Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Sound of Human Potential

I don’t often get the opportunity to marvel at the seemingly limitless potential of human beings to overcome severe personal obstacles. Usually, I’m motivated to write by cruelty, bigotry, foolishness, excess, crookery or some combination thereof. This post is different. A friend recently sent me a simply remarkable story (pulled from People Magazine, of all sources) about a young, blind man named Ben Underwood who uses echolocation to navigate the world around him. That’s right. Echolocation. Up until now, I’ve only heard this term applied to bats and dolphins as a way by which they emit high-pitched sounds to determine the distance and location of objects. In short, it’s the way these animals use sound to replace sight.

According to this incredible story, Ben Underwood a fourteen year old kid from Sacramento who, as a result of retinal cancer, has been completely blind since age three, is able to use echolocation to walk and run around, play basketball and video games, skateboard and perform a wide range of tasks without assistance from others. The authors of the article, Alex Tresniowski and Ron Arias write:

“Ben has learned to perceive and locate objects by making a steady stream of sounds with his tongue, then listening for the echoes as they bounce off the surfaces around him. About as loud as the snapping of fingers, Ben's clicks tell him what's ahead: the echoes they produce can be soft (indicating metals), dense (wood) or sharp (glass). Judging by how loud or faint they are, Ben has learned to gauge distances.”

It’s difficult for me to explain the joy I felt while reading this piece. Learning about Ben’s resourcefulness and courage was like receiving a salve. Here’s a young brother with prosthetic eyes whose motto is, “I’m not blind. I just can’t see,” and believes he can accomplish anything in this life that he chooses to undertake.

Yet, I’m certainly no Pollyanna. I realize the hardships that Ben will have to endure as he negotiates relationships or career, and the difficulties he’ll face when he leaves the nest and clambers into adulthood. I also recognize that he may occasionally be stymied by the pity, condescension and low expectations of others. But my hope is that Ben will surmount those challenges in much the same way that he has compensated for his blindness – with character and resolve. I also hope that those of us, like me, who are too often distracted by inanity and immorality, will, by Ben’s example, have their hope in human nature renewed. If only fleetingly.


Sunday, July 16, 2006

Never Ignorant Getting Goals Accomplished, That Is!

The Next Logical Step In The Evolution Of The Brand

I’d like to begin by saying that this is one of those topics that I generally try to avoid. Not because I think it’s completely unimportant. It’s just that I assume it should be obvious to everyone that white folks who don’t want to be mistaken for Klan members or neo-Nazis should avoid using the term nigger – or any of its derivatives – like they avoid E. Lynn Harris novels. Of course, by now, I should know better than to assume. I received this little gem in my email inbox a few days ago.

Now, I can almost hear some of my brethren saying, “See!?!?!? If WE didn’t use the term so liberally, then white folks wouldn’t have any excuse!” I’ve heard a few white people make this claim myself. After all, nigger is one of the few words that many of them still dare not say in mixed company. For well-meaning whites, it’s become taboo. So, when they hear some black people using it without forethought, they feel, somehow, cheated. They think that if it’s OK for us to use, it should be OK for them. Fair is fair.

Forgive me for saying so, but this is simply bullshit. White people have never needed any rationale for applying the term nigger to those of us with dark skin. Even if every loudmouth knucklehead and Post-Tupac MC on the planet placed a moratorium on the usage of the word, many white folks would still (some amongst themselves, some not) gleefully refer to black folks as niggers.

Fundamentally, I think that many of them are simply fascinated by the word and the power that they have, when they use it, to disrupt the equilibrium of black folks and others who might be offended by it. The word nigger, in the mouth of a white person, is a grenade. I don’t know of any black person who wouldn’t react to it, to one degree or another, if he or she overheard a white person saying it. Even those of us who haven’t the words to articulate it inherently know that when a white person says “nigger” he or she is affirming kidnapping, The Middle Passage, slavery, rape, murder, castration, branding, mutilation, lynching, eugenics, Jim Crow, white supremacy, segregation, Plessy v. Ferguson, Poll Taxes, dogs, hoses, profiling, etc. In short, whenever a white person, no matter how thoughtlessly, uses the term, they are shouting, “WHITE POWER,” loudly and decisively.

I have the feeling that this teacher who casually called his student a “nigga” knew exactly what he was doing. Even if he heard thousands of his black students inquire of each other, “Can a nigga borrow a pencil?” he should have known that this didn’t give him any unwritten permission to invoke the term. He was simply doing what whites have done for hundreds of years. It’s just too bad that he’ll probably get away with it.

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Regarding My Grandfather's Death

I have been unusually fortunate in that neither I nor anyone in my immediate family have ever been extremely ill. My mother recently commented that some unknown ancestor of my father’s must have done something right because, as a whole, my clan has been overwhelmingly hearty. This prodigious health has generally been shared by everyone on my father’s side of the family, including my grandfather, who lived much longer than average. Yet, his death has become a sensitive subject for his children because it is believed by some of them to have been expedited by quietly racist healthcare treatment.

In the fall of 2001, my paternal grandfather died in a Southside Chicago hospital room. Although, towards the end of his life, he battled many illnesses, he officially succumbed to a myocardial infarction – a standard heart attack. He was 96 years old.

My grandfather was born in Alabama in 1906 to Morris and Ruby. He was their first child and would, eventually, become the oldest of nine. At the time of his birth, The Civil War had only ended 41 years earlier and Southern attempts at Reconstruction had been abandoned a mere 29 years beforehand. Life in the South for African-Americans at that time was almost unendurable. Of the many racist atrocities that my grandfather suffered and witnessed, one of the stories he told was particularly upsetting. When he was about seventeen years old, he was walking on a road with his friend when a group of whites drove by in a car. Although my grandfather and his companion stepped aside to allow them to pass, the driver of the car yelled out a racist obscenity and intentionally attempted to run the boys over. My grandfather managed to avoid the car but his friend was not so fortunate. The car struck and killed him. No charges were filed and the family of the child who was murdered received no justice or compensation. My grandfather talked about this incident without anger or sadness. This, according to him, was simply the lot of Southern blacks at that time.

My grandfather rarely discussed his parents (I later learned that this reluctance to reveal any information about one’s family was not unique to him. Many African-American Southern expatriates of his generation eschewed self-disclosure. For them, the less strangers knew, the less trouble it could lead to) so not much is known about Morris and Ruby. What is common knowledge is that – for reasons unknown, but probably due to financial hardship – Morris and Ruby packed up and moved North to the Chicago area during the first World War. They, like many newly transplanted African-Americans settled on Chicago’s South Side and Morris found work in a meatpacking plant. Prior to moving to Chicago, Morris worked, occasionally, as a carpenter and was reluctant to abandon a skill that he believed to be infinitely more valuable than factory work. It can be surmised that my great-grandfather was an ideological student of Booker T. Washington, who promoted the idea that the road to black self-betterment was through the acquisition of vocational skills. As soon as he was able, Morris left the factory and worked as a carpenter – a trade that he convinced young Arthur to pursue as well.

My grandfather recalls that he took to carpentry, “like a fish to water,” and soon became a talented carpenter in his own right. Morris and Arthur worked as father and son until Morris’s death in the mid 1930s. As the oldest child, it fell on my grandfather to become the primary provider for Ruby and all of the children. This he did with great focus and maturity. In addition to carpentry, he became a barber and, later, a mechanic. It was these skills that enabled his family to survive the loss of his father and negotiate the Depression.

In fact, my grandfather was a man who was rich in skills. As an adult, he moved to Gary, Indiana and built his own house, a house that still stands and functions to this day. He wired it with electricity, installed the plumbing system, built a screened-in porch and planted a prosperous garden. Yet, as sociologist Kai T. Erikson explains, my grandfather was “uncomfortable in those corners of the universe where words and symbols have replaced everyday experience as the coin of intelligence.” As a result, in later years when his hands betrayed him and manual dexterity left, my grandfather found that he lacked the transferable skills to keep himself and his own family afloat like he had done with his mother and siblings. For the last roughly twenty-five years of his life, my grandfather, always a proud, independent man, was forced to rely upon several of his children to make ends meet.

I was not present for the death of my grandfather. I was told that he was at peace and was “ready to leave.” Yet, my father and a few of my uncles are convinced that my grandfather received a different class of care. They argue that more assertive medical treatment and an emphasis on preventative care could have prolonged his life. According to them, it was as if my grandfather’s healthcare providers had determined that 90 years on this Earth was enough for a black man and let his health deteriorate. They believe that if my grandfather had been white, he would probably still be alive today. Obviously, my family will never be able to ascertain whether or not this is the truth. But the fact that my grandfather’s physicians were all white, and that white physicians are generally more likely to administer thorough examinations to whites than they are to blacks, makes my father and his brothers skeptical that every measure was taken to preserve his life.

I have always found it amazing that my grandfather lived such a long life given all that he’d experienced. It has only recently occurred to me that perhaps the reason my grandfather lived so long is because he never seemed bitter. He never seemed to internalize any of the destructive racist barbs that society aimed at him and everyone he knew. I asked my father why this was so and he said that it would simply have been suicidal to my grandfather and his family for him to fixate on racial issues. In a very real sense he had to rely on whites for his survival. He intrinsically recognized that it would be unhealthy for him to harbor animosity towards them. As a result, he regarded whites with suspicion but never resentment. Further, although he did prepare his children to face a world in which many would be acrimonious to them because of the color of their skin, he did not teach them to hate or fear. It is, therefore, both tragic and ironic that the circumstances surrounding his death have left his children feeling anger and bitterness.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Kenneth Lay Takes the Easy Way Out (Again)

Enjoy that executive suite in Hell, buddy!

Ken Lay, the dishonored founder of Enron whose deceit and double dealings cost 4,000 employees their jobs, and many of them their entire life savings, died of a massive coronary this morning.

I know some of you think that this heart attack is cause for celebration. I don’t. I think that the sweet release of death is too good for this disgraced, fraudulent scoundrel. I would have preferred a nice, lengthy jail term, let’s say about forty years. Besides, a heart attack is not a moral indictment. There are plenty of benevolent people who die of heart attacks. I know at least five people who have lived pretty decent lives and suffered the same fate as Lay. And when their turn came to meet their maker, they weren’t relaxing in one of their vacation homes or receiving the best medical care that money can buy.

In fact, I wonder how many former Enron employees have died, or seen a sharp decline in their health as a direct result of losing their jobs and their savings. I wonder how many of them will have to sit through the inevitable eulogies that try to make this asshole look like a tragic figure who, like Oedipus, was simply overcome by his circumstances. Lest you think I exaggerate, I offer you proof that some have already begun the post mortem exoneration process. From Bloomberg: “Lay's death robs his family of any chance to proceed with his appeal to attempt to clear his name by reversing the conviction,” said Houston defense attorney Joel Androphy, who followed the trial. “Legally, he may have gotten his good name back, but publicly he did not,'' he said. “People will view this as the ultimate sentence.”

So now you see where this is headed. If Kenneth Lay had murdered two or three people in cold blood, no one would be describing him, like Ben Richardson of the BBC, as a “fallen hero.” He would be accurately depicted as a piece of garbage. But Lay didn’t get his hands dirty. He simply ruined the futures of thousands of people and was fortunate enough to not have to spend one single day in prison because of it. Let’s not allow the media to turn this guy into Achilles.


Sunday, July 02, 2006

Raising the Maximum Wage

Corporate Confetti

Last week, I ran across two stories that caught my attention. The first was a summary of an “analysis” that found that chief executives of large companies made 262 times the average worker's annual pay. This worked out to be about $42,000 a day. From the opposite end of the supposed free market, there came news that the Senate struck down a measure to raise the federal minimum wage. It currently stands at $5.15/hr, just as it has for the last 9 years. So, I guess this led me to the question that some of you may have. Why don’t we really give a damn that there are people out there busting their asses in exchange for a five dollar bill and fifteen pennies an hour?

First, an answer from the other side. I spoke with a diehard Republican regarding this issue and he seems to think that there’s really no need to raise the minimum wage. He argues that minimum wage positions are supposed to be occupied by teens who are just entering the workplace on a temporary basis while they secure their financial futures via education.

On its surface, this argument seems to hold water. Most of us have, at some point in our youth, worked at some slave-wage hole-in-the-wall that convinced us to pursue an education or gain some skills that would allow us to forever turn our backs on that kind of vocation. Indeed, many of us are currently fortunate enough to be able to share that experience with our children so that they can understand the value of perseverance. The major problem with this idea, though, is that there’re a ton of people who have either lost decent jobs for any number of reasons (to line the pockets of the already-rich, because positions were sent overseas, or, my favorite, the company decided to go in “another direction” – namely away from YOU) and who are forced to work wherever they can. Not many of us could wait for an adequate replacement if we were to lose our jobs tomorrow. More than likely, we’d have to find something and hold on to it just to get by.

Another major glitch in this line of reasoning is that it assumes that everyone has equal access to education, or to the development of marketable, transferable skills. It’s a comforting assumption that absolves those of us who don’t wish to complicate our lives with empathy, or who benefit, directly or indirectly, from the exploitation of low wage earners.

Also, there’s what many Realtors refer to as location. Some areas just have more jobs than others. So, for instance, if you’re unfortunate enough to have been working for a car manufacturer that decided to eliminate your well-paying job, and said car manufacturer was the only game in town, AND you’ve got a family a mortgage and a couple of car notes, you’re probably not going to find a quick, commiserate replacement for your paycheck at the local Piggly Wiggly.

But, to be honest, the fundamental problem that I have with this standard Republican objection to raising the minimum wage is that it blames the poor. The idea that “these people” are completely at fault for their condition is pervasive, (indeed, I can recall sitting in a college classroom listening to people make the case that society needs poor people) and is the primary reason why we haven’t seen a minimum wage increase in over nine years.

We Americans are a peculiar lot. Despite all sociological and personal evidence to the contrary, we avidly nurse the myth of the industrious, self-made millionaire who, despite all odds, pulled himself up by the bootstraps to control his own financial destiny. Even though the only things that separate many of us from $5.15 an hour are the whims of the faceless executives at the tops of the companies that employ us, we feel no solidarity with our low wage brethren. Since most of us assume that we’re safely lodged in the middle class, we believe that all we need to move up a notch or two and retire early (or at least comfortably) is some combination of pluck, perseverance or diligence. Horatio Alger would be proud of us.

In the meantime, as we continue to work longer hours for less pay, less leave, fewer benefits and vacation hours, and shrinking or completely nonexistent retirement funds, the corporate fat cats who are responsible for our deprivation are being rewarded to the tune of $42,000.00 a day. Ain’t life grand?

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