The National Debt

By Shamika Ann Mitchell

My fellow Americans! There is something amiss here in the United States. It could be caused by the chemtrails in our atmosphere, or maybe the food fillers and additives we ingest and digest daily, or maybe the many poisoned wells and reservoirs that hydrate us (Flint is neither the beginning nor the end). There is something greatly wrong happening all around us, every day. Odorless, colorless, weightless, and terribly lethal, this elusive element is pervading the corners of every circle and the curves of every square. Despite the fact that we, as Americans, take great pride in nationalism, in aggrandizing self-narrative and prideful rhetoric, in the nostalgias of days so long gone (they never actually existed), we live in perpetual angst and distress, and often do not know the cause of our anguish. This great nation and its entire people are continuously caught in a cycle of distraction, disharmony and despair. We are nearly approaching a state of disrepair and irrevocable damage will continue to be wrought upon us all.

What is it that plagues us? What are the matters that rattle us most? Who can we blame for those secret shames and silences that prevent us from freeing sadness from our spirits? We have all been afflicted, and yet not one of us has sought any meaningful care or expressed an substantial concern for all that has gone wrong with everything we thought we held dear. We stare at our selfies and hope that we look OK, but looking in the mirror, it is clearer that we have lost our Selves. Who are we, really? What is America? What does it mean to be an American? From the very moment Las Casas actualized his idea that stealing and transporting people would benefit the Throne and the Church, the Original Sin took its grip. Is it possible to be cleansed from this Original Sin? Christianity teaches that the people’s sins should be cleansed with the Sacrifice of One, and that confessionals and repentances are the requisite cycle towards atonement. But what is it that we need to confess, and for what should we atone? From whom should we seek forgiveness? This nation was birthed in 1776, and yet, in 2016, we are still trying to renegotiate the sadistic sinful stains that have saturated our soil and all that has been harvested from these lands. There is no organic fruit or vegetable that is without a bloodied blemish. There is no Vegan or Kosher or Halal or all-natural item that is blessed by this bountiful blood. This is not amenorrhea; the United States is hemorrhaging.

Bloody America is now recognizable from any shore (from sea to shining sea), and we surely misremember how this America came into being: “Once upon a time, there was an explorer ______, and people left ________ and got on a boat, then came here, where there was a war…and here we are today, because we worked hard and earned it.” Is that really how the story goes? Is it really “happily ever after”? We keep telling these lies enough that we eventually believe the lie. The lies justify our existence and keep us complacent in our ignorance. We keep denying our complicity in the suffering of others. We keep refusing to take responsibility for our indirect roles in the madness and sadness that has spread all over the world. Americans want to proclaim individuality, enlightenment, and entitlement, but always at the expense of Others. “America is ALWAYS an exception to the rule,” is the delightful lie we keep telling ourselves as we profit from prisons, dispossession and bombardment. We exist in a society that resents itself; we hate who we are, what we have become, and why we are in this circumstance, so we self-medicate to lose the blues. The moral degradations and abominations of generations past are not passed; they have NOT been cleansed, and we are caught in a cycle of chaotic confusion. We are still too blind to see that we cannot legislate away these Sins. Instead, this Moral Debt continues to accumulate interest and America’s minimal payments are considerably past due. Residing in denial is desirable, and deflection is our rhetorical delicacy: “The debt is not ours. This was too long ago. Get over it,” are the nonsense pitiful mutterings of the ignorant and shameless who proclaim being blameless for the transgressions of their ancestors, and for their own apathy. Poisoned soil. Poisoned water. Poisoned sky. Poisoned tree. Poisoned flower. Poisoned fruit. Poisoned bee. And so on. And so on.

And so forth. Every July Fourth, we celebrate freedom in a nation with the largest prison population. We still want to believe the lie that there is truth and justice in a system that profits from imprisoning its Citizens. We need to believe the lie that working harder is all that is required to achieve and succeed. We want to believe the lie that forgetting will make the pains of yesterday’s yesterday go away, and that forgiveness is none of our business. We have withdrawn and overdrawn from our Atonement Account, and the amount due is insurmountable to replenish. What kind of future can America have without atonement? These institutions should encourage reconciliation, but they benefit from this nation’s burgeoning bankruptcy. History books keep lying to us. The media keeps deceiving us. Hollywood’s century of white lies keeps blinding us. Centuries of terrorism has traumatized us. Consumerism keeps us from investing in ourselves. If only money could buy happiness, we would not keep trying to swipe our sadness away. We have maxed out! The debts incurred cannot be waived between generations. America needs a payment strategy that emphasizes equity and legitimacy. We must not delude ourselves any longer; the American Dream was always a nightmare filled with despair and indescribable barbarity. The curses of caste remain a constant obstacle. Without equity, there is no genuine opportunity. Crimes against humanity do not have an expiration date. If we, the people, are going to form a more perfect Union, we must first acknowledge the wrongs committed, and then work towards an equitable solution that serves us all. As long as we profit from and invest in other people’s exploitation and oppression, the balance sheets will remain in the red. If we are ever to overcome this vacuous deficit, we must continue to remember the past, honor it, and commit to do better.

Dr. Shamika Ann Mitchell is an Assistant Professor of English at Rockland Community College, State University of New York. Her primary interests are Hip Hop, American literature, ethnicity, identity, and subjectivity theory. Her writing has been published in various texts, including College English Notes, Icons of Hip Hop and Women on Women: Indian Women Writers’ Perspectives on Women. You can reach Dr. Mitchell on Twitter @Black_Bootie. 

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Men (Of Color), Masculinity, and Mental Illness

MarShawn M. McCarrel II, 23, was a Black Lives Matter activist, a poet, and a believer in social justice.

He, like so many others, fought for a world that would include all of us to feel free and secure.

Unfortunately, McCarrell committed suicide earlier this month, in the Ohio State House. Before doing so, he wrote on Facebook the following message:

“My demons won today. I’m sorry.”

McCarrell did suffer from depression and some might say that the time spent as an activist took a toll. After all, when you’re trying your best to make a difference, you also see more of the problems around you, from the shooting deaths of black and brown men and women to the chronic poverty many communities face. It can feel like a burden.

I don’t want to assume I know what McCarrell was going through when he decided to end his life. I am not African-American. I am not an activist like he was. Honestly, I am not as brave.

However, I often wonder, ever since learning about what happened to him, why didn’t he feel compelled to share how he felt with others before taking the step he took? It sounded familiar to me.

When I was younger, I remember how me and my friends (most of us were South Asian American men) talking about our favorite movies, video games, athletes, and who we liked in high-school. Ultimately, we always steered clear of our emotions. At one point, I myself referred to us opening up to our feelings as “white boy stuff.” It reminded me of what the character, Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, would do, which was, in my friend’s words at that time, “bitch and whine.” Thing was, as men of color, we didn’t have time for that. We couldn’t allow ourselves any vulnerability.

Personally, I grew up with two disadvantages.

One: I was brown.

Two: I was short.

The combination is typically not the ideal. I remember how in Queens, it was very easy to be singled out by the other boys (again, mostly of color) and how we’d tease and taunt one another for whatever slight or weakness. Moving into the suburbs wasn’t much of an improvement, as I became accustomed to still feeling distant and small. Still, I formed a thick skin in the process. The last thing I wanted was for whomever was trying to hurt me to succeed and see my emotion on my sleeve. That would’ve been humiliation.

When I even began participating more in groups at college that dealt with racial issues and visibility, I’d never share what I was really feeling inside with anyone but very close friends. In that regard, I was fortunate. But I still can picture myself, age 19, in my dorm room, the sadness swelling up in my chest, being emotionally attached to the Iraq War, to viewing people who looked like me being cut down by bombs and poverty. It was easy to feel lost and ashamed. Sometimes, the survivor’s guilt that  accompanied moving from Queens into a better neighborhood far away in the depths of New Jersey would also rise up, and fill my every joint and ounce of my being, causing me to feel heavy.

And yet, I still wouldn’t express myself openly, the paranoia of white male faces laughing and clapping at my demise preventing me from doing so.

I had to win.

I had to remain “strong.”

According to the Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum, South Asian Americans—especially those between the ages of 15-24—were more likely to exhibit depressive symptoms.

Also, South Asian Americans “had the lowest rate of utilization of mental health services—which is a conclusion that should come as no surprise to anyone raised in the desi community.”

According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, “African Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population” and only one-quarter of African Americans seek mental health care, compared to 40% of whites. In fact, “African American men are more likely to receive a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia, when expressing symptoms related to mood disorders or PTSD.”

It’s clear that mental illness is an issue in our communities, including among men. Again, I don’t know what McCarrel was exactly going through but his situation leaves me asking questions, like:

To what extent does masculinity affect men of color differently than white males?

To how much does it contribute to our mental state?

Why don’t we do enough to combat “it”? Whatever “It” is?

My final thought, to help center ourselves, is, even though McCarrel lost his life at a young age, he made an impact. He was invested in social justice, including working on homelessness.

Remember him.

reflections

wear heels to feel

more like a man.

wore some eyeliner and a fake eyelash

for a play that only had one scene

but I bought the makeup kit

for maybe future use.

like prince said,

i wanna be your girlfriend

like eddie izzard explained,

it’s not useful to codify

i accept myself and all my contradictions

I am after all a male lesbian.

Sex before marriage

But no hook-ups by the way

Scrambled eggs in the morning

But no milk

I can’t cook so I choose jokes instead

I can’t withstand air pressure

so I wear heels to feel tall.

In Death, The Body Becomes Cold

It started with a text.

“You up?” the message read.

Khalil was in bed, but once he realized who the text was from, he immediately sat up.

“Nm,” he typed back.

After a few minutes of hearing himself breathe, a reply filled the screen. Soon, a conversation bloomed, like nothing had changed.

“Lol. Same. Are u back for Thxgiving?”

“Yep. U? How’s UCLA?”

“I’m gaining the freshman gut. Lol.”

“Haha. I’m sure u look amazing.”

“Aww. How’s your freshman year?”

Khalil hesitated. The stack of books he brought with him from Maryland, most of them for his political science courses, loomed while in the corner of the room. His chest felt heavy.

“Nathuram,” Khalil finally texted, “r u okay?”

There was a pause.

Khalil stared at the screen.

Suddenly, Nathuram responded.

“Been thinking of u.”

Khali felt his body getting warmer. He resisted the urge of saying too much and simply waited as Nathuram continued.

“I touched myself to pics of us.”

Khalil grinned.

“Creeper,” he wrote.

Nathuram answered with a smiley emoji, and the question, “Are u still a virgin?”

Khalil glared.

But Nathuram  added, “Come over tmr night. Parents are out…;)”

Khalil didn’t immediately know what to do. But, as he thought of Nathuram  holding him, his body felt lighter. He smiled.

.  .  .

On Thanksgiving, Khalil prayed at the mosque, ate turkey with his parents, and kept reading for his classes, from works by Plato to Foucault, men whose faces he couldn’t imagine.

He read until the sky was pitch black, and he collapsed onto his sheets.

When Friday arrived, Khalil and his friend, Amartya, went straight to the East Brunswick shopping mall while it was still dark out. Crowds were already gathered at the main entrance.

“My fingers are going to fall off,” Khalil muttered, as he rubbed his gloves.

“Just focus on what we need,” Amartya said, and scanned over the list.

Mrs. Chen, a teacher they once had, spotted them.

“What are you boys doing here?” she asked.

Amartya explained that their parents needed them to look for sales.

“They’re working extra shifts,” Amartya said.

Mrs. Chen, who was also bundled in layers, asked them how things were going at their respective colleges.

“Are you getting used to living away from home?” she asked.

Amartya, who was commuting to Rutgers, said he was enjoying his classes so far.

“I wanted to thank you for all the stuff you made us do in English class,” he told Mrs. Chen. “I’m already way ahead.”

Mrs. Chen was glad and asked Khalil the same question.

Khalil smiled as wide as possible, and asked Mrs. Chen how things were at their high-school.

“The school is still in one piece,” she said.

“Is everything alright?” Amartya asked.

Mrs. Chen paused. Khalil noticed lines under her eyes. She looked older than just a few months ago.

Before she could answer, however, the doors of the shopping mall were thrown open and everyone surged ahead.

People yelled and ran through the department stores, grabbing everything and anything within grasp, including hangars and belts.

Amartya stuck to the list, leading Khalil to electronics, where they fit a large TV into their shopping cart. Next, they found brand-name shirts and jeans half-off, surrounded by advertisements of men and women their age but whose skin glowed, whose lips were bright red, and with the words LOOK GOOD/ FEEL GOOD right below them.

“Do you want tight or loose?” Amartya asked Khalil as they were next to a bin full of boxers.

Amartya asked again but heard no response and soon realized that Khalil was texting on his phone.

Amartya arched an eyebrow, and crept closer. He peeked at the screen.

“What the fuck?” Amartya exclaimed.

Khalil, as if waking up, saw the expression on Amartya’s face and put his phone away.

“What?” Khalil said. “Just get whatever. It’s not like life or death.”

“Please don’t tell me you’re with Nathuram again,” Amartya said. “Don’t you remember what happened?”

“That was before. I’m meeting him later. He invited me.”

“If you were looking for a relationship, I could’ve hooked you up with Ahmed.”

“Ew.”

“What are you even planning to do anyways?”

Khalil grinned.

Amartya rolled his eyes, and turned back to the boxers.

Khalil repeated the fact that Nathuram had invited him.

“Whatever,” Amartya sighed, as he ticked off items on the list, and avoided making eye contact.

.  .  .

Every cash register was open. The lines snaked all the way to the back of the store.

Kanu picked at his nails.

Amartya was counting the money he had in his wallet.

“It’s the billionth time,” Khalil finally said. “It’s not like they’ll just hop away.”

“Doesn’t hurt to make sure.”

“Why are you even walking around with that much?”

“My folks don’t want us using the credit card anymore.”

“Why not? Did something happen?”

“I really don’t feel comfortable talking about this here.”

“Wait, is everything alright?” Khalil asked.

Amartya looked at him.

Khalil repeated the question, but Amartya just stared.

At first, Khalil was feeling angry. He was feeling heavy again.

Yet, he heard voices yelling. So he turned to a group of people pushing each other in front of a stack of TVs.

“You bitch!”

“Cunt!”

The arguing got worse and the store’s employees tried to break it up. But, the TVs tipped over, crashing onto the floor.

A loud boom echoed.

Everyone stopped where they were.

Another boom occurred, louder than before.

“He’s got a gun!” a woman yelled, and immediately, everyone dropped what they had and ran.

Amartya grabbed Khalil and they rushed outside, pushing through. Khalil looked to his left and his right, and saw others, mostly older people, falling to the ground. He also saw someone who looked like Mrs. Chen tumbling under, as if caught in a wave.

.  .  .

The mall was sealed off.

“Shit…” Amartya murmured, as he and Khalil watched as cops took down names and info from those who made it outside.

Khalil glanced at his phone.

“Are you hard yet? ;)”

Khalil took a breath and told Amartya not to worry.

“You’re right,” Amartya said. “We just need to stick to the plan.”

They got back in Amartya’s car and drove to the shopping malls in Woodbridge and Menlo, and even as far south as Freehold. At each one, the shelves were bare. They had no choice but to drive to Bridgewater, which was emblematic of what outsiders think of New Jersey, just someplace with empty corporate officers, a random factory, and a shopping center with untaxed goods.

There were crowds at the shopping mall. Khalil and Amartya finished up as soon as possible, ending up on the line for the register in less than an hour.

Amartya was smiling at the woman cashier who swiped their laptops and packs of boxers through the machine.

When the final number popped up, Amartya put his hand in his pocket, as Khalil was busy packing up the items.

Khalil slowed his pace when he noticed Amartya sticking his hands into every pant and jacket pocket.

“What’s wrong?” Khalil said.

Amartya stared at him, with wide eyes.

“I lost my wallet…” he replied.

They apologized to the cashier and ran to their car.

Khalil took the keys this time as Amartya cursed and punched the dashboard.

They went through every aisle of every store they’d been in at Woodbridge, Menlo, and Freehold.

They eventually parked their car in the parking lot of the EB mall, where the police tape was still up.

“It’s in there,” Amartya said, as they stood and watched.

“Just cancel the cards,” Khalil told him.

“Like I said, I don’t have any.”

“Well, that’s better then.”

Amartya sighed, and drifted away.

Khalil rolled his eyes.

The sun was descending.

He received another wink on his phone.

He tried to smile. He imagined wrapping his legs around Nathuram’s. But all he could do was lean against the hood and watch Amartya in the emerging darkness.

It was just them and a few cars left. The lampposts in the lot switched on and Khalil recognized Mrs. Chen.

She was seated in her car, the door open, and her legs sticking out. Her shoulders were slumped.

Khalil went to Amartya and tugged on his sleeve. Amartya glared but quickly saw what Khalil was motioning to.

“Mrs. Chen, what are you doing here?” Khalil asked once they were in front of her.

She smiled. But tears were running down her face.

She was also cradling her arm.

“Mrs. Chen, do you need help?”

She laughed.

Khalil and Amartya exchanged glances. They helped Mrs. Chen to her feet and drove her to the nearest hospital.

The nurses did tests and put Mrs. Chen in a room.

Amartya and Khalil sat on either side of her bed.

She rested her head against the pillow, and looked over at Amartya.

“You’re such a gifted writer,” she said.

Amartya told her it was because of her class.

She smiled, and thanked them for helping her.

“I don’t even know how I’m going to pay for all this but I’m glad you were there,” she said.

“Don’t you have health insurance as a teacher?” Khalil asked.

She placed a hand on Khalil’s.

“Be strong,” she said. “Nothing is permanent. But you have to be strong, okay?”

Khalil didn’t know what to say, so he nodded.

Mrs. Chen told them her daughters were coming to get her, and so, they left. They walked through the parking lot in silence.

Once they were in the car, Amartya said he’d drop Khalil off at Nathuram’s.

Khalil murmured, “Cool,” and they wore their seat belts and drove off.

.  .  .

The lights at Nathuram’s were turned off. Khalil texted.

Amartya and Khalil waited.

“HEY! SORRY! L Am in NYC!” the message appeared.

Khalil took in a deep breath and stared through the windshield, at the other houses along the road, their windows devoid of any light.

Amartya asked if he was okay.

Khalil cleared his throat, shrugged.

They sat in silence again.

After sometime though, as the heaviness in his chest grew, Khalil couldn’t help but open his mouth and talk.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “Coming back, I was looking forward to…I don’t even know. I mean…Mrs. Chen…all those people… some of them are dead and…and – – -”

Amartya pressed his lips against Khalil’s.

When Amartya eventually pulled away, Khalil stared.

Amartya grinned.

Khalil asked him what he was doing.

“What do you think?” Amartya responded.

Khalil grinned as well.

They went to the backseat and undressed.

They helped each other put on their condoms.

“I don’t know how this works…” Khalil admitted.

“Neither do I,” Amartya replied. “I’ll just lie on my stomach.”

“Do you need a pillow?”

“You have one?”

“No…”

“Then hold me then.”

Khalil followed instructions, and as Amartya lay down, Khalil slid inside.

Joy and excitement, dread and doubt, surged. Khalil bit his lip and tried to control himself. He thrusted, picking up speed.

They went back and forth, back and forth, and traded positions, until they had to catch their breath.

“You good?” Amartya said as they were side by side.

Khalil smiled. “I think so,” he replied. “My body is hot.”

Knowledge is Power Series: Afro-Brazilians

Black Lives Matter is global.

Activists have formed bonds with Palestinian activists under Israeli occupation and inspired countless others around the world to stand up and speak out.

One of those places is Brazil, where there is a large Afro-Brazilian population. In case you don’t know, Brazil was the last country in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery and since then, professes to be a color-blind society (where have we heard that one before…). For the longest time, however, Afro-Brazilians did buy into the idea that their high levels of poverty and incarceration wasn’t a product of who they were, that there was no such thing as being Afro-Brazilian to being with. Essentially, unlike black Americans in the U.S. and places like the U.K. even, there was no collective consciousness of their identity as black.

The raising of one’s consciousness, of someone finally able to see their location in the social structure, is an idea formed by Marx. Marx of course was referring to class consciousness, when a worker realizes he or she is a part of the capitalist machine and begins to connect the dots in terms of their oppression.

Similarly, Afro-Brazilians are currently experiencing a revolution of thought, and understanding that there place in the social hierarchy has been based on a fabricated logic of a post-racial regime and European settler colonization. For example, “Brazilian police have killed an average of six people per day between 2009 and 2013.  Much like the U.S., these victims are disproportionately Black.”

In some cities, the homicide victim rate “among Afro-Brazilians is as much as 10 times higher than the national average, according to Amnesty. In the northeastern city of Maceio in Alagoas state, for example, 2012 figures show the victim rate for black men under 29 years old was 328 homicides per 100,000.”

To learn more about the history of black and Afro-Brazilian identity, read Freedoms Given, Freedoms Won: Afro-Brazilians in Post-Abolition Sao Paulo and Salvador by Kim Butler, who is an acclaimed professor at Rutgers University.

freedoms given freedoms won actual image
(Image from Google)

The book discusses how and why Afro-Brazilians were left impoverished and constantly facing obstacles. Most importantly, Butler shows how Brazilian society managed to contain black identity and continue pushing forth the myth of a color-blind society.

Guest Blog Post: Asian American Me?

by Abhishek Chakrabarti 

A part and apart.  

That’s my Asian-American experience in a nutshell.  And as much as any person of color can attest to some degree of otherness within the context of America’s white-dominant cultural hegemony, my focus in this instance trains its lens on the otherness of being a South Asian under Asian-America’s socio-political umbrella.

Although by all academic measures South Asians should be united with our East and Southeast Asian family, not just geographically but by our shared immigration histories and experiences, cultural similarities, and of course by the aforementioned otherness, there remains a certain and uncomfortable disconnect where outside of the spheres of the cognoscenti (and maybe even to some extent within), the South Asian jostles for recognition and inclusion.

Putting aside the muck and mire that comes saddled with the considerations of national or ethnic origin, there exists an altogether more nefarious and unfortunate reality, one that isn’t often discussed within the Asian-American community that is at the heart of this disconnect: perception based on phenotypic representation.  The oversimplification of which is that we South Asians, to the common (mis)perception, just don’t look the part. As I’ve indicated before, outside of the circles of the informed Asian-American, this particularly tends to be a problem, and having experienced this first-hand on numerous occasions, has for a lack of a better term, colored my perception of the Asian American experience.

I grew up in, and have lived most of my life, in the San Gabriel Valley of Southern California, where the Asian communities, and in particular the East Asian communities are strong, vibrant and by population, numerous and growing.  I went to U.C. Berkeley where Asians outnumbered whites as the demographic majority.  All along the way, my experience as a South Asian in relation to my East Asian counterparts has been one of being the brown-sheep cousin begrudgingly accepted into the flock but only after having had to explain my position, and even then being relegated to the periphery as someone who is technically “but not really.”  Even among some of those that are ostensibly aware, I’ve picked up that slight hesitation that makes full accepting inclusion and recognition seem to come with an invisible asterisk.

Yes, things are better today than they were during my elementary years in the ’80s or my college years in the mid-to-late ’90s, but there still remains to some extent that phenotypic divide, that racial uniform,  that castes accusatory glances in my direction.  The “what’s he doing here?” sideways look.  The “oh, okay,” momentary pause that paints me as an other amongst others.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not something that I would deem to be pervasive or a common occurrence, but I am no longer surprised or taken aback when it happens.  I do feel, and my experiences indicate, that as an American of South Asian descent, my reality is that I have no socio-politcal home, so-to-speak.  I am American, but not really.  Asian-American, but not really.

I am at best, a part and apart.

Abhishek Chakrabarti is an admitted dilettante with a degree in a field of which he has made little use.  When not absolutely consumed with doing nothing in particular, he freelances as a photographer and aspires to one day actually write something worth reading.  His most frequently used word is,’dude.’  

Lessons

not every Bengali who speaks Bengali is “Cultured”
not every person who speaks English is Western
not every bomb dropped is evil
not every evil person get bombed.

. . .

September 11, 2001: Terrorists hijacked airplanes and used them to kill thousands in NYC.
We were 13 and in school and some of us got called down to see the principal. Some of us were told our parents had died.
September 11, 1973: Chilean General Augusto Pinochet, with the help of the United States, overthrew the democratically elected government of Chile, and who for the subsequent decades afterward, imposed his own brand of fascism on his people.
September 12, 2001: The cafeteria served chicken patties and some type of lasagna.

. . .

January 20, 1981: Former actor and governor of California, Ronald Reagan, is inaugurated as President of the United States. Millions of Americans cheer and wave American flags. Once in office, he helps to create the biggest divide between rich and poor since the Great Depression, and continued to ignore the issues affecting communities of color. Reagan is reelected three years later.
January 20, 2009: Millions crowd around their TV sets, computers, tablets, and around the White House to experience the inauguration of President Barack Obama, the first person of color to serve as president of the United States.
January 20, 2009: We were 20 years old and watched with friends, our eyes filling up, our hearts feeling strong again. This was our time. Our time. This was it. We can do this, we knew. We can do this.
January 21, 2009: Wake up, and go to class, go to work.

. . .

April 3, 2007: At Rutgers University, we filed out of our classrooms and filled into the front lawns between college buildings, calling for an end to the Iraq War. We chanted and marched round and round the main campus and area around New Brunswick.
April 3, 2007: We played Guitar Hero in our dorm rooms, as the protests swelled outside, playing music by the Beatles as the air got thick with prayers for an end.
April 4, 2007: We go to class. We finish our assignments with that person in class we have a secret crush on but don’t say anything cause it would feel weird to do so, right…?
April 5, 2007: We smoke weed, and cry, and laugh, and then fall out of dreams.
April 5, 2007: We don’t smoke weed anymore, unless with friends.

. . .

not every Bengali who speaks Bengali is “Cultured”
not every person who speaks English is Western
not every bomb dropped is evil
not every evil person get bombed.
The Great Recession looped and looped,
Reagan smiling from the coals beneath our feet
People power
Boarded up storefronts/ thousands of dollars in debt for that degree at Rutgers
go, find a job, file out, file in,
smoke some
drink some
find love.
listen to some good music as you stay in your corner of the party,
as the only one who doesn’t drink, who never smoke weed or anything,
who writes and paints and prays, and then makes jokes about god
cause god is your friend
cause you and god are a first-name basis by now.
listen to some voices at the party, and think about that person like you,
the same age,
on the other side of the globe.

Appearances

The phone vibrated, while Subhash gazed at the menu above the counter.

“The usual,” he said, and after receiving the order, sat in the corner, hunched over his box of Boston Crème. He chewed and glared.  His phone continued to glow.

Subhash finally answered.

“Where the heck are you?” Liang exclaimed. “You’re an hour late!”

Subhash flicked the crumbs off his pants, and mumbled, “On my way” and before Liang could respond, he hung up.

. . .

            The conference room at the Princeton library ran out of chairs. There was a mix of students and local residents, carrying Subhash’ book, Challenging Whiteness, in their hands.

“The U.S. offers dignity to those who accept its Anglo values,” Subhash read aloud excerpts, “If you accept its whiteness, such as property, you are afforded an increased chance to survive under its oppressive eye.”

Applause. For a moment, Subhash felt like he used to, with his pulse quickening, and his heart pounding like a bass drum. But once he looked up from the podium, and saw the crowd, the drumming stopped.

He signed autographs and posed for pictures. As the voices began to drain, a young girl emerged, the only other brown face in the room. Her name was Indrani, and she was a reporter for the student paper.

“Professor Ganguly,” she asked, wasting no time, “I read that you were once a community activist. What made you become one?”

“My parents were Bangladeshi immigrants, and worked hard but earned little pay,” Subhash explained in a monotone, “Since then, I never liked seeing people being pushed around. So I decided to do something and joined non-profit work after undergrad.”

“Does the activist work you did relate to what you’re writing about currently?”

“Before academia, I was trying to increase the visibility of working-class people and that’s what I hope to be doing with my pen.”

“Do you feel that your work is relevant?”

Subhash paused. “How long have you been at the paper?” he asked.

“Since last week. But my goal is to be editor.”

“That’s a big challenge.”

“I want to change the direction of the newspaper to focus on people of color. To speak up like you do.”

Subhash smiled. He told the girl to let him know when the article would be published and excused himself. Once in his car, he finished eating his donuts. The next day, at the political science department, he downloaded lists of libraries. Liang helped organize, although she asked, “Should I notify the dean about these changes?”

“No,” he said. “Just sprinkle them in and it should be alright.”

Liang found him spots in neighborhoods like Edison and Trenton. But no matter the time or the weather, usually it was only in places similar to Princeton that there was even a sizable audience. A librarian at Trenton explained as they cleaned up, “The last thing people want to do after work is hear someone tell them that whiteness rules their lives. So don’t take it personal.” Subhash thanked him, and didn’t say another word, as the microphone was unplugged and chairs stacked.

One evening, while popping in a new hole on his belt, he saw an update on Facebook, with him tagged. It was the article posted on the campus website. He leaned into the screen. Friends commented on how wonderful his book was, but Subhash focused on his answers. He called Liang.

“Add one more to the list.”

. . .

            The Jersey City library was in a quieter part of the neighborhood, and at first, the event was like the ones in Trenton and Edison, with more empty seats than people. Still, Subhash was prepared to accept the experience as a positive one, and go home to his pizza and soda.

“Hash?” a voice said.

Subhash had been gathering his things but he instantly turned around.

“HOLY SHIT!” the man said, causing the librarians to shush him. “Sorry, sorry,” the man apologized, and chuckled.

Subhash was frozen.

Eventually, he was able to move his lips. “Kanu…?” he murmured.

The man laughed. “Let’s go somewhere less stuffy,” the man responded, and they went to a nearby coffeehouse.

“Dude, even when I saw the flyers I thought it was another person. No way could he come back, I thought, no fucking way.”

Subhash, by then, was more cognizant of his surroundings, taking timely sips of his coffee.

“So, are you some sort of cult leader now?” Kanu smirked.

Subhash laughed, and explained, prompting Kanu to ask, “Does this mean you know about what’s happening?”

Subhash arched an eyebrow. Kanu instructed him to meet in the front. “Gotta run to the bathroom and take a shit first,” he said, before rushing off. Subhash waited on the sidewalk, and soon, Kanu rolled up in his car. Subhash got in, and Kanu drove them deeper into the city.

. . .

            Subhash and Kanu were the first ones working full-time as community organizers for a group dedicated to uniting working-class people of color. At the time, Subhash was living with cousins a town over, but he spent every waking hour on the streets of Newark Avenue and Martin Luther King Drive, trying to spread the word. Long-time residents were especially receptive. But lack of funding was always an issue.

“I was the last let go, but it still stung,” Kanu explained, as he drove past the supermarkets and convenience stores along Journal Square, and into the residential areas, with apartments and rows of homes owned by black Americans and Desis, including Indo-Guyanese.

Subhash was mostly silent as Kanu narrated.

“Companies are buying up abandoned buildings that the city could’ve converted to affordable housing but nope, money is more important than human lives. These developers are now turning them into condos. Dude, we’re becoming Brooklyn.”

Subhash wasn’t yet certain what Kanu was referring to but once they headed downtown, Subhash noticed the Jamaican and Pakistani restaurants disappear and more Asian fusion cuisine and steakhouses on every block. They stopped at the waterfront, with a clear view of the Manhattan skyline shrouded in fog. But Kanu pointed to the buildings surrounding them, each extending into the sky like giant crystals.

“See that one there? Dyer Industries?” Kanu said. “That was started by a hedge-fund.”

Subhash watched the people nearby taking pictures of the skyscrapers across the bay. Most were faces he’d been accustomed to seeing in Jersey City. However, there were others too, such as white and Asian, who clutched their bags when maneuvering through the crowd.

Subhash realized Kanu had stopped talking. He glanced and after waiting, thanked Kanu for the tour.

“But I need to get back to work,” Subhash added.

Kanu still didn’t turn away from the buildings around the waterfront.  “I started something a year ago,” Kanu said. “It’s a group trying to help residents gain their voices back. Since you seem interested in all that, I was wondering if you’d like to help?”

Kanu looked at Subhash.

“Us versus the bad guys. Like old times?” Kanu smiled.

Subhash tried to think clearly. The drumming drowned out the city.

. . .

            Subhash immediately did research on Dyer Industries, and discovered that the company had donated vast sums to every conservative politician in New Jersey, even Democrats who leaned right. Their current CEO was Rajesh Modi, an investor from London.

On the first day of canvassing, Kanu gathered everyone on the corner and told them to knock on as many doors as possible.

“Make sure to get their emails,” he told the two dozen volunteers present, who were mostly black, brown, and white undergrads.

Subhash picked the avenue that was the quietest, with no outside their homes. Occasionally, a person would sneak a glance through the curtains in the window when he’d knock. As he went down the row, a few would open their doors, including an elderly Sikh man who mistook Subhash for a Jehovah’s Witness.

“I don’t need your salvation,” the man said.

Subhash quickly explained who he was, and showed him a pamphlet.

“We are trying to make the city care for all its residents.”

“Nothing will change.”

“Sir, I know I t looks that way. But unless people try – – -”

“Are you from here?”

“No. But – – -”

The man slammed the door.

At the end of the afternoon, Subhash got one email. The rest of the week was similar. He’d teach his classes, attend meetings, and canvass in the evening.

As they finished up most of the area on Broadman, where houses had loose-railings and broken steps, but the walls and grass were kept short and clean, Subhash met one woman he instantly recognized.

“Thank God!” the woman who Subhash knew as Miss Singh cheered and invited him inside for tea.

Subhash was getting used to encountering fragments of the past, but felt especially fortunate to see Miss Singh still in her home. They shared memories, especially of Miss Singh at City Hall, waving petitions.

She shook her head at the table between them, covered with copies of The Nation and Women, Race and Class.

“I’ve heard you’re doing big things now. Are you speaking at NJCU?” she asked.

“No. I’ve actually been working with Kanu,” he said.

Miss Singh narrowed her eyebrows, and Subhash chuckled and told her not to worry.

“We’re building a coalition, us against the bad guys,” he said. “We could use your help on training the volunteers.”

“I just turned 60…”

“So? I never pictured you the type to slow down.”

Miss Singh hesitated. Her hands were on her lap.

“The people need you,” Subhash said.

Miss Singh joked. “I can’t escape them, can I?”

After tea, she went out with Subhash, laughing with the neighbors. Everyone they met scribbled down their emails, and addresses. Subhash even received pats on the back, and Miss Singh explained how proud she was of him. Subhash skipped his meetings at the university, and continued knocking on doors.

. . .

            “Hello? Is anyone there?”

Liang snapped her fingers, jolting Subhash from a daydream.

“What? What happened?”

“Your 2 o’clock with the Dean. That’s what.”

Subhash rolled his eyes, and picked up the plate of salad on his desk.

Liang, however, stood with her arms crossed.

“So, are you going to save the world now? Solve all their problems?”

“Won’t hurt to try.”

“You’re being unrealistic.”

“Maybe I am. But at least I’m being real…”

Liang stopped, and Subhash looked at her. “If I’m fired, I’ll make sure you land on your feet at another Ivory Tower.”

Liang glared. “I care about my family,” she said. “People who need me.”

She stormed out.

Subhash muttered, and tried to work. Yet, he packed up after a few minutes, and left campus, heading to Jersey City.

. . .

            After a month of gathering signatures, Kanu wanted to speak with Subhash, one-on-one. They met at Kanu’s apartment, overlooking a row of abandoned homes. The elevator in the building was cordoned off with police tape so Subhash plodded up the stairs and when he got to the seventh floor, gasping, Kanu was beaming down.

There was one bed and one chair at Kanu’s place. There were also cables sticking out of the wall, and newspaper scattered on the floor. Kanu handed Subhash a bottle of sparkling water and discussed their strategy.

“A protest?” Subhash reacted.

“All we’re gonna do is go down to Dyer Industries, hold up some signs, and move along. This is just step one anyway.”

“Step one?”

Kanu glared. He got up from the bed and walked over to the lone window in the room.

Subhash sighed, and stood up as well.

“I’m sorry,” Subhash said. “This is still fresh to me…”

“Either you’re all in or you’re not,” Kanu snapped. “Tell Miss Singh the plan. Understood?”

Subhash lowly nodded, and finished his water.

At the end of the week, Subhash attended a community teach-in organized by Miss Singh. It was her and a whiteboard in front of the volunteers, all gathered in the living room. Subhash watched as Miss Singh wrote down terms like “agency” and “power” with her red marker. A young man sitting on the carpet, interrupted the session at one point, exclaiming, “How do you know all this?” Everyone giggled, and Miss Singh explained that it was just a matter of “keeping oneself engaged.” Kanu smiled as he saw the expression on the young man’s face, something Kanu hadn’t seen in any of his classes.

Once everyone was trying the jerk chicken Miss Singh made, she approached Subhash, asking why he wasn’t eating. Kanu was texting Liang but stopped, and answered, “Just been looking after myself, that’s all.”

She didn’t reply, and kept peering into his eyes, as if searching.

Subhash chuckled nervously.

Miss Singh, without looking away, sighed, and smiled. She told him to pack something for later, and he murmured he would.

On the day of the protest, Subhash taught morning classes, answered phone calls, and skipped lunch. Since it was the weekend, the highway was empty, and Subhash turned up on the volume on his radio.

. . .

            “Put this in the trunk,” Kanu said, handing Subhash a sign.

After doing so, Subhash sat in the passenger seat as Kanu was behind the wheel, neither uttering another word.

At first, Subhash watched the sights pass by, including the smokestacks in Secaucus. The stench of burned gasoline snuck inside and stung his eyes. The drumming was getting louder. At an intersection, however, as they waited for the light, Subhash arched an eyebrow at the traffic signs. He read them over once more before addressing Kanu.

“Why are we going the opposite way?”

Kanu gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles were red.

Subhash asked what was going on. Kanu drove into a McDonald parking lot, and pulled out a phone.

“It’s me,” Kanu said into the receiver, “I’d like to report a demonstration being planned outside your headquarters.”

Subhash eyes widened.

Back on the road and focused ahead, Kanu explained, “We all got debt to pay.”

“All that work…” Subhash murmured.

Kanu grinned. “Come on dude, don’t be like that. Let’s just grab some lunch, chill, and you can get back to your real friends. You got what you wanted anyway.”

Subhash pictured himself at the podium. The drumming began to fade.

Subhash popped open the door. He could hear Kanu yelling but maneuvered through traffic, and made it to the nearest gas station where he called for a taxi. He was dropped off at his own car, which he drove to the waterfront. He coasted by Dyer Industries, and spotted signs scattered on the sidewalk, and a security guard collecting them. At Miss Singh’s, Subhash peered into the main window. In the living room the tables and chairs were overturned. Subhash ran to the bushes and threw up.

Subhash didn’t tell anyone at work where he’d been. He slept at his desk, woke up, and taught. He went to faculty meetings, attended dissertation defenses, and had lunch with colleagues. Liang was still not speaking to him, and sometimes, it was difficult to focus on his research without thinking of his parents, who’d plod through the living room after work, their nametags dangling and their eyes sunken. But day by day, bit by bit, he’d be in his routine, spending hours in his office and returning home in the evening to eat and sleep.

. . .

            He bit into a donut. It tasted like sandpaper. He scribbled comments on students’ essays, the red ink staining his fingers. The phone glowed. He rolled his eyes, and bumped past customers waiting in line.

At the library, people stood and blocked the entrance. Others opened their books to an empty page with a pen in their hand.

He entered, and they clapped. He did his best to smile as he took his place and opened his own copy, to the page he’d been reading to audiences for the past year.

He stared. The room fell silent.

“Professor?”

He looked up.

“Sir…?”

He glared.

“You’re the ones holding society back,” he said, causing the crowd to gasp.

The drumming returned. He grinned.

“And what did you expect? To be accepted into a struggle that you helped perpetuate? To shed a tear and go to bed? What – – -”

Security grabbed him, and wrestled him to the floor. They dragged him through the aisle.

“You’re doomed!” he laughed, “You’re all doomed!”

. . .

            Starbucks and Chipotle. Craft brewery and a comedy club. Indrani took pictures of the new condos.

“Excuse me?” she asked a man working as a valet outside a restaurant, “Do you live in the neighborhood?”

The man hesitated. “Who wants to know?”

Indrani explained she was a reporter for The Middlesex Times, and writing a story on the recent changes in New Brunswick.

The man smirked. “I grew up here,” he answered. “So far, I’ve seen outsiders moving in and nicer places for them. For the rest of us, rent keeps going up.”

Indrani opened her mouth to ask more but her phone interrupted. It was her editor.

“Where are you?” he bellowed.

“I’m – – -”

“Get to your assignment!”

“Okay, but…”

“NOW!”

Indrani gritted her teeth. She apologized to the man and rushed to her car.

. . .

            The local community college was surrounded by traffic. A group of professors were holding up a banner, reading STOP THE CUTS! Indrani saw them, and bit her lip. The light flipped. A car honked. She held up a middle finger, and took a wide left into the community college parking lot.

The professors explained to Indrani that they were protesting against cuts in state funding. She wrote down their every word, and they thanked her for showing up.

“We must’ve sent a dozen requests to the local papers but no one responded,” their spokeswoman said.

“Not surprised,” Indrani chuckled, “I’m actually supposed to be reporting on some new yoga studio that opened.”

Eventually, the professors returned to their classes, and Indrani could feel her fingers cramping up. She did notice one professor, who remained in the parking lot, hands in his pockets, and watching the cars.

Indrani kept her head buried in her notes. But she couldn’t help glance. The man was incredibly thin. She squinted. She stopped writing.

“Professor?” she said.

The man turned and after seeing her, laughed.

“I didn’t realize it was you,” he said. “I’m assuming you’re still an enterprising reporter?”

“Yes…I graduated a year ago…” she answered, in a daze.

“Good!” he exclaimed, and went back to watching the road.

Indrani didn’t move. She cleared her throat.

“I’m sorry for what happened….”

“Why? I’m still teaching. And the students are good here. The faculty also appreciates my activism.”

Indrani narrowed her eyebrows.

She waited for more, but he smiled at the traffic instead.

She got back in her car, and drove onto the road, her editor calling, and her heart beating against her chest.

Typical

Typical conversation I have with male relatives and friends of friends from India about dating in the U.S.:

Them: So, Sudip, have you like dated American girls?
Me: Uh…yea? I’m mean, they’re everywhere…
Them: No. I mean, American girls, like pure Americans.
Me: Do you mean Native Americans? Cause no. I have not.
Them: No…you know…American American…
Me: Okay. So, do you mean white American?
Them: Yes! American!
Me: You do realize they’re European-American, right? They’re not “pure” (finger quotes in the air).
Them: …
Me: (Sigh) I have…
Them: COOL!
Me: -_-

Knowledge is Power Series: Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall image
(Image from Google)

Given the recent events, I thought it was important to remind everyone of Thurgood Marshall, our first black American and POC judge to serve on the Supreme Court.

Marshall was a lawyer and activist prior to the bench. He was part of the group responsible for helping break down segregation in the Deep South and even as he climbed up the ladder, was always prepared to defend egalitarian and liberal principles of social justice and equality before the law.

Even later in his career, as a supreme court judge, Marshall was vocal in speaking truth to power, such as his scathing critique of so-called American exceptionalism at its bicentennial celebrations in 1987. Here is an excerpt of what he said that day:

“For a sense of the evolving nature of the Constitution we need look no further than the first three words of the document’s preamble: ‘We the People.” When the Founding Fathers used this phrase in 1787, they did not have in mind the majority of America’s citizens. “We the People” included, in the words of the Framers, “the whole Number of free Persons.” United States Constitution, Art. 1, 52 (Sept. 17, 1787). On a matter so basic as the right to vote, for example, Negro slaves were excluded, although they were counted for representational purposes at threefifths each. Women did not gain the right to vote for over a hundred and thirty years. The 19th Amendment (ratified in 1920).

These omissions were intentional. The record of the Framers’ debates on the slave question is especially clear: The Southern States acceded to the demands of the New England States for giving Congress broad power to regulate commerce, in exchange for the right to continue the slave trade. The economic interests of the regions coalesced: New Englanders engaged in the “carrying trade” would profit from transporting slaves from Africa as well as goods produced in America by slave labor. The perpetuation of slavery ensured the primary source of wealth in the Southern States.”

You can read the rest by clicking here.