Trump’s America

Donald Trump – business tycoon, reality TV star, President-elect of these “united” states. Are you surprised? America stands for opportunity, right, the American dream – and, if we’re calling the American dream building a billion-dollar empire, Trump is the embodiment of it. In America, we seem to value money over character, pride over empathy, appearing authentic over knowing and embracing our true selves. And the new leader of our country is perfectly in line with these values.

And yet – people don’t seem okay with this. Anti-Trump rallies are breaking out across the country, citizens have started wearing safety pins on their clothing to designate themselves as “hate-free” – a safe space for people to be different. Really, we now feel a need to let people know that we’re not all bigots. Since Trump has become president, friends have told me about black men being shoved to the tune of, “Obama can’t protect you now,” and half-eaten McDonald’s hamburgers being thrown at unsuspecting trans people. Is this what we want – a culture of hate and anger? Is this what America has become? Or is it what America has always been?

For united states, I’m not sure how united we’ve ever been. That is – what is it that unites us? Economic freedom, capitalism, imports and exports? Or personal, spiritual freedom, fresh starts, a chance to be anybody and achieve anything – freedom to be ourselves? Enough people united on the former to select a president that falls in line with our monetary values, our obsession over appearance and decadence – regardless of morality or tolerance.

But what was America founded on? Both? Men came here to plunder, to get rich; families moved here for religious freedom; convicts moved here to start fresh; slaves were shipped here against their wills to serve the white men in their plundering; Irish immigrants escaped famine, Jews discrimination, Mexicans poverty, Muslims kidnapping and the hatred of the world. My ancestors are Irish criminals and Jewish heretics – will you hold this against me? Do my ancestors, the people whose heritage I share, define me? The Statue of Liberty still stands in Hudson Bay, supposedly welcoming all who wish to enter, inviting the “tired, poor…huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” In this poem inscribed at its base, Lazarus calls the statue “Mother of Exiles.” Trump himself is the son of German and Scottish immigrants – at what point do we close our doors? Build a wall, and we might as well knock down the Statue of Liberty – the statue called Liberty Enlightening the World when it was erected for our Constitution’s centennial. I’m not sure we deserve it anymore.

Once upon a time, character was valued over wealth. War heroes like George Washington chose to return to farming instead of accepting the money and power offered to them; presidents and politicians were respected – people to emulate, paragons of virtue. Politics aren’t meant to be a full-time job or a business – public servants really were servants at one point, working for the good of the common man because they sincerely cared about their country. Sure, there have always been exceptions to this, but when did money take the place of character and humanity? These are opposite ends of a spectrum, and over the years the poles have grown further and further apart. But when did we become so superficial? Think about that, please, because based on our nation’s current values, the pervasive myth that, “I’ll be happy when…”, our misunderstanding of love, our delusion that we should all like certain movies or pop stars or buy certain shoes or cars because it’s what cool, because it’s what everyone else is doing – based on all that and so much more, we picked the right president. Whether you voted for him or not, by participating in this culture – by watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians, spending more time on Instagram than on yourself, chasing raises and promotions like rats in cages – harsh, I know, but it makes each and every one of us culpable. Emerson got it right in 1844 – “The antidote to this abuse of formal government is the influence of private character, the growth of the Individual.” Until we start valuing authenticity over conformity, love over fear, personal growth over external status, until we find some balance between money and joy – until then, Trump is the perfect president for these United States.

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Birthing a New Nation

I read recently that what really defined the fall of man, in the beginning, was gaining awareness. The knowledge we gained was the knowledge that we existed on this planet. Instead of simply living blindly, allowing events and circumstances to unfold as they may, we started thinking about it, started plotting, started making plans and strategies for how to live – something that, as far as anyone knows, we’d never thought to do before. Because we didn’t know any better.

But, in the societies that followed this awakening, many groups were excluded from living in the light this knowledge provided. Women and people with darker skin tones or different religions were excluded from the greater plan that straight white men conceived and subsequently enforced. It’s taken hundreds of years and countless atrocities to get to where we are today. Damage has been done, but we are making progress. Think about when this country – America – was originally founded. White men who thought they ran the world came in on their ships; they plundered, exploited, and enslaved entire native civilizations. Our country – and others – were founded on practices of slavery, of cruelty, of subjugation.

Really, what was our nation birthed on? On the one hand, we have strong principles of liberty, of freedom to pursue dreams. Supposedly, if you read the poem on the Statue of Liberty, we are a nation for the poor, the downtrodden, for people who are suffering in their homeland and need a fresh start. If only these things transcended the boundaries of race and class and religion and gender.

Nate Parker’s film – The Birth of a Nation – is necessary, and it couldn’t be coming at a better time. If you don’t know, it’s using the same title as one of the first movies ever made in America, one that praised the KKK as a heroic force and showed black men as unintelligent sexual predators. One hundred years after the first try, Parker redeems the title, telling the true story of Nat Turner, an enslaved man who led a rebellion that started this country on a path toward ending slavery.

Schools today are deficient in education about slavery – people like to brush over it, gloss over the filthy things that slave owners did. This movie no longer lets that slide. Jarring cruelty is shown, but it’s not simply to shock – it’s told in such a way that brings it home, that makes it real, that makes you as angry and as heartbroken as if these unspeakable things were being done to your own brother or wife. Because really, the people who live in this country with us are our brothers and sisters regardless of race or class or religion. The emotion is intense, and that’s exactly what this country needs. It’s what I needed, and I know I’m not the only one who is able to live in some kind of bubble because of the lack of melanin in my skin.

This movie works like hydrogen peroxide on a wound that has been festering, infected, never fully healing. It’s massive and dirty and awful, but this film, along with other movements and works of art, is cleaning it out. Healing will take some time and some pain. But pouring the hydrogen peroxide is a step forward. Acknowledging what happened can lead us toward progress. It can unite us as people under new empathies, new knowledge. We can express our concern by speaking up, by looking critically at what our nation was founded on, and by evaluating if that is still what we need.

Discrimination is dead. We can look to current news and politics to see that this is not yet true in practice, but I know enough people who believe that – that nothing is skin deep, that a person lives INSIDE a body, and any judgments should be suspended for conversation. I know this is easier said than done, but at least we’re talking about it. Let’s use our fallen trait – our awareness of living – let’s use it for good. Let’s stay woke about what’s going on, let’s practice love and kindness and inclusivity in our own lives. It starts small, with individual people, and when individual people all watch a movie like The Birth of a Nation – that does the world some good. And isn’t that what we all want?

Take care –

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Breaking Up with Jesus

I recently realized that my first breakup was with Jesus Christ. Having foregone dating in high school because it didn’t seem important yet, my first real relationship was a religious one. Maybe that sounds weird, and a little incestuous in an impossible way, but it’s true. Christians will tell you it’s not a religion – it’s a relationship, and many would say they are in love with Jesus. Looking at this now, some seven years post-breakup, it sounds a little crazy.

So – what is a relationship with Jesus like? Really. I spent time with him every day, whether it was reading his word [The Bible], praying, singing worship songs, or just talking to him like he was my best friend, because, for a while there, I think he was. I know, I know, but take it easy, I was practically raised in a cult and didn’t have many friends because I was a prudish, shy, and intelligent teenage girl – a triple threat in all the wrong ways.

As I got older and gradually got exposed to the world around me, I started to think. Objectively. I started to wonder. Reading apologetics books that were supposed to help me defend my own faith, I wondered why defending it would be necessary at all, why people who believed in Jesus could be the only ones to go to this place called heaven. I started to think that heaven didn’t sound all that fun, that maybe I didn’t want to wear white and worship God forever and ever and ever. Among other things.

So, as is my habit, I researched. I secretly checked out atheist literature and read it like a pre-teen boy who just stumbled on his dad’s porn collection. Maybe God wasn’t as great as I thought. Maybe other people could be right, too. Maybe religion was something I’d held onto too tightly, and maybe I’d built my entire world around myths. Maybe I’d been in a strange, codependent relationship with Jesus Christ.

Maybe this is where it gets familiar – you realize you’re in a bad relationship, then what? After much deliberation, and probably a few tears, you end it. And then the void appears. That empty place where this thing had taken on a life of its own and formed your entire identity. What then?

Then you get to start building. First I became okay with not knowing – with having no idea of whether or not god exists or if heaven or hell are real, and I felt free. Then I started living in new ways – doing the things my “ex” hadn’t allowed me to do, trying things because – for the first time in my seventeen or so years – I could. Because no one could really tell me what to do anymore. And of course I wrestled with my still-Christian parents until I moved out a year later. And then maybe I did a lot of crazy shit. But I didn’t lose my grip entirely – I just slipped a few times.

Then I started to find balance. I realized I didn’t want my entire life to be a festival of debauchery, and that morals were good things, even if they’d been imposed on me for strange, guilt-inducing reasons. I realized that I didn’t need a specific set of rules to be good to people, but that – simply for my own sake – I would be good to people. Because that’s better for everyone. I discovered love in real-life relationships, and with time and effort and practice, I healed. And I moved on from Jesus. I found myself, which was something I’d been taught to deny for most of my existence. And I found out that I wasn’t the vile sinner I’d been taught that I was. I learned that I mess up, but so does every one, and that doesn’t define me and, I think most importantly – I learned to love myself. And I learned that I could be enough. And if you can learn that and be a Christian, more power to you, but for me – this journey of self-discovery, which is fundamental to existence, couldn’t, didn’t happen, until I broke up with Jesus.

Do you have a story of leaving a religion? What was it like for you?

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Clothes - adapted Arc, scarf - Morocco, shoes - Clarks.

Clothes – adapted Arc, scarf – Morocco, shoes – Clarks.

Nature’s first green is gold

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

[Robert Frost]

I first read this in 7th grade, and it’s always stuck with me. Any time the seasons change – in the physical world, in my soul, in my circumstances – this poem floats back to me – a comfort. I find rest, peace in the knowledge that change will always come. That this too shall pass.

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On [Lemonade] and America

If you haven’t read Part I – it’s not necessary. This focuses on general themes.

What I love about this album is its transcendence. On the surface, the obvious meaning is Beyoncé making lemonade with the lemons that Jay-Z gave her when he cheated on her. But this can represent so many other things – controversies and conflicts that are referenced throughout both the visual and auditory albums.

For one thing, on “Sandcastles,” Beyoncé is transcending herself. She sings “Every promise don’t work out that way,” referencing the ultimatum she had always set down that if he cheats she is gone. And then James Blake, in his chillingly angelic voice, sings – “Forward.” The lyrics of this songs make it sound, for one, that Beyoncé is suggesting an open relationship of some sort between her and Jay-Z, recognizing that the bond they have is greater than most, that the strength and multidimensionality of their connection is not worth throwing away over some becky. At the same time, these lyrics suggest a moving forward for America, an opening of minds to unity – an American identity.

I’ve heard people reference “white culture,” and I guess this is meant as mainstream America, but, honestly, I’ve always felt lost in this country because I can’t see a culture I identify with. My ancestry is mostly Jewish and Irish, but we’ve all been in this country so long that if I tried to join a Yiddish community in New York I’d feel interested, but certainly not at home, and while I might look Irish with my red hair and pale skin, I have no idea what kind of Irish communities exist in the U.S., and I’m not sure I care enough to find out. If I think of white culture, images of preppy kids on golf courses and in country clubs or California surfers come to mind. I don’t fit in either of those scenarios, but even they have some diversity. I don’t know what white culture is, but I don’t want to. What I want is American culture. And I want it to be more than what it is right now. And I think that can only come if we embrace each other, start being generous with our traditions and beliefs and strengths, and come together.

bell hooks, in her critique of Lemonade, wrote that Beyoncé neglected to really call out the patriarchy – that change must be mutual. This goes for intimate relationships, for patriarchy and feminism, and for people of all races. Change must be mutual.

There’s a Gandhi quote that’s used so often it’s likely lost its meaning for many – “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” If you want a world of love, acceptance, kindness – you don’t have to wait. In Beyoncé’s visual album, a woman’s voice speaks these words: “So how we supposed to lead our children to the future? How do we lead them? Love.” Be love to everyone around you. People notice a positive example, even if you don’t get constant praise and recognition for it, you’ll know you’re doing the right thing, and, I promise, your actions will make a difference. Someone is always watching. Maybe not the world, but all progress begins on an individual level.

hooks also wrote that, while Beyoncé’s Lemonade focused primarily on the bitterness of the lemons, it’s actually a sweet, refreshing drink. We’ve all been through some shit, but true lemonade is made in “celebration of our moving beyond pain.”

So, Beyoncé, I love Lemonade for its celebration of black women and its transcendent messages. It’s a necessary work of art with words and images that the world need to see, to recognize its power, and to acknowledge and laud the strength of black women. Now – I know at least one white girl that can twerk (it’s me), and I’m sure some Asian and Native American and Mexican and racially ambiguous girls know how to get down to a beat, too, and I would love to see some racial inclusion in your future work – practicing your own message of moving forward. After all, we are American, and, more than anything, I want that to mean something. And I want it to be positive. AND I believe that’s possible.042015_0136_HowtoWinFri1.jpg

 

[Lemonade] Deconstruction Part I

Everyone drinks lemonade. She did not call this Grape Soda or Jungle Juice or champagne. She called it Lemonade. Pour yourself a tall glass. Share the pitcher with everyone you know. It is delicious.

On the first track, “Pray You Catch Me,” she’s praying to be caught, to end the dishonesty. We all know how painful lying is. The betrayal of feeling slighted, deceived – disrespected. “Maybe it’s a cause for concern / that I’m not at ease.” Trust yourself. And, in the beautifully shot visual album, she jumps off a building into water. He didn’t catch her.

Beyoncé reads poems between the songs, all by the poet Warsan Shire, In the poem after this song, she grieves how when men hurt us, we attempt to reduce ourselves. If we weren’t enough for them…then what?

Then she opens the floodgates, in the most amazing dress I’ve ever dreamed of owning, and is enough for herself, singing “Hold Up / They don’t love you like I love you.” This is the freedom, the power that comes with realizing your agency. If you’re Beyoncé, this manifests in smashing car windows and fire hydrants with a baseball bat, smiling and twirling and owning every inch of your fine self. It is glorious. She’s showing off how incredible she knows herself to be, graciously showing him how stupid he was to step out on her. Everyone watching this is thinking, “Jay-Z, what the hell is wrong with you? You’re married to BEYONCE.” And she knows it. She won’t reduce herself for him.

She labels the phases of enduring trauma, beginning with Anger. This album is a how-to guide of sorts, a method for feeling and accepting and gracefully processing the emotions that surface in hard times. She’s mad, asking, “Why can’t you see me? Everyone else can.” Maybe they don’t. But she sees herself clearly. She knows who she is, and love can only come from someone else who sees her this way. She put Jay’s ass in check. But she did it kindly on “Don’t Hurt Yourself” – “When you love me / you love yourself.” This is good for both of us. Do better. You don’t want to lose this, Jay. She is too much for you. Be the man Beyoncé deserves.

She intersperses the power of “Don’t Hurt Yourself” with a quote from Malcolm X, speaking about the struggles black women go through. And the worst part is that much of America has no idea. Well let Beyoncé inform you. She gets crazy in this song, and it’s beautiful – she is free, and she is speaking truth. But she knows what’s what – when referencing God, she flashes “GOD IS GOD AND I AM NOT” across the screen. Fans of anyone, please remember this. People are not gods. Beyoncé is a powerful woman with a good message, but she is not a deity. She’s just out here doin some good.

Next phase: Apathy. She proclaims her greatness as taken for granted and rocks it out on “Sorry.” Because she isn’t. She didn’t do anything wrong. And this touches on a common problem among girls and women – an epidemic of over-apologizing. Sorry for taking up space. Sorry for being a person. Sorry for having an opinion. Please, ladies, let’s put a stop to this. Personally, I caught myself doing this a few years ago and consciously made an effort to stop. It is possible. Now I say “excuse me” when I walk through people in a crowded room.

She ends the song with, “You better call Becky with the good hair.” Please don’t interpret this as Beyoncé calling out someone named Becky. This is a common slur for, typically, a slutty white girl or simply someone who gives head freely. “Good hair” – I refer to Chris Rock’s documentary; it’s traditionally seen as straight, smooth, tame.

Beyoncé continues to celebrate the power of wild women. “6 Inch” is anything but tame. It’s an anthem, an anthem that celebrates another woman slaying the game, lauding the work that she puts in. As women, we should be each other’s ultimate supporters. I notice women glaring at me when I walk into a room confidently. Let me be great. It doesn’t detract from your greatness. In fact, celebrating another woman makes you look better, if that’s what you’re worried about. There’s no need for pettiness – think of the greater cause. If you want women to make strides in society, start by supporting your sisters in the club. We are all beautiful. And when I say sisters, I mean all women. A term for black women has been “sisters.” During my time at Howard, I realized that that’s how they see each other. They do have it rough, and they support each other. Fashion was a thing, but never in a competitive sense. I learned how to support other women by being friends with black women. But all women should exercise this – why not empower ourselves? We’re playing for the same team.

Sisters. In Costa Rica.

Sisters. In Costa Rica.

It’s interesting that she puts the phase of Loss in the midst of “6 Inch” and ends the song with the repeated plea, “Come back.” Even at her strongest, she knows that she can accomplish the most as part of a team.

The next phase is Accountability. “Did he bend your reflection? / Did he make you forget your own name?” [Warsan Shire] Women in my family have been abused. Not my immediate family – farther up – but the marks are evident. And that makes you tough. That’s “Daddy’s Lesson.” You learn strength when women in your life have been wronged. You learn it for their sake. In this song she uses her father as someone she learned from both directly and indirectly, citing his mistakes as reasons for her toughness and his words as reasons for her strength. Women can have male role models. My dad was one of the people I respected the most.

Reformation. “Why do you consider yourself undeserving? / Why are you afraid of love?” [Warsan Shire] Love yourself first. Maybe that’s scary. Change happens when you go through some shit. It can be scary, because it’s a loss – parts of you die. But the most beautiful life can come from death. Daisies grow on graves.

To be continued.

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Role Models

My cousin got married on Saturday. The approach of her wedding has caused me to ponder why I feel so happy for her. To be honest, I feel like this wedding is more satisfying than either of my siblings – as if this one was waited for longer, worked for harder. She is 27, and both my siblings were 23. But still. I feel so much joy for her right now, and I said that in a toast at the rehearsal dinner. I cried a little, it moved people, it was lovely. But as the ceremony got closer, I started thinking about my cousin, what she means to me. She’s like my second older sister – the cool one who was nice to me but only around in the summer.

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Circa 2003. One summer in Austin, Texas. We had all the style.

My cousin is one of my role models. As I’m getting to know myself better, I’m finding that I can see who my role models were in childhood and adolescence. Not only that, I can see how they’ve shaped me, how I modeled myself on them – the net influence they’ve had on my character.

My cousin is smart, confident, independent, and kind, among many other things. I’m lucky to have had her in my life, to have been influenced by such a wonderful woman.

But what happens in the absence of role models?

Growing up in a sheltered Christian home, I was not impressed with most of the women I saw in higher positions. They were mothers. They cared for their kids and ran households, and, to my eyes, didn’t do anything else. They weren’t people in their own right – they were defined by motherhood. And they excelled at it. But it was all they had. I’ve learned to respect this, especially as I’ve seen my sister become a mother, but it still isn’t what I want for my life. I saw men who had senses of self, careers, lives outside the family, but not women. In a way, I grew up without role models.

Many find their role models in the media, and, as I gradually found ways to expose myself to pop culture, I did just that. I saw movies like Easy A and Mean Girls and wondered if this was what regular high school was like. I assumed it was because I certainly didn’t have a regular experience. But I wanted to know for sure. I had to see for myself. Being an experiential learner has gotten me into some tricky situations. But I’ve learned a lot of lessons!

J. Cole raps about this on his song, “No Role Modelz,” saying he “don’t want no bitch from reality shows.” These bitches on reality shows – who are their role models? And are the bitches on reality shows role models for girls today? I hear Kylie Jenner’s name far more often than I think she deserves, based on my limited knowledge of her. But what does that say about our culture? The chorus goes, “Don’t save her / she don’t wanna be saved.” It’s true. She doesn’t know any better.

I didn’t.

But I learned. And I realized how valuable my cousin has been in my life – one of the guiding lights of womanhood that brought me back around the bend. And I’m grateful, especially because I know how rare she is.

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