Winter Light

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Frost at Midnight

 

A Ride Home from Prison

I don’t have any time to waste on jail anymore ~ Stanley Bailey, newly-released former inmate

Carlos Cervantes, a former inmate, says every ride home from prison is different. He picks up men released from life sentences after California reformed its three strikes law in 2012. Most of the men don’t have family or friends anymore; they’re starting from scratch.

Imagine what it must be like in those first few hours, after not having walked on grass, sat under a tree, or watched the comings and goings of modern life for nearly three decades. According to Carlos, and his latest rider, Stanley Bailey, it’s overwhelming.

More than half a million people are released from prisons in the U.S. each year, often without services to help them reintegrate. In a graceful act of personal kindness, Carlos helps make those first critical hours a little less terrifying.

I Am Not Your Negro

The question you have to ask yourself, White America needs to ask itself: Why was it necessary to have a nigger in the first place? ~ James BaldwinI Am Not Your Negro

In a neighbouring village more English than England and whiter than white, I found Agatha Christie’s book in the stacks of the church’s charity book sale. I was shocked to a degree commensurate with my liberal leanings. Then I bought it for a dollar.

Published in England before the Second World War, the cover of this edition explicitly states that it is “not for sale in the U.S.A. or Canada.” It was later republished as Ten Little Indians – hardly a stellar rebranding and, finally, as And Then There Were None. It ranks as the 10th best-selling book of all time.1 That’s an awful lot of influence.

I Am Not Your Negro

Before it was a book, it was a popular children’s rhyme with variants and roots in the folk tradition and black-face minstrel shows of Reconstruction-era America.

During Reconstruction in the 1860s, the proud Confederate states found themselves in a place of subordination. Forced to concede their free slave labor, the former citizens of the Confederacy refused to fold their ideology of the inferiority of the freed slaves. A “comic” song titled “Ten Little Niggers” circulated through the United States in Minstrel shows and children’s nursery rhyme books in keeping with this ideology.

…While the purpose of its widespread popularity was to refute the competency and human qualities of the black freedmen to white audiences, the ultimate legacy that the rhyme leaves behind is the mental conditioning of following generations of black males. The white population who circulated the song intended to define the black freedmen as barbaric and ignorant, yet the song also connected the white-constructed definition of ‘nigger’ to the black man’s consciousness.2

The live performances of Ten Little Niggers in minstrel shows allowed the white audience to face a living manifestation of their fears in comic form. The act of chiding the black race became an empowering act of watching black or blackface performers denounce themselves in a public forum.3

And so the rhyme goes:

Ten little nigger boys went to dine; one choked his little self and then there were Nine.

Nine little nigger boys sat up very late; one overslept himself and then there were Eight.

Eight little nigger boys travelling in Devon; one said he’d stay there and then there were Seven.

Seven little nigger boys chopping up sticks; one chopped himself in halves and then there were Six.

Six little nigger boys playing with a hive; a bumblebee stung one and then there were Five.

Five little nigger boys going in for law; one got in Chancery and then there were Four.

Four little nigger boys going out to sea; a red herring swallowed one and then there were Three.

Three little nigger boys walking in the Zoo; a big bear hugged one and then there were Two.

Two little nigger boys sitting in the sun; one got frizzled up and then there was One.

One little nigger boy left all alone; he went and hanged himself and then there was None.

It continues until all ten are dead, attributed to their failure to learn from experience, a lack of competency and poor mental acuity. Black men were considered a danger to others, especially white women, as well as to themselves, therefore requiring a white master to look after them ‘properly.’ A line-by-line interpretation of the rhyme can be found here.

Ten Little Niggers, and other cultural instruments like it, perform the very specific role of indoctrinators for adults and children alike. They validate language and beliefs, drawing them into the mainstream with the false logic that if everybody uses the words or laughs at the jokes, then it must be okay.4

American literary critic, teacher, historian, filmmaker and public intellectual Henry Louis Gates, Jr.:

So, when a white person confronted an actual black human being, he or she was “an already read text,” to use Barbara Johnson’s brilliant definition of a stereotype in her book, A World of Difference. It didn’t matter what the individual black man or woman said and did, because negative images of them in the popular imagination already existed, as if they were “always ‘in place,’ ” as my colleague Homi K. Bhabha puts it (pdf), “already known, and something that must be anxiously repeated … as if the essential … bestial sexual license of the African [for example] that needs no proof, can never really, in discourse, be proved.” Hence the need to repeat these images over and over again, endlessly. The racist stereotype was subconsciously imposed on the face of an actual African American, the American mask of blackness, and these images justified the rollback of the gains black people had made during Reconstruction.5

Then, more than 75 years after Agatha Christie’s publication, along came Brexit, with immigration cast in the lead role of scapegoat and untempered racism on open display. Knowing history, it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise.

At its height, the British Empire was the largest in history and, for over a century, was the foremost global power.  By 1913 it held sway over 412 million people, 23% of the world population at the time, and by 1920 it covered 35,500,000 km2 (13,700,000 sq mi), 24% of the Earth’s total land area. As a result, its political, legallinguistic and cultural legacy is widespread. At the peak of its power, the phrase “the empire on which the sun never sets” was often used to describe the British Empire, because its expanse around the globe meant that the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories.6

The transfer of Hong Kong to China in 1997 marked for many the end of the British Empire.7

According to the New York Times, Pro-Brexit advocates have framed leaving the European Union as necessary to protect, or perhaps restore, the country’s identity: its culture, independence and place in the world. This argument is often expressed by opposition to immigration.8

So what should I do with the book I bought for a dollar at the church book sale?

Gates offers two options: donate it to a respected collection to facilitate societal critique, so that “our children…know where we have been [in order] to know where we are going.” Or burn it ’til it is no more.9

There is no room for ambivalence, he says, because “it is the force of ambivalence that gives the colonial stereotype its currency.”10

************

I Am Not Your Negro, a film written by James Baldwin, directed by Raoul Peck and voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, explores the history of racism in the United States through Baldwin’s reminiscences of civil rights leaders Medgar EversMalcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016, it is in limited release across the U.S. Check the website or local theatres for dates.


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_books 

  2. https://folkloreforum.net/2009/05/01/“ten-little-niggers”-the-making-of-a-black-man’s-consciousness 

  3. https://folkloreforum.net/2009/05/01/“ten-little-niggers”-the-making-of-a-black-man’s-consciousness/ 

  4. https://folkloreforum.net/2009/05/01/“ten-little-niggers”-the-making-of-a-black-man’s-consciousness 

  5. http://www.theroot.com/should-blacks-collect-racist-memorabilia-1790896701 

  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Empire 

  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Empire 

  8. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/21/world/europe/brexit-britain-eu-explained.html?_r=0 

  9. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/should-blacks-collect-racist-memorabilia 

  10. http://courses.washington.edu/com597j/pdfs/bhabha_the%20other%20question.pdf 

More Than Enough Refugee Blues to Go Around

Refugee Blues was published by writer and poet W.H. Auden in 1939, at the start of World War II.

It’s safe to say not much has changed and, perhaps, it never will if war and hatred continue to be our modus operandi. The million dollar question is this: Are we doomed as humans to this destructive cycle of scapegoatism and righteous indignation? Or is there truly a possibility – a probability – for something else? 

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew:
Old passports can’t do that, my dear, old passports can’t do that.

The consul banged the table and said,
“If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead”:
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go to-day, my dear, but where shall we go to-day?

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said;
“If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread”:
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying, “They must die”:
O we were in his mind, my dear, O we were in his mind.

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.

Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors:
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me. 

 

Refugee Blues – Trailer from Tristan Daws on Vimeo.

Guerrilla Art for Curious People

It took 18 years of rural living for Guerrilla Art for Curious People to surface.

The idea popped into my brain because I love nothing more than discovering public art in unexpected places. Every time I’m surprised by an installation – turning a corner or driving through a neighborhood – my body vibrates, my head alights and I am consumed by happiness. To quote Mr. Whitman, I Sing the Body Electric. Continue reading Guerrilla Art for Curious People

Love Your Children Well

For the past few years, I’ve been struck by intermittent doubts about whether we’re raising our children “right.” Our house is filled with a gaggle of teenagers. As our eldest nears university, his upbringing is a done deal, the question a moot point. As for the others, it is said that parents have a diminishing influence over their children around the age of 12, when peers take the upper hand.  Continue reading Love Your Children Well

Skating the Rideau Canal in Burritt’s Rapids

I love living in a place with distinct seasons. What I particularly love is that just when I start to really, really enjoy something – swimming in the river, gardening, snowshoeing, falling leaves – it’s gone. Skating on the Rideau Canal in Burritt’s Rapids is like that. And its fleeting and unpredictable nature makes me appreciate it that much more.

Skating the Rideau Canal in Burritt's Rapids
A panoramic of Burritt’s Rapids and its natural skating rink on the Rideau Canal

Continue reading Skating the Rideau Canal in Burritt’s Rapids

What I See When I See Smiths Falls

This is the first in a series of visual love letters to Smiths Falls, one of my favourite towns.


I’m from Vancouver, and while there are great things about the westcoast, I have called rural Ottawa home for the past 20 years.

The single best thing I love about living in the east is the riches of small towns and villages, roads that lead everywhere, chalk-full of opportunities to stop, talk to people, poke around and discover. Smiths Falls, just 20 minutes from where we live, has been my second home since the birth of our first child, when my in-laws sold up in Sudbury and moved to be close to us. Continue reading What I See When I See Smiths Falls

New York and the MTA Underground Art Museum

I love riding New York’s subway system – just not as much as I love walking the city. 

Riding necessitates paying attention to lines and stops and tracks – my mind can’t wander for fear of ending up in who-knows-where – but walking favours mental and corporeal freedom, especially when time holds no sway.

However, my penchant for perambulation has its downside: walking New York means I’ve all but missed the MTA Underground Art Museum, an Ali Baba-on-steroids-sized treasure trove.  Continue reading New York and the MTA Underground Art Museum

Exploring the intersection of people, their homes, and communities