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Granny Fight Club

“Granny Fight Club” (2017) is a documentary about a self-defence course taught to old women in the slums of Nairobi to protect them from rape. The course is taught by “Ujamma”, an NGO. The documentary was filmed by RT, a news outlet in Russia.

It was filmed in Korogocho, one of the worst slums of Kenya according to RT. Part of it was also filmed at the nearby Dandoro dump, where some of the women make a living finding things to sell. We hear the stories of rape and see the self-defence course being taught. The women are taught to shout “No!” and to hurt the man in a weak spot (eyes, nose, chin, testicles). They are trained in several self-defence moves.

You would think old women would be free from rape. But they are seen as going through a “secondary virginity”, so some teenage boys go after them, believing that sex with them will cure AIDS.

“Ujamma” is misspelled, as I found out from a Google search. Ujamaa Africa is an NGO founded by Dr Jake Sinclair, a White doctor in the US, and his wife. The website says he is “a passionate advocate for young victims of domestic and sexual violence and has developed several youth empowerment programs in the USA and Africa.”

RT gets its money from the Russian government. It presents itself as being free from the bias found in Western news, but in this case it is not. Rape, poverty, AIDS, Africa – you see it so much that there is a name for it: the Broken Africa stereotype.

Most RT documentaries on Africa seem to be little better. They are about stuff like:

  • child brides,
  • child soldiers,
  • street boys,
  • witch kids,
  • garbage dumps,
  • overcrowding,
  • refugees,
  • refugee camps,
  • tribesmen visiting Russia,
  • poor people who “waste” money on nice clothes (Les Sapeurs),
  • camel races.

Of the three less stereotypical stories – about Nollywood, Mount Kilimanjaro and West African fishing – two seem to be centred on White people.

This is not to say that the issues covered in these documentaries are not serious. Many are. Rape is most certainly a serious issue. But there is no balance.

Stories: This week I am getting all my news from RT. And after four days, this documentary is the only thing I have seen about Africa – or about any Black people anywhere. RT presents itself as covering world news.

Employees: RT has at least one Black employee, Ashlee Banks – I saw her once, a few weeks ago – but not so far this week. Except for one Asian woman, everyone has been White, mostly with British and North American accents.

Bias in the news is pushed not so much by untrue facts but by the selection of facts. The documentary by itself was not bad – they even let Black people do all the talking, something you do not always see. But when it is the main thing I am seeing of Africa and of Black people, and when it fits a stereotype, that is bias.

– Abagond, 2017.

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Reading War and Peace

This week I am getting all my news from RT. To go along with that, I am reading only Russian books. So I started reading Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” (1868). So far “War and Peace” is way better than RT.

It is supposed to be one of the best books ever written but I had been put off by its length. I found that I am not alone on that one. The Penguin paperback runs 1,444 pages! And on top of that I am a slow reader, reading at about half the average speed. But then, come to think of it, I read Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” without batting an eye and that is over 1,000 pages. And I have read the Bible, which is about 1,900 pages.

The trick to reading a long book is to read a bit of it every day. “War and Peace” is divided into 361 chapters. The chapters are short: four pages on average, no longer than 11. Chapters are designed to give you a good place to stop. So reading the whole book in a year is easy.

Another way to think of it: it is about six books long. So, however long it takes you to read six books is about how long it will take to read “War and Peace”. For those who read a book a month, it will take about six months. For those who read a book a week, it will take six weeks. And so on. You cannot read it in a weekend, but maybe in four weekends. For the average reader, it takes about as much time as watching all five seasons of “Breaking Bad”.

Tips from Oprah.com:

  1. It is not a hard book to read – it is just long.
  2. Russians have long, confusing names. Just pay attention to the first name. If two first names sound alike – Natalia and Natasha or Piotr and Petya, for example – and you think it might be the same person, it is.
  3. Read the first 50 pages to see if you like it.
  4. Do not skip the war parts.
  5. It is a book you will never forget.

Tips from Charles Van Doren:

  1. Take off a week to read it. It is worth it. If you cannot do that, get as close to that ideal as you can.
  2. Throw away any reader’s guides that list characters and their relationships.
  3. Let the book happen to you. If you are confused at first, you will not be confused for long. It is like moving to a new town: it could take a while to get your bearings.
  4. Trust Tolstoy to tell the story. He is one of the best storytellers ever. He knows what he is doing. Just go with it.

Like Paris: When I was about to leave Paris, I was sitting on the train next to a young woman from Chile. She said she was about to see Paris for the first time. I envied her. Charles Van Doren feels the same way about “War and Peace”.

– Abagond, 2017. 

Sources: Oprah.com; “The Joy of Reading” (2008) by Charles Van Doren.

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Go Set a Watchman

“Go Set a Watchman” (2015) by US writer Harper Lee is her first novel to appear since “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960). It has the same characters but takes place in the 1950s, 20 years later.

Disclaimer: I have never read “To Kill a Mockingbird” – I could never get into it – but I saw the movie starring Gregory Peck as lawyer Atticus Finch.

Our story: In “Watchman”, Scout, Atticus Finch’s daughter, is now better known by her grown-up name, Jean Louise Finch. She is 26 and works in New York. Twice a year she goes back home, to the Jim Crow South, to visit her father, now in his 70s. On one such visit, presumably in the summer of 1954, the scales fall from her eyes and she sees how racist her home town is. And it is not just the town, it is her boyfriend, her aunt, her uncle, people she knows from high school, and even her own father, Atticus Finch himself, who back in the 1930s defended a Black man accused of raping a White woman – because he believes in justice for all.

She wonders if something is wrong with her, but no, even people who never said the N-word before are saying it now. Calpurnia, the Black servant who brought her up from the age of two, is now overly polite with her. Her father has joined a White citizens’ council, defending Jim Crow. She finds out he used to be in the Klan too. Go along to get along, it seems.

Spoiler warning: I am about to give away the ending.

The book builds towards a showdown with her father, which comes in chapter 17, by far the best part. She calls out his hypocrisy. Despite all his fine words, he believes Blacks are subhuman. She calls him all kinds of names. It was glorious.

But then, a chapter later, she caves. Ugh. While she is packing her bags to leave town for good, her uncle hits her, almost knocks her out, saying, “I am trying to attract your attention.” According to him, she is the true bigot, someone with fixed, unbending ideas. She lacks the maturity and humility needed to live in the South. Oh, is that what it is? She needs to ease up on her father and the other (White) people in town. They are only human, with human hearts and human failings. Her father is not the tin god she made him into as a girl. Grow up! Then he makes a triple literary allusion. She falls for it.

She accepts her father as a mere human. They make up. The End.

What a cheap ending! And one that seems to write off racism as a mere human failing.

Not to worry: Her publisher back in 1957 did not like it either. They had her rewrite it, hanging it on the rape trial in the 1930s, making Atticus Finch into a White Saviour fantasy figure. Oh, and they changed the title: “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

– Abagond, 2017.

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Programming note #32

I am going on an RT news diet. This coming week, from Sunday April 23rd to Saturday April 29th 2017, I will be getting all my news from RT, a news outlet funded by the Russian government, a sort of Russian BBC. I will stay off of YouTube, Tumblr, Twitter and any other sort of feed. No cable news (other than RT America) or newspapers or news magazines either, of course. If I get a New York Times newsflash on my phone, I will not read it. If a commenter provides a link to a non-RT news outlet, I will not follow it.

I will avoid doing posts on anything in the news. If I do, it will be completely based on RT, with a disclaimer to that effect.

After the week is over, I will record my experiences and later do a post on RT itself.

– Abagond, 2017.

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“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” (2010) by Rebecca Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, her children, how her cells changed science, and how medical ethics and the law have failed to keep up.

The book won awards, was named Book of the Year by many, and has been made into a film by Oprah and HBO, which premieres tonight.

Note: This post is not about the film – I do not get HBO – nor about Henrietta Lacks – I did a post on her yesterday – but about the book.

Skloot tells the story well, which is amazing considering all the moving parts – not just the large cast of characters, but all the science and case law too.

The only confusing, boring part came at the very end where she talks about the current state of medical ethics and the law.

A huge thing that is missing, though, is the story of medicine and race. While she does not sugar-coat the part that race played, it stands in the background almost the whole time. For example, the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and medical testing on Black prisoners are brought up only in passing, while Dr J. Marion Sims is not brought up at all. Skloot talks plenty about the law and medical ethics, but there is little sense of how they are applied unequally according to race.

Faith in doctors: In her book, doctors are keeping people in the dark all the time. They are cold-blooded, treating people like specimens, even sometimes like in a UFO movie. And yet Skloot seems to find it unbelievable that they would straight-up lie to patients! For example, when the Lackses tell her that Johns Hopkins asked them for blood samples in the 1970s because they wanted to test for cancer, she does not believe them: there were no cancer tests back then. She thinks it is more likely they were confused.

The most annoying part is the eye dialect. In her book, only Black people, and maybe a few Whites out in the country, drop their g’s (growin, sellin, keepin), or say an’ instead of and, or em instead of them. Well-to-do Whites might say gonna instead of going to, but that is about as far as they go. I find that hard to believe. If you are going to quote Blacks in eye dialect, then please do the same for Whites.

The most horrifying and heartbreaking part by far was chapter 33: “The Hospital for the Negro Insane.” That is where Elsie Lacks, Henrietta’s oldest daughter, went. She was epileptic and never learned to talk. After Henrietta died no one came to visit her. She was almost certainly used in gruesome medical experiments, like drilling holes in her head to drain out the brain fluid so that doctors could get clearer X-ray pictures of her brain. In the last known picture of her she is in terrible shape – too terrible for the book to print – with white manicured hands around her neck.

– Abagond, 2017.

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Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951), mother of five, was a Black woman from the US whose cells, called HeLa cells, are used worldwide in medical research. They have helped to give us vaccines, chemotherapy, in vitro fertilization, and a far better understanding of cancer, disease, and, most of all, cells, the building blocks that every living creature is made out of.

In 1951, after giving birth to her fifth child, she noticed a “knot” in her womb. Her husband took her to Johns Hopkins Hospital, the nearest hospital that would take Black patients. Whites knew it as a top research hospital. Blacks knew it for doing medical experiments on unwilling Black subjects. As her daughter-in-law would later say of growing up in East Baltimore:

“When it got dark and we were young, we had to be on the steps or Hopkins might get us.”

The knot in Lacks’s womb was cancer. And it was spreading quickly. The pain was too much even for the morphine. In all that pain, the doctor leaned over and told her on her death bed, “Your cells will make you immortal”, saving countless lives. She smiled and said she was glad her pain would come to some good for someone.

HeLa cells. (Zeiss Merlin HR-SEM)

HeLa cells: That doctor, Dr George Gey, had studied the cancer cells that were killing her. They were unlike any human cells ever seen before: they grew easily outside of the body and lived forever, not just for a few days. That made HeLa cells (named after her) way easier to study and to use in tests for new medicines. The polio vaccine was just its first success.

Her family knew none of this till 1973, over 20 years later. While her cells gave rise to a biotech industry worth billions, her own family could not always afford a doctor.

Her son Zakariyya in 2000:

“The doctors say her cells is so important and did all this and that to help people. But it didn’t do no good for her, and it don’t do no good for us. If me and my sister need something, we can’t even go see a doctor cause we can’t afford it. Only people that can get any good from my mother cells is the people that got money, and whoever selling them cells – they get rich off our mother and we got nothing.”

Taking Johns Hopkins to court is of little use: they broke no laws of the time and, since they gave away her cells for free for the good of science, they made no money from them. That was done later by other companies.

In 2013, though, her family did get some control over her genome, her genetic code. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the US government agency that oversees medical research, will not give out her genome to researchers without the family’s knowledge and permission. There is no money in that, but for the first time they are no longer being kept in the dark.

– Abagond, 2017.

Source: mainly “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” (2010) by Rebecca Skloot; BBC (2013).

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Bill O’Reilly

Bill O’Reilly (1949- ) was a racist blowhard who had appeared on Fox News on US television night after night for the past 21 years, from 1996 to 2017.

O’Reilly had four million viewers, the most for any US cable news show – at least till the last month or so when Rachel Maddow on MSNBC started pushing the Russiagate story hard.

An O’Reilly Racism Sampler:

On Sylvia’s in Harlem:

“all the people up there are tremendously respectful … I couldn’t get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia’s restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it’s run by blacks, primarily black patronship.”

On why Trump will not be able to bring down Black unemployment:

“Many of them are ill-educated and have tattoos on their foreheads and I hate to be generalized about it, but it’s true.”

On Trayvon Martin’s death:

“it wasn’t based on skin color … he was wearing a hoodie and he looked a certain way. And that way is how ‘gangstas’ look. And, therefore, he got attention.”

His advice to Martin Luther King III, son of a famous civil rights leader:

“Don’t abandon your children. Don’t get pregnant at 14. Don’t allow your neighborhoods to deteriorate into free-fire zones. That’s what the African-American community should have on their T-shirts.”

On the slaves who built the White House:

“Slaves that worked there were well-fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government”

When talking about the border patrol:

“We’d save lives because Mexican wetbacks, whatever you want to call them, the coyotes, they’re not going to do what they’re doing now, so people aren’t going to die in the desert.”

On his use of the slur “wetback”:

“It was not meant to disparage people in any way.”

On immigration, speaking to John McCain:

“Do you understand what the New York Times wants, and the far left want? They want to break down the white, Christian, male power structure – of which you’re part, and so am I. And they want to bring in millions of foreign nationals to basically break down the structure that we have. In that regard, Pat Buchanan is right. So I say that you’ve got to cap it with a number.”

On the nature of Asian Americans:

“Asian people are not liberal, you know, by nature. They’re usually more industrious and hard-working.”

On his and Fox News’s racism:

“I don’t know any racists. I don’t know anybody, on either black or white people, who don’t like, like our staff here is integrated, and my assistant is black, she’s been with me for 25 years. I just never see this.”

Tropes: He was big on Black pathologies and the Black-on-Black crime argument.

Advertisers were fine with this stuff. It was not till the past few weeks when sexual harassment allegations came out that advertisers pulled their ads, advertisers like Advil, Reddi Whip, Hyundai, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Jenny Craig, Ancestry.com, Liberty Mutual, Allstate and dozens of others. He was fired April 19th 2017.

Advertisers who have pulled their ads now number over 50.

– Abagond, 2017.

Sources: mainly Media Matters, Raw Story, Salon, Axios.

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