Boots Riley on BlackkKlansman

Boots Riley is a filmmaker (Sorry to Bother You), rapper (The Coup), and lifelong activist against oppression and injustice — economic, racial, and otherwise.

He recently posted a critique of Spike Lee’s latest film, BlackkKlansman, on Twitter. He posted images, but some folks would like text. I think it’s a really important critique, so I’m copying out the text here.

The following are not my words. Everything after this line was written by Boots Riley.  I made a few edits based on follow-up posts he made to the original thread (and italicized movie titles), but the rest is verbatim. (And if you’ve never listened to The Coup, check out their second album Genocide and Juice. It’s one of the five best hip-hop albums of all time.)


Here are some thoughts on Blackkklansman.

This contains spoilers, so read no further if you don’t want the film spoiled.

This is not as much an aesthetic critique of the masterful craftwork of this film as it is a political critique of the content of and timing of the film.

I also want to say, as I tweeted last week, that Spike Lee has been a huge influence on me. He’s the reason I went to film school so many years ago. He’s the first person I sent a demo tape of my music to when he had 40 Acres and A Mule Musicworks, and he has inspired me as a cultural critic as well. He never held his tongue about what he thought of Tyler Perry films or any other films that he happened to see and be displeased with. Spike doesn’t hold his tongue. Although I’m gonna lay out my disagreement, I hold him in highest respect as a filmmaker. I should also add that many people who helped make this film are folks who I know personally, and who I think are amazing folks with great intentions, and since they know me, they know I’m not gonna hold my tongue.

First, Blackkklansman is not a true story. A story not being “true” is not necessarily a problem for me — I have no interest in telling them myself at this time — but this is being pushed as a true story and it is precisely its untrue elements that make a cop a hero against racism. When I voiced some criticism before, a few people said “but it’s a true story!” It’s not.

It’s a made up story in which the false parts of it to try to make a cop the protagonist in the fight against racial oppression. It’s being put while Black Lives Matter is a discussion, and this is not coincidental. There is a viewpoint behind it.

Here is what we know:

The real Ron Stallworth infiltrated a Black radical organization for 3 years (not for one event like the movie portrays) where he did what all papers from the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (Cointelpro) that were found through the freedom of information act point to him doing — sabotage a Black radical organization whose intent had to do with at the very least fighting racist oppression. Cointelpro papers show us that these police infiltrators of radical organizations worked to try to disrupt the organizations through things like instigating infighting, acting crazy to make the organizations look bad, getting physical altercations happening, and setting them up to be murdered by the police or others. Ron Stallworth was part of the cointelpro. Cointelpro’s objectives were to destroy radical organizations, especially Black radical organizations.

Cointelpro papers also show us that when White Supremacist organizations were infiltrated by the FBI and the cops, it was not to disrupt them. They weren’t disrupted. It was to use them to threaten and/or physically attack radical organizations. There was no directive to stop the rise of White Supremacist organizations. the directive was to stop radical organizations. The White Supremacists were infiltrated to be more effective tools of repression by the state. In some cases, it was the undercover cops who came up with plans and literally pulled the trigger on assassinations. This happened in church bombings of Civil Rights movement associated Black churches in Birmingham, the assassination of Civil Rights organizer from Detroit in Selma, the Greensboro Massacre of Communist Workers Party members in 1979, and more. This is what Ron Stallworth was helping to do, and he was doing it in that era. The events of the film all take place in 1979 and after.

Stallworth wrote a memoir to put himself in a different light, but let’s look at what else we know.

There was no bombing that Stallworth or the police thwarted. This was not in Stallworth’s memoir. That was made up for the movie to make the police seem like heroes.

There was no copy that got recorded and/or arrested due to saying things at a bar while drunk about how he’s ok with shooting Black folks. This also was not in Stallworth’s memoir. This was put in the movie to make Ron and the rest of the police look like they were interested in fighting racism, like they don’t all protect whatever racist and abusive cops are in there. This is a scene where the whole police force — chief and all — work together with the fictional Black radical love interest to set the one racist cop up. Never happened. Never would, and someone saying that something vague while drunk wouldn’t be able to be arrested for that. But makes the cops look like they care. His partner that did the physical infiltration of the Klan was not Jewish and did not look Jewish to people. This was a made up thing to raise the stakes and make it seem like the cops were sacrificing more than they were. Add that to the false notion that they were doing it to fight racism and it endears you to the cops more. This means there was no scene where Stallworth had to go throw a rock through the window or whatever.

I’ve met Kwame Ture two or three times, and heard him speak more than that. By the time he was calling himself Kwame Ture, he had formed the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party (AAPRP) and was living in Africa most of the time. The program of the AAPRP for Black folks in the US at the time was to help create a revolutionary Black intelligentsia. They did this through an immensely long reading list and rigorous study groups. He came back to the US and toured colleges to talk to Black folks for this reason. At SF State in 1989/90, I took part in a few of these study groups. If you really went up to Kwame Ture and asked him what we should do right now — as Ron Stallworth does in the film — he would have said what he usually said: “Study!!!” But, it made the Black radical group look more dangerous to have Ture say something that sounded like he was calling for armed insurrection — which they were not calling for in the US at the time. I mean, this movie is trying to make a Cointelpro operative into a hero. It needs every little piece of help it can get.

With these fabricated story notes that Blackkklansman hits upon Ron Stallworth looks like a hero, and so does his partner and the police force. Without the made up stuff and with what we know of the actual history of police infiltration into radical groups, and how they infiltrated and directed White Supremacist organizations to attack those groups, Ron Stallworth is the villain.

Everything else is simply unverifiable stuff that ex-cop Ron Stallworth wrote in his memoir. We don’t know what happened because the “files were destroyed”. We have to trust the word of a cop who infiltrated a Black radical organization for 3 years. This is probably why it was only able to be published by a publisher that specializes in books written by cops.

At the end, the radical girlfriend says that she’s not down with him being a cop, then Stallworth — the guy who we’ve been following and made to care about and who is falsely shown to have risked his life to fight racism — says that he’s for the liberation of his people at the same time as being a cop. All the fake stuff we just showed him go through argues his point for him. And then they hear something and go, guns drawn, to investigate. They go down the hall together with the signature Spike Lee dolly — the one that tells us it’s him, the one that took Malcolm down the street, the one that took Dap across campus telling “Wake Up!”. They go forward into the future, side by side, in symmetrical composition, to fight the burning cross of racist terror. Cops and the movement against racist oppression united. This is the penultimate shot before the film goes to news footage of current White Supremacist attacks. Awww hayull no.

Look — we deal with racism not just from physical terror or attitudes of racist people, but in pay scale, housing, health care, and other material quality of life issues. But to the extent that people of color deal with actual physical attacks and terrorizing due to racism and racist doctrines — we deal with it mostly from the police on a day to day basis. And not just from White cops. From Black cops too. So for Spike to come out with a movie where a story points are fabricated in order to make Black cop and his counterparts look like allies in the fight against racism is really disappointing, to put it very mildly.

Much of the call to challenge police brutality and murder brought to light by the Black Lives Matter movement has been met by right wing cries of “But what about Black-On-Black violence?” Some of us, like Spike Lee have bought into that. Two years ago, I wrote an article in The Guardian about the myth of the ride of Black-On-Black violence and prove through statistics exactly how that idea is false, mentions how Spike Lee’s Chiraq plays into that myth, and how that myth is used against movements for social justice. It’s titled “Black culture isn’t the problem — systemic inequality is“. In the context of the political debate happening around the police’s role in racist attacks — this new film is a political brother of Chiraq. The two films say together: “Black folks need to stop worrying about police violence and worry about what they’re doing to each other — plus the police are against racism anyway.”

By now, many folks now know that Spike Lee was paid over $200k by the NYPD to help in an ad campaign that was “aimed at improving relations with minority communities”. Whether it actually is or not, Blackkklansman feels like an extension of that ad campaign.

Follow-up with references in screenshot format

Avoiding A Civil War

All this talk lately about a new Civil War in the US has got me thinking.

First, we should all recognize that the election of Donald Trump voided all attempts at predicting the future. Such prognostications are a staple of TV “news”; they creep constantly into our discussions on social media. What will happen in the midterms? Will Trump leave if he’s voted out? What’s Bernie going to do next? Given our inability to determine the weather in four days, we’ve got to start ignoring these feeble efforts at speculation. (If they mattered at all, there would be consequences for those who are wrong. There are none, so they do not.)

Second, as desperate and violent and hateful as the proto-fascist elements of the US right wing are (and I don’t mean to diminish their capacity for violence), I’m skeptical of the idea that we’re headed for a war, because they remain a tiny minority. Trump has corralled them for his narcissistic purposes, and the Republican “leadership” has allowed itself to be driven into a cavern of psychopathy for the sake of a greasy tax cut and a couple of Supreme Court picks. But the actual fascists and proto-fascists are a noisy, hideous gaggle of disgraceful children. (Armed children, but children nevertheless.) They have the means and the motive to kill people and cause suffering on a massive scale. But starting a war is different. It takes numbers.

Ergo, third, what about the outer circle of conservatives and independents and libertarians who have been seduced by the proto-fascist propaganda coming from this gaggle of scumbags (Bannon, Gorka, Miller, Trump, et al)? They’re the second-most important — and the most complex — piece of the puzzle. Many of them are obviously swayed by racist and xenophobic rhetoric. Many of them are closed-minded, surrounding themselves with cocoons of reassurance. Many of them are armed and hostile toward all the undesirables who are, they are assured, coming for their stuff.

The Outer Circle makes me sad and angry, but they don’t scare me. Maybe that’s my white privilege talking (along with my male and straight and middle-class privilege), but I keep hearing about how many people voted for Obama in 2012 and then switched to Trump in 2016. Which makes me think: Anybody that quick to abandon their allegiance to slightly-left-of-center principles can surely be herded into aligning with them again.

Who Do You Trust?

Getting more folks on our side, in my humble and profoundly non-expert opinion, is a project of consciousness raising. If people support dismantling the tiny regulatory changes of Dodd-Frank, it’s because they don’t understand how important stronger regulation is to preventing another crash like the one in 2008.  If people support brutal tactics to punish undocumented immigrants, it’s because they don’t understand the immense suffering and hardship so many people have experienced before arriving in the US; and what those tactics do to our fellow humans in need. If people continue to support the regime of mass black and latinx incarceration, it’s because they don’t understand the terror and misery that regime has been creating for 40 years.

The problem of enlightened consciousness, of course, is not one of information — we’ve all got easy access to a universe of information. The problem today is one of trust. Hardcore MAGAts trust President Trump absolutely, and they refuse to question his outlandish statements. They will not entertain independent reactions or fact-checking; they are convinced that all such attempts to ground us in a universal reality are part of a “fake news” conspiracy to discredit their hero.

But the rest of us operate from a place of trust, too. I trust Democracy Now! and The Intercept, because they have years of journalistic credibility. Of course I don’t trust them uncritically; they occasionally offer perspectives and guests that deserve scrutiny. But for the most part, I believe they are providing me with an accurate picture of the world as it is.

And it’s not just news. We trust the Union of Concerned Scientists on climate change. We trust Amnesty International on torture. We trust the American Cancer Society on risk factors. We trust airline mechanics. We trust other drivers to obey traffic lights. We trust restaurant workers to avoid  spitting in our food.

Many educated people reject this notion, insisting that they are fiercely independent and always do their own research, but this is nonsense. Who among us has the time and expertise to independently check the science behind climate change? (I remember one angry Republican student handing me a 50-page sheaf of papers explaining a study from a prominent anti-climate-change professor. He insisted I read the whole thing and accept it or refute it.) There’s no way for us to verify everything we believe, so we must rely on trust in various forms.

This makes consciousness-raising more tricky, because (A) most people don’t discuss, or accept, the significance of trust in the first place; and (B) how do you get people to trust you? Fortunately (A) is an academic point. If I can win someone’s trust, then I don’t care what they call it. My life would be easier if we could talk about who we trust and why, but then my life as a teacher would also be easier if my students were honest about why their work is late. As for (B), it’s a tricky business. Ironically for our purposes here, the Outer Circle isn’t going to trust moderate or leftist sources if they use the same rule book as Trump and the proto-fascists. We won’t be using fear and hatred of Mexicans and Muslims, so we can’t just tap into that seething hostility.

I also reject the notion that “civility” will win the day. Those of us who spend time organizing street action and movement politics understand that we fight with dignity that is not always civil. Respectability politics has long been weaponized to silence and marginalize those fighting oppression and injustice. Also ironically, if “civility” had any impact on MAGAts and the Outer Circle, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place. (Hillary Clinton has been a model of civil political discourse her entire life. Look where it got her.)

Main Point #1: What War Is

Okay, that was a heck of a tangent. Let me move to my main points. First, we need to recognize what it means to actually go to war. It’s a terrible, wretched business that always always always spirals out of control. The Syrian Civil War was supposed to be a quick crackdown on children spray-painting anti-government graffiti. And now 500,000 people have died.

We tend to jump right into World War II as an example of a Good War that did Exactly What It Was Supposed To Do. But World War I was, we would hopefully all agree, a terrible war that did nothing it was supposed to do. Before the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, we anti-war activists tried to sound the alarm of death and misery and suffering that were on the horizon. We were ignored. In the 1980s, the people of El Salvador and Nicaragua and East Timor tried to tell the world about what the wars in their countries were doing to them. They were ignored. Too many people are ignoring the horrible realities of the war waging right now in Syria.

And this leads me to Main Point #1: Those of us behind the “Peace & Justice” barricades understand that war is usually the worst option. Besides the other side having most of the weapons, we understand that — even if it is sometimes inevitable or necessary — war is an atrocity. We read history to learn about other options, and study those heroic individuals and organizations who have prevented terrible situations from becoming even worse through actual warfare.

Most leaders are not Hitler. Most government actions are not Stalinist pogroms. Most swarms of violent morons clutching tiki torches are not actual Nazi stormtroopers. Again, I don’t want to minimize the violence or terror the proto-fascists are capable of. But this is not a small matter: If 1% of the most dire situations we face require war to avoid obliteration or absolute subjugation, then 99% of them do not. And if you prepare for war when there are other options available, then you make a better course of action difficult (or impossible). Everybody always says war should be a last resort; even Reagan said it while arming the butchers of El Mozote, and Bush Jr. said it right before plunging Iraq into its atrocious nightmare.

The real question is: How do we live and act in a way that actually sees war as a dire 1% extremity?

Main Point #2: How Wars Start (and How They Can Be Prevented)

As an English teacher and armchair historian, I am not qualified to provide a comprehensive overview of how wars start. But it seems to me, after studying some gang wars, and the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the fight against Apartheid, and the liberation of East Timor, that we can see a few strains coming together.

Everybody involved in the start of a war believes there is some horrible overreach that requires The Good Guys to fight back. In the US Civil War, it was the “tyranny” of Lincoln and the abolitionists trying to force their opposition to slavery on the south. In a gang war, it’s usually a cycle of revenge, getting justice for a loved one murdered by the other side. “From ancient grudge break to new mutiny”, as Shakespeare said in Romeo & Juliet. (A play which is, after all, about a gang war.) Israel took land from Palestinians to protect themselves after the Holocaust, and Palestinians attack Israeli cities to resist the occupation and impose retribution for these injustices.

Main Point #2: To avoid a war, one side usually must give up something to which they are morally entitled. When the people of South Africa dismantled Apartheid with a nonviolent strategy, no one in the world believed they did not have the right to resist the violence of that regime with weapons. But they wanted the bloodshed to stop. And that’s the core question: Do you want revenge, or do you want an end to the bloodshed? Because you cannot have both.

In the movie Slam, Mike is morally entitled to seek some kind of punishment against the guys who shot him. But Raymond shows him another path, one less likely to continue the cycles of death and misery. The same is true of Debbie Morris, and every family member who finds the strength to show mercy despite unbelievable suffering.

Avoiding war is not sexy. No one wants to watch a movie called We Never Had to Save Private Ryan Because He Was Never Deployed in the First Place. Avoiding war happens with meetings and protests and reading and conversation and reporting and love and empathy. You look much cooler if you display your battle scars and declare your willingness to Give Your Life for What is Right. We often think of the people brandishing weapons as the most important warriors who keep us safe. But very often, the people who actually keep us safe are unarmed. They use words and typewriters and computers and hugs and information.

In 2015 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, who found a way to keep their country from descending into the chaos and warfare that so many nations in the Middle East experienced in the wake of the Arab Spring. Organizations who had been opponents for decades came together in order to find a less-terrible path among the 99% of options before them.

I hope — I believe — that we can do the same in our 21st century American crisis. The trickiest thing for me is advocating against war without minimizing the harm being done. If I use metaphors and premonitions of war, no one can doubt the urgency of our moment. And yet (once again) I demand a third option. I will declare unyielding hostility against oppressive policies, hateful rhetoric, misogynist violence, and the poisons of racism; while urging my fellow Americans to resist the bloodlust and thirst for vengeance that leads to war.

This is a trying time, no doubt, and my blood boils for the pain and suffering the MAGAts and proto-fascists are causing (ignored or applauded by the Outer Circle). I believe we have to fight, but I also believe we can (and should) avoid an actual war. So let’s work to make that happen, please and thank you.

A luta continua.

good artist, m.A.A.d establishment

On Monday the Pulitzer Prize for Music was awarded for the first time ever to a hip-hop artist: Kendrick Lamar, for his 2017 album DAMN. It’s a remarkable, fantastic album, and absolutely deserving of this honor. As a lifelong hip-hop head (and someone who teaches a class on hip-hop, both as cultural phenomenon and literature), I naturally feel some kind of way. Fact of business, I’ve got lots of feelings about this moment.

Yes, and…

No rapper in 2018 deserves this award more than Kendrick. His music is layered, complex, intelligent, authentic, intriguing, and important. Plus it’s fresh, dope, bangin, funky, and other adjectives that celebrate the aesthetic.

DAMN., especially, is all of these things. It stands out for me as Kendrick’s best work in part because it runs the gamut of sonic textures, without neglecting the boom-bap electricity of the hip-hop I grew up with. I like 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly and I’m working to get familiar with good kid, m.A.A.d city, but — with all due respect to “Allright” and “Backseat Freestyle” — “DNA.” just hits so hard and swarms so deep that I never get enough of it. “HUMBLE.” has problems with its gender dynamics, but it’s an amazing song. And when even my permaculture-gardening bike-riding-even-in-winter radical-feminist backyard-chicken-raising Italian-American wife roams around the house reciting the opening refrain and choral variations of “ELEMENT.”, something magical is going on there. The Black Panther soundtrack is good, but (in my feeble opinion) it needed a hard-hitting track like “DNA.” or “HUMBLE.” to deliver a full package.

DAMN. is filled with excellent music, and the lyrics are fathoms deep. The Pulitzer committee is spot-on when it describes it as “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”

One Pudgy White Guy’s Opinion

I’m a latecomer to the Kendrick party. For years students pestered me to listen to him (just as they had pestered me to hear Lil Wayne and Wiz Khalifa), but for whatever reason I didn’t (or couldn’t) get into him. Part of the problem was the complexity of his lyrics and messages. I grew up with Public Enemy and Run-DMC — who, for all their awesomeness, don’t always have complex lyrics. I’m proud to be black! Fight the power! Straight to the point: It’s like that, and that’s the way it is.

I’ve always enjoyed music that serves itself up in a clean and neat package. The thrash-metal group Ministry and the industrial-music band Consolidated (two of my favorites from high school) aren’t known for their overtones of subtlety. So when Kendrick demands not only repeated listens but also careful examination of the lyrics, I sometimes get confused and uncomfortable. (Yes, he really is saying “taste bloods”. What do we do with that?) Suddenly I find myself in the same spot my students are often in: this text ain’t gonna come easy, and I don’t always feel like doing that work, especially when school’s over and I’m just trying to find something to hear on the way home.

So much music (and other entertainment) offers easily-digestible nuggets of relaxation, or party-time excitement, or love-lost commiseration, or revolutionary encouragement, or celebrations of nature, or odes to tradition. The art that matters most is that which goes deeper to examine all the messy dimensions of human existence: Toni Morrison. The Wachowskis. Pablo Picasso. William Shakespeare. As hard as it is for some highbrow gatekeepers of Elite Culture™ to accept (and oh how the haterade did flow when the announcement was made), I agree that Kendrick belongs in that list.

He doesn’t do it for the ‘gram

That Kendrick comes from Compton is especially significant. Hip-hop was born in the Bronx, but in the 90s, Compton brought us a vital flowering of west-coast artists: Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Coolio, King T, The Game, Snoop Dogg (Long Beach is close enough) and The DOC (whose career was tragically cut short when his voice box was mangled in a car crash after just one album). Kendrick has a voice that is uniquely his own, built on the architecture of g-funk laid down by NWA and other legends from his hometown.

Compton is not known for being filled with wealth or receiving support from the larger Los Angeles metropolitan area. White flight after the riots in Watts (‘65) and LA (‘92) affected both demographics and economy. Today the city is 33% black and 65% latinx. 22% of folks in Compton are officially poor, compared to a national rate of 15%. In 2010 the FBI named Compton as having the eighth highest crime rate in the country.

And still roses grow from concrete. Kendrick grew up in Section 8 housing with a family living on welfare. His mom worked at McDonald’s while his dad tried to get paid in the streets. Kendrick was turned onto hip-hop in 1995 when he saw Dre and Pac shoot the video for “California Love”. He got good grades in high school, and shares a story about fear in the classroom (something he has in common with many of my own students): “This is always in my head: There was a math question that I knew the answer to, but I was so scared to say it. Then this little chick said the answer and it was the right answer, my answer. That bothers me still to this day, bein’ scared of failure.” Lamar has taken all that raw material and turned it into beautiful art, stretching from the everyday carnality of “LUST.” to the Shakespearean gibes-be-gone existential reflections of “Sing About Me”. He inspires hope on “Alright” and self-love on “I”.

Kendrick Lamar represents the finest traditions of hip-hop: knowledge, creativity, authenticity, volume, aggression, confidence, connections to one’s roots, and constant evolution. His videos are intense and his music never takes the easy way out.

However…

As happy as I am at this important milestone, there’s a part of me that feels uneasy. Part of it is a general subconscious derision toward official endorsements of the culture I love. As Chuck D once said: “Who gives a f— about a god-d— Grammy?” Those of us who love hip-hop have spent decades watching The Man frown and disapprove of our art forms. We’ve been told by erudite scholars (even David Foster Wallace, unfortunately) that it’s not even music. We’ve watched the worst bits (retrograde though they are) get stereotyped and scapegoated into caricatures and oversimplifications of the vital culture that sustains us. We’ve seen pop stupidity get promoted as The Best of the Best, and talented artists get ignored in favor of those who chase controversy and crossover appeal.

I could easily name a dozen MCs who have produced work every bit as powerful and excellent as Kendrick’s. Public Enemy’s 1999 song “I” — quite different from Mr. Lamar’s song of the same name — is a profound and beautiful examination of identity in pre-millennium America. Chuck D’s lyrics have evolved over 20 years, ranging from the deeply personal to globally political. PE’s 1990 album Fear of a Black Planet has never received one-tenth of the recognition it deserves as a work of art. Chuck and Flav have produced a number of “virtuosic song collection[s] unified by [...] vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism”.

Boots Riley from The Coup is another artist with an impressively diverse oeuvre. Their 1994 album Genocide & Juice is perhaps the most important hip-hop concept album ever made, and one of the ten best hip-hop recordings of all time. It provides a panorama of American life no less vast than Honoré de Balzac’s Comédie humaine, set to funky beats and filled with brilliant wordplay.

And so on. Of course the presence of other, less-celebrated artists does not (and must not) take away from the joy or significance of Kendrick’s achievement — or the recognition of it. Naturally, my beef is not with K-Dot but with an industry and global system of celebration that always comes late to the party, ignores the decades of foundational work that creates the culture, and asks the simplest, most banal questions once they give up the mic.

Writing in the New Yorker, Doreen St. Félix said:

I would argue that the award is a bigger event for the Pulitzers than it is for Lamar, or for hip-hop’s morale. [...] the Pulitzers push a reformation campaign, finding a canny opportunity to stake a place ahead of the curve. [...] Rap has not primarily depended on the recognition of traditional bodies to flourish and to change. It’ll be fun to hear how Lamar finesses a verse to include the word “Pulitzer.”

New York Times classical music editor Zachary Woolfe mentioned another important point about the significance of the award:

There seems to be broad agreement, which I join, about the quality of “DAMN.” — its complexity and sensitivity, its seductive confidence and unity, its dense weaving of the personal and political, the religious and sexual.

But there is also wariness, which I join, about an opening of the prize — not to hip-hop, per se, but to music that has achieved blockbuster commercial success. This is now officially one fewer guaranteed platform — which, yes, should be open to many genres — for noncommercial work, which scrapes by on grants, fellowships, commissions and, yes, awards. [...] it has felt for decades like an integral part of the Pulitzer’s mission is to shine a light on corners of music that are otherwise nearly ignored by the broader culture. The award has acted as a reminder — though long a way too stylistically limited one — that artmaking exists beyond the Billboard (and now Spotify) charts.

(In that same piece, NYT chief pop critic Jon Pareles nominates, “for a retrospective Pulitzer”, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.)

I believe the Pulitzer Prize is a powerful part of world culture, and it’s a beautiful thing that they have (finally) honored an artist from the world of hip-hop. (We should also remember that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop play Hamilton won a Pulitzer in 2016 for Drama, so there’s that.) I hope this honor will get more people to take hip-hop seriously, listen to DAMN., and (in the words of Punch, from his label Top Dawg Entertainment) never “speak with anything less than respect in your mouth for Kendrick Lamar”.

It’s Been Thumb Weekend

I always take great pains to avoid other animals when walking our dog Tito. He gets excited easily, so I always keep my distance.

On Friday afternoon, I was walking him when I noticed a family walking their dog up ahead. I crossed to the other side of the street to give us more space. Unfortunately, their dog decided it really needed to run at Tito. Also unfortunately, the small child holding the leash could not keep the dog controlled, and was thrown violently to the ground. Suddenly the dog was bolting for us.

Before I could think, the dogs are fighting like crazy and I’m trying to break them up. Like a moron, I put my hand in there to get Tito to release his bite. Eventually I lie on top of them and they separate. I’m crying and yelling my name because I want to make sure the other dog is okay. But the family has apparently vanished and I’m giving my info to some random passers-by.

The people who live in the house where this all happened (two blocks from our house) come out and call 911. I remove my glove and realize that my thumb is all bloody and messed up. I’m frantically clutching Tito’s leash and trying to calm him, insisting that I need to get him home right away. Everyone tells me to stay put.

I text Diane, who (fortunately) had left work early. She shows up when the ambulance does. They put me inside and take me to St. Mary’s. My biggest worry is: How will this affect my ability to play video games?

In The ER

Once we reach the hospital, the staff takes x-rays and gives me pain meds. I wasn’t hurting too bad, but they said the adrenaline can block some of it. Throughout the whole ordeal, they kept asking me how bad it felt, on a scale of 1-10. I never went above a 5. (Still haven’t, for the record.) Diane is a goddess of patience and support, and I can’t help thinking about how much more difficult the whole ordeal would be without her.

The surgeon stops by. The bone has been crunched, he explains, and the top part of the thumb has come away. It’s still attached, but not very well. He explains that had I not been wearing my glove, I would have lost the top part. They’re going to re-attach, and there’s a very good chance it will all heal up just fine.

Then there’s a lot of waiting. Apparently my wound is not time-sensitive, so they have to triage others ahead of me. It’s annoying, but I’m on some serious meds so I lose track of time. At one point I look up and there’s a former student, working hard in the ER. She was a creative, hard-working student, so it’s a lovely surprise. The other staffers are all very kind and in good spirits. I don’t know that I could handle that kind of work.

Unfortunately, I can’t eat — or even drink water. I haven’t eaten since 1:00 PM, and I’m really thirsty. They explain there’s a Subway on the fifth floor, which is open until midnight. I go into surgery around 9:00.

As the guy comes to wheel me to the Operating Room, I ask if I’m going to get the machine that goes bing. My driver lights up and gushes about how much he loves Monty Python. We trade lines from Meaning of Life all the way to the OR.

They put me under and stitch me up. When I wake up, I have a compulsion to tell dumb jokes to the nurse attending to me on the other side. (She likes the one about the ducks in heaven best.) They contact Diane and I describe my order for Subway. They run some tests and take my blood pressure a dozen times. Then they move me to my recovery room, where Diane is waiting with my dinner like a sandwich angel.

My hand is wrapped in a huge gauze wrap, and I look like Pee-Wee Herman hitchhiking in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.

A Rough Night

It’s a rough night. They put these weird vibrating stockings on my legs to prevent blood clots. They massage my legs constantly. I’ve never been a fan of massage — it’s just not my thing. Plus these stockings make my legs sweaty. I send Diane home around 12:30 and tried to sleep. I didn’t have much luck. They gave me meds, but they didn’t help. I dozed off around 2:00 and woke up (as usual) at 5:00.

On Saturday morning I walked around the floor a few times (this helped me get free from the stockings). I ordered an omelette (they have a pretty good room service menu) and watched an episode of Law & Order. I had never seen that show before, and I was struck by how rapid the pace of the storytelling was. Lots of info-dumping. Also the episode featured a young Major Rawls from The Wire.

I’m told I need to stick around until the late morning, so I can be visited by the surgeon again. Then I will be referred to the hand clinic for the next steps. They pump me full of antibiotics all day, and I’m told that my primary concern needs to be preventing infection. Keeping my hand elevated is the most important thing I can do. I hear The Offspring in my head constantly. (“Ya gotta keep it elevated.”)

More waiting. Fortunately I find a Futurama marathon on The SyFy Channel, so that keeps me busy. Diane returns mid-morning with a book (which I don’t read) and the cake I requested from HyVee. (Crazy craving. I can’t explain.) As requested, she has written a haiku on top:

Eric, what happened?

Watch out the dog and your thumb

Here’s a cake for you

Eventually a physician’s assistant stops by and explains that she doesn’t want to disturb the sterile wrapping around my thumb. She says it went well and everything looks good and I should meet with the hand clinic ASAP. I have to stay in the hospital to get more antibiotics.

Diane gets me McDonalds (because I haven’t filled up on enough crap yet) and we eat lunch while watching Futurama.

I get discharged at 3:00 PM. I don’t feel too bad, but I get prescriptions for pain meds and more antibiotics. When I get home, I hop on the special Saturday edition of the Veteran Gamers podcast for a bit. (My buddy Mike was halfway through a charity gaming marathon.) Meanwhile, Diane gets my meds from Walgreens. I’m relieved to see there are some guest hosts on the show, so I don’t feel bad about showing up late and leaving early. I tell the story, talk about Caveblazers, and say goodbye.

Home Again

The next 24 hours are a mixture of pain, regular weekend stuff, and boredom. My hand doesn’t hurt too bad, so I don’t take any meds until Sunday afternoon, and then only over-the-counter naproxin. I’ll save the heavy stuff for when I need it. Some people are surprised I’m not in more pain, and I wonder aloud if I’m experiencing less objective pain, or if I’m just good at dealing with it. We’ll never really know.

I sleep okay (10:00 PM to 5:00 AM) and in the morning I take a shower for the first time since the incident. I have to wrap my hand in a towel, then a plastic bag, and then tie off with a rubber band. It’s awkward, but it works.

Then Diane and I go for our usual Sunday morning brunch at our local tavern. It’s delicious, but I only finish half. I’m surprised when our usual waitress (a lovely woman) doesn’t ask about my enormous thumb bandage. But it’s busy and I’m not having too much difficulty cross-stitching, so maybe she can’t tell. I drive to brunch and back, and it’s pretty easy. Still, I’m catching a ride with my buddy Chris tomorrow morning, just to be safe.

Back at home I watch a bunch of episodes of The Wire (end of Season 1 and start of Season 2). I try playing Rocket League with just the keyboard. After some awkward refiguring, I map out some keys that seem to work. After a lot of fumbling around offline, I try a game online and actually score a goal. Woo!

Then I write this.

The TakeAways

It’s been crazy, and definitely not the weekend I would have chosen for myself. But it’s reminded me of several very important things. First, I am blessed in many important ways. I have an amazing supportive wife. I have loving family and friends. I have access to health care and I live in a place with a good infrastructure.

This all could have been a lot worse. Easily. My recovery will be annoying — when you’re disabled, everything takes longer. But inshallah I will soon have full thumb function again. I’m going into school tomorrow, and I have to lead a 12-hour field trip on Wednesday. Hopefully I can visit the hand clinic on Tuesday and get some news on the recovery. (Maybe get a smaller dressing.)

I was supposed to grade some papers this weekend — just like every weekend. That’s not going to happen, and I think my students will understand. I hope they do. But I also hope they can see me keep a positive determination with this whole affair and draw something from it.

Diane and other folks remarked on how calm and zen-like I was during this craziness. I was glad to hear it, because I strive for calm when stuff gets critical. I work hard to manage the stress in my life, but you never know when a serious test is going to come along. I guess I passed some tests this weekend.

They say you should not pray when it’s raining if you don’t also pray when it’s sunny out. I believe the same is true of mindfulness and clarity of self. Therefore I think this weekend, more than anything else, is proof that mindfulness practice works well for me, especially in a crisis.

For the record, I have written two books about mindfulness. Both are available for very little money in print, and there are free PDF copies on my website. (The first is also available as a free audiobook.) I hope the techniques that have helped me so much will also be valuable for other folks.

I want to thank Diane once again for her indefatigable support and care. Thanks also to my awesome mom and brother, and all my friends who have shown such love. (And excellent GIFs from The Simpsons.)

I’m a really lucky guy. This too shall pass.

Suckers, Monsters, Coaches, and Teachers

Warren St. John’s 2009 book Outcasts United tells the story of a soccer team in Georgia made up of refugees from war zones all over the world (Liberia, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan) who come together to form a team — literally and figuratively. I’m reading it with my American Literature students for the Quest Unit.

In Chapter Four (“Alone Down South”), we learn about the coach’s first foray in leadership.

Luna Mufleh coached the only way she knew how — by following the example set for her by Coach Brown. [Brown was a tough-as-nails soccer coach Mufleh had played for at the American Community School in her native Jordan. -esp] She was more demanding than any of the girls or their parents expected — she made her players run for thirty-five minutes and do sets of sit-ups, push-ups, and leg lifts before each practice. And she refused to coddle them. Luma explained to her girls that they would be responsible for their actions and for meeting their obligations to the team. Players who couldn’t make practice were expected to call Luma themselves; there woiuld be no passing off the excuse-making to Mom or Dad. Likewise, if a player had problems with the way Luma ran the team — complaints about playing time, favoritism, or the like — she would be expected to raise those concerns directly with the coach.

[...] Luma’s rule-making wasn’t entirely about establishing her authority over the team — though that was part of it. She also believed that the team would benefit once individual players started to take responsibility for themselves. Luma herself had been coddled by her parents in an atmosphere of privilege and entitlement, and believed that she had paid for these comforts by sacrificing her self-reliance and independence. If Luma was going to coach, she was going to do so with this basic lesson as a backdrop, whether her players’ parents understood it right away or not. Time would tell whether her approach produced results.

[...] When confronted by unhappy parents, Luma displayed a confidence incongruous with her status as a newcomer, an attitude that put off some parents and intrigued others. Once when Luma ordered her players to practice barefoot to get a better feel for the soccer ball, a team mother objected on the grounds that her daughter might injure her toes.

“This is how I run my practice,” Luma told her. “If she’s not going to do it, she’s not going to play.”

During Luma’s first season as coach, her team lost every game. But over time, her methods began to pay off. Dedicated players returned, and those who didn’t buy in left. The players worked hard and improved. They stopped questioning Luma’s methods and began to absorb and intuit them. In her third season, Luma’s twelve-and-under girls’ team went undefeated and won their year-end tournament.

This passage speaks to me deeply. As a teacher, I am caught in a trap between leniency for the sake of compassion and strict demands for the sake of long-term improvement. My students are dealing with a panorama of difficult problems — anxiety, sexual assault, depression, divorce, self-harm, loss of loved ones to suicide and drug overdose, pervasive subconscious racism, college debt, overloaded schedules, and the myriad pressures of late stage capitalism. I want them to be prepared for the fights ahead, but I recognize also that many of them are engaged in grueling battles now.

I often think of it this way: Do I want to be a sucker, or a monster? In other words: Will I risk showing too much leniency and compassion, allowing some students to take advantage of my kindness? Or will I risk being too demanding and tyrannical, causing pain and suffering to students who already have too much of both in their lives?

They key element for me is the lack of choice for the kids. In Luma’s case, the kids choose to play soccer with her. She gets to have total control over the process, because it’s an entirely voluntary affair. What might have happened if too few students wanted to be on the team? Or if every parent demanded her resignation after the first season?

We teachers don’t have this same set of boundaries. My students have to take my 11th grade English class. Obviously I have to set rules and expectations, and no good teacher will choose 100% Sucker Status, because we know there must be expectations for learning. But I do everything in my power to avoid sending kids out of the room. I know that the kids who act out most have the fewest people showing them compassion. I know that they’re waiting for adults to complete the script, to send them (once again) the message that they are disposable.

Even in the elective classes I teach, students sign up because they need an English credit. I know they’re usually not crazy about writing, or expecting a career in letters. I could be more harsh in the Interdisciplinary Poetics class focused on hip-hop, but so many of those students have struggled in other classes. I have a rare opportunity to nod and wink more (and whack their knuckles less) and thereby (hopefully) infect them with a deeper love of learning. Showing no mercy could very easily burn bridges and send them back into the spiral of To Hell With School.

(Side note: As I write these words, I am showing my Creative Writing II students the 2006 Will Ferrell comedy Stranger Than Fiction. I just noticed two students were staring at cell phones. Inspired by this very piece I am writing, I said “Put the phones away. Watch the movie.” One student said: “This movie’s boring.” I said: “Too bad. You signed up for the class. This movie is part of the class. Watch the movie.” The inextricable ingredient of cell-phone-addiction is another piece of this puzzle for which I shall not indulge at the present moment.)

This dilemma is made more complicated by my anarchist proclivities. I want to live my life as much as possible through voluntary association, which is nearly impossible in our context of compulsory secondary education. The most satisfying choices I’ve ever made in my life are the ones with the least pressure attached — at New College, for example, where I found a deep love for authentic education even though (in fact, because) there were no grades involved. So when my students choose not to pay attention, I often think: “Well, that’s their choice. I’m not the kid’s mom.” It’s especially tough when I want them to pay attention to me. What gives me the right to insist that I matter more than the activity on their cell phone screen? Shouldn’t I be able to find non-coercive ways to lead young people into the light?

Of course it’s a balancing act. We have to find ways to be compassionate and loving, without killing our students with kindness. We have to demand excellence and set high expectations, without robbing our students of fun or free time. I think the worst teachers are the ones who pick a position and never examine in, regardless of which extreme they fall into.

But it’s tough. I feel like young people are so very fragile these days, so distracted and overstretched and pressurized and overloaded and filled with worry and pain and desperation. I want to help them in the long term, but I can’t ignore the suffering they’re going through here and now. And I don’t have the option to say “If you don’t like how I teach, you can leave.”