history


Racism, Violence, and Bullying in Zimbabwe

 

On the 17thof April, 1980, at Zimbabwe’s independence celebration, Bob Marley sang his famous song for Africa’s independence: “Every man got a right to decide his own destiny, And in this judgment there is no partiality.”

Out of the Shadows

 

Part of the problem, of course, was that in Zimbabwe until 1980, blacks were denied the right to vote, were offered inferior education by the white minority in power, and were unable to own land, which had been appropriated by white settlers a century earlier. Black Africans in then Rhodesia were not masters of their own destiny. But, after a decade long war for independence, they now hoped that Zimbabwe could become a symbol of African pride and democracy.

By now, we all know what happened. Robert Mugabe, the prime minister who shone like a bright beacon of hope and promise in 1980, became a despot as early as the 1980s—terrorizing and killing the Ndebele peoples. In 2000, he began appropriating white farm land for his thug cronies and expanded his brutalization of the population to include all ethnicities, black and white, in order to remain in power.

Jason Wallace’s Out of Shadows bravely navigates this shifting terrain of power politics, deeply embedded in the problem of race that has plagued southern Africa for centuries. In 1983, Robert Jacklin moves from England to Zimbabwe with his family and attends an elite boarding school. Despite his father’s allegiance to the liberal party line—or perhaps because of his father’s almost rote preaching about the virtues of the new black government and the evils of the former white government—Robert quickly falls under the sway of a charismatic young man, Ivan, whose palpable anger over the loss of white power and prestige makes him a dangerous friend.

Robert soon realizes that lines at the boarding school are drawn between those who are willing participants in bullying the black students and those who befriend them. Robert absorbs his new friends’ racism and rage, rejecting his father’s beliefs and embracing the distorted but compelling world view of disaffected white Rhodesians. Ironically, his new-found racism and his alliance with young men whose terrifying values lead them to engage in questionable activities probably saves his life, a part of the plot I won’t divulge.

Though Robert never quite emerges from the philosophical and moral racial quagmire he’s sunk himself in, he does eventually jeopardize his own life when he comes to understand Ivan’s commitment to a radical and shocking plan of action to restore Zimbabwe to its former glory under white power. An epilogue with an adult Robert, who returns to the boarding school a couple decades later, demonstrates that though he’s managed to leave Zimbabwe and the virulent racism he encountered there, its impact reverberates, leaving him still confused about some of the moral issues raised by the book.

In Out of Shadows, Wallace has waded into a confusing political situation with admirable honesty. At times I longed for a strong black character to clarify the issues and effectively demonstrate, to the reader if not to Robert, that though Robert Mugabe turned out to be evil, African independence itself was both just and necessary. At the same time, moral realities are almost never black and white and are often gray. I appreciated Wallace’s ability to hold back and let the reader experience the reality of obfuscated moral realities, such as the one unfolding in Zimbabwe for the last two decades.

Interview at Through the Tollbooth

Read an interview with J.L. Powers at Through the Tollbooth!

Q: What about this novel makes you most proud?

There is absolutely nothing on the market like it! It is young adult magical realism, set in a poverty-stricken township of South Africa. It is a love story but it also deals with the clash between science and traditional medicine in Africa, and it highlights and focuses on the HIV-AIDS epidemic in the part of the world with the highest rate of HIV infections—the heart of the epidemic.

 Read more…

History and God’s Miracles

Because I’ve been reading a lot of biographical picture books lately, and because I’m working on one of my own, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between history and our personal identities.

In January, I had a conversation with a gentleman who was reading a book called “God’s Miracles.” It was a collection of stories that revealed moments of American history when, according to the book, God performed a miracle that allowed the new nation to thrive. The story he presented during our conversation was how the people of Jamestown were literally getting into their boats to leave when ships from England arrived, “saving” them and “saving” Jamestown.

The idea that America’s destiny was maneuvered, manipulated, aided, and abetted by the Powerful Most High is always one that disturbs me. Was it a “miracle” from God that Jamestown survived….only for the obliteration of the Native American peoples in that area to occur? Ascribing God’s hand into the American Story gives a lot of people a sense of destiny, a belief that the American Way is God’s Way, but the flip side of that is the question: Was it therefore the destiny of the Native American peoples to be killed, herded onto reservations, and left to rot—all the way up to the present day? Is that, too, God’s Way?

As a historian, I’m aware that most of history is made up of questions, not answers; it is made up of perspectives, not facts. Those of us who are white and grow up in America see our founding fathers as heroes; that is our perspective because they built a society for us that enables and encourages us to succeed. But this perspective holds very little moral authority for me when I see how they built the country at the expense of so many people’s lives.  

History ends up being very similar to religion. Like our religious heroes, our historical heroes give us a shared sense of destiny with people who have very little in common with us. We can all wave our flag of patriotism because “we” are Americans.

An American friend of mine, an African historian who lives in South Africa, recently told me, “Everybody recognizes South Africa’s history as a racist history. We don’t tell the American history as a racist history because whites are the majority people.” He’s right. Yet the story of America is a racist story—from the arrival of the Pilgrims, to slavery, to the notion of Manifest Destiny, to our attempts to colonize the Philippines, to our ongoing refusal to grant Puerto Ricans full citizenship (what’s up with that? They’re “American citizens” who can’t vote? Wait…WHAT?), to our recent building of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. It’s true that racism is only part of the American story—but it’s an enormous part, something we fail to see because we try so hard to build pride in our young folks. We teach “propaganda” and call it history, not even realizing that our unconscious goal is to instill patriotism, and we do so by telling lies.

How to balance all of this when writing a picture book for kids based on a historical figure? I’m not sure. I think it’s one reason why my first biographical picture book was about a relatively unknown dude—a blind artist, Mexican-American, who has a very rare form of blindness that he describes as a “constant LSD trip” and so he paints what he sees. That was a fun book to write, but it hasn’t sold yet. I’d like to write a biographical picture book about my father, not because he’s famous but because he’s a man I care about deeply. And I’m currently working on a biographical picture book about Nelson Mandela’s chef…the man who cooked meals for him the last 15 months he was in prison, when the apartheid government was negotiating with him and so he had a cushier life than the previous three decades he’d spent on Robben Island.

Am I contributing to South Africa’s ongoing myth-making by writing about one of their heroes at the moment he was released from prison? Perhaps. It’s not that I believe there are no heroes in history. It’s just that I believe our heroes lived messy lives, full of both courageous and horrific deeds, and we’re better off telling the truth, rather than trying vainly to instill pride in a false vision of what America is, who we are, and what our purpose is in the world.

Justice in an Unjust World

South Africa houseLast May, while I was traveling around South Africa, a relatively new Christian told me the story of his salvation. He knew God was real and God was good the day God gave him a beautiful house at a price that was substantially below market value; the person who was selling it cheap had fallen on hard times and needed to get rid of it pronto.

“Isn’t it screwed up that you’re thanking God that somebody else has fallen on hard times?” I asked.

I don’t think he understood my unstated point: that a gift from God for one person should not represent injustice or hard times for another person. Even if we assume that the person who had fallen on hard times made bad decisions about their finances, can we really give God credit for our ability to, vulture-like, swoop in when the pickin’ is good?

Such logic leads to genocide.

Such logic has led to genocide, many, many times in history.

*** 

 

underground railroad

The first book I remember reading by myself was a biography of Harriet Tubman, an African American slave who not only escaped slavery herself but became known as “Moses” because she returned to the South over a dozen times and helped over seventy slaves escape to freedom. I was absolutely captivated by the phrase, “the Underground Railroad.” I imagined a literal railroad carved out of rock, deep underneath the earth’s surface, with poor, tattered slaves creeping along in the dark, only a candle to light their way to freedom.

Perhaps because that book represented a pivotal turning point in my education—the ability to read by myself—it also shaped my political and social consciousness. The first novel I wrote as an 11-year-old was the story of a young woman trying to help a slave escape on the Underground Railroad. As an adult, I’ve spent years of my life in graduate school, studying African history. Justice for people of color worldwide has been one of my abiding political concerns. I am bitterly aware of the privilege of my white skin, just as I’m bitterly aware of the disadvantages I face due to my gender.

(As a caveat to the conservatives who read my blog: I don’t believe the government to be a panacea to the social ills of our time. But it is obvious to me that injustice is built into the very fabric of our society, and thus into the warp and weave of every bureaucratic and religious institution and every policy that our government espouses. As a result, I don’t think we can create a solution without addressing it from a political and religious standpoint. This doesn’t mean that I believe the solution should be top-down—government forcing the people to do something that’s not in their heart to do. God, no. I HATE INSTITUTIONS. Plus, I am a firm believer in grassroots movements for social change, from the people on up. But the very point of democracy, and of grassroots change, is that at some point, we must change institutional structures as well—from governments to churches to schools. Anyway, that was a little diversion to my main subject today….)

As I’ve grown older, my concept of justice has grown increasingly complicated. I’ve come to recognize that righting the wrongs of the past so that the future can be more equitable might mean that a lot of Americans—white people, wealthy people of all colors, and, ah yes, even the educated middle-class, which includes me—will have to give up things they currently enjoy. Yes. Among many other changes, justice will definitely mean that we in the U.S. will need to give up our boats, extra cars, and expensive vacations and spend more money on groceries, on housing, on other things.

My preference, of course, is that we could right the wrongs of the past without anybody currently living having to suffer. But I’m not sure that’s possible. It’s not exactly that I believe a lot of people must lower their standards of living in order for the very most poor to be able to raise their standards of living. But I don’t think it’s possible for those of us in western nations to continue to ignore the fact that our wealth is based on our power; and our power comes at the expense of other people’s power which, ultimately, leads to their poverty. A person in India or China or Mexico who is hungry and living in a cardboard shack on the side of the hill will not say, “I demand a fair, living wage.” No, they will take what they can get, and so we continue to pay millions of workers worldwide a non-livable wage so that we can get our cheap products. “It’s better than nothing” is the basic attitude that supports our ongoing economic oppression of the global south. Of course it’s better than nothing. But it’s not enough, and we who have too much need to take Jesus’s words to heart: “The worker is worthy of his wage.”

050328_arizona_mexico_vmed_widecTo right the global wrong of structural social and economic inequality will mean a dramatic decline in the material wealth of western, developed nations. Morally speaking, we cannot continue the system of demanding cheap labor that keeps millions poor around the world just so that we can enjoy cheap products. Morally speaking, I don’t see how middle-class whites in America can ignore the fact that every day, we still enjoy the benefits of slavery—and that millions of people of color still suffer because of it. Is it such a mystery that the worst schools in the nation are also in the ghettos, which were created by systematic racism that crowded people of color into small, crappy neighborhoods so white society could keep races segregated?

To stop oppressing people, we will have to give up some of our power and some of our wealth—and that will feel like suffering to a lot of people, even if it’s really not.

 ***

 When I look at the global injustices, I quickly get bogged down with a what to do what to do panicky kind of feeling. The question I always ask is this: What is my individual responsibility to right global wrongs?

This morning, I received an email from a friend that had me asking another question about justice, one that represents a moral conundrum: What is my individual responsibility to right global wrongs when doing so may hurt another person?  

In other words, where does justice begin and end?

My friend asked me whether she should sacrifice her career by staying silent about secrets she learned in the course of historical research, secrets that would shame an old woman and that woman’s children. Not revealing those secrets kills the basis of my friend’s argument in the monograph she’s writing. Revealing them allows her to explore important women’s issues within the context of religion. She wondered if she was serving the cause of justice by staying silent, in order to be merciful to this old woman and her children? Or was she furthering misogyny by staying silent? Which was it?

ZIMBABWE-ELECTIONS/My friend is faced with a perplexing problem: two different definitions of justice, the personal (keeping somebody’s secret so that they can keep their dignity) vs. the global (advancing the cause of feminism). Which cause is more important? Many people would sacrifice one woman’s dignity in order to serve what they see as a greater cause, women’s issues or some other Big Cause. And okay, serving a Big Cause is important. But are we really serving a Big Cause if we sacrifice one person’s dignity in order to do it?

It reminds me of those old Life Boat Questions: Should we sacrifice one person’s life in order to save a million?  

This is the logic of war, and it’s the logic of most political movements that advocate for one thing or another, but it’s a logic that leaves me cold. Its foundation is an either-or fallacy that fails to look for alternatives. Is it true that somebody must be sacrificed?  

So I ask myself, Is it true that Americans must suffer a decline in living standards in order for developing nations to rise up out of the mire and muck of poverty? Or am I setting myself up with a political either-or fallacy?

My friend’s email went further. One of her friends had recently died in Zimbabwe because medicine for her cancer wasn’t available, and now my friend was wondering whether she was possibly serving the cause for justice if she spent most of her time making meals for her family, making sure they were cozy and warm with a fire at night, books, an apple pie for dessert.

She is not asking a simple question. On the surface, it may appear that she’s asking whether, instead of living a life of American comforts and domestic bliss, she shouldn’t be out there working 80-100 hours a week to get justice for Zimbabweans. And yes, she is asking that. But she’s asking so much more. The average American can’t link their daily life to the poverty of an African nation…but my friend can. Because she’s studied African history, I know she sees the many and varied links that connect the wealth of the westernized global north, including individuals like you and me, to the impoverishment of the global south, like her Zimbabwean friend who died of cancer because the medicine wasn’t available in her country.

So even more than asking whether she should be devoting her intellectual and creative career to the fight for justice, she’s wondering whether the very basis of her domestically blissful life is inherently flawed.

townshipThis is her question: If my good fortune comes at the expense of another, is it really good fortune?

If we Americans enjoy access to cheap medicine and cheap goods, and as a result, we have policies that destroy individuals, families, and nations around the world, resulting in a Zimbabwean woman’s inability to buy medicine for her cancer….can we really say we have good fortune?

I will not entertain the simplistic and foolhardy argument that Zimbabwe’s problems are Zimbabwe’s problems alone. Is Mugabe a maniac running his country into the ground? Yes. But are Zimbabwe’s problems a result of Mugabe alone? No. When you look at the history of that country, the political and other problems of Zimbabwe are directly related to colonial policies put in place first by Great Britain, then by the European settlers, and then, post-independence, exacerbated and compounded and made worse by World Bank and IMF policies. In fact, when you look at the history of every single impoverished country, they all have a symbiotic relationship with a wealthy country like ours, always to their detriment.

 ***

(P.S. This is becoming a book and I just meant to write a simple blog post on justice. Ha!)

 ***

And as to this question, “If my good fortune comes at the expense of another, is it really good fortune?”…well, I don’t have a simple answer to that either.

Back to my opening anecdote about the Christian who thanked God for his new house, even though it represented hardship for another person, and my statement that such logic has led to genocide….

Genocide_sizedWhen Americans thank God for the U.S., for the freedoms we enjoy, I wonder if we would still be so grateful if we thought about the millions of Native American who were killed so we could “get” this land? Or if we thought about the lives that are currently being destroyed because of Native American policies we created long ago, destructive policies that have never been rectified, but which were part of the very basis of our getting this land?

I’m not trying to make an argument of “poor noble savage” against “rich greedy white capitalists.” I’m simply pointing out that it was wrong to kill millions of Native Americans 200 years ago, and that it is wrong that we still have policies that continue to impoverish millions of Native Americans by offering inferior education on the reservations and allowing the cycle of welfare to keep generations in its grip. It was wrong to enslave Africans 200 years ago, and it was wrong to create race-based ghettos a hundred years ago, and it’s wrong that we make only half-hearted efforts to change the situation today.

Is it really God acting on our behalf to give us a cheap house, cheap goods, cheap food, cheap cars…when millions of people worldwide work hard 50 or 60 hours a week to give us those cheap goods and cheap food and cheap cars but yet they still live in shacks and fail to have enough money to feed themselves and their families?

I’m full-circle back to the either-or fallacy: to change the system, to bring justice to millions worldwide, means some of us who have never suffered will have to suffer.

 

2-GodThe Old Testament disturbs me because it shows a God who would encourage his people, the Israelites, to commit genocide, and then “give them” the land they had just vacated through murder and mayhem.

I’ve never understood the logic of this kind of justice.

But.

This is the same God my friend was thanking when he said God had given him a cheap house.

This is the same God that Americans thank for giving them this land, despite the millions of lives that were sacrificed as a result.

This is the same God that Afrikaners thanked when they went to war to take land from Xhosas, Zulu, the Khoisan.

This is the same God that Mormons thanked when they came to Utah and massacred American-Indians and then took the land as theirs.

And is this the same God we continue to thank for our good fortune as Americans….? Is it really good fortune if it comes at the expense of millions of people worldwide? I would like to believe in a good and loving God but I can’t believe in the “good and loving” God that many American Christians define as being on their side and helping them get the things they both want and need….not when it comes at the expense of other people. Either that’s a fucked up God or those people are sadly, sadly mistaken—they call it “God” when it’s really injustice operating in their favor. (Ah, here we are, back to my either-or fallacy….Is there a third option?)

***

Daily, my emotional level is kept on a low simmer as I contemplate the multiple ways that American culture, lifestyle, and politics perpetuates poverty around the world. I feel overwhelmed every time I go to the grocery store and realize that, no matter what, shopping means that I’m participating in global oppression.

I realize I must eat, and that the grocery store is my only option as long as I live here….

Where does an individual begin, if he or she wants to right wrongs that exist on a global scale and that we all participate in?

And what does an individual like my friend do when they realize that it’s wrong to expose one woman’s shame in order to change a global injustice?

I wish I had an answer.

10 Moments in History I Wish I Could Experience

Last night as we watched a documentary on the history of street gangs, I suddenly realized I wished I could pick moments in the past and go back to experience them. History is full of great stories, important moments, and it would be great (and also scary) to actually experience them. 

Chris and I came up with a partial list last night. These are not in any particular order. And also, there aren’t 10. That’s because we had to stop talking about it before we came up with 10 moments–you’ll see why.

#1 I’d like to be at the Boston Tea Party.  Imagine the fear and excitement sweating out of people’s pores as they got carried away in their anger against taxation without representation. Imagine the harbor turning black with tea leaves. Imagine the stolid Puritans dressed like Indians and hooting in indignation,  “Nyah to you, old King George” and “Take that, Great Britain.”

mandela#2  I’d definitely want to be in South Africa in 1994, on the day Nelson Mandela won the first democratic elections in the history of the country and was voted in as the first black president of South Africa. I’d like to see the lines of elderly black people who suffered under apartheid for fifty years waiting to vote. I’d want to get carried away, joining the women ululating and dancing the toyi-toyi in jubilation.

#3 Chris said he’d like to see Nero playing his violin  and watching Rome burn down to the ground.  (This website says there were no violins in Rome at the time. But the image is a striking one. ) 

#4 I said I’d like to be in Jerusalem during the 3 days after Jesus died. “Just to see what really happened,” I said.

“Yeah,” Chris said. “I’d be standing in front of that tomb on the third day. You couldn’t drag me away from it.”

#5 Both of us wanted to be there for the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, the day President Lincoln declared that American slaves had been set free.

nazi-at-large-4#6 Chris said he’d like to be with WWII troops as they liberated people from the concentration camps in Germany at the end of World War II.

“Can you imagine?” I said. “No matter what you’d heard about it, nothing could prepare you for the sight of these starving people wearing smocks in 3 feet of snow. The gas chambers. The bodies piled up.”

“That’s why some of the troops went crazy and just lined up the Nazi soldiers and executed them on the spot,” Chris said. “They recognized that what the Nazis had done was totally insane and inhumane and they said to themselves, ‘You don’t deserve to live.’”

“Don’t you think some of the things going on since then are just as bad?” I asked. “I mean, Rwanda. Saddam Hussein.”

“Maybe, but the Nazis experimented on people. I mean, they made lampshades out of human skin. Who the **** does that?” Chris asked.

The conversation quickly deteriorated into a depressing discussion of human cruelty and what our responsibility is to stop these kind of inhumane acts. And that is why we never made it past #6 on the list. The human lampshades did it.

Still, I’d like to hear from others. What are 10 moments in history you’d like to witness? Or what’s your top moment, the one historic moment you wouldn’t want to miss if you could be there?