Category Archives: Personal

Dr. King and His Ideals in 2014

This year’s tribute to Dr. King has to do with this country’s economic well-being.  When a person talks about his own well-being it is often in the context of how he is feeling physically, mentally and emotionally.  When disease, injury or trauma occurs, then the saying generally is “I’m not feeling well”.  The same kind of self-assessment can and should be made for the country as a whole.  Indeed, our current president seems to know this well and will often make observations of the country’s poor economic health as a way to advance his political agenda.  His carefully prepared diagnosis is generally: too much inequality and not enough shared sacrifice.  And he will give this assessment the same way a doctor today would give his patient a diagnosis: mechanically and patronizingly.  But for something that is akin to cancer in its potential to disrupt and destroy, that is no way to motivate a populace to change its way, to say nothing of whether he even believes change is needed at all.

For years now, the country has been gripped by an increasing sense of economic insecurity.  One that says to a person if I don’t do this now, I will never be able to do it at all.  The thing that must be done, of course, is “make money”.  This mentality I think we can all agree has led to a lower quality of life than that which existed thirty, forty years ago.  Because, for all the additional material goods and technology that we now have that we didn’t have before, they do nothing to compensate for the time that one has to spend to make that extra dollar that he cannot spend with his family, his friends his community, and even himself (in the sense of self-reflection and self-improvement).

It is the kind of insecurity that has led to the creation of thousands of meaningless yet high-paying jobs where the only skill that is required is the skill to bullshit your way through meeting after meeting, and client after client, while doing everything you possibly can to protect your own turf.  It is meant to employ the un-employable, and in the process, give them a sense of self-worth, while doing nothing to teach them a skill which might make a difference when the government is on the brink of collapse or the next nuclear bomb hits.  Make no mistake, this is not a swipe at the so-called financial industry whose dispensability and frivolousness are already well-known to the general public.  It is directed to some of the most revered institutions, like higher education and public service, that have at one time made this country — even with its many moral failings — a symbol of hope for many around the world.

This sense of insecurity is not entirely irrational.  The growing gap between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, healthy and unhealthy has been thoroughly documented.  It isn’t news that the country is in ill-health and likely to get worse in the coming years.  And it is entirely predictable that people today have an almost messianic attitude about money and its healing properties: “get as much of it as you can now because soon there won’t be any left.  And if we can’t take care of ourselves, no one is going to do it for us.”.

The problem, of course, is that this just makes the problem worse.  The “me first” mentality further entrenches the rich at the expense of the poor.  That is because the ones who are most able to make it on their own are the ones who already have the means to do so.  What the current climate of insecurity has done is turn what were once blinders which the rich wore vis a vis the poor to full-blown hazmat suits.  See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, or so the saying goes.  In cities, this can be seen in “gentrification” which allow the rich to enjoy all the benefits of the city without the costs that necessarily come with living in close proximity to others.  In the suburbs, this can be seen in the proliferation of gated communities and private police forces.  The common theme of all this change is the rejection of the idea that we all provide for each other as well as for ourselves, rather than simply ourselves, an idea that led many to embrace Dr. King and the civil rights movement.

Few if any public figures mention these things.  To do so would make them a prime target for the “socialist” label and doom their careers.  But the ideals at issue are ones that need to be revived if the country is to heal itself from the economic and moral malaise with which it has been inflicted.  Dr. King recognized that, and history has proven his work valuable even if its effects have been limited (not through any fault of his own).  And we must as well, for the alternative is at once unfathomable but all too familiar.

Sandy Hook, Newtown: One Year Later

Saturday will be the one year anniversary of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.  I am often confused as to how this country can tolerate the kind of violence and loss of life that makes the United States unique among all other advanced, industrialized countries.  This goes beyond tragedies like Newtown to everyday occurrences like for-profit healthcare and  mass incarceration.  Newtown is just the culmination of everything that, at times, makes living in this country a traumatic experience.

There isn’t much that I can say or write that would make any kind of positive contribution to what happened in Newtown.  I wrote letters to the senators of this State on the subject of gun control and they both responded with form letters proclaiming their allegiance to the Second Amendment.  I have a young child and cannot even begin to envision what I would have done or felt had I learned that he was shot to death in school along with 20 of his classmates.  It is beyond comprehension for me.  But it’s also very much a reality.  Parents share a bond just like soldiers on a combat mission share a bond — one of mutual experience, trauma and direction.

In 2003, the late Roger Ebert reviewed “Elephant”, a movie about the Columbine  school shooting.  In his review, Ebert shared an encounter he had had with a news reporter the day after the shooting occurred:

Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked, “that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I wouldn’t say that. “But what about ‘Basketball Diaries’?” she asked. “Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?” The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it’s unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.

The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”

In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.

Here is someone who is neither an “expert” in school shootings or a reporter to whom the public generally turns for “news”.  Certainly, he isn’t someone who  had his “report” blaming violent media for school shootings piped through the television sets of millions of Americans.  He is simply someone who has a clear understanding of humanity and is not afraid to express his views on the subject.

Doris Lessing, 1919-2013

Yesterday, Doris Lessing, the novelist, died at the age of 94.  I do not know her with the kind of familiarity that I might of other authors — at least when it comes to their bodies of work.  But I did recently read an essay by Ms. Lessing entitled The Small Personal Voice in which she discusses the purpose and endurance of the novel as a form of art.   Here is some of what she had to say on that subject:

The great [novelists] of the nineteenth century [like Tolstoy, Stendahl, Dostoevsky, Balzac, Turgenev, and Chekov] had neither religion nor politics nor aesthetic principles in common.  But what they did have in common was a climate of ethical judgment; they shared certain values; they were humanists.  A nineteenth-century novel is recognizably a nineteenth-century novel because of this moral climate.

If there is one thing which distinguishes our literature, it is a confusion of standards and the uncertainty of values.  […]  Words have become so inadequate to express the richness of our experience that the simplest sentence overheard on a bus reverberates like words shouted against a cliff.  One certainty we all accept is the condition of being uncertain and insecure.  It is hard to make moral judgments, to use words like good and bad.

Yet I reread Tolstoy, Stendahl, Balzac and the rest of the old giants continuously. So do most of the people I know, people who are left and right, committed and uncommitted, religious and unreligious, but who have at least this in common, that they read novels as I think they should be read, for illumination, in order to enlarge one’s perception of life.

Why?  Because we are in search of certainties?  Because we want to return to a comparatively uncomplicated world?  Because it gives us a sense of safety to hear Balzac’s thundering verdicts of guilt or innocence, and to explore with Dostoevsky, for instance in Crime and Punishment, the possibilities of moral anarchy, only to find order restored at the end with the simplest statements of faith in forgiveness, expiation, redemption?

Recently, I finished reading an American novel which pleased me; it was witty, intelligent, un-self-pitying, courageous.  Yet when I put it down I knew I would not reread it.  I asked myself why not, what demand I was making on the author that he did not answer.  Why was I left dissatisfied with nearly all the contemporary novels I read?  Why, if I were reading for my own needs, rather than for the purposes of informing myself about what was going on, would I begin rereading War and Peace or The Red and the Black?

Put directly, like this, the answer seemed to me clear.  I was not looking for a firm reaffirmation of old ethical values, many of which I don’t accept; I was not in search of the pleasures of familiarity.  I was looking for the warmth, the compassion, the humanity, the love of people which illuminates the literature of the nineteenth century and which makes all of these old novels a statement of faith in man himself.

The Grand Compromise

The shutdown of the U.S. Government is a reflection of a government that, at all levels, has lost its moral compass.  One can blame the Republicans and the extreme right within the party as the ones who are primarily responsible for this debacle.  But they only made it this far because they have been aided in their lunacy, even if indirectly, by the Democrats and the other branches of the government.

By all accounts, including one from a sitting Justice, the Supreme Court is one of the most activist in history, gutting laws on an unprecedented pace and for reasons that have nothing to do with whether the law is right or wrong, but because it can.

Then you have the executive, in Obama and his endless cadre of advisers and deputies.  Had they really cared about the American people, those “regular folks who live paycheck to paycheck”, they would have sought to reform the country’s healthcare system from the ground up.  Instead, they cared more about their own records and ambitions, and having a law they could call their own.  The result: healthcare reform legislation that was written largely behind closed doors by lobbyists offering only incremental benefits to the public.

In making this grand compromise, Obama lost the one bargaining chip that perhaps would have made the difference in the debates leading up to today’s government shutdown: the merits of Obamacare.  Is there any question that the public would not have embraced a genuinely reformed healthcare system so that they would have done what they did with Obama’s request to Congress to back his foolish foray into Syria: tell their representatives and their government to stop the foolishness.  Instead, Obama is left with a impossibly complex, patchwork of a law that he can neither  discard nor defend.  How does one expect to energize the general public when all it really has to look forward to is the status quo?  But this is old news when it comes to Obama and the Democrats.

The impression one is left with is that the government makes decisions that only benefit those who run it not those whom it was created to protect.

Happy Birthday, George Orwell!

Today is George Orwell’s birthday.  He was born on June 25, 1903 and would be 110 today if he had octogenarian genes in him.  Unfortunately, it was quite the opposite, as Orwell succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 46.

The following is a passage from a book by George Woodcock who was a good friend and colleague of Orwell’s, entitled The Crystal Spirit: a study of George Orwell.  It tells the story of Orwell in his post-Animal Farm days, when he was finally able to live a life unrestricted by the burdens and stresses of poverty and financial insecurity that came with being a writer.  It is the story of a man who was compassionate, humble and principled up until the very end.  And, it involves absinthe.  Happy Birthday, George Orwell!

Letter to Senators Chambliss and Isakson, May 1, 2013

Here is the text of a letter I have sent to the two senators from Georgia, my home state, concerning their recent votes to block gun control legislation.  I post it here in  hope that it might inspire others to voice their opinions to their representatives in Congress on a topic that requires the urgent attention of everyone.

VIA FIRST CLASS MAIL

Mr. Saxby Chambliss
United States Senate
416 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510

Mr. Johnny Isakson
United States Senate
131 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510

Dear Senators Chambliss and Isakson:

I live in Atlanta, Georgia and write to express my disappointment in your recent vote to block passage of gun control legislation.  I am not a gun owner, but I am a father.  And when I first learned of the mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, I wept.  I wept for the children who had their lives – so full of vigor and promise – senselessly ended, and I wept for the parents of these children who, in a way, also had their lives ended that day – for what else is a parent than someone whose entire life is devoted to ensuring the well-being of his or her child.  In the days and weeks following the Newtown shootings, individuals from all political and personal persuasions voiced their support for laws that would prevent another tragedy like the one in Newtown from taking place.  I do not know if you were one of these individuals, and frankly, I do not care.  You know as well any anyone that, as a United States Senator, your convictions and your beliefs are, for better or worse, reflected in the votes that you cast on the Senate floor.  As Daniel Webster once put it: “Inconsistencies of opinion arising from changes of circumstances are often justifiable.  But there is one sort of inconsistency that is culpable; it is the inconsistency between a man’s conviction and his vote.”  I assume that when you voted to block consideration of gun control, you did so because your conscience told you it was the right thing to do.  If that is in fact the case, then I am sorry to say that this country is in much greater peril than can be addressed by any one piece of legislation.

To be sure, you have a political career to consider.  And many of your constituents may very well harbor the same antipathy to gun control initiatives that others have to the current regime of loophole-laden gun laws.  Some of these constituents may even have sound reasons in feeling the way they do: the Second Amendment is, after all, a foundational part of the Constitution, and guns, like other inherently dangerous objects – cars some to mind – may serve a purpose that is legitimate, unrelated to the indiscriminate killing of adults and children.  But unlike cars, guns – whether they be pistols or military-style rifles – are designed with the sole aim of ending, not preserving, life.  Yet they receive a fraction of the regulation that cars do – in the way they are sold, taxed, operated, and yes, tracked.  This is simply incomprehensible, especially for a country like ours which so often and so vocally prides itself on the high value it places on the sanctity of human life.

I write this letter to you not because I think it will persuade you to reconsider your position on whether and how to regulate firearms in this country.  I have little expectation that it will; if there were a time and place for such reflection it would have been before you voted the way you did on April 17, 2013.  Instead, I write because I do not want to consider the prospect that the 27 individuals who died in Newtown did so in vain.  I think it reasonable to believe that their lives, and the memories they have left behind, will outlast the career of anyone who voted on the Senate floor that day.  And this will continue to be the case as long as those in Congress continue to act and vote in a way that has made it the dysfunctional and irrelevant institution that it is today.

Sincerely yours,

Albert Wan
Attorney at Law

CC:

Senator Richard Blumenthal
Senator Chris Murphy

Balls, Bats and Bucks

Baseball season starts in less than a week.  That means leisurely days (or, more likely, nights) at the ball park with a hot dog in one hand, a beer in the other, and, if you’re like me, a scorecard on your lap.  It also means being a part of what we have come to call the Great American Pastime, witnessing feats of sometimes supernatural athleticism and, if you’re lucky, achievements of monumental importance.  For me, as a Met fan, Johan Santana’s 2012 no-hitter comes to mind.

But something troubles me about the game, and at times, it makes me feel like I would be better off just forgetting about baseball altogether.  But then what would my wife and I listen to as we puttered around the kitchen on many a summer night with the day’s heat then dissipating and our conversations turning to who is hitting what and why isn’t he doing better.  In any event, my concerns are no different from those that a lot of other people now have, and, probably have had since the inception of modern baseball: overpriced players, overpriced tickets, interminably long games, lackadaisical play, too many strikeouts, and ballparks that are called PETCO Park and U.S. Cellular Field.

But I do wish things were different.  For example, I wish that a player that you never heard of (assuming you follow baseball, of course) did not make millions of dollars each year where the average joe makes a fraction of that and then has to suffer the indignity of having to pay a part of that player’s salary if he or she wanted to watch him in-person, and increasingly, on a screen.  I also wish that baseball organizations were less concerned about their bottom line and more about what could be done to make the game more fan-friendly (hint: shrinking the confines of a ballpark so the home team can hit more home runs is not one of them); the two, it seems to me, never appear compatible in theory or in practice.

Despite all this, I think the integrity of the game is still intact.  Players still play because they love being on the field and not because its just a way to make a lot of money without really working (another great American pastime).  Managers still get peeved when players don’t hustle to first base on a sure-out grounder.  And fans still recognize and respect players who play the game with passion and heart rather than those who simply show up to collect a paycheck.  So I look forward to the baseball season.  At the very least, it will allow me to realize a dream I have long had: taking my son to his very first baseball game.

Ralph Ellison Turns 100

Photo of Ralph Ellison courtesy of California Newsreel

Photo of Ralph Ellison courtesy of California Newsreel

On March 1, 1913, Ida Millsap gave birth to Ralph Ellison whom she and her husband named after Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Ellison would go on to become a notable figure in his own right after writing and publishing The Invisible Man, in which he chronicled the journey of a young black man much like Ellison himself who left the Jim Crow South for New York’s Harlem only to find disillusionment wherever he went.  The title of this blog belongs, of course, to Ellison’s novel and the difficult theme it sought to explore on how the history of an “invisible” minority  is dealt with and reflected in modern American life.  In tribute to the Ellison centennial, The New York Review of Books has posted some pieces about Ellison which have appeared in the publication.  The tribute begins with the following quote from Ellison:

Perhaps more than any other people, Americans have been locked in a deadly struggle with time, with history. We’ve fled the past and trained ourselves to suppress, if not forget, troublesome details of the national memory, and a great part of our optimism, like our progress, has been bought at the cost of ignoring the processes through which we’ve arrived at any given moment in our national existence.

Those interested can read more of NYRB’s tribute to Ellison here.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2013

As has become a tradition of sorts since I started this blog, I write to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which also happens to coincide with the second albeit unofficial inauguration of Barak Obama as President of the United States.  What significance lies in  such a series of coincidences I leave for you to ponder.  For present purposes, I post here in its entirely a piece entitled “The Way It Is” by Ralph Ellison, which originally appeared in New Masses on October 20, 1942. It describes Ellison’s encounter and interview with Mrs. Jackson, a Harlem resident, in which she reveals to him her feelings about living in the United States as a black person. Ellison was 28 years old when he wrote this.

*****

The Way It Is

by Ralph Ellison

The boy looked at me through the cracked door and stood staring with his large eyes until his mother came and invited me in.  It was an average Harlem apartment, cool now with the shift in the fall weather.  The room was clear and furnished with the old-fashioned furniture found so often up our way: two old upholstered chairs and a divan upon a faded blue and red rug.  It was painfully clean, and the furniture crowded the narrow room.

“Sit right there, sir,” the woman said.  “It’s where Wilbur use to sit before he went to camp; it’s pretty comfortable.”

I watched her ease herself tiredly upon the divan, the light from the large red lamp reflected upon her face from the top of a mirrored side table.

She must have been fifty, her hair slightly graying.  The portrait of a young solider smiled back from the top of a radio cabinet beside her.

She pointed.  “That’s my boy Wilbur right there,” she said proudly.  “He’s a sergeant.”

“Wilbur’s got a medal for shooting so good,” the boy said.

“You just be quiet and go eat your supper,” she said.  “All you can think about is guns and shooting.”  She spoke with the harsh tenderness so often used by Negro mothers.

The boy went, reluctantly opening the door.  The oder of peas and rice and pork chops drifted through.

“Who was it, Tommy?” shrilled a voice on the other side.

“You two be quiet in there and eat your supper now,” Mrs. Jackson called.  “them two just keeps my hands full.  They just get into something all the time.  I was coming up the street the other day and like to got the fright of my life.  There was Tommy hanging on the back of a streetcar!  But didn’t I tan his bottom!  I bet he won’t even look at a streetcar for a long, long time.  It ain’t really that he’s a bad child; it’s just that he tries to do what he sees the other boys do.  I wanted to send both him and his sister away to camp for the summer, but things was so tight this year that I couldn’t do it.  Raising kids in Harlem nowadays is more than a notion.”

As is true so often in Negro American life, Mrs. Jackson, the mother, is the head of her family.  Her husband had died several years ago; the smaller children were babies.  She had kept going by doing domestic work, and had kept the family together with the help of the older boy.

There is quiet courage about Mrs. Jackson, and yet now and then the clenching and unclenching of her work-hardened fingers betray an anxiety that does not register in her face.  I offer to wait until after she has eaten, but she says no, that she is too tired right now and would rather talk than eat.

“You finding the writing business any better since the way?” she asked.

“I’m afraid no,” I said.

“Is that so?  Well, I don’t know nothing about the writing business.  I just know that don’t many colored go in for it.  But I guess like everything else, some folks is doing good while others ain’t.  The other day I was over on 126th Street and saw them dispossessing a lawyer!  Yes, sir, it was like back in the thirties.  Things piled all over the sidewalk, the Negroes a-hanging out of the windows, and the poor man rushing around trying to get his stuff off the streets before it got dark and everything.”

I remembered the incident myself, having passed through the street that afternoon.  Files, chest of drawers, bedsteads, tables and barrels had been piled along the sidewalk with pink, blue and white mattresses and bundles of table linen and bedclothing piled on top.  And the crowd had been as she described: some indignant, some curious, and all talking in subdued tones so as not to offend the evicted family.  Law books had been piled upon the sidewalk near where a black and white kitten — and these are no writer’s details — played games with itself in the coils of an upright bedspring.  I told her I had seen the incident.

“Lord,” she said.  “And did you see all those law books he had?  Looks like to me that anybody with all those books of law oughtn’t to never get dispossessed.

“I was dispossessed myself, back in thirty-seven, when we were all out of work.  And they threatened me once since Wilbur’s been in the Army.  But I stood up for my rights, and when the government sent the check we pulled through.  Anybody’s liable to get dispossessed though.”  She said it defensively.

“Just how do you find it otherwise?” I asked.

“Things is mighty tight, son . . . You’ll have to excuse me for calling you ‘son,’ because I suspect you must be just about Wilbur’s age.”  She sat back abruptly.  “How come you not in the Army?” she asked.

“I’ve a wife and dependents,” I said.

“I see.”  She pondered.  “Wilbur would have got married too, but he was helping me with the kids.”

“That’s the way it goes,” I said.

“Things is tight,” she said again.  “With food so high and everything.  I sometimes don’t know what’s going to happen.  Then, too, with Wilbur in the Army we naturally misses the money he use to bring in.”  She regarded me shrewdly.  “So you want to know about how we’re doing?  Don’t you live in Harlem?”

“Oh, yes, but I want to know what you think about it.”

“So’s you can write it up?”

“Some of it, sure, but I won’t use your name.”

“Oh, I don’t care ’bout that.  I want them to know how I feel.”

She became silent.  Then, “You didn’t tell me where you live, you know, ” she said cagily.  I had to laugh and she laughed too.

“I live up near Amsterdam Avenue,” I said.

“You telling me the truth?”

“Honest.”

“And is your place a nice one?”

“Just average.  You know how they go,” I said.

“I bet you live up there on Sugar Hill.”

“Not me,” I said.

“And you’re sure you’re not one of these investigators?”

“Of course not.”

“I bet you are too.” She smiled.

I shook my head and she laughed.

“They always starting something new,” she said. “You can’t keep up with them.”

But now she seemed reassured and settled down to talk, her hands clasped loosely in her lap against the checkered design of her dress.

“Well, we’re carrying on somehow. I’m still working and I manage to keep the young uns in school, and I pays the rent too.  I guess maybe it would be a little better if the government would send the checks on time . . .”

She paused and pointed across the room to the picture of a young woman.  “And it would be even better if Mary, that’s my oldest after Wilbur — if she could get some of that defense training so she could get a job what pays decent money.  But it don’t look like she’s going to get anything.  She was out to the Western Electric plant in Kearney, New Jersey, the other day and they give her some kind of test, but that was the end of that.”

“Did she pass the test?” I asked.

“Sure she passed.  But they just put her name down on a card and told her they would keep her in mind.  They always do that.  They ask her a lot of questions; then they want to know if she ever had any experience in running machines, and when she says she ain’t, they just take down her name.  Now where is a colored girl going to get any experience in running all these kinds of machines they never even seen before?”

When I could not answer she threw up her hands.

“Well, there you have it, they got you any which way you turn.  A few gets jobs, but most don’t.”

“Things are much better outside of New York,” I said.

“So I hear,” she said. “Guess if I was younger I’d take the kids and move to Jersey or up to Connecticut, where I hear there’s some jobs for colored.  Or even down South.  Only I keep hearing about the trouble they’re having down there, and I don’t want the kids to grow up down there nohow.  Had enough of that when I was a kid . . .”

“Have any of your friends gotten work through the F.E.P.C.?” [editor’s note: F.E.P.C. stands for Fair Employment Practices Commission; created by FDR, it sought to prevent companies with government contracts from discriminating on the basis of race of religion]

She thought for a moment.

“No, son.  It seems to me that that committee is doing something everywhere but here in New York.  Maybe that’s why it’s so bad for us — and you know it’s bad ’cause you’re colored yourself.”

As I heard the clatter of dishes coming from the kitchen, her face suddenly assumed an outraged expression.

“Now you take my sister’s boy, William. God bless his poor soul. William sent to the trade schools and learned all about machines. He got so he could take any kind of machine apart and fix it and put it together again. He was machine-crazy! But he was a smart boy and a good boy. He got good marks in school too. But when he went to get a job in one of those factories where they make war machines of some kind, they wouldn’t take him ’cause he was colored — and they told him so!”

She paused for breath, a red flush dyeing her skin. The tinted portrait of a brown mother holding a brown, shiny-haired baby posed madonna-like from a calendar above her head.

“Well, when they wouldn’t take him some of the folks over to the church told him to take his case to the F.E.P.C. , and he did. But they had so many cases and it took so long that William got discouraged and joined up in the Merchant Marine. That poor boy was just so disgusted that he said that he would have enlisted in the Army, only that his mamma’s got two little ones like I have. So he went out on that boat ’cause it paid good money and a good bonus. It was real good money and he helped his mamma a head. But it didn’t last long before one of those submarines sunk the boat.”

Her eyes strayed to the window, where a line of potted plants crowded the sill, a profusion of green things slowly becoming silhouettes in the fading light. Snake plants, English ivy, and others, a potato plan in a glass jar, its vines twining around a cross of wood and its thousand thread-fine roots pushing hungrily against the wall of glass. A single red bloom pushed above the rest, and in one corner a corn plant threatened to touch the ceiling from the floor with its blade-like leaves.

The light was fading and her voice had slipped into the intense detachment of recent grief. “It was just about four months yesterday,” she said. “He was such a fine boy. Everybody liked William.”

She shook her head silently, her fingers gripped her folded arms as she swallowed tensely.

“It hurts to think about it,” she said, getting up and snapping on another light, revealing a child’s airplane model beneath the table. “Well, the folks from his union is being very nice to my sister, the whites as well as the colored. And you know,” she added, leaning toward me, “it really makes you feel a little better when they come round — the white ones, I mean — and really tries to help. Like some of these ole relief investigators who come in wanting to run your life for you, but really like they interested in you. Something like colored folks, in a way. We used to get after William for being with white folks so much, but these sure have shown themselves to be real friends.”

She stared at me as though it was a fact which she deeply feared to accept.

“Some of them is going to try and see that my sister gets some sort of defense work. But what I’m trying to tell you is that it’s a sin and a shame that a fine boy like William had to go fooling round on them ships when ever since he was a little ‘ole boy he’d been crazy about machines.”

“But don’t you think that the Merchant Marine is helping to win the war?” I said. “It takes brave men to go out there, and they’ve done a lot.”

“Sure they have,” she said. “Sure they have. But I’m not talking about that. Anybody could do what they had him doing on that boat. Anybody can wait table who’s got sense enough to keep his fingernails clean! Waiting tables, when he could make things on a machine!

“You see that radio there? Well, William made that radio. It ain’t no store set, no, sir, even though it looks like one. William made it for the kids. Made everything but the cabinet and you can hear way down to Cuba and Mexico with it. And to think of that boy! Oh, it makes me so mad I don’t know what to do! He ought to be here right now helping his mamma and lil brother and sister. But what can you do? You educated, son, you one of our educated Negroes that’s been to college and everything. Now you tell me, what can we do?” She paused. “I’m a colored woman, and colored women can take it. I can hit the chillies to the subway every morning and stand in the white folks’ kitchen all day long, but so much is happening in the world that I don’t know which way to turn. First it’s my sister’s boy, and then they sends my own boy down to Fort Bragg. I tells you I’m even afraid to open Wilbur’s letters that the government sends sometimes about his insurance or something like that ’cause I’m afraid it might be a message that Wilbur’s been beaten up or killed by some of those white folks down there. Then I gets so mad I don’t know what to do. I use to pray, but praying don’t do no good. And too, like the union folks was telling us when we was so broken up about William, we got to fight the big Hitler over yonder even with all the little Hitlers over here. I wish they’d burry up and send Wilbur on out of the country ’cause then maybe my mind would know some ease. Lord!” she sighed. “If it wasn’t so serious I’d break down and laugh at my ownself.”

She smiled now and the tension eased from her face and she leaned back against the divan and laughed. Then she became serious again.

“But son, you really can’t laugh about it. Not honestly laugh like you can about some things. It reminds me of that crazy man that’s always running up and down the streets up here. You know, the one who’s always hollering at the cars and making out like he’s throwing bombs?”

“Of course, I’ve seen him often,” I said.

“Sure you have. Well, I use to laugh at that poor man when he’d start acting the fool — you know how it is, you feel sorry for him but you can’t help but laugh. They say he got that way in the last war. Well, I can understand him better now. ‘Course I ain’t had no bombs bursting in my ears like he had. But yet and still, with things pulling me thisaway and that away, I sometimes feel that I’m going to go screaming up and down the streets like that poor fellow does.”

“He’s shell-shocked,” I said. “Sometimes I’ve seen him talking and acting just as normal as anyone.”

“Is that so?” she said. “I always though it was funny he never got hit by a car. I’ve seen them almost hit him, but he goes right back. One day I heard a man say, ‘Lord, if that crazy fellow really had some bombs he’d get rid of every car in Harlem!’ “

We laughed and I prepared to go.

“Sorry you found me so gloomy today, son. But you know, things have a way of just piling up these days and I just had to talk about them. Anyway, you asked for me to tell you what I thought.”

She walked with me to the door. Streetlamps glowed on the avenue, lighting the early dark. The after-school cries of children drifted dimly in from the sidewalk.

She shivered close beside me. “It’s getting chilly already,” she said. “I’m wondering what’s going to happen this winter about the oil and coal situation. The ole holes we have to live in can get mighty cold. Now can’t they though?”

I agreed.

“A friend of mine that moved up on Amsterdam Avenue about a month ago wanted to know why I don’t move out of Harlem. So I told her it wouldn’t do no good to move ’cause anywhere they let us go gets to be Harlem right on. I done moved round too much not to know that. Oh yes!”

She shook her head knowingly.

“Harlem’s like that old song says:

It’s so high you can’t get over it

So low, you can’t get under it,

And so wide, you can’t get round it . . .

“That’s the way it really is,” she said. “Well, good-bye, son.”

And as I went down the dimmed-out street the verse completed itself in my mind, You must come through by the living gate . . .

So there you have Mrs. Jackson. And that’s the way “it really is” for her and many like her who are searching for that gate of freedom. In the very texture of their lives there is confusion, war-made confusion, and the problem is to get around, over, under and through this confusion. They do not ask for a lighter share of necessary war sacrifices than other Americans have to hear. But they do ask for equal reasons to believe that their sacrifices are worthwhile, and they do want to be rid of the heavy resentment and bitterness which has been theirs for long before the war.

Forced in normal times to live at standards much lower than those the war has brought to the United States generally, they find it emotionally difficult to give their attention to the war. The struggle for existence constitutes a war in itself. The Mrs. Jackson of Harlem offers one of the best arguments for the stabilization of prices and the freezing of rents. Twenty-five percent of those still on relief come from our give percent of New York’s population. Mrs. Jackson finds it increasingly difficult to feed her children. She must pay six cents more on the dollar for food than do the mothers of similar-income sections elsewhere in the city. With the prospect of a heatless winter, Harlem, with its poor housing and high tuberculosis death rate, will know an increase of hardship.

It is an old story. Touch any phase of urban living in our democracy , and its worst aspects are to be found in Harlem. Our housing is the poorest, and our rents the highest. Our people are the sickest and Harlem Hospital the most overcrowded and understaffed. Our unemployment is the greatest, and our cost of food the most exorbitant. Our crime the most understandable and easily corrected, but the policemen sent among us the most brutal. Our desire to rid the world of fascism the most burning, and the obstacles placed in our way the most frustrating. Our need to see the war as a struggle between democracy and fascism the most intense, and our temptation to interpret it as a “color” war the most compelling. Our need to believe in the age of the “common man” the most hope-inspiring, and our reasons to doubt that it will include us the most disheartening. (This is no Whitmanesque catalogue of democratic exultations, while more than anything else we wish that it could be.”) And that’s the way it is.

Many of Mrs. Jackson’s neighbors are joining in the fight to freeze rents and for the broadening of the F.E.C.P. for Negroes and all other Americans. Their very lives demand that they back the President’s stabilization program. That they must be victorious is one of the necessities upon which our democratic freedom rests. The Mrs. Jacksons cannot make the sacrifices necessary to participate in a total war if the conditions under which they live, the very ground on which they must fight, continues its offensive against them. Nor is this something to be solved by propaganda. Morale grows out of realities, not out of words alone. Only concrete action will be effective, lest irritation and confusion turn into exasperation, and exasperation change to disgust and finally into anti-war sentiment (and there is such a danger). Mrs. Jackson’s reality must be democratized so that she may clarify her thinking and her emotions. And that’s the way it really is.

Heroism

For once, the theme of this post has nothing to do with Padilla.  Instead, it is about heroism.  The sort that inspires others to greatness or, at the very least, to reject mediocrity as the status quo.  I have a friend who is a radiologist.  He once told me that in order to survive those long hours of being “on call” at the hospital, he would think about the soldiers who are fighting overseas as a means of inspiration and sustenance.  This past year, I came across two feats of heroism which I thought worthy of mention here.

One pertains to a story many of you have perhaps already heard about: the mayor of Newark Cory Booker dashing into a burning building to save a woman from what was by all accounts imminent death.  Sure, one can question his motivations for doing what he did — he is, after all, a politician.  But this is an event that I will take at face value, if for no other reason because it provides a source of inspiration much like the soldiers whom my doctor friend relied on to get him through those long hours on call, and without which life would not be worth living.  If you haven’t seen it already, Mayor Booker gave the following press conference the day after his fiery rescue attempt:

The other heroic feat which I think bears mention, and I have to admit I am biased (read: Met fan) in writing about it, is Johan Santana pitching the first no-hitter in Mets franchise history.  Like other long-suffering Met fans, the prospect of a no-hitter is ever present — that is, you are constantly on the look out for one but know in the back of your mind that it almost will never happen on your watch.  Much like nuclear armageddon or a three-party system.  But it happened this time and I remember the moment when I turned to my wife in the sixth inning and openly observed what I noticed were a series of zeros on the scoreboard.  Neither I nor she thought much of it then as I am sure was the case with a lot of other Met fans who either watched or listened to the game that night.  But we kept our ears glued to to the radio, more so than usual for a regular season game, and closely  followed Johan’s progress from the sixth inning on.  And the rest is history.  What struck me most about Johan’s feat, however, and what I thought was most heroic about it, was that Johan surely knew that he would not be able to pitch another game after this one.  But he did it anyway: