healthy population.

"US scholar Benjamin Keen acknowledges that historians "accept uncritically a fatalistic 'epidemic plus lack of acquired immunity' explanation for the shrinkage of Indian populations, without sufficient attention to the socioeconomic factors ... which predisposed the natives to succumb to even slight infections." Other scholars agree. Geographer William M. Denevan, while not ignoring the existence of widespread epidemic diseases, has emphasized the role of warfare, which reinforced the lethal impact of disease. There were military engagements directly between European and Indigenous nations, but many more saw European powers pitting one Indigenous nation against another, or factions within nations, with European allies aiding one or both sides, as was the case in the colonization of the peoples of Ireland, Africa and Asia. Other killers cited by Denevan are overwork in mines, frequent outright butchery, malnutrition and starvation resulting from the breakdown of Indigenous trade networks, subsistence food production and loss of land, loss of will to live or reproduce (and thus suicide, abortion and infanticide), and deportation and enslavement."

As Dunbar-Ortiz demonstrates, a close examination of the kind of warfare waged by the settler colonists against the Indigenous nations reveals its genocidal nature from the very beginning - violence against women, children and the elderly, and destruction of farms and other sites of food production in order to depopulate the land in preparation for white settlers. Bounty hunting was introduced, with the taking of scalps (originally practiced during the colonisation of Ireland) accepted as proof of kills. Indigenous women and children not killed outright were taken as slaves, their forced labour contributing to resource extraction in Caribbean as well as continental American colonies.

After securing the northern coastal area of what is now the United States, Anglo colonists moved west, warring directly with the Indigenous nations, and to the north and south, attacking French and Spanish colonies and their Indigenous allies. Following the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years' War), which ended in 1763 with the transfer of French colonies in what is now Canada and the Spanish territory of Florida to Britain, the British government attempted to halt the colonisation of the Ohio valley. Anglo settlers, however, refused to be constrained in their westward push, creating tensions which helped to trigger the War of Independence. Wars against Indigenous nations in the Ohio Valley - marked by extreme violence from military forces whose officers were ordered to "most effectually chastise and terrify the savages" - continued throughout the revolution, with the consequence of an expanded land base for the new colonial nation. The litany of total, genocidal wars against Indigenous nations continued over the next century, as the new colonial republic and its militant settlers moved south and west into territories ceded by other European countries (as in the Louisiana Purchase), or still under Indigenous control, and initiated a long imperialist conflict with Mexico. Dunbar-Ortiz describes in heartbreaking detail the resistance of the Indigenous people to the inexorable progress of the colonial project.

At the same time that the new republic was devoting its military resources to exterminating the original inhabitants of the land, the myth of American origins was bring crafted to deny the real processes of colonisation. In The Last of the Mohicans, Fennimore Cooper created the image of the vanishing Indian passing stewardship of the land on to his white adopted son. The idea of Manifest Destiny romanticised those who led settler-colonists into new lands, defeating the unworthy and barbarous savages who dared to oppose the advance of Christian civilisation. Novelist Wallace Stegner wrote: "Ever since Daniel Boone took his first excursion over Cumberland Gap, Americans have been wanderers... With a continent to take over and Manifest Destiny to goad us, we could not have avoided being footloose." An article in a contemporary publication compared European and American imperialism by arguing that European nations "conquer only to enslave" but the United States "conquers only to bestow freedom." As Dunbar-Ortiz notes, the erasure of colonial genocide has been so effective that President Barack Obama was able to declare, in an interview given to the Dubai press shortly after his inauguration in 2009: "We sometimes make mistakes. We are not perfect. But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power."

The December 1890 Wounded Knee massacre of over 300 Lakota who had surrendered to American military forces essentially marked the end of armed Indigenous resistance to US colonisation. The shift to cultural genocide had already begun, with the establishment of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, and the cultural repression of the California missions. At the same time, lands that had been allotted to various surrendered Indigenous nations in "Indian Country" were being systematically diminished to provide land for white settlers, railroads, and exploitation of natural resources including gold and oil. The iconography of the 'vanishing Indian' - most graphically portrayed in James Earle Fraser's 1915 sculpture "The End of the Trail" - came to represent the public image of Indigenous peoples.

Dunbar-Ortiz draws a connection between the 'domestic' colonialism of the United States in its dealings with Indigenous peoples and its history of military imperialism abroad. "... it's important to realize that the same methods and strategies that were employed with the Indigenous peoples on the continent were mirrored abroad. While the Indigenous Americans were being brutally colonized, eliminated, relocated and killed, the United States from its beginning was also pursuing overseas dominance. Between 1798 and 1827 the United States intervened militarily twenty-three times from Cuba to Tripoli (Libya) to Greece. There were seventy-one overseas interventions between 1832 and 1896, on all continents, and the United States dominated Latin America economically, sone countries militarily. The forty interventions and occupations between 1898 and 1919 were conducted with even more military heft but using the same methods and sometimes the same personnel."

Dunbar-Ortiz continues with an account of consistent mismanagement of Indigenous peoples' lives and livelihoods in the 20th century under the control of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, with decisions taken without reference to the actual needs of the people, and often made to facilitate corporate interests at the expense of the people. She discusses the 'narrative of dysfunction' used to characterise Indigenous peoples and justify continued paternalistic colonial intervention, a narrative that conveniently ignores the conditions which led to the current situation in which Indigenous communities display a high incidence of poverty and social dysfunction. These conditions include the loss of land and sovereignty, generations of brutal violence and oppression, denial of access to sacred lands, destruction of traditional economies and ways of life, and the legacy of forced assimilation, abuse and alienation from culture, language and history - all part of the genocidal war waged on Indigenous peoples by settler colonists. She quotes Mohawk historian and activist Taiaiake Alfred: "What is the legacy of colonialism? Dispossession, disempowerment and disease inflicted by the white man to be sure.... Yet the enemy is in plain view: residential schools, racism, expropriation, extinguishment, warship, welfare."

Moving forward to the 1960s - the era of multiple civil rights movements - Dunbar-Ortiz discusses the new resistance movements among Indigenous peoples and their goals, from return of sacred lands to recognition of treaty rights. She notes the increase of high-profile resistance actions among young Indigenous people, including the occupation of Alcatraz, the AIM protests at Wounded Knee, identifying these as the 'beginning of Indigenous decolonization in North America.' More recently, Indigenous nations have begun to establish systems of governance to replace the colonialist oversight of the past. In her conclusion, Dunbar-Ortiz restates the premise that the United States' undeniable history of imperialist violence abroad and domestic violence at all levels of society is inextricably linked to its genesis in colonialism and genocide; at the same time, she speculates that the process if decoloniation may offer new ways of imagining the American polity leading to a more humane culture.

This is a profoundly important book. The importance of understanding the processes of colonisation which resulted in the modern white settler states of the United States and Canada (which shares much with its neighbour in terms of the colonisation of Indigenous peoples) is vital if we are to move toward a more just society - and knowledge is the first step to understanding.

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2017-10-02 03:19 pm

Kathy Reichs: First Bones



Kathy Reich's novella First Bones is the story of Temperance Brennan's first case as a forensic anthropologist, told within the framing story of her vigil at the deathbed of a colleague she's known and worked with for her entire career.

It's a tight, fast-paced story. The narrative of the central section effectively captures her initial reluctance to get involved in something she has no direct training for, and her increasing interest in the process of solving the mysteries brought about by violent deaths. And the framing narrative is a strong and moving account of response to the sudden, random death of a close friend.

There's nothing here of the unnecessary 'protagonist goes senselessly into personal danger' trope or the massive infodumping habit that tends to detract from the pure investigative process and (in my opinion) weaken her later novels. One of her better works.

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2017-10-02 09:03 am

Ellen Klages: Passing Strange



Ellen Klages' novella, Passing Strange, is a rich science fantasy that explores many transitions - passings - across diverse borders. The narrative begins with an account of the final days of Helen Young, an American woman of Japanese heritage who has spent much of her life passing in one way or another. When we met her, she is very old, dying of some unspecified condition. One of her last acts before her self-administered final passing is to sell an original drawing - the last drawing - of the highly collectible pulp artist known as Haskel.

The narrative then moves back in time to the early days of the second world war, to San Francisco's hidden gay world. Here again Helen is passing, in multiple ways. As a straight woman - she is married, to a gay Asian man - and as Chinese - her married name in ambiguous and as she herself notes, most white people can't tell Asians if different nationalities apart. She is also a lawyer, but 'passes' as an exotic dancer to make ends meet. And she models Asian characters, male and female, for Haskell's covers.

Haskell is, like Helen, a lesbian, and passing professionally as a man to sell their art. As the story progresses, she meets and falls in love with Emily, a young butch and drag king performer who sings at the local lesbian bar.

Klages writes with great detail and empathy about the lives of lesbians in pre-war San Francisco, the different experiences of those, usually femmes like Helen and Haskell, who can pass, and the butches and dykes who cannot pass and thus draw the most reaction from the straight world of police and gawking voyeuristic tourists. The fears of discovery and subsequent loss, the courage to go on in spite of all this.

There's another dimension of passing in the story, besides that of the boundaries of gender. There are also passages across the borders of science and magic, reality and illusion. We meet Franny, a witch of sorts, with the gift of translocation, of passing magically between geographically separated points by folding the maps she creates, and her partner Babs, a mathematics professor who is trying to develop a branch of topological math that can describe what Franny does. And Polly, a young relative of Franny's from England whose passion is science, which she uses to help develop acts for her magician-father. And eventually, we learn the story of Haskell's grandmother, who used magic to pass through danger by turning life into art, and then back into life.

The story of Emily and Haskell's romance is both sweet, and fraught with danger because of their transgressive sexuality, and ultimately they must make use of Haskell's family magic to escape when there is no other way, a strange and magical passage into another life.

Klages fills her narrative with borders, boundaries, crossings, passages and transformations, from the great passings of life and death to the small changes in colour and appearance brought about by different lighting. What remains the same, despite transformations, is loyalty, friendship, and love.

If there is any weakness to this story, it's that there's not enough. The principal characters are drawn with such clarity and depth that one wants to know so much more about all of them, their lives after this moment in time. I had an overwhelming feeling that each woman mentioned has a marvellous story waiting to be told, about how they came to be in this place and time, and where they went from there. And I want those stories.

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2017-10-02 03:01 am

Sangu Mandanna: The Lost Girl




Sangu Mandanna's debut YA novel The Lost Girl tells the story of a young woman who is an echo, a being deliberately created and trained to replace another person if they die. Her 'other' - the person she is living only to take the place of - is a girl called Amarra, whose parents commissioned an echo because they could not bear the thought if a life without their daughter. Genetically identical to her other, she receives daily information about events in Amarra's life, which she must memorise. She can read only the books Amarra reads, study only what Amarra studies, learn only the hobbies and skills Amarra learns.

But she is powerfully aware of herself as a separate individual - she has her own interests (one of which, art, she secretly pursues when her guardians and trainers are not around) and she has given herself a name of her own - Eva.

She lives on borrowed time - if her other's parents change their minds about having an echo of their daughter, then she will simply be terminated. If she is found breaking the regulations set for echoes by the Loom - the secretive organisation which creates echoes - she will be terminated. And there are 'hunters' - vigilantes who hate the idea of the echoes - who will kill her if they find out what she is.

Eva's life is quiet - except when she takes risks and breaks the rules, fortunate in having guardians who don't report her. Until the day Amarra dies, and she must travel halfway around the world, from England, where she was created and trained, to Bangalore, where Amarra's parents wait for their daughter brought back to life. But can she become Amarra? And if she cannot - can she ever find a way to be herself?

Reading the set-up for the novel's action, I kept thinking of the clones in Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go - another novel about artificially created people who are defined solely by what their existence means to others, who are not granted the status of humanity on their own. And who nonetheless are real people, despite being created to serve.

The course of Eva's struggle to escape what she was made to be, to have her own life, is full of danger, betrayal and loss, and the author leaves us with an ambiguous ending. But whatever one imagines happens after the last page is turned - and none of the possibilities are without pain and sacrifice - Eva has at least won the opportunity to make her own decisions.

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2017-10-01 07:31 pm

Steven Barnes: Far Beyond the Stars




Some time ago, I read in André Carrington's Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction a critical analysis of Steven Barnes' novelisation of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Far Beyond the Stars." In that episode, Avery Brooks and the other members of the cast appear as Americans living in the mid-20th century. Brooks is Benny Russell, a writer for a science fiction pulp magazine; the other actors play the roles of his colleagues at the magazine, and his acquaintances. The episode deals openly with racial issues, including race within the world of science fiction - the unlikeliness of a person like Benny Russell being seen as a writer of sf, the impossibility of him selling a story in which he imagines a black commander of a starbase in a distant future.

Carrington's description of Barnes' reworking of the episode intrigued me, and I made a note to myself to obtain a copy of the book to read.

It's an interesting piece of multiple recursion - a black science fiction writer retelling the story of an episode of a science fiction show featuring a black starbase commander - an episode in which the actor portraying that commander is also playing the role of a black science fiction writer telling the story of a black starbase commander. And so it had to be, for who but a black science fiction writer could give the character of Benny Russell the bone deep experiences of being multiply othered that a black man in America who is also writer of science fiction must live through?

Barnes' text gives Benny the depth, intelligence and passion that is inherent in Avery Brooks' creation of the live character, and a past that informs his resistance to the 'acceptable' roles and behaviours for black men in the 1950s. There's a flashback in the novel, to Benny's youth. It's 1939, and he and a few other kids from the Harlem youth centre he hangs out at have gone on a field trip to the World's Fair. The theme for that exposition was "the world of tomorrow" and they are exploring the exhibits in the General Motors Futurama building. Benny is excited by much of what he sees, but it's excitement with a bitter core: "Never in his life had he experienced anything like that, and only one thing could conceivably spoil the experience for him: Every last one of the thousands of little human beings shopping, working, playing, worshipping and living in the cities of the future had been white."

This, of course, presages the central moment of the script. Benny Russell, having written the story of Benjamin Sisko, star base commander, black man in a future where black men do exist, where humans of all races and aliens can live together, where the daily humiliations experienced by men of colour are truly a thing of the past, has his vision rejected because his publisher can't print a story where a black man is a captain. No one will buy it, no one will believe it.

It was a powerful episode, and Barnes has transformed it into a powerful novel.

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2017-10-01 09:39 am

Adilifu Nama: Black Space, Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film


Adilifu Nama, in Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film, explores and interrogated (as he notes in his Introduction) "... the intersection of black representation and science fiction (sf) cinema." Acknowledging that actual representation of black people in sf film is extremely limited (even more so in 2008, when the book was published), he adds:

"... in spite of the overt omission of black representation and racial issues in sf cinema, I have found that both are present in numerous sf films. Albeit implicit—as structured absence, repressed or symbolic—blackness and race are often present in sf films as narrative subtext or implicit allegorical subject. Most important, for this book, is the cultural politics of race that such representations suggest not only in sf cinema but alongside the sociohis- torical place that blackness has occupied in American society. As a result, the sf film genre is not merely an imaginative medium primarily focused on the future. Sf film is also a powerful lens by which to observe the collective racial desires, constructs, fantasies, and fears circulating throughout American society."

In discussing the ways in which blackness is both openly represented and covertly coded in science fiction film, Nama acknowledges that he is examining the genre in unaccustomed ways:

"Too often the sf film genre is regarded as addressing only signature divisions in the genre: humans versus machines, old versus new, individual versus society, and nature versus the artificial. In this book, however, I place black racial formation at the center of these common dichotomies. As a result, a more complex and provocative picture emerges of how sf cinema, in imagining new worlds and addressing a broad range of social topics, has confronted and retreated from the color line, one of the most troubling and turbulent social issues present in American society."

Nama organises his analyses into six general topics. In the book's first chapter, "Structured Absence and Token Presence," he looks at the meanings inherent in the absence of black (and other racialised) characters in sf films, the implications of imagined futures in which only white people (and often only white Americans) survive, and the way blackness is coded through the use of symbolic characteristics and animals or animal-like others. While noting a number of films which do incorporate black characters - many of which, in the earlier years of sf film, were produced during the brief flourishing of 'blaxploitation' films which presented and validated black experience - Nama shows how these 'token' black characters often embody white concerns about racial issues. Examining films produced in more recent years, Nama looks at the emergence of the 'safe' black hero - in many instances portrayed by a single actor, Will Smith - as a reassuring figure for white audiences.

In the second chapter, "Bad Blood: Fear of Racial Contamination," Nama "examines the theme of racial contamination in sf cinema and, by extension, America’s fixation with racial boundary maintenance." Fear of racial 'contamination,' and the history of eugenicist responses to this fear, can be seen both in coded implication and overt symbolism in a number of science fiction themes and tropes - mutants, zombies, androids, shape-shifting 'things' - that, when associated, as they frequently are, with dystopian and post-apocalyptic settings, underline the belief that 'blood mixing' is the first step to the end of civilisation.

The third chapter, "The Black Body: Figures of Distortion," begins with the observation that the black body has long been depicted in a distorted or exaggerated fashion in American media. Nama goes on to discuss how "... the black body is often depicted in sf film not merely in ways that connect it with a sense of the grotesque or a source and site of phantasmagoric spectacle but also as a cultural and political metaphor for racial difference." Nama also notes the ways in which the male black body is associated with violent phallic and sexual imagery, suggestive of the construction of black men as sexually aggressive and threatening.

In the fourth chapter, "Humans Unite!: Race, Class and Postindustrial Aliens," Nama explores various unifying interests - class notably among them - that appear to override interracial strife or threats. In a number of science fiction films, the evil corporation becomes the threat which brings together black and white, while in others, the threat of an even greater Other - the invading or infiltrating alien - stand in for loss of jobs and disempowerment in a postindustrial economy and "... make racial strife obsolete." Ironically, while downplaying black/white racial tensions, many of these films symbolically depict fear of Latin@ immigrants 'invading' the shrinking blue-collar labour market.

In "White Narratives, Black Allegories," Nama begins his discussion by noting that science fiction film is a genre that, while superficially recapitulating many of the tropes of the white-supremacist, colonialist 'Western' genre, it is notably more open to resistant and subversive readings. In expanding on this, he "examines the allegorical import of sf film not only in breaching and buttressing the ideological constructs of America’s racial hierarchy but also as sources of subversive pleasure, meaning, and play that often contest the “preferred” meaning..." The chapter discusses a number of films that in Nama's analysis are "...open to racial readings that engage the legacy of American slavery, the racial injustice of the American legal system, black crime, police brutality, black liberation, and “race” riots, as well as racial pro ling."

In the final chapter, "Subverting the Genre: The Mothership Connection," Nama "... shifts focus from Hollywood representations of science fiction blackness to those independent and extrafilmic productions that stand not only outside the mainstream apparatus of cinematic production but in some cases outside the cultural conventions of mainstream notions of blackness." In particular, he examines films which consciously engage with race and the black community. Nama also explores the relatively new movement of Afrofuturism which includes not only film, but "... art, independent black comic books, black music, and even hip-hop videos [which] have functioned as alternative sites where futuristic fantasyscapes populated by black people can find expression." In considering the importance of the Afrofuturism movement in black-created and black-centred cultural productions, Nama asks, as his closing remarks, "... sf film is an important symbol of the social progress of a society still struggling to come to terms with the legacy of American racism. If we cannot look toward the future to imagine new possibilities and solutions for a history of race relations marred with fear, violence, institu- tional discrimination, and deep-seated ambivalence, then where else?"

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2017-09-30 06:09 am

Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk: Sanaaq



Saanaq, by Inuk author Mitiarjuk ​Nappaaluk, has been called the first 'Canadian Inuit novel.' Written over a period of two decades, first in Inuktitut syllabics (published in transliteration in 1984) and later translated into French (published in 2002) and English (2014), it was commissioned by Catholic missionaries working in Nunavut, who wanted to improve their ability to communicate with the indigenous peoples living in the region. What they asked for was a simple phrasebook. What Nappaluk began writing was an episodic novel that, in telling stories about the Inuit people and their lives, served not only as a reading primer but a record of indigenous life in Nunavut and the arrival of Europeans in the area, from the rarely-heard perspective of an indigenous woman.

it is written very simply, in prose that reminds me very much of the storytelling style I've encountered in some other works by indigenous people (some of the short stories of Thomas King cone to mind), and it's a series of short pieces detailing bith the daiky activities and special events of a small, interconnected community of Inuit. The connecting thread is the relationships of all the characters to Saanaq, a young widow who, at the beginning of the novel, lives with her younger unmarried sister and daughter. The time period is somewhere in the middle of the 20th century - the community knows of Europeans, but they have not yet been significantly affected by their arrival in the North, and still live as their ancestors did.

The story behind the novel's creation took many twists and turns. As anthropologist Bernard Saladin d’Anglure - then a post-graduate student working with Claude Levi-Strauss - says in his Introduction,

"... the novel took almost twenty years to write, for several reasons. The first part covered a little over half of the final manuscript. It stopped at the beginning of episode 24 (The Legend of Lumaajuq) because the author had to leave for a long stay at a hospital in the South and then because Father Lechat [the priest who had originally asked Napaaluk to write the phrasebook - bibliogramma] had been transferred to Kuujjuaq (Fort Chimo). Father Joseph Méeus, O.M.I., took over supervision of her work and about forty new pages were written, i.e., episodes 25 to 37. The novel continued to remain unfinished with her return to hospital and the transfer of Father Méeus to another village. Mitiarjuk stopped writing for several years.

I met Father Lechat in January 1956 during my first stay in Arctic Quebec. He welcomed me to Kuujjuaq, offering the hospitality of his mission, and told me about the novel Sanaaq. In his hands was the first part, written in pencil with almost nothing crossed out or added. It had been transliterated into Roman letters, with the author’s help, before he had left Kangirsujuaq, and had also been partially translated. But the spelling of the Inuit language had not yet been standardized and the imprecision of syllabic writing, the lack of punctuation, and the distance from the author made the job impossible for him to pursue. He read me some of the translation and my interest was aroused right away. It was not until 1961 that I finally met Mitiarjuk, during anthropological fieldwork at Kangirsujuaq. I convinced her to start writing again. The next year Father Lechat gave me his manuscript of Sanaaq so that I could work on it with Mitiarjuk."

It was through d'Anglure's ongoing assistance and contacts (and access to academic funding) that the book saw publication. (He used the experience of working with Napaaluk as the basis for his Ph.D dissertation.)

I was struck, in reading this, by the strong sense of community among the families whose stories are included in the novel. They support each other, feed each other, join in hunting and gathering firewood and other resources for each other. Napaaluk describes a life that is semi-nomadic - the community changes their camp's location several times - and focused on subsistence. Food is not just for nourishment, it plays an important social function - when people come to visit each other, they are offered 'arrival meals' as welcome to the new community, and 'going-away meals' when leaving, as recognition of the effort and use of energy in travelling in a difficult landscape. And when someone has been successful in hunting or fishing, it's often the signal for a community feast, with everyone invited to share in the meat from the kill. There are several occasions where hunters and fishers give part of their catch to the elders of the community, because they are not always able to find food for themselves.

In one chapter, in which several elders share legends, there is an exchange which I found unintentionally ironic, and deeply saddening. One if the young hunters, whose parents are dead, is instructed by an elder on how to identify animals that are healthy and thus safe to kill and eat. The young hunter and the elder talk about the role of elders in preserving the knowledge of the people:

"Thank you! I won’t forget any of what you’ve told me and which I didn’t know before. I need to be taught. Those who aren’t elders are less knowledgeable than those who are. Without elders the Inuit are nothing, for there is much knowledge that the elders alone possess!"

"My knowledge comes not from me but from my ancestors. It seems to be mine but, in fact, it comes to me from people who preceded me. I pass it on to all of you, to all of your descendants and all of your kinfolk!"

In the earlier parts of the story, there is little indication of the existence of white Europeans, beyond the use by hunters of guns. As the novel progresses, contacts with Europeans (called the Qallunaat by Sanaaq's people, literally meaning 'big eyebrows) become more frequently mentioned, until finally, the story records the arrival of Catholic missionaries and the first conversions among Sanaaq's community. In reading these passages, it's impossible to forget that Nappaaluk was herself a convert, who wrote the majority of her novel at the request of, and in consultation with, the Catholic priests who had cone to live in her community.

Later in the story, white 'Inuit agents' arrive, and establish an outpost near the area where Sanaaq's community makes their camp. Sanaaq's second husband accepts a contract job of several month's duration working for the Qallunaat at another place. The Inuit agents establish a system of cash payments to the elderly and to families with children, and later there are regular visits to the outpost from a community health nurse. There is now a store where Sanaaq and her relatives can purchase food, cloth, and other goods. Anglican missionaries arrive and there is a suggestion of some competition between the two religious groups for conversions.

The intervention of the Qallunaat - specifically the availability of Western medicine - is of direct significance to the story when first Sanaaq's young son almost drowns, and later, when Sanaaq experiences a violent battering from her husband which leaves her severely injured. The Qallunaat offer to fly her son out to a hospital if he does not recover - which he does - and then does fly Sanaaq to a hospital for treatment of her injuries. Her husband, meanwhile, is cautioned not to beat her again or he will go to jail.

Personal interactions - even sexual relationships - between Inuit and Qallunaat become part of the story of Sanaaq's community. In the later chapters - those written after Nappaaluk had begun to work with d'Anglure rather than the Catholic priests for whom she had begun her work - there are indications of the beginnings of patterns of abuse of the Inuit by Qallunaat sent into the north, although it's uncertain what Nappaaluk felt about the incidents she included.

In Sannaq, Nappaaluk has given us the gift of an account of traditional Inuit life, and of the beginnings of the relationship between Inuit and white settler-colonists in the North, from the viewpoint of an Inuk woman who witnessed the changes herself. It's a rare and precious gift, and I'm richer for having ben able to read it.

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2017-09-29 11:21 am

Joanna Hickson: First of the Tudors


Joanna Hickson, author of The Agincourt Bride and The Tudor Bride - novels dealing with the life of Catherine Valois, ancestress of the Tudors - continues to follow the early days of the Tudor dynasty with First of the Tudors, a novel featuring Catherine's second son, Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke.

In First of the Tudors, we see the early years of the Wars of the Roses through the eyes of a semi-outsider. Half-brother to Henry VI, son of a former queen of England and commoner and a Welshman, ennobled by his royal brother's wish but holding lands in rebellious Wales, Jasper is a Lancastrian by blood, and during the early years of the wars, fiercely loyal to his brother Henry.

Though it was Catherine's oldest son Edmund, Earl of Richmond, who would marry Margaret Beaufort and father the first Tudor monarch, it was Jasper's lifelong devotion to Margaret that ensured the survival of the young Henry VII and his ultimate rise to the throne. After Edmund's death - an early victim of the political and military maneuvering that preceded the civil war between Lancaster and York - Jasper took charge of Margaret, a pregnant widow only 13 years old. As Margaret was under the age of majority, Jasper was awarded guardianship of the infant Henry, and served as the young boy's protector and advisor for most of his life, despite a long separation during his nephew's youth, when his guardianship was granted elsewhere during the first portion of Edward IV's reign. Though Margaret maintained contact with Henry, and sought to advance his claim once he became, in essence, the last Lancastrian heir, her fate as a wealthy heiress under royal wardship meant that she was a valuable marriage prize, and was never in a position to raise her son herself.

Jasper's initial period of guardianship lasted for five years, from Henry's birth to the beginning of Edward IV's reign in 1461, when he was forced to flee the country, and the young Henry Tudor's guardianship granted to one of Edward's supporters.

Jasper spent the early years of the York reign either in exile, separated from both Margaret and the young Henry, or fighting against the Yorkists whenever he managed to secure financial backing from his royal French cousins. The novel follows his story up to the brief restoration of Henry VI to the throne in 1470.

Interspersed with his story is the fictional story of Sian - Jane in English - a Welsh woman who is Henry's governess for most of his early life, and also Jasper's lover and mother of two illegitimate daughters. (There is some indication - but little actual proof - that Jasper fathered one or more illegitimate children; their mother is usually identified as Myfanwy ferch Dafydd. Myfanwy who appear in the novel, but as the lover of Jasper's father Owen and mother of his youngest child Daffyd - who was real enough, but the name of his actual mother is unknown.)

The intimate details of Jasper's imagined family life, and Jane'e efforts to keep the Tudor children - young Daffyd and her own two daughters - safe through the turmoil of the civil war and the York reign help to flesh out and humanise the events in the young Henry Tudor's life during the period of Jasper's exile. Jane is loyal, brave, loving, resourceful and devoted to a man she can never marry, and is as much the protagonist of this tale as Jasper is.

One assumes a sequel is in the works, which will cover the resumption of power by the Yorks, the long years of exile in Brittany and France for both Jasper and the young Henry, now the last living male Lancashire heir, though with a tentative claim to the throne at best, and the accession of Henry VII to the throne. I'm looking forward to its publication.

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2017-09-26 03:45 pm

Essays: Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler



Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler, edited by Rebecca J. Holden and Nisi Shawl, is a collection of essays and other works exploring communication, contact, power, community, boundaries, sexuality, reproduction and related issues in Octavia Butler's writing. As Constant Reader may recall, Butler is one of my 'touchstone' writers, the ones whose work I keep thinking about and seeing influences and traces of her in other works, so you would expect me to be excited and delighted when Aqueduct Press released this; and you would be correct.

In their introductory essay to the collection, "Strange Matings and Their Progeny: A Legacy of Conversations, Thoughts, Writings, and Actions," Holden and Shawl explore the many meanings of Butler's boundary-crossing matings:

"A mating between a human and a dolphin is far from the strangest of the strange matings in the fiction of Octavia E. Butler. Butler writes about matings between humans and a large variety of other beings, such as blue-furred aliens, tentacled aliens of three different sexes, insect-like aliens whose eggs hatch inside human hosts, and perhaps strangest of all, matings between all the varied categories of humans that we have divided ourselves into.

What is most significant about all of the matings in Butler’s work, however, is not their strangeness, but what such matings produce or lead to — and the necessity of those matings. For Butler’s characters, the inevitable crossing and blurring of boundaries such matings entail often bring with them physical and emotional pain. Still, Butler shows us that these matings are key to her characters’ survival, both for the individual and for the group. Sometimes that survival is raw, as in Dawn, when Butler’s human protagonists mate with aliens in order to avoid extinction, and in Kindred, when slaves mate with their masters in order to preserve their own lives. And sometimes it is much more, as in the celebration of survival that Anyanwu engages in with her dolphin mate above.

Butler herself crossed many boundaries — perhaps to ensure a certain kind of survival for herself and her ideas of what we might become. In the most obvious of these boundary crossings, she, an African-American woman, crossed into the then mostly white, male arena of science fiction in the 1970s, demonstrating that women of color could successfully inhabit the worlds of science fiction. At the same time, she refused to let either herself or her writing be solely defined by her race or her gender — though both affected her subject matter and overall themes. In this way, she also crossed into the mostly white, middle class arena of 1970s feminism."

The bulk of the pieces in this collection are critical explorations of Butler's work - there are essays devoted to the Patternist books, Kindred, the Xenogenesis trilogy, the Parable duology, and some that explore multiple facets of her work. There are also reminiscences by friends and colleagues, selections from an interview conducted by Nisi Shawl, and some creative responses in dialogue with her work. It's a good mix of the academic and the anecdotal, the formal and the personal.

The essays do an exceptional job of elucidating Butler's themes and ideas - for her books are, unabashedly, novels about ideas, novels to make the reader uncomfortable, to make her think about such weighty issues as gender and race, power, coercion and choice in a world of oppressors and oppressions, community, change, and the future of humanity. As Steven Shaviro writes in the essay "Exceeding the Human: Power and Vulnerability in Octavia Butler’s Fiction,"

"Butler’s novels produce feelings that exceed the human and that therefore imply new, different forms of subjectivity than are recognized in ordinary life (or in ordinary, “mimetic” fiction). They offer little hope of release, transcendence, or liberation. They sometimes flirt with religio-ethical responses to the traumas they depict (this is most notable in the two Parables ); but they always also emphasize the fictiveness of such responses. Butler’s novels often envision the posthuman, the transhuman, and the hybrid-no-longer-quite-human; but they never portray these in the salvational terms that white technogeeks are so prone to. Above all, Butler’s novels never pretend to alleviate the pain that they so eloquently describe and evoke: in this sense, they are utterly, shockingly clear as to the forms of domination and oppression that are so often taken for granted in our (post)modern, highly technologized, and supposedly enlightened world. They bear witness to the intolerable, to how much of our social life today remains intolerable. This makes them indispensable, both aesthetically and politically. I think that we still have a lot to learn from Butler’s texts: about how to understand human limits and constraints without turning such an understanding into an apologia for the current ruling order; about how to construct a politics of the Other; and about how to think about the posthuman, the no-longer-merely-human. And above all, Butler’s novels teach us about a politics of affect — not a politics of emotions against reason, but one that rejects such binary alternatives altogether."

At the same time, the personal reminiscences by friends and colleagues give the reader a sense of the person, gifted and gracious but often struggling to refine her voice, that Butler was - and how deeply she affected and influenced a generation of writers who knew and studied with her, and how much she has been missed within the science fiction community.

This collection is many things - an introduction to critical thinking about Butler's work, a glimpse into the way her community saw her, and a tribute to her memory. And in my humble opinion, it's essential reading for serious Butler fans.
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2017-09-26 01:25 pm

Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic: Critical Race Theory, An Introduction




An Internet acquaintance posted a link to an online course on Critical Race Theory offered by Adrienne Keene at Brown University, and while I'm not in a position to formally enroll in, or even audit, a course, I thought that it might be both interesting and useful to read as many of the assigned books and articles as I could access.

One of the core texts is Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic (foreword by Angela Harris), which I was able to download via a link in the course syllabus.

In their introduction, Delgado and Stefancic say: "The critical race theory (CRT) movement is a collection of activists and scholars interested in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power. The movement considers many of the same issues that conventional civil rights and ethnic studies discourses take up, but places them in a broader perspective that includes economics, history, context, group- and self-interest, and even feelings and the unconscious. Unlike traditional civil rights, which embraces incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law."

They go on to provide a brief history of the Critical Race Theory (CRT) movement and to identify the fore principles that most CRT scholars and activists would agree are the foundational ideas of CRT:

"First, that racism is ordinary, not aberrational—“normal science,” the usual way society does business, the common, everyday experience of most people of color in this country. Second, most would agree that our system of white-over-color ascen- dancy serves important purposes, both psychic and material. ...

A third theme of critical race theory, the “social construction” thesis, holds that race and races are products of social thought and relations. Not objective, inherent, or fixed, they correspond to no biological or genetic reality; rather, races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient."

Other crucial concepts in CRT are differential racialization - the recognition that different minority groups are defined, treated and represented in different ways at different times by the dominant culture in response to its changing needs and interests - and intersectionality - a concept developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw, which holds that "No person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity."

Finally, CRT argues that people of colour offer unique perspectives and knowledge on issues with a racial component: "... the voice-of-color thesis holds that because of their different histories and experiences with oppression, black, Indian, Asian, and Latino/a writers and thinkers may be able to communicate to their white counterparts matters that the whites are unlikely to know."

The concepts outlined in the text are not new to anyone who has been at all engaged in anti-racism action or discourse in recent years, but I found that there was value in seeing these basic tenets organised in a logical fashion, and seeing how they flowed from and built upon each other to create a way of seeing race in North American society. As an activist who began thinking and reading about these matters in the late 60s, and who has tried to keep current with the many changes and refinements, advances and extensions of theory over the decades, a primer in modern race theory is also an excellent source for absorbing not just new theory, but new terminology, and a resource for scholarship in more specific areas of the field of study.

I'm very glad that I happened upon this text, and decided to read it. And I'm looking forward to further readings from the course syllabus (which can be found here: https://blogs.brown.edu/amst-2220j-s01-2017-fall/syllabus/).

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2017-09-25 06:04 pm

Michelle Alexander: The New Jim Crow



Michelle Alexander's book on the carceral state, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, is rightfully on most lists of essential books to read for an understanding of race in America. It is a masterful indictment of the ways in which the American justice and penal systems continue the job of the former "Jim Crow" laws, of keeping black Americans in the role of second-class citizens, with limited rights and reduced access to everything from jobs to participation in the political system. As Alexander notes in her Introduction,

"The stark and sobering reality is that, for reasons largely unrelated to actual crime trends, the American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history. And while the size of the system alone might suggest that it would touch the lives of most Americans, the primary targets of its control can be defined largely by race."

She goes on to say that " ...despite the unprecedented levels of incarceration in the African American community, the civil rights community is oddly quiet. One in three young African American men is currently under the control of the criminal justice system—in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole—yet mass incarceration tends to be categorized as a criminal justice issue as opposed to a racial justice or civil rights issue (or crisis)."

In The New Jim Crow, Alexander demonstrates with overwhelming evidence that mass incarceration is indeed a racial justice issue, and one that should he at the forefront of the social justice agenda.

"This book argues that mass incarceration is, metaphorically, the New Jim Crow and that all those who care about social justice should fully commit themselves to dismantling this new racial caste system. Mass incarceration—not attacks on affirmative action or lax civil rights enforcement—is the most damaging manifestation of the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement. The popular narrative that emphasizes the death of slavery and Jim Crow and celebrates the nation’s “triumph over race” with the election of Barack Obama, is dangerously misguided. The colorblind public consensus that prevails in America today—i.e., the widespread belief that race no longer matters—has blinded us to the realities of race in our society and facilitated the emergence of a new caste system."

Alexander begins her argument with a discussion of past 'racial caste systems' - slavery and the Jim Crow - and how the same results are created again and again by changing social structures and institutions: "... there is a certain pattern to the births and deaths of racial caste in America. Time and again, the most ardent proponents of racial hierarchy have succeeded in creating new caste systems by triggering a collapse of resistance across the political spectrum. This feat has been achieved largely by appealing to the racism and vulnerability of lower-class whites, a group of people who are understandably eager to ensure that they never find themselves trapped at the bottom of the American totem pole. This pattern, dating back to slavery, has birthed yet another racial caste system in the United States: mass incarceration."

The essence of Alexander's argument is demonstrated through detailed historical research. She shows clearly how, almost from the moment of emancipation following the civil war, unjust laws and prisons that are little more than enforced eork camps have been used to perform the same social functions that slavery did, to deny human rights, civil rights, and the rights of citizenship to black Americans, and to coerce their labour to support the economy to the benefit of white Americans. Of the Reconstruction Era, she writes that "... tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested during this period, many of them hit with court costs and fines, which had to be worked off in order to secure their release. With no means to pay off their “debts,” prisoners were sold as forced laborers to lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, farms, plantations, and dozens of corporations throughout the South. Death rates were shockingly high, for the private contractors had no interest in the health and well-being of their laborers, unlike the earlier slave-owners who needed their slaves, at a minimum, to be healthy enough to survive hard labor."

The Jim Crow era - the name is most likely derived from a popular minstrel show character - stretched from the Reconstruction to the post-WWII period, when changes began to appear, sparked by the nascent civil rights movement, the growing presences in politics of blacks in the North, and a desire to actualise the American ideals of freedom and equality which were made much of during the war. Of the Jim Crow era itself, Alexander notes that "By the turn of the twentieth century, every state in the South had laws on the books that disenfranchised blacks and discriminated against them in virtually every sphere of life, lending sanction to a racial ostracism that extended to schools, churches, housing, jobs, restrooms, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, orphanages, prisons, funeral homes, morgues, and cemeteries. Politicians competed with each other by proposing and passing ever more stringent, oppressive, and downright ridiculous legislation (such as laws specifically prohibiting blacks and whites from playing chess together). The public symbols and constant reminders of black subjugation were supported by whites across the political spectrum, though the plight of poor whites remained largely unchanged."

But even as Jim Crow laws were challenged and civil rights were - at least formally - gained for American blacks, the development of a 'law and order' focus that would ultimately lead to today's carceral state had begun. In federal and state legislatures, the strongest supporters of law and order platforms were the same politicians who opposed civil rights legislation. Initially, race-based arguments were openly used by the 'law and order' proponents - they pointed to lower crime rates in the south where segregation remained the unwritten law of the land and referred to civil rights protestors as criminals.

Later, the racism in the law and order platform because implicit, with the concept of a 'culture of poverty' which led to crime standing in for a direct association between being black and being more prone to criminality. This 'colourblind' language became the norm among conservative politicians by the time that Reagan sought office:

"In his campaign for the presidency, Reagan mastered the “excision of the language of race from conservative public discourse” and thus built on the success of earlier conservatives who developed a strategy of exploiting racial hostility or resentment for political gain without making explicit reference to race. Condemning “welfare queens” and criminal “predators,” he rode into office with the strong support of disaffected whites—poor and working-class whites who felt betrayed by the Democratic Party’s embrace of the civil rights agenda. As one political insider explained, Reagan’s appeal derived primarily from the ideological fervor of the right wing of the Republican Party and “the emotional distress of those who fear or resent the Negro, and who expect Reagan somehow to keep him ‘in his place’ or at least echo their own anger and frustration.” To great effect, Reagan echoed white frustration in race-neutral terms through implicit racial appeals. His “colorblind” rhetoric on crime, welfare, taxes, and states’ rights was clearly understood by white (and black) voters as having a racial dimension, though claims to that effect were impossible to prove. The absence of explicitly racist rhetoric afforded the racial nature of his coded appeals a certain plausible deniability. For example, when Reagan kicked off his presidential campaign at the annual Neshoba County Fair near Philadelphia, Mississippi—the town where three civil rights activists were murdered in 1964—he assured the crowd “I believe in states’ rights,” and promised to restore to states and local governments the power that properly belonged to them. His critics promptly alleged that he was signaling a racial message to his audience, suggesting allegiance with those who resisted desegregation, but Reagan firmly denied it, forcing liberals into a position that would soon become familiar—arguing that something is racist but finding it impossible to prove in the absence of explicitly racist language."

With the introduction of the "war on drugs" the pieces were finally in place for a massive increase in law and order funding to provide more police and more prisons. Signalling its true goals with clarity, the federal budget for law enforcement grew in the wake of the war on drugs while spending on drug prevention, education and treatment programs was cut. At the same time, urban black men - most of whom had traditionally worked in blue collar jobs requiring minimal education - were facing an employment crisis due largely to globalisation and the shift from an industrial to a service based economy. Poverty, unemployment, the introduction of crack cocaine into urban centres, increased policing, welfare crackdowns and a 'tough on crime' policy among bith conservatives and liberals set the stage for mass incarceration and disenfranchisement of black Americans.

"The law and order perspective, first introduced during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement by rabid segregationists, had become nearly hegemonic two decades later. By the mid-1990s, no serious alternatives to the War on Drugs and “get tough” movement were being entertained in mainstream political discourse. Once again, in response to a major disruption in the prevailing racial order—this time the civil rights gains of the 1960s—a new system of racialized social control was created by exploiting the vulnerabilities and racial resentments of poor and working-class whites. More than 2 million people found themselves behind bars at the turn of the twenty-first century, and millions more were relegated to the margins of mainstream society, banished to a political and social space not unlike Jim Crow, where discrimination in employment, housing, and access to education was perfectly legal, and where they could be denied the right to vote. The system functioned relatively automatically, and the prevailing system of racial meanings, identities, and ideologies already seemed natural. Ninety percent of those admitted to prison for drug offenses in many states were black or Latino, yet the mass incarceration of communities of color was explained in race-neutral terms, an adaptation to the needs and demands of the current political climate. The New Jim Crow was born."

Alexander examines in depth the ways in which the 'war on drugs' has been used as a justification for massive investment in policing and prisons, changes in the execution of laws which make arrest and conviction easier, and incentives from grants to military equipment to asset seizures which motivate police departments to focus their resources on drug-related crime. Starting with the legal processes of warrants, search and seizure of evidence, she follows the trail through to incarceration and disenfranchisement, and the denial of access to employment, housing, education, professional certification and other essentials of living to released felons, showing the coded racism of anti-drug and anti-crime propaganda, legislation and police action, and demonstrating the ways in which the system operates to disproportionately target black communities.

In the final section of the book, Alexander addresses the massive challenge posed by any attempt to end this prison-centred system of racial caste control. The end of the carceral state requires first the end of the War on Drugs and the ideas that black communities are the primary centre of drug activity, that black men are the primary actors in the drug trade. The first principle of change, then requires an "understanding that any movement to end mass incarceration must deal with mass incarceration as a racial caste system, not as a system of crime control." In order to achieve this understanding, Americans must be willing to give up the false ideal of 'colourblindness' and look at - and have a national conversation on - the realities of race.

In considering the factors that have worked against the development of a clear consciousness of racial inequity, Alexander makes an interesting argument for the end of affirmative action:

"Racial justice advocates should consider, with a degree of candor that has not yet been evident, whether affirmative action—as it has been framed and defended during the past thirty years—has functioned more like a racial bribe than a tool of racial justice. One might wonder, what does affirmative action have to do with mass incarceration? Well, perhaps the two are linked more than we realize. We should ask ourselves whether efforts to achieve “cosmetic” racial diversity—that is, reform efforts that make institutions look good on the surface without the needed structural changes—have actually helped to facilitate the emergence of mass incarceration and interfered with the development of a more compassionate race consciousness."

She goes on to itemise the specific reasons behind this proposition: "... (a) it has helped to render a new caste system largely invisible; (b) it has helped to perpetuate the myth that anyone can make it if they try; (c) it has encouraged the embrace of a “trickle down theory of racial justice”; (d) it has greatly facilitated the divide-and-conquer tactics that gave rise to mass incarceration; and (e) it has inspired such polarization and media attention that the general public now (wrongly) assumes that affirmative action is the main battlefront in U.S. race relations." Alexander makes a strong argument that, by facilitating a small number of success stories that showcase 'black exceptionalism,' affirmative action actually supports the continuation of the carceral state by seeming to say that 'if these black individuals can succeed, that means the failure if most to do so is rooted in personal choices and decisions, not systemic racism.'

Her closing thoughts on the path to an end to the carceral state and the beginning of a society based on social justice for all look back to the shift that Martin Luther King Jr. was moving toward when his life and evolution as a leader for social change was brutally ended. As he said in introducing the idea of the Poor People's Campaign, "I think it is necessary for us to realize that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights…[W]hen we see that there must be a radical redistribution of economic and political power, then we see that for the last twelve years we have been in a reform movement…That after Selma and the Voting Rights Bill, we moved into a new era, which must be an era of revolution…In short, we have moved into an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society."

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2017-09-23 05:01 am

Essays and Images: Revealing Ancestral Central America

​Revealing ​Ancestral ​Central ​America, edited by Rosemary ​Joyce, is one of those museum books intended for slow grazing, on both images and text. As are many such books, it was prepared for publication to accompany an exhibition - the Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America ́s Past Revealed, a joint project of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) and the Smithsonian Latino Center.

The images are primarily of artefacts found in the Central American collection of the NMAI. The texts were written by diverse experts and scholars and have the stated intention of revealing "the lives of the ancestors of the indigenous, mestizo, and afromestizo peoples of Central America." In a Foreword penned by NMAI Director Kevin Cover, of the Pawnee nation, and Eduardo Diaz, Executive Director of the Smithsonian Latino Center, say that:

"Herein we honor the enduring, economically and politically stable cultural traditions of pre-Hispanic Central America through their exceptional material culture. Sharing this cultural patrimony and acknowledging its value is both our challenge and our responsibility, and we gladly take up the charge."

I've long been interested in both the art and the way of life of cultures not my own, past snd present. The artefacts presented for display in this volume give us (a modern, Western museum-going audience) a look at these aspects of Central American peoples, and the accompanying articles an overview of what is known or theorised about them. These contain fascinating discussions of art, government, trade, industry, everyday life, religious life, and other elements of the various Central American cultures. The artefacts chosen for presentation in this volume range from household items to decorative pieces and ritual objects, and represent a number of different cultures and time periods. There is much to engage the eye as well as the mind here.

Some of the articles are also valuable for discussions of how scientists and scholars do their work - the practices and paradigms of archeology and anthropology - and how artefacts such as these are collected and curated. The articles that discuss acquisition do not shy away from acknowledging a past of looting, theft, reckless excavation and other issues, but give only cursory consideration the the question of who has the right to collect, display (and benefit from) the cultural artefacts of indigenous peoples.

Unanswered questions: how many of these artefacts were in essence stolen? How many have sacred or culturally significant importance that would, if respected, mean they should not be publicly displayed? Are there people who can be considered as legitimate inheritors of the cultures represented, and if so, have they asked for the return of any of these artefacts to their native environment? Has anyone approached those inheritors and asked permission to retain these artefacts on display?
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2017-09-16 02:18 am

Alison Weir: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen




The Tudor dynasty fascinates me. Perhaps mostly because it culminated in one of England's most remarkable monarchs, Elizabeth I. Perhaps because of its role in history, as the beginning of England's emergence as one of the great powers of Europe in its own right. Perhaps because of the great religious turmoil surrounding the Anglicisation of the English church. And perhaps because of its beginnings in illicit love affairs - one between a widowed Valois princess and a minor Welsh lord, the other between a son of a king and the widow of a simple knight. I'm certainly not alone; the great figures of the Tudor era - Henry VIII, his two most notable wives, the faithful Katherine of Aragon and the enigmatic Anne Boleyn, and his daughters, Queens Mary and Elizabeth - are probably among the most written-about figures of English history.

And so, no matter how many interpretations, fact or fiction, I encounter of these towering figures, it seems I'm always ready for 'just one more.'

Having recently read Alison Weir's novel of Anne Boleyn, it seemed only proper that I read the first in her series about the queens of Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen. Weir's research and scholarship gives the novel a richness of detail, and I think in this novel she succeeds in giving us a fully humanised portrait of her subject, something that I found lacking in her book about Anne Boleyn. Katherine's journey from naive princess to a queen who has seen too many betrayals, her love for Henry and growing sorrow over her failure to bear a male heir, her steadfast insistence on the legitimacy of her marriage and her one living child, the loneliness, isolation, and pain of separation from her daughter as the divorce proceedings advanced - all these are written with a ring of emotional truth.

Weir writes in an Author's Note: "I have tried in these pages to evoke the sights, textures, sounds, and smells of an age, a lost world of splendor and brutality, and a court in which love, or the game of it, held sway, but dynastic pressures overrode any romantic considerations. It was a world dominated by faith and by momentous religious change—and a world in which there were few saints. This was Katherine’s world, and we can only understand her properly within its context."

In my view, she has succeeded in her goal.

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2017-09-13 03:04 pm

Keeanga-Yamahtta ​Taylor: From ​#BlackLivesMatter ​to ​Black ​Liberatio



Keeanga-Yamahtta ​Taylor, African American scholar, socialist and academic - she is assistant professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University - offers a profoundly incisive and extensively researched study of US politics American racism and Black resistance in recent decades in her book From ​#BlackLivesMatter ​to ​Black ​Liberation.

Taylor's viewpoint is grounded in both socialist and anti-racist theory - and her analysis looks at both economic and cultural forces. Taylor's focus here is on the era from the civil rights movement to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the similarities and differences between the two movements, and ultimately on "the potential for a much broader anticapitalist movement that looks to transform not only the police but the entire United States." However, she begins her analysis with an examination of America's history as a racist state, from the earliest foundation of a slave-based economy to the exclusion of Black Americans from the benefits of the New Deal. In particular, Taylor points to the effects that the cultural myth of "American exceptionalism" has had, particularly in the Cold War period, in suppressing any consideration of institutional and systemic injustice in American society, and the subsequent evolution of the idea of the "culture of poverty" as the reason for the existence of economic and social inequity in the supposedly freest and most economically mobile country in the world.

"The government and its proponents in the financial world were making a global claim that the United States was good to its Black population, and at the same time they were promoting capitalism and private enterprise as the highest expressions of freedom. American boosters sustained the fiction of the “culture of poverty” as the pretext for the persisting inequality between Blacks and the rest of the country. In some ways, this was even more important as the United States continued its quest to project itself as an economic and political empire. Cold War liberalism was a political framework that viewed American racial problems as existing outside of or unrelated to its political economy and, more importantly, as problems that could be fixed within the system itself by changing the laws and creating 'equal opportunity.' "

Taylor notes the beginnings of a wider understanding of racial inequity as a systemic issue - and one with material as well as cultural elements -during the civil rights movement of the early 1960s, the extension of the welfare state under Johnson, and most significantly, in the multiple Black Liberation movements, and particularly The Black Panthers - that followed in the latter half of the 1960s.

"Hundreds of thousands of Black Americans drew even more radical conclusions about the nature of Black oppression in the United States as they were drawn directly into the radicalizing movement; hundreds of thousands more sympathized with the rebellions. The struggle broke through the isolation and confinement of life in segregated Black ghettos and upended the prevailing explanation that Blacks were responsible for the conditions in their neighborhoods. Mass struggle led to a political understanding of poverty in Black communities across the country. Black media captured stories of injustice as well as the various struggles to organize against it, feeding this process and knitting together a common Black view of Black oppression while simultaneously providing an alternative understanding for white people. A Harris poll taken in the summer of 1967, after major riots in Detroit and Newark, found 40 percent of whites believed that “the way Negroes have been treated in the slums and ghettos of big cities” and “the failure of white society to keep its promises to Negroes” were the leading causes of the rebellion. Many, including Martin Luther King Jr., began to connect Black oppression to a broader critique of capitalism."

Unfortunately, as Taylor demonstrates, this early materialist critique of the philosophies and methods of institutionalised racism faded in the 1970s as more conservative, 'personal responsibility' narratives take the central place in the debate on both racism and poverty, and the doctrine of 'colourblindness' emerged as a means of appearing non-racist while continuing to engage in administrative and economic practices that were inherently unjust to people of colour.

"Nixon’s turn to focusing on crime fit snugly with his broader use of colorblindness to champion his domestic policies. There was no need to invoke race in this campaign for law and order, but the consequences of the policies could not have been clearer. Crime was committed by bad people who made bad choices—it was not the product of an unequal social order that left Blacks and Puerto Ricans, in particular, isolated in urban enclaves with little access to good jobs, housing, or schools in a worsening economy. Instead, inequality left poor and working-class people of color to their own devices to advance in a society that had made next to no provisions for them to do so through legal or normative means. These kinds of constrained “choices” were made in white enclaves as well, but those were less surveilled and less likely to be criminalized by the police and the criminal justice system as a whole."

As the political climate in America became increasingly conservative in the years following Nixon - even among Democrats, but alarmingly so among Republicans - the twin narratives of colourblindness and the 'culture of poverty' became fixed as the foundations of public policy. Even among the middle class Blacks who increasingly gained access to positions of political and economic power, these narratives went unchallenged, while social and economic conditions worsened for poor blacks (and other people of colour). By the time that conditions were ripe for the emergence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, as Taylor notes in comparing the situation in 2014 immediately prior to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson to that preceding the emergence if the civil rights movement, "The main difference is that today, when poor or working-class Black people experience hardship, that hardship is likely being overseen by an African American in some position of authority. The development of the Black political establishment has not been a benign process. Many of these officials use their perches to articulate the worst stereotypes of Blacks in order to shift blame away from their own incompetence."

Taylor sees the betrayal of black communities by black politicians and elites as the inevitable outgrowth of a switch from grassroots resistance and critique of the political and economic power structure structures to a strategy based on electoral politics - one which, due to the nature of the political process in America left black politicians financially beholden to corporate money and conservative voting bloc brokers.

After examining political viewpoints surrounding the oppression of Black Americans, Taylor turns to an examination of racism and violence toward Blacks in criminal justice institutions.

At the turn of the twentieth century, African Americans began their long transition from living largely in rural areas to living predominantly in urban ones. In that time, there have been many changes in Black life, politics, and culture, but the threat and reality of police surveillance, scrutiny, violence, and even murder has remained remarkably consistent. The daily harm caused by the mere presence of police in Black communities has been a consistent feature of Black urban history and, increasingly, Black suburban history. Police brutality has been a consistent badge of inferiority and second-class citizenship. When the police enforce the law inconsistently and become the agents of lawlessness and disorder, it serves as a tangible reminder of the incompleteness of formal equality. You cannot truly be free when the police are able to set upon you at will, for no particular reason at all. It is a constant reminder of the space between freedom and “unfreedom,” where the contested citizenship of African Americans is held."

She opens with a discussion of laws restricting black movement, employment and home rental/ownership after the Civil War, laws whose violation was punished by enforced labour on municipal projects - thus beginning the carceral-based slavery system that has replaced the plantation-based slavery system.

"The desperate need for labor seemed insatiable; it turned all Black people into potential suspects and justified surveillance and scrutiny. Convict leasing was lucrative for employers compared to slavery, since it involved lower overhead expenses. As one observer put it, “Before the war we owned the Negroes. If a man had a good nigger, he could afford to take care of him; if he was sick get a doctor. He might even put gold plugs in his teeth. But these convicts: we don’t own ’em. One dies, get another.” The police were the linchpin to this new arrangement."

Having set the scene, as it were, by delineating the history of the conditions - institutional racism and its consequences for the average black person, police brutality, the narrative of a 'culture of poverty' and the co-opting of the black elite - which could, given the necessary spark, bring about a new Black liberation movement, Taylor takes a close look at the Obama regime and its influence on perceptions of racism. She recalls the initial optimism of blacks and progressive whites at the election of a black man to the office of President:

"The excitement about Obama turned into postelection euphoria. That was certainly the feeling in Chicago on election night, when a cross-section of the city converged in Grant Park to hear the country’s first Black president-elect address the nation. It was a rare, almost strange scene to see a multiracial crowd gathered in Chicago, one of the most segregated cities in the United States. That was the power of Obama’s calls for hope and change. On the eve of President Obama’s inauguration, 69 percent of Black respondents told CNN pollsters that Martin Luther King’s vision had been 'fulfilled.' In early 2011, asked whether they expected their children’s standard of living to be better or worse than their own, 60 percent of Blacks chose “better,” compared with only 36 percent of whites. This was not just blind hope: it was the expectation that things would, in fact, be better. One researcher described the broader context: 'Certainly, the Obama presidency has fueled euphoria in black circles. But even before Obama came on the scene, optimism was building—most notably among a new generation of black achievers who refused to believe they would be stymied by the bigotry that bedeviled their parents. Obama’s election was, in effect, the final revelation—the long awaited sign that a new American age had arrived.' "Now we have a sense of future,' said Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson. 'All of a sudden you have a stake. That stake is extremely important. If you have a stake, now there’s risk—you realize the consequences of compromising an unknowable future.' Almost 75 percent of African Americans in the South said that Obama would help America rid itself of racial prejudice. Forbes ran an enthusiastic editorial opinion in December 2008 titled 'Racism in America Is Over.' "

Disillusionment with Obama's reticence on racial issues and acceptance of the 'culture of poverty narrative among Blacks helped to build a loose coalition between social justice activists and the economic justice activists of the fledgling Occupy Wall Street movement.

"...Black Occupy activists organized “Occupy the Hood,” whose goal was to raise the profile of the Occupy movement in communities of color across the country and widen the range of people involved. Some “Occupy the Hood” organizers had also been involved in organizing against “stop-and-frisk.” Thus, not only did Occupy popularize economic and class inequality in the United States by demonstrating against corporate greed, fraud, and corruption throughout the finance industry, it also helped to make connections between those issues and racism. The public discussion over economic inequality rendered incoherent both Democratic and Republican politicians’ insistence on locating Black poverty in Black culture. While it obviously did not bury the arguments for culture and “personal responsibility,” Occupy helped to create the space for alternative explanations within mainstream politics, including seeing Black poverty and inequality as products of the system. The vicious attack and crackdown on the unarmed and peaceful Occupy encampments over the winter and into 2012 also provided a lesson about policing in the United States: the police were servants of the political establishment and the ruling elite. Not only were they racist, they were also shock troops for the status quo and bodyguards for the 1 percent."

Taylor pinpoints the killing of Trayvon Martin as the turning point that led to the coalescence of the BlackLivesMatter movement. Despite protests, demonstrations and attempts by Black and anti-racist activists to challenge the narrative, Martin was characterised as a dangerous criminal and his killer, George Zimmerman, as a victim.

"Out of despair over the verdict, community organizer Alicia Garza posted a simple hashtag on Facebook: “#blacklivesmatter.” It was a powerful rejoinder that spoke directly to the dehumanization and criminalization that made Martin seem suspicious in the first place and allowed the police to make no effort to find out to whom this boy belonged. It was a response to the oppression, inequality, and discrimination that devalue Black life every day. It was everything, in three simple words. Garza would go on, with fellow activists Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, to transform the slogan into an organization with the same name: #BlackLivesMatter. In a widely read essay on the meaning of the slogan and the hopes for their new organization, Garza described #BlackLivesMatter as 'an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.' "

While the death of Martin ad the acquittal of his killer marked the beginning of the BlackLivesMatter movement, Taylor identifies the crucial moment when that ignited mass resistance in the killing of Michael Brown:

"For reasons that may never be clear, Brown’s death was a breaking point for the African Americans of Ferguson—but also for hundreds of thousands of Black people across the United States. Perhaps it was the inhumanity of the police leaving Brown’s body to fester in the hot summer sun for four and a half hours after killing him, keeping his parents away at gunpoint and with dogs. “We was treated like we wasn’t parents, you know?” Mike Brown Sr., said. “That’s what I didn’t understand. They sicced dogs on us. They wouldn’t let us identify his body. They pulled guns on us.” Maybe it was the military hardware the police brandished when protests against Brown’s death arose. With tanks and machine guns and a never-ending supply of tear gas, rubber bullets, and swinging batons, the Ferguson police department declared war on Black residents and anyone who stood in solidarity with them."

As she recounts the growing response to the deaths of Brown and other black boys and men at the hands of police across the country, Taylor draws clear distinctions between the positions of the black 'older statesmen' such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson who sought to defuse tensions and re-establish the legitimacy of the government in dealing with police violence and racism, and the younger generations of activists who sought immediate and direct action.

"The young people of Ferguson had great reverence and respect for the memory of the civil rights movement, but the reality is that its legacy meant little in their everyday lives. “I feel in my heart that they failed us,” Dontey Carter said of contemporary civil rights leaders. “They’re the reason things are like this now. They don’t represent us. That’s why we’re here for a new movement. And we have some warriors out here.” When Jesse Jackson Sr. arrived in Ferguson, he was confronted by a local activist, who said, “When you going to stop selling us out, Jesse? We don’t want you here in St. Louis!” Other activists did not go that far, but they did note that young Black people had been thrust into leadership on the ground in Ferguson because they were the ones under attack."

Taylor notes other differences between the BLM movement and the more established Black civil rights organisations - the prominence of women and LGBT people, its decentralised structure and use of social media, the flexibility of its tactics, its work in coalition building with labour and other movements, and the development of a "systemic analysis of policing.... that situated policing within a matrix of racism and inequality in the United States and beyond."

In the book's final chapter, Taylor discusses the ways in which radicalisation on political and economic issues - an analysis that links capitalism to the material conditions that Black and other marginalised people are faced - with is a necessary part of the struggle for Black liberation. She reminds us of the socialist perspectives adopted by 60s activists such as the Combahee River Collective and the Black Panthers, and traces the roots of black radicalism in the United States from the early days of the Communist Party in that country. Beginning with the words of Karl Marx on the relation between colonial exploitation, slavery, and capitalism, she outlines a radical understanding of the relation between the capitalist system and the oppression of black people, leading to the conclusion that only a restructuring of society which embraces economic as well as social justice can bring about the goal of black liberation.

"Racism in the United States has never been just about abusing Black and Brown people just for the sake of doing so. It has always been a means by which the most powerful white men in the country have justified their rule, made their money, and kept the rest of us at bay. To that end, racism, capitalism, and class rule have always been tangled together in such a way that it is impossible to imagine one without the other. Can there be Black liberation in the United States as the country is currently constituted? No. Capitalism is contingent on the absence of freedom and liberation for Black people and anyone else who does not directly benefit from its economic disorder. That, of course, does not mean there is nothing to do and no struggle worth waging. Building the struggles against racism, police violence, poverty, hunger, and all of the ways in which oppression and exploitation express themselves is critical to people’s basic survival in this society. But it is also within those struggles for the basic rights of existence that people learn how to struggle, how to strategize, and build movements and organizations. It is also how our confidence develops to counter the insistence that this society, as it is currently constructed, is the best that we can hope to achieve. People engaged in struggle learn to fight for more by fighting for and winning something. But the day-to-day struggles in which many people are engaged today must be connected to a much larger vision of what a different world could look like."

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2017-09-12 05:16 am

Katharine Burdekin: Swastika Night



I've long been meaning to read Katharine Burdekin's classic dystopia, Swastika Night, and given the political climate of the day, now seemed an appropriate time to finally get around to it. What makes Swastika Night stand out among the other anti-fascist dystopias of its era is the explicit connection that Burdekin makes between fascist ideology and what we would now call 'toxic masculinity.' As Daphne Patai notes in the Introduction to this Feminist Press edition:

"Though Burdekin’s feminist critique appears in her realistic fiction and even in her children’s book, she excelled above all in the creation of utopian fiction, and the special vantage point afforded by the imaginative leap into other ‘societies’ resulted in her two most important books: Swastika Night (1937) and Proud Man (1934). When these novels first appeared, contemporary reviewers tended to miss Burdekin’s important critique of what we today call gender ideology and sexual politics, though on occasion they noted her feminist sympathies, which, indeed, led some to guess that ‘Murray Constantine’ was a woman. With this reprint of Swastika Night, Burdekin’s works may finally begin to find their audience.

Like fictional utopias (‘good places’), dystopias (‘bad places’) provide a framework for levelling criticisms at the writer’s own historical moment. But in imagining in Swastika Night a Europe after seven centuries of Nazi domination, Burdekin was doing something more than sounding a warning about the dangers of fascism. Burdekin’s novel is important for us today because her analysis of fascism is formulated in terms that go beyond Hitler and the specifics of his time. Arguing that fascism is not qualitatively but only quantitatively different from the everyday reality of male dominance, a reality that polarises males and females in terms of gender roles, Burdekin satirises ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ modes of behaviour. Nazi ideology, from this point of view, is the culmination of what Burdekin calls the ‘cult of masculinity’. It is this connection, along with the strong argument against the cult of masculinity, that set Burdekin’s novel apart from the many other anti-fascist dystopias produced in the 1930s and 40s."

In Burdekin's vision of a Fascist future, Teutonic myth, warped medievalism, and the history of a Hitlerian victory in WW2 merge into a religious cult of masculinity, where God the Thunderer and his holy son Hitler preside in heaven over a hierarchy that begins with the German political elite - the Fuehrer and the Ring of Ten - and then widens out to include the Knights, the rank and file Nazis, and then foreign 'Hitlerians' (the 'converts' from other, conquered and occupied countries), all of whom are men. At the bottom of the social order are women - deemed barely more than dumb animals - and Christian men and other 'heathens.' Men are seen as heroic, beautiful, noble, women as ugly, weak, fit only for bearing sons for the glory of Hitler. But in the first pages, the reader is let in on a dire secret that has greatly concerned the upper echelons of this society - fewer and fewer female children are being born to Hitlerian women, a trend which if continued will mean an end to the Hitlerian edifice and possibly to all of humanity.

The novel focuses on three men, of different stations in life: Hermann, a young German of the Nazi class, content to work on the land as his ancestors have, and a devout believer in Hitler; Alfred, an Englishman with whom he became friends (and possibly lovers, there is much homoeroticism in the relationships between men in the novel) during a period of military service in England, a sceptic who believes that if the mystery cult of Hitlerism can be broken, the German Empire can be destroyed; and the old Knight Von Hess, who has seen too much and knows too many secrets - even the secret of history - to believe in anything.

It's a dark dystopia, and much like Orwell's 1984, a dystopia in which even the occasional candlelight of understanding and rebellion against the oppression flickers only for a few minutes, and then is blown out. At the end of the novel, there's no breaking of the bonds, only the faintest hope that some knowledge of the past, of the idea that things could be different, will survive, and someday be found by someone who can use that knowledge to begin a change.

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2017-09-06 06:58 am

Anthology: Trials by Whiteness, Wiscon Chronicles Vol. 11



Trials by Whiteness, edited by science fiction author Jayme Goh, is the latest in Aqueduct Press' series of published essays and conversations arising from the annual WisCon (the oldest feminist-focused science fiction convention, held in Wisconsin). In recent years, Wiscon has ben making attempts to make its focus on feminism an intersectional one, looking at issues of representation, and safer space for POCs in conventions, among other things. In this, the Chronicles of the 40th WisCon, Goh has chosen to interrogate whiteness:

"I want to start a conversation on whiteness. We talk a great deal about representations of people of color in science fiction, because they are erased, invisiblized — they need to be foregrounded, in order to combat the overwhelming whiteness of the genre.

What we do not talk about is how whiteness, so pervasive, all-encompassing, is also invisible, like the water that fish live in. To talk about it is like naming racism — it’s bringing the bogeyman to life. In this logic, racism would not exist if we simply didn’t talk about it — similarly, the problem of whiteness, the problem of white culture, the problem of white supremacy, simply would not exist, because we do not talk about whiteness, do not pinpoint its murky edges. It is only a problem when Nazis are involved, and even then, mostly unremarked upon, because Nazis are not normal, so let’s not normalize them by talking about them."

She goes on to specify her theme as 'trials by whiteness': "... trials by whiteness that people of color face. The slow and steady stream of microaggressions and invalidations. The sudden eruptions of violence. The cold betrayals from loved ones in what should have been a safe and understanding space. We could talk about just white people, but the problem with whiteness is not really about white people per se, but about them in relation to non-white, the Other. To center white people in an analysis of whiteness is to repeat the problem."

The essays and creative works collected in this volume touch on this theme from many perspectives, in many voices. There's much to learn for this white reader in them. And much to remind me of how much I wish I could be a part of this community, these conversations, this learning and teaching and sharing.

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2017-08-28 07:31 am

Judith Merril: The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism



Judith Merril was one of the most influential American science fiction reviewers and editors of the 1960s. She introduced and championed the writers, works and revolutionary aesthetics of the British New Wave in North American, transforming the genre in the process.

In The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism: Judith Merril’s Nonfiction, part of Aqueduct Press' Heirloom series, editor Ritch Calvin has brought together a number of works that illustrate the evolution of Merril's critical theory: review columns, anthology introductions, and other selected essays.

Calvin's introduction to the collection, which he titles "Introduction: The SF Aesthetics of Judith Merril," is in fact an essay that sums up the key aspects of Merril's thinking about science fiction - which she often referred to as science fantasy - as a mature theory of criticism. The essays of Merril collected in the volume show the development of that theory through her ongoing examination of the works of sff writers over the years. They also, as Calvin notes, offer

"...a history of SF, SF authors and editors, and SF publishing. In her reviews, introductions, and tributes, she chronicles the lives and work of many prominent and lesser known figures. She details the lives and deaths of a number of writers and editors. And she recounts the developments within the field as they happened. Over a period of twelve years, we get yearly, and sometimes monthly, updates on who is publishing, what is being written, and how the field is changing."

Reading through the introductions - the earliest of which is for the first edition of SF: The Year's Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy, published in 1956, is indeed very much a journey through history. As I read her discussions of the authors and works included in these volumes - some of the names still well-known, others barely remembered - I found myself transported back in time, to the memories of the child reading all the sff books she could find in her local library, spending her precious allowance on sff monthly magazines and the occasional new book she found in the carousel bookstands that used to grace variety, department and grocery stores.

I'm grateful to these reminders of the past, to have brought back to mind stories and authors whose works are rarely in the "Best SF Short Stories" anthologies that pick a topic or a decade and republish the great stories that are always republished. I'm also happy to be learning about authors whose work I somehow never encountered as a child - in the hopes that I may some day find an online repository where I can read them now.

A wonderful book for anyone interested in learning about, or revisiting, the history of the genre.

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2017-08-25 04:49 pm

Erin Wunker: Notes from a Feminist Killjoy




I was not familiar with Erin Wunker before I decided that her collection of essays, Notes from a Feminist Killjoy: Essays on Everyday Life, sounded interesting and possibly something I'd like to read. In looking her up on the Internet, I've learned that she is a feminist critic, author, and academic, having taught at Dalhousie University, where I was a student for one year, many years ago, and also at Acadia University - my alma mater.

I was won over by her preface, "Letter to My Daughter" in which she wrote:

"When I write about having a gendered body in the world, I think, now, about your tiny infant body. I think, now, about the only kind of prayer I utter with fervency: May you be comfortable in your body and know it is yours. If your body doesn’t fit you, may we find ways to make it yours. May your body only know pleasure and empowerment. May we give you the language to say yes, to say no. May the world be gentle with you. May you not lose that unselfconscious you-ness we hear from your crib when you wake up, singing. May you know the fierceness of strong friendships with women. May you be kind. May you feel held. May you write your own stories."

Yes, I thought, this is someone whose thoughts I want to know more of.

In her introduction, she says of this book:

"This book is a record of me trying to write about feminism at the interstices of critical and literary theory, pop culture, and feminist thinking. At the intersection of those methods and epistemological routes is me. I’m writing in the I. I’m inserting myself in a long and varied tradition of women and other marginalized people working from a situated position of knowledge. I’m also busting in on and turning over tables within the other long tradition of speaking subjects who use I without thinking twice about the privilege that entails. Me, I think twice, three, even four times about that privilege."

Reading this book, I ran across something on almost every page that made me want to share it with the world. That's rare. Some of those passages are definitional sorts of things, from her Introduction. Let me share a few of these with you, dear reader.

"Patriarchal culture is by definition a culture in which masculinity—in people and in things—is privileged as inherently foundational to other states of being. In a patriarchal culture, systems, institutions, and social interactions reinforce this hierarchy. When you live in a patriarchal culture, as in any culture, you begin learning its rules and regulations, as well as the way you fit into them, almost immediately. It’s important to note that patriarchal culture is not an equitable culture. It’s unfair for women and women-identified people, and it’s also unfair for men, though these unfairnesses are not the same, nor do all people experience them the same way. Like any culture or way of being, patriarchal culture appears to be inscrutable. It is so entrenched in our psyches and our ways of moving through the world that it seems impossible to change. "

"Feminist: one who recognizes that the material conditions of contemporary life are built on inequities of gender, race, and class. One who recognizes that patriarchal culture is inherently coercive and stifling for women and other Others. One who works to make those inequities visible and one who works to tear them down. One who recognizes the enormity of the task. One who keeps working."

"Intersectional feminism is a feminist methodology—a way of being, thinking, and moving through the world—that takes into account the multiple factors that shape an individual’s or a group’s lived experience. For example: if we take as a common denominator the category “woman” without an intersectional approach to feminism, we might be tempted to suggest that all women everywhere have certain shared experiences. And then let’s augment this claim with Hortense Spiller’s observation that when people talk about “women” in feminist circles, they usually means “white women.” 15 An intersectional approach, however, takes into account the ways in which different oppressive conditions—sexism, ableism, homophobia, racism, transphobia, classism and so on—are interconnected. We cannot talk about one system in utter isolation from another. The lived experience of a working-class white woman is not identical to the lived experience of an upper-class Black woman or a middle-class trans woman or a woman student who is paraplegic. As legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw points out, we would do well to employ an intersectional lens when looking at different systems of oppression. An intersectional feminist approach takes time and vigilance and practice. It requires that we attune our perceptions to more than our own experiences, thus opening the possibility—the necessity—of attending to the experiences of others."

These are, to me, clear and powerful explanations of some of the most basic, and most foundational and important ideas of feminist thought.

Following on the Introduction, which bears the perfectly apt subhead "Notes for You, Reading," and is an introduction, not just to the book, but to the kind of feminist thinking on which the book is based, Wunker includes three 'essais' - deliberately using the French to invoke the sense of attempts - from the perspective of a feminist 'killjoy' - one who seeks to kill the kinds of joy that take place in a patriarchal culture, that are grounded in the oppression of the Othered - on the topics of rape culture, friendship, and motherhood.

Her writing here is both deeply personal and deeply theoretical, and she cites and discourses on the work of many other women - often women of colour, and women from French-speaking Canada, something that I deeply appreciated, having seen too many books that quote only from the usual white American sources - with maybe a little something from bell hooks or Audre Lorde thrown in as a token non-white voice. And it was a welcome change to read feminist analysis situated in a Canadian perspective.