Let America Be America Again

By Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed-
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek-
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean-
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today-O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home-
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay-
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again-
The land that never has been yet-
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME-
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose-
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath-
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain-
All, all the stretch of these great green states-
And make America again!

Originally published in Esquire (July 1936).

A Feminist Reading of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (SPOILERS)

SPOILERS ALERT!! If you have not seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens please do not continue reading until you do. This post has major and significant spoilers that will ruin your enjoyment of the film.

It’s a busy time of year for us, but we (me and my oldest) managed to see the new Star Wars film twice already–once on Thursday night and again on Friday. It will be awhile before I have time for in-depth posts, but I didn’t want too much time to pass without getting a chance to share some of my thoughts.

First, the movie is great! The story is loving and good, respectful of the past and yet clearly in control of the future of the franchise. I loved the IMAX-3D experience, and felt that it really added to the visual perspective J. J. Abrams gives us. Space ship movements are fantastic and, unlike too many movies, the action is framed in a way that you can understand what is happening. The whole thing was memorable, to say the least.

One of the most surprising parts of the film about the movie was the consistent and varied attempt to make it feminist, or gender progressive.  This was so consistently and deeply done that I think it has to be intentional. In any case, it deserves some discussion.

Here are some examples:

BB-8
First (and this one is hardly the most significant or stand-out, but it was so big that it ranked first in my thinking), there is a primary character droid that is gender nondescript. BB-8 is called by it’s name throughout (unless I missed something, which is possible). R2-D2 and C3PO have always been “he” in the movies, even when R2 expresses no conventional gender. C3PO is not only gendered male, he is, of course, also an effeminate male.  This was easy comedy in the 20th century, but (rightly) suspect to a new cultural generation where we do not read homophobia as all that funny. BB-8 is a reflection of this, I think.  So, we have a new hero droid, and it is not he or she! Warmed my heart.

Rey
The central character in the film is Rey, played by Daisy Ridely.  She is a self-reliant person. She can defend herself, she is mechanically-skilled, and she is powerful in other (to her largely unknown) ways. She does not need a man to save her, which is a point actively made in the first act. The point is made so intentionally, that it actually is a line of comedic relief during the action. When Finn first sees Rey she is being accosted.  He is about to go and save her from attack until he realizes she has her own. When she beats up her attackers, he looks around at how everyone else hasn’t been doing anything to help her either, calling into question his initial masculinist ideals.

Soon after, Rey yells at Finn for taking her hand as they run from trouble. “I can run faster if you stop holding my hand!” This is yet another way we are being made to be aware of the traditional gender bias of the action movie (with the “savior male”) and how they are working in a different (gender) reality. When they both fall after an explosion, she comes to quickly and goes to check on him. Finn asks her “Are you alright?” She looks at him, confused by his question, before answering “Yes” in a matter of fact way. It was all so subtly acted and so great to see.

Stupid Men
I don’t want to suggest that men being flawed and petty and dumb is inherently “feminist.”  I do want to suggest that it is inherently “true.”  This movie depicts men as they are historically–human, flawed, and imperfect.  Why is that important? Because the traditional action movie usually gives us idealized men (hypermasculine or almost too-male-to-be-true) to serve as our aspirational end goal.  This movie does not.

There are three primary female characters in the film–Rey, Maz Kanata, and (General) Leia.  All three are leaders, strong, independent, and powerful. They show emotion as people do, but not overly so. They are the model characters of the film. They are the ideals.  (There is a female Stormtrooper, Captain Phasma, who serves as the exception.  This helps to further the cause of the other women characters by offering a suggestion of the span of women overall in the “good-bad” spectrum.  That diversity (though only minimally suggested in the film) is a statement of their humanity, overall.)

Every other character–the men–are imperfect heroes, if they are heroic at all. They are liars and/or committed to participating in the actions of war, actions that are portrayed as patriarchal (oppressive “boys games”).  War is not glamorized in this film.  It is judged, even acting as the motivation for one character to change sides.  This is an important part of the film.  When it is celebrated, some of us in the audience felt the tension that comes from the silliness of having fun with death.  For example, when Han Solo steps up and shoots (and kills) a trooper without looking, it is comical and out of place.  I felt like it was a small scene doing two things: giving us one more bit of Han Solo and, yet, calling into question our love of the fighting we are seeing.  Another example was when Finn admires Poe’s flying during battle.  In that scene, in that moment, I think the film passes judgement on him.  There is death all around you, you might get killed, and you are literally stepping out to admire another guy’s flying?  I felt like it was passing subtle judgement on the entire culture of war.

The one exception, I think, is perhaps the Max Von Sydow character, although his only role is to act as a futile conscience for maleness gone amok.  Which I know turn to…

Dad and Son
The big surprise of the movie–the identity of Kylo Ren and the death of Han Solo–is a clear instance of the Father/Son dynamic (the patriarchal fantasy) bing flipped upside down. In that way, it mimics the movie overall.  We don’t know why Kylo/Ben turned.  We can think it has something to do with Luke but, as in the past, the blame a teacher takes is rarely true as much as the human flaws in the individual.  We do not Leia chose for him to train with Luke and we do know that Han feels like he did something wrong as well.  In any case, the son killing the father is the perversion of the traditional action movie that is so vital to this film.  The threat of son killing father is part of the Star Wars canon; it is what Luke is told he is going to have to do.  It is what Luke ends up not doing.  Here, it happens.

Rey and the Force
Rey’s use of the force is a very key part of the feminist character of the film.  Rey always has it together and is seemingly always in control of her destiny, except in two key scenes. One is when she meets Kylo for the first time and he stops her in combat and then makes her pass out as he takes her hostage.  She has met somebody who has a power she does not have (she thinks) and that knowledge (communicated so brilliantly in Daisy Ridley’s face) defeats her easily. Then, moments later, in their interrogation, she assumes her power and is able to fight back.

That power comes, first, by her seeing that Kylo Ren is nothing but a man. Daisy Ridley’s face in that scene is intentional and perfect. She is surprised when Kylo takes off the mask, as if he has lost some power over her by being just a person, a man. His traditional attack of her is patriarchal in the largest sense. He threatens a kind of rape, really, even though that’s not what he is literally talking about (maybe). It is what he is symbolically talking about: “You know, I can take whatever I want.”

She fights back by doing the opposite of what he does. In fact, every time Rey harnesses the force in this movie it is through centering herself, looking within, and finding peace. When she is emotional, flustered, fearful, angry–when she is like almost all the male characters of the movie–she can not use her real power.  He success with the force comes after these anger mistakes.

Maz and Leia
Both are idealized and “perfect” people who do all we want from leaders. Leia is perhaps the best. She is not a hurt woman who wants a man (Han) back. She is a mother and the stronger (always) of the two former lovers. She shows strength and compassion. She’s the best. It is all a symbol of leadership being real, good, and non-male. Even when the battle is won, she is the leader not celebrating the victory of the boy’s game.

Maz and Rey have a discussion in the movie that might make this the first Star Wars movie to pass the Bechdel Test. Maz is knowing and powerful. When she talks to Rey in the tunnel she does not use her tricks, her glasses. She speaks from her small-eyed self, speaking truth. It is brilliant.

Lightsabers
When Rey and Kylo fight she wins, she does so by striking him down and NOT killing him (an alternative form of victory, a non-male form), and she cuts down a whole bunch of trees. That last one made me laugh with such delight. Her first strike with the lightsaber is striking down a phallic symbol of a tree trunk. It is a symbolic statement if I ever saw one.  Their battle ends when the ground opens up between them.  She standing stronger, he weakened and confused.  Need I say more?

___________

There are a whole bunch more, but I wanted to at least get out the big ones as you prepare for your next viewing. I can’t wait to watch more of the franchise take on gender is such a rich, and knowing way.  As you do, look out for the more substantive examples of the intent here.

And let me offer this: the key is that The Force Awakens is trying to do this by doing more than just swapping out the male lead for a female one.  When it comes down to it, women occupying the traditional role of the patriarchal (violent, stoic, controlling and powerful) male is not exactly progress when it comes to gender/feminism.  Films that commit to subverting those traditional gender roles, as well as their effects, are much better.  That’s the difference between Sigourney Weaver in Aliens or Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 and what we have here.

Being gender progressive in a film (and, more importantly, anti-patriarchal) isn’t about making women into men or about making men into evil idiots.  In this case, at least, it’s about dismantling the conventions of the traditional action movie and helping us call into question our assumptions and past behaviors.  It’s about giving us human characters of all genders, but also using our expectation for a hero for something more than the tired, old stories of the past.

And, ultimately, it’s about giving young girls the same kinds of exciting possibilities as young boys when making a new generation of action/Sci-Fi films.

Friday Five: 1993

I think the best music is often music geared toward a teen/young adult audience, people experiencing some of the enduring emotions and struggles of life for the first time. That’s because we love music about love, about loss, about struggle, and about pure fun.

Music speaks to this period of our lives so well because of who we are in those years. We are possessed by ourselves, by our discovery of self and the world. That comes with the hubris of thinking that we are the first, the most authentic, or the most real of any generation to have experienced these things. And, if we are lucky, those years come with tremendous possibility and not too much responsibility.

Here are 5 songs from 1993 that captured their moment and also represented the peak of commercial or cultural success for the artists who made them.

5. “Weak” (SWV)
“Sisters with Voices” (or SWV) were a moderate success in the R&B world throughout the 90s, topping those charts for a handful of years. This, their debut single, brought them the mainstream pop success that those other efforts could never replicate.

4. “No Rain” (Blind Melon)
The grunge era produced a lot of beautiful music. This qualifies in the one-hit-wonder category, but the song is almost bigger than that. Coupled with the video, it carried with it such a genuine authenticity, one made more tragic just a couple of years later when lead singer Shannon Hoon died of an overdose.

3. “What’s Up?” (4 Non Blondes)
Singer and songwriter Linda Perry has had a successful career as a producer and writer for a slew of artists, ranging from Christina Aguilera to Pink. As a performer, this was her peak. And what a peak it is. One of the anthems of the decade.

2. “Sweat (A La La La La Long)” (Inner Circle)
Inner Circle owe their mainstream success to reality television. In 1989 their song “Bad Boys” (a 1987 release) was used as the theme song for the new FOX show “Cops.” The Jamaican band, who had been at it since the late 60s, were the makers of a song that everybody knew but remained largely unknown. When their dance single “Sweat” started to make waves in the clubs, it brought an awareness of the band into the mainstream.

1. “Heart-Shaped Box” (Nirvana)
Nirvana is a little bit of a cheat, since they were bigger than themselves on some level, and certainly bigger overall than they were in any one year. There is something amazingly stupendous about them in 1993, though. In that year they released the follow-up to their legendary album Nevermind. Nirvana was the biggest and most authentic grunge band of all, a reputation that might have made a follow-up album impossible to do well. What they did ended up solidifying their legendary status, and (again) voicing so much of a moment of a generation. When Kurt Cobain died the next year, the loss was unfathomable. At the same time, it was so comprehensible.

“Look how they massacred my boy”

We’re remodeling our kitchen. Or maybe it’s more like a “do-over” or a “take two.”

Our house turns 88 years old this November. That’s pretty old for Southern California. And it’s a small house, at least by modern standards.  A galley kitchen from 1927 has a lot of charm (we have a built-in ironing board, for example) but not a lot of room or conveniences associated with 21st century family life.

So we’re opening it up and making it brand new again. Well, our contractor is. Round one is gutting it. That includes removing our plaster ceilings and walls, tile floors (put in by last owner), and even knocking down some walls.

Here’s the old kitchen, with original cabinets in the front/left of the shot and new cabinets we added on the right:
  

There’s little breakfast nook beyond the arch. A modern fridge (even our small one) can’t fit in the main kitchen so we put it in there.
  

This is the “mud room” that goes out to our backyard. It’s also where the dog sleeps.
  

And here’s the end of day 2! No more walls, ceiling, arch–no nothin’!     

You can also see the dog’s room is opened up to make one larger space.
  

At the end of day 3 most of the poorly-installed tile is removed, exposing the original floor that’ll be refinished.  
 

And this is what an 88-year-old kitchen looks like deconstructed and neatly piled:
 

When it’s all done there’ll be a dishwasher, new tile counters, and self-closing cabinets. The whole thing should take about three weeks.

In the meantime we’re being creative with cooking and washing. With everything crammed into the dining room it’s like we’re raising a family in a single room studio. A small inconvenience when all is said and done.

The Limits of Numbers

It’s official now: Latinos outnumber whites in the state of California, making us the largest ethnic group in the Golden State.

The switch happebed sometime last year but the numbers only became official last week. With 14.99 million Latinos in California, there are more of us than there are so-called “non-Hispanic whites,” who number about 14.92 million.

It’s a gradual change but one that will continue throughout the foreseeable future. Aside from immigration, whites in California are old and dying and not reproducing much while Latinos are younger and reproducing at higher rates. We are the future source of the natural birth rate, too. There are twice as many Latinos under 18 (4.8 million) than whites (2.4 million) ensuring that we will make up the majority of the next generation of native-born Californians.

More than 80% of the Latino population in the state is ethnically Mexican, meaning our collective story is rooted to this just one country, whether we are a US-born “Mexican American” or a foreign-born mexicano. That means that sometime in the next few decades it is likely that the ethnic Mexican population alone will outnumber whites in California.

Our youth–coupled with a long legacy of segregation and political disenfranchisement–means that our demographic ascendency doesn’t necessarily translate into political power. That, too, will likely come, but it will take more time, political organizing, and, perhaps, a willingness for the emerging “white minority” to relinquish some of its hold over the reigns of power. If not, every year that passes will make the Californian political system look more and more like some kind of 21st century apartheid state, albeit one that projects a kind of benevolence.

All these changes are important and, in my eyes, good. But there are limits to our demographic ascendancy.

How many Californians will go through their day never once speaking to a Latino? How many live in communities where Latinos are nearly invisible? How many work in places that make this demographic reality look false? How many are educated in classrooms that do not reflect this emerging majority? How many will be surrounded by Latinos–will have their lawns cut, food cooked, and houses cleaned by Latinos–but never have a conversation with even one?

I am Chicano (Mexican American). I live in a Mexican-majority city, in a Mexican-majority neighborhood, next to my Mexican American neighbors. My kids attend a Mexican-majority school. When we go to any store, we see and engage with other Mexicans/Chicanos.

When I go to work, I am one of two US-born, Mexican Americans on the faculty of my college.  The Latino share of our student population is a national-leader for liberal arts colleges but is still only about 1 in 6. Unless they speak with the gardening or housekeeping staff, most of my colleagues can go their entire day on campus never speaking to a member of the emerging majority of this state.

What’s worse, this is hardly a unique condition.

We are the the largest ethnic group in California but we remain segregated, marginalized, and disproportionately confined to the invisible corners of mainstream society. The reality of the demographics should be–it must be–a wake up call for us all that the meaningful reality of a multiethnic, multiracial society is still before us.

And there is work to be done.

My Day in LA

I finished my fourth marathon last Sunday, clocking in my worst time ever at 7:16:25. That’s about an hour slower than I had hoped for and than I had trained for.

To give you a perspective on my time, Daniel Kiprop Limo–the man from Kenya who won the race–finished in 2:10:36. He could have run 3 of his marathons in the time it took me to run mine!

To give you another perspective, that medal Mr. Limo is wearing in the above photo? I have one just like it.

The big story of this year’s marathon was the heat. It was projected to hit into the low 90s which is dangerous weather for running. Vast stretches of the course are pretty sun-exposed, too, which was cause for concern. I prepared for the heat by taking a lesson from folks who work out in the sun on a regular basis.

The hat paid off. I never felt overwhelmed by heat, even in the stretch between 17 and 20 where I kind of fear the course. The hat not only blocked out the sun and let in the air, it also worked well when I put handfuls of ice in it. Just like my own personal air conditioner. The course also cooled off noticeably after mile 23, with the ocean providing a little breeze, too.

My downfall this year was a massive blister on my right foot that limited my 1 minute run, 1 minute walk pace around mile 14. From about 16 onward I just walked it, unable to take the pain of a running step.

I’ve never had a problem with blisters. They’re either the product of bad feet, bad gear, or bad prep. Since I haven’t had them before, and I knew my gear already, it was probably my own doing. I likely didn’t tie my shoes tight enough (I always fear going too tight!) and that little bit of room meant a foot sliding ever so slightly, which caused the blister.

I’ll spare you the photo but the thing covered about half of the top half of my foot, right where you put pressure on a running step. Today my ankles and back are sore from my compensating for it, 10 miles of walking while trying not to walk on it. Tough stuff. But also the stuff that makes this whole thing so rewarding.

Here is the start line just before us regular people started the race.

They said more than 26000 signed up. Only 21958 finished. From what I hear there were maybe a few thousand who started but didn’t make it to the finish. Maybe a thousand or two thought twice after hearing the weather reports and just decided not to show up.

My wife worked a support tent at mile 20. I couldn’t do this without her support in numerous ways and at numerous levels. It sure made it easier to see her there.

After the race, we went to my folks’ house where I showered and ate. My mom made green chile enchiladas, rice, and beans–a perfect post-race meal.

They made a good next day breakfast and lunch, too!

All in all, I can’t say I’m disappointed in my performance. The struggle is a predictable thing in a marathon, the question is what you’re going to do to get through it. The same can be said about a whole lot more things, too.