Saturday, January 30, 2010

Thank You Howard Zinn

On Wednesday I gave my ninth and tenth grade students a history mid-term---an hour and a half long test that spanned centuries and continents. As I read over the questions I'd written on the board (my school cannot afford photo-copies), and listened to the choir of pencils scratching, I marveled that these teenagers were capable of explaining the crippling effects of colonialism and analyzing the convergence of geography and history.

Later that evening I found out that Howard Zinn, author of "The People's History of the United States" had died. His brilliant history book is one of the reasons my students are such critical thinkers (I wish I could take the bulk of the credit, but really, I am a conduit). His approach to history reminds me of this African proverb: "Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter."

Zinn re-wrote our history from the point of view of the lions, the people who were often (brutally) mistreated by conquerors, masters, and capitalists, not to glorify or simplify or patronize them, but to humanize them. He reveals the humanity of the conquered, the enslaved, and the workers, in order to reveal the humanity of us all. He uncovers the darkest moments of our history so that we might also see the light. When my students ask why history is so depressing, I remind them of Zinn: "I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past's fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare."

Thank you, Howard Zinn, for making my classroom come to life with truth and compassion.

(For a lovely tribute by the editor of The Progressive), click here:

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Lured outside today by the sun, that hussy.

In the state park we climbed slippery trails, slowly peeling off layers. I relished the view of Santa Rosa, our little valley town cradled by bright green foothills. A storm hugged the downtown buildings, fuzzy and gray and insistent. I watched it blow towards us.

The damp forest was so quiet that I heard the drops before I felt them on my skin. Suddenly, faced with the decision to turn back or keep going, we chose neither, veering off onto an unknown trail. Rain came on as we knew it would, and still we climbed, wondering where we were headed and why. Finally with numb fingers and saturated tendrils, we surrendered. Our hike now loomed laborious and fearsome: Isn't it at least an hour back to the car? Is my new Tin House getting soaked in the back-pack? How long til my feet are cold? And I thought, how quick my descent into worry.

Sure enough, soon came nature's gentle remonstrance: as we emerged from the forest, the sun came out. Standing in a meadow fit for hobbits, so homey and green, warmed by that brilliant yolk, the gentlest rain falling, I felt like God had a secret to share with me. A clean rainbow hovered over us. The storm rolled on. We sat in the grass on a raincoat, shared a tart apple, and stared hard back at her, that fickle sun, until she weakened, as we knew she would, and we were left with a muddy trail back into the trees.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Haiti: The Heartbreak of Colonialism

In 1492 the Spanish crown made a fateful decision. Europe was in need of a water route to Asia, now that the Turks had turned Constantinople (once the capital of Eastern Orthodox Christianity) into Istanbul (now the capital of a Muslim empire). Portugal was experimenting with rounding the cape of Africa; Spain decided to chance crossing an unknown ocean. Of course, when Columbus landed in the Bahamas, met by dark lean natives who greeted him with generosity and warmth, he thought he had made it to India (which he insisted upon until his dying day).

On that first voyage to the New World, Columbus's ship, the Santa Maria, ran aground on the western side of a large island that he named Hispaniola (which translates to "The Spanish Isle," but which was home to thousands of Taino people). The native Taino called their land Ayiti, meaning "land of mountains," and eventually this name became Haiti.

With the timbers from his wrecked ship, Columbus and his men built Fort Navidad---the first military base in the Western Hemisphere. Then he left two dozen men behind, with instructions to find gold, and sailed back to Spain with some captive natives to show to the king and queen. The Spanish government granted Columbus a second voyage, with seventeen ships and twelve hundred men, and when they returned to Navidad, he found that the men he'd left behind had been killed. After raping and plundering the Taino in search of gold, these outnumbered Spaniards were finally killed by an otherwise peaceful people. This would be the last time this balance of power occurred; within a hundred and fifty years of Columbus's "discovery," through mass murder, mass suicide, and enslavement, the island of Hispaniola had not one Taino left. The genocide was complete.

Of course, now that the Spaniards had established a lucrative plantation system, growing sugarcane for export, they imported thousands of Africans as slave labor. Today 95% of Haitians are of African descent; they practice a mix of voodoo and Catholicism, the religion of the slaves and of their oppressors. The French came next, and under their rule, Haiti became the most profitable slave colony in the world.

But here is where history turns. In 1791 Boukman Dutty, a voodoo priest, urged his fellow citizens to take up arms against the plantation owners, with the words "Throw away the thoughts of the Whitegod who thirsts for our tears, listen to freedom that speaks from our hearts." This incited the only successful slave revolt that led to independence, the second independent republic in the Western Hemisphere (after the USA), and the very first Black Republic. But the venom of colonialism continued to spread, though the snake had slinked away.

For decades the people of Haiti have seen their government vacillate between corrupt dictatorships, military coups, violence, rigged elections, and martial law. In 1915 Haitian law prevented foreign ownership of Haitian land or businesses, which prompted the U.S. to invade under the pretext of.... you guessed it, national security. Many people cite the positive outcomes of the U.S. occupation: infrastructure was built, including roads, schools, hospitals, and lighthouses. But Haitians opposed the martial law and military occupation of their country, sometimes violently, and thousands of Haitians died in the rebellions.

Today, Haiti is still the poorest country in the West, with adult literacy and life expectancy hovering around 50. It is no wonder that in the wake of a devastating earth-quake, the country is ill-equipped to handle the fall-out. Is it unfair to blame colonialism?

Only if you don't know your history.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Long Loneliness

This year, for the first time ever, I took my boyfriend home to Lafayette, Louisiana for Christmas week. Going home is like going back to the womb, coziness and comfort and ease. And, of course, indulgence. This year, gifts of luxury, like white satin pillowcases, leather-bound journal, and sugared body scrub. Practical gifts, too---stamps and manuscript mailers and patchouli soap. The living room carpet flooded with ribbons and shiny paper, half-eaten plates of ham and potato salad. A dozen different kinds of candies and cookies---sand tarts, pralines, pecan fudge, peanut butter balls.

At the center of it all is Maw-Maw---mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, the sun who keeps everyone in orbit. Her magnetism is polar: she is at once provincial (a born and bred Cajun who grew up in New Orleans and can understand that old bayou French) and cosmopolitan (not even a weakened heart can keep her from jet-setting to France in a few weeks).

Her suffering has become a joyful wisdom. Her burdens have bequeathed wit. She is religious, a devout Catholic, but so too is she spiritual. Last year, when she gave me the autobiography of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, I shelved it in favor of Dave Eggers' "What is the What." An old Catholic lady's mission, I thought, what's exciting about that?

I love when I'm wrong about a book. Dorothy Day's "The Long Loneliness" felt like it was written for me. Day was born in 1897, and came of age in Chicago during the height of the labor movement. The long bread lines and unsanitary working conditions moved and confused her. "I felt even at fifteen, that God meant man to be happy." Though her family was not religious, she was compelled to go to church, where she wondered: "Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves but to do away with slavery?"

Her mission in life was to serve people, to uplift them from the drudgery of soul-bribing work, because she intimately understood "the initial agony of having to live." It was this spiritual connection with humanity that informed her political views---Day was an unabashed feminist and anti-capitalist. She not only espoused, but lived the concept of voluntary poverty, forgoing non-essential luxuries like cars, cosmetics, cigarettes, movie tickets, even privacy, so that other people might have access to the necessary food and shelter. (And here I thought my four dollar thrift store shoes and twice yearly haircuts were frugal.)

Having been raised Catholic, witnessing first hand the incongruities of the organized institution with the vision of the revolutionary Jesus---wealthy priests, segregated churches, its patriarchal subterfuge of women's rights---I read with trepidation about Day's conversion to the Catholic church. Why? But it was after her daughter was born (Day never married), so flooded with joy and love, that she felt "the need to worship, to adore." And, she wrote, "My very experience as a radical led me to want to associate myself with the masses in loving and praising God."

Never have I read such an eloquent synthesis of radicalism and spirituality. For Day, class consciousness and Christianity were inseparable. After all, she said, "Christ came to make the rich poor and the poor holy." She was not a missionary; in fact she felt uncomfortable with the idea of "preaching to empty stomachs." She did not try to convert the poor, sick, drunk, criminal people who sought refuge in the ever-multiplying community houses and farms that she helped set up all over the country---and world (and which are still in existence today). Instead, she lived to create community, the cure to "the long loneliness" that too many people experience. As St. John of the Cross, the Christian mystic said, "Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love."

Day is an inspiration to me---to the fiery feminist, anti-capitalist, and radical teacher, and to the spirit seeker. I realize that my spirituality and my revolutionary ideals need not be at odds. In fact, as long as I strive to emulate Jesus, who wanted to heal society's greed and oppression, then I am a Christian in the truest sense of the word. And my community are all of those people out there---my friends, co-workers, family members---who also try as best we can to do unto others as we would like them to do unto us.