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If Beale Street Could Talk

“If Beale Street Could Talk” (1974) is a short novel by James Baldwin about what it is like to live in the US, especially for Black men, especially in terms of the police and the courts. Set in the 1970s it could have been written almost yesterday. And even then it would be the Disney version. Just ask Kalief Browder’s mother.

In 2018 it was made into a film directed by Barry Jenkins, he who gave us “Moonlight” (2016). I might do a post on the film if I see it. This one is about the book.

Place: New York (Harlem, Greenwich Village, the Tombs), Puerto Rico.

Time: circa 1973.

Our Story: Tish and Fonny are in love and want to get married. They are childhood sweethearts. Tish is expecting their firstborn – but Fonny is in jail accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman he never met. As the day of the trial approaches, Tish tells the tale, past and present. Her family and his family are doing everything they can to get him out of jail, but they are poor and the courts do not work well (or work all too well) if you have no money.

The best scene: Tish buying tomatoes. Everything becomes extremely vivid, just like in a life-or-death moment. Because it becomes life-or-death. She is on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, a White part of Manhattan. A White police officer is across the street. A greasy Italian junkie starts putting his hands on her. Fonny, coming back from buying cigarettes, sees it and hits him, sending the junkie to the ground, bleeding. Officer Bell, the White police officer, comes across the street to arrest Fonny. The shopkeeper, an Italian lady, saw the whole thing and sticks up for Fonny. He was defending his woman like any good man would. Bell lets Fonny go, but now he has Fonny’s address in the Village.

Then one night the police come for him.

Officer Bell’s eyes when Tish looks into them:

“his eyes were as blank as George Washington’s eyes. But I was beginning to learn something about the blankness of those eyes. What I was learning was beginning to frighten me to death. If you look steadily into that unblinking blue, into that pinpoint at the center of the eye, you discover a bottomless cruelty, a viciousness cold and icy. In that eye, you do not exist: if you are lucky. If that eye, from its height, has been forced to notice you, if you do exist in the unbelievably frozen winter which lives behind that eye, you are marked, marked, marked, like a man in a black overcoat, crawling, fleeing, across the snow. The eye resents your presence in the landscape, cluttering up the view. Presently, the black overcoat will be still, turning red and with blood, and the snow will be red, and the eye resents this, too, blinks once, and causes more snow to fall, covering it all.”

– Abagond, 2018.

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541

Charlottesville, 2017, described by The Economist as “racially tinged”.

The term “racially tinged” (by 1926), or “tinged with racial overtones”, is a mealy-mouthed euphemism for “racist”. It is adored by the New York Times, largely avoided by the BBC, and used by both Blacks and Whites.

The Economist uses it, they whose style guide admonishes writers to avoid “trembling racial sensibilities” and “mealy-mouthed euphemisms”. They spoke of the “racially tinged violence in Charlottesville” – the riot in 2017 where literal neo-Nazis and the Klansmen violently defended a Confederate statue and chanted “Jews will not replace us.”

Some use it interchangeably with “racist”, like Joan Walsh in “What’s the Matter with White People?” (2012):

“There is no denying that racism drove some of the right’s abuse of Obama: there were just too many racist protest placards, offensive viral e-mails, and disgusting simian imagery in Photoshop caricatures. All of those could be, and usually were, dismissed as the work of bad actors at the Republican fringe. Yet mainstream Republicans rarely rejected the racially tinged Obama hatred; some even encouraged it.”

Others use it to avoid the word “racist”, like the New York Times on September 26th 2018:

“Angry Colleague Tells Congressman What to Do With ‘Racist Ad’

“Sept. 26, 2018

“A racially tinged campaign attack ad released by Representative Chris Collins has drawn the opposite of its intended effect — causing a fellow House member to criticize him in unusually caustic terms. …”

The article uses the word “racist” nine times, but always in quoted speech. Congressman Ted Lieu was willing to call the ad “racist”, but not the New York Times.

A month earlier the Associated Press ran this article:

“Analysis: Trump still flirts with racially tinged rhetoric”

It never called Trump a racist – except in quoted speech, and only once when Omarosa does it.

This is not new with the 2010s and the rise of Trump. It first became common in news reports in the 1950s with the rise of the civil rights movement and the “racially tinged” White backlash.

In 1957 the Associated Press itself used the term. As the US watched Little Rock Central High School admit its first Black students at bayonet point, the AP called the actions of the Segregationist League of Central High Mothers “racially tinged”.

The R-word: The whole trouble is the word “racist”:

  1. White people have made it into a huge insult that can only be easily applied to the most extreme cases, like the Klan and neo-Nazis.
  2. Whites have narrowed “racist” to just the personal and have made it hard to prove by making it a thing of intentions, not actions. Which makes it easy for them to deny they are racist since no one can read their innermost thoughts.
  3. Most White people are afraid to call out racism in other White people. Not rocking the boat is one of the Club Rules.

Therefore it is easier to call a person’s actions or words “racially tinged” than “racist”. “Racially tinged” is a perception, a seeming. “Racist” requires mind reading or rare personal confession.

– Abagond, 2018.

Sources: Townhall (image); “What’s the Matter with White People?” (2012) by Jon Walsh; Boston Review (2018); New York Times (2018); AP (2018); The Economist (2017).

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571

Gallant: Doesn’t Matter

Remarks:

At the end of June 2018 in the US this became the sixth most played song on urban adult contemporary radio stations (those aimed at grown Black people). And in October it became the song that most rang in my head.

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Lyrics:

Talking to the moon with the lights down
Half a dozen ovals in your mouth, your muse
Kurosawa bleeding through your headphones
Knuckles in my back till your nails turn blue
Bet you remember back when I was headstrong
Tugging on the ends of my invisible noose
Thought you’d be jumping ship, but I was dead wrong
You can sail on thin ice long as I can too

Uh, if this love’s an accident waiting to happen
Let’s go out with a bang, with a bang
Uh, I’m up to go under
To drown with each other
Yeah, we both feel the same

Doesn’t matter to us, doesn’t matter to us
Doesn’t matter to us, doesn’t matter to us
Doesn’t matter, you run, I run
You jump, I jump, that’s all we want

Doesn’t matter to us, doesn’t matter to us
Doesn’t matter to us, doesn’t matter to us
Doesn’t matter, you run, I run
You jump, I jump, that’s all we want

Told me two years ago I was selfish
But you’re the one who put us in the mushroom cloud
Liquor bottle saying what I’m thinking
Dancing in a minefield, don’t look down

Uh, if this love’s an accident waiting to happen
Let’s go out with a bang, with a bang
Uh, I’m up to go under
To drown with each other
Yeah, we both feel the same

Doesn’t matter to us, doesn’t matter to us
Doesn’t matter to us, doesn’t matter to us
Doesn’t matter, you run, I’ll run
You jump, I jump, that’s all we want

Doesn’t matter to us, doesn’t matter to us
Doesn’t matter to us, doesn’t matter to us
Doesn’t matter, you run, I run
You jump, I jump, that’s all we want

Stay forever young, in this state of mind
Dying for your love, call it killing time
No matter what you do I’ll be on your side
Stay forever young, in this state of mind
Dying for your love, call it killing time
No matter what you do I’ll be on your side

Doesn’t matter to us, doesn’t matter to us
Doesn’t matter to us, doesn’t matter to us
Doesn’t matter, you run, I run
You jump, I jump, that’s all we want

Doesn’t matter to us, doesn’t matter to us
Doesn’t matter to us, doesn’t matter to us
Doesn’t matter, you run, I run
You jump, I jump, that’s all we want

Source: AZLyrics.

Books I read in 2018

Some books I read in 2018 and what I think of them now. Since it is only December 7th, I may update this post.

Janet Mock: Redefining Realness (2014) – I was kind of rough on this book in the post I wrote about it back in January, but now it shines. Janet Mock is like a transgender Maya Angelou. It is the only book, so far, that I have completed from My 2018 Book List! At least now I know what to read for 2019.

Joann Fletcher: The Search for Nefertiti (2004) – Fletcher is an Egyptologist from a family of undertakers. And she knows her wigs. She goes deep into the archaeology, but the best part is about Amarna, the capital that Akhenaton and Nefertiti built. My post on Nefertiti was based mainly on this book.

Patricia Hruby Powell: Josephine (2014) – about the life of Josephine Baker. Even though I knew how it would end, I still cried! Pretty good for a children’s book.

Tagore: Gitanjali (1910) – a book of poems that sometimes reads like scripture. Most seem to be addressed to the Hindu god Brahman, but could apply almost as well to the Christian god Jehovah. This book won him the Nobel Prize.

Bhagavad Gita (circa -400) – Hindu answers to the mysteries of life. Some people are blown away by this book. I was not. But then I doubt I understood it that much. I read it in the loosey-goosey Stephen Mitchell translation. Bears rereading.

Michael Eric Dyson: What Truth Sounds Like (2018) – a glorified Slate article. Only the last chapter, “Wakanda Forever”, was any good.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove: Reconstructing the Gospel (2018) – how White Evangelical Protestantism has been warped by slavery, racism, and capitalism. All Christian religion in the US has been affected, but not as badly.

Joyce A. Tyldesley: Cleopatra (2008) – what we know about Cleopatra based on the evidence. Tyldesley places her mainly in Egyptian history, not Roman history. My post on Cleopatra was based mainly on this book.

Victor Davis Hanson: Mexifornia (2004) – I could only take 42 pages of this racist rant. I expected better of him as a historian of Ancient Greece. He could not even get the date of 9/11 right! And says that northern Europeans were the first people to settle North America. Huh?

Bob Woodward: Fear (2018) – the Trump White House as Crazytown. Positioned as a prequel to a book on Russiagate.

Barbara Cartland: Imperial Splendour (1979) – A cross between “War and Peace” and a fairy tale.

Ken Grimwood: Replay (1986) – if you could go back in time and relive your life, it would not turn out as well as you would expect. Partly because you would be concerned about the wrong things, like getting rich or trying to change history.

James Baldwin: If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) – I am rereading this now and falling in love with it all over again. It comes out next week as a film directed by Barry Jenkins, he who gave us “Moonlight” (2016). James Baldwin + Barry Jenkins should be amazing. We shall see.

Timeline:

  • before 1950: 2
  • 1950s:
  • 1960s:
  • 1970s: 2
  • 1980s: 1
  • 1990s:
  • 2000s: 3
  • 2010s: 5

– Abagond, 2018.

Source: Images mainly from Goodreads.

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528

Replay

“Replay” (1986) by Ken Grimwood is a time travel book where the hero keeps going back in time and reliving his life. But not forever: each replay is shorter than the one before. In 2003 it was #19 on the Internet Top 100 SF/Fantasy List.

Although cast as a time travel novel, it turns out to be a story about love and loss and life.

We make too big of a deal over what could have been, over how we have screwed up, and not enough of a deal of loving those we love, here and now, while they and we are still here. With time comes wisdom but wisdom always comes after you need it.

Our story: At 1.06pm on October 18th 1988 in New York, Jeff Winston, age 43, has a heart attack. The next thing he knows he is back at university in 1963. He is in his 18-year-old body but still has his 43-year-old mind, complete with all its memories and experience. He is able to get rich by betting on horses, baseball, and stocks, but cannot prevent the death of President Kennedy – or his own death.

In all his replays he always dies at 1.06pm on Tuesday October 18th 1988 no matter what. And when he goes back in time, he goes back a few months later. And then a few years later: 1968, 1976, 1985, 1988. Each time he gets less time and is less able to change things for the better.

No matter what he does, each time there is loss and regret. Unlike in “Groundhog Day” (1993), loss is an inextricable part of life. He becomes rich, but then loses his daughter. He lives for sex and drugs and jazz and self, but then gets sick of living. He tries to help the CIA change history for the better, but then they kidnap him and, with their Machiavellian logic, wind up changing history for the worst. And so on.

He feels extremely lonely: no one understands what he going through. Solzhenitsyn in exile comes the closest.

But then one day in the third 1974 he lives through, he sees a movie poster: “Starsea”. It is the work of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and someone he has never heard of: Pamela Phillips. He knows the film was not there in the first two 1974s: it is a huge hit, bigger than “Jaws” or “Star Wars”, and he knows enough about Spielberg and Lucas to know that they never worked on such a film. And who is Pamela Phillips?

He goes to meet her. She is another replayer….

Jeff Winston does not know why he keeps getting thrown back in time, but then neither does he know why he was born in the first place. Both are miracles. After having lived 173 years, he discovers that life is too short no matter how long it is.

Grimwood quotes Blake:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

– Abagond, 2018.

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514

George H.W. Bush

Bush in 1988.

George Herbert Walker Bush (1924-2018) was the US president from 1989 to 1993. His son was George W. Bush, whose time as president, from 2001 to 2009, was twice as long and much more destructive. Another son, Jeb Bush, also wants to be president.

Also known as: Bush Sr, Bush the Elder, Bush I, Poppy, and, as the 41st president, Bush 41. Back in the 1990s he was just called George Bush.

Houston oilman: After being the son of a senator and Wall Street banker, a student at Yale, and a pilot in the Second World War, Bush moved to Texas and made his fortune as a Houston oilman. He was an oilman to the end. He not only fought to keep Iraq from taking over oil fields of the Persian Gulf, but he undermined attempts to fight global warming, to make the air clean, and to come up with renewable energy. Scientists knew about global warming back then. In fact Bush had the Congressional testimony of one them changed to play it down.

Willie Horton.

Fear-mongerer: As a rich White oilman he was quite fine with the way the US was going. All he had to offer ordinary White people was fear. He started with Willie Horton, a Black man whose crimes he played up to get elected, playing on the racist fears of White people. It was a classic move straight out of the racist Southern Strategy playbook. He got 63% of the White male vote. Then as president he moved onto Noriega of Panama and Saddam Hussein of Iraq, demonizing them and invading their countries. Yet Bush’s first state guest at the White House was Mobutu of Zaire, a monster by any measure. And Bush only seemed to have nice things to say about Ceauşescu of Romania – until his own people overthrew him.

Saddam Hussein was no angel, to be sure, but he was not the one who bombed Iraq back to the 1800s, leading to the deaths of 55,000 children, going above and beyond any military necessity.

Unlike his son, Bush at least had the good sense not to march on Baghdad, rightfully fearing a quagmire.

Moral leadership: Bush expected people in the US to be so concerned about the sovereignty of Kuwait when Saddam Hussein invaded it that they would willingly give the lives of their own sons and daughters – and yet turn a blind eye when Bush himself invaded Panama.

Black people: He raised money for the United Negro College Fund, yet as president he pushed the War on Drugs and the building of prisons, leading to the mass incarceration of Black men. He voted for the Fair Housing Act of 1968 as a Houston Congressman, yet opposed the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 (the famous one) and 1990. But worst of all, he put Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court, an Uncle Tom and known opponent of affirmative action. In 2013 Thomas helped to gut the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that Martin Luther King Jr marched for. Bush is dead but his legacy lives on.

Clarence Thomas, still breathing.

– Abagond, 2018.

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567

In memoriam: Tumblr

Tumblr (2007-2018) will be banning porn as of December 17th. After that date there will still be a website called Tumblr, but it will not be the same Tumblr. Not even close. It will in effect become a poor man’s Instagram, a ghost town, a den of neo-Nazis, a place where social justice warriors once roamed. The lack of heavy-handed censorship was part of what made it great. It was very much a Millennial New Yorker project. But it was already starting to go downhill.

For much of 2018 Tumblr has been fighting off porn bots, fake accounts spewing porn. Tumblr’s filtering algorithms were no match.

By the end of November it got so bad that Apple dropped Tumblr from its App Store because Tumblr was unable to keep out child porn.

Yesterday, December 3rd, Tumblr said it would ban all porn starting on the 17th. But its filtering algorithms are so bad that they cannot tell the difference between Beyonce with clothes on and a woman with clothes off. Or between the Scourging of Jesus and BDSM porn. By the time they right their ship, if they ever do, it seems that most of their users will be gone. With Judgement Day still two weeks off, people are already leaving in droves.

Tumblr’s definition of porn is any photograph or photo-realistic picture that shows sex acts, human genitals or “female-presenting nipples”. Users have been begging them to kick off neo-Nazis, but Tumblr drew the line instead at nipples.

It is pretty much the same definition of “adult content” that US television uses, but unlike television, Tumblr content is produced at such a rapid rate that human censors cannot possibly keep up – so most of it falls to inept computer algorithms.

What surprises me is that the crackdown took as long as it did. In 2013 Tumblr was bought by Yahoo! (whose ads were jarringly out of place). In 2017 Yahoo! in turn was bought by Verizon, fka Bell Atlantic.

Requiescat in pace. 

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