A Q&A with Judge Nelson A. Diaz

This week in North Philly Notes, an interview with Nelson A. Diaz, about his inspiring new autobiography, Not from Here, Not from There.

You came to America as a child—literally—in your mother’s belly. Can you discuss the experience of being part of the wave of Puerto Rican immigrants post-World War II?
During the 1940’s and 1950’s, many Puerto Ricans came to New York in search of greater job opportunities because the economic hardships confronting Puerto Rico after WWII. My mother came to New York to provide a better life for me. She was a woman who was ahead of her time because she was a working mom at a time when most mothers stayed at home with their children. She did not have a choice. She worked as a seamstress in a factory to make ends meet. Although I grew up in very humble circumstances, my mother always provided the example of love, hard work, and faith. The Marine Tiger where she landed was a famous ship used in WWII for transport of soldiers and many came to the shores of NY the same way having American citizenship since 1917. Public Policy in the availability of Public Housing made a major difference in our lives.

You grew up in Harlem and had some hardscrabble experiences. What was that period of your life like?  You talk about being in fear at age 15. What helped you get through that time and not just survive, but thrive?
Growing up in poverty does not give you many options. Violence, gangs, and drugs are all around. I had a lot of problems in school much of which stemmed from my inability to speak and read in both English and Spanish. Trying to live in two different worlds – Puerto Rican culture and American culture – was difficult. I was not doing well in school and was always struggling to get better grades. At the age of 15, I went from being a D student to an A student in one year through the saving grace of the church.

Through faith, I felt hope. Hope for my future, an expectation that better things lied ahead and a strong desire to work hard for it. Through faith, I no longer felt unworthy and I knew that I could achieve greater things, not only for myself but also for others. The intervention of people in my life made a difference.

Not From Here_smYou faced considerable discrimination in Philadelphia (e.g., passing the bar). Was there a particular experience that made you learn and grow?
Growing up as a poor Puerto Rican kid from Harlem, I always had to overcome the barriers of stereotypical attitudes: a school counselor who believes that you are not college material, or institutional or systemic bias in law schools and government, or law firms and corporate boards that lack diversity even though there are highly qualified people of color. That is why civil and human rights are important issues that I have spent my life fighting for. I have spent a lifetime breaking barriers so others can walk through the doors—whether it was becoming a founding member of Black Law Students Association and the Federation of Puerto Rican Students because I understood the power of coalitions of interest; or becoming a community activist to protest the lack of diversity and open up law school doors for others; or promoting economic development in the Latino community; or becoming the first Puerto Rican White House Fellow, where I worked for Vice President Mondale and was able to promote Latino diversity in the political arena and influence public policy both domestically and internationally; or becoming the first Latino judge in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; or becoming the first minority administrative judge and presiding over court reforms that brought seven years of backlogged cases to the present and saved the courts millions of dollars; or fighting for the human rights of Soviet Jews; or becoming the first American judge to sit on a Japanese Court; or fighting against segregation in housing nationwide; or promoting the inclusion and promotion of minority and women lawyers in the profession; or fighting for diversity on corporate boards. I may have been the first, but I did not want to be the last!

The history of anyone but Caucasian who had passed the Pennsylvania Bar demonstrates that until the Liacouras Bar Committee found discrimination in the Bar exam the Commonwealth of PA since its founding, the bar had only admitted 67 African Americas and no Latinos before 1969 when I entered Law School. It was apparent that it was impossible to believe that I might get admitted and the city was so segregated by neighborhoods with continuous racial conflict between neighborhood boundaries.

Eventually, your career took off with appointments as the General Counsel at HUD, and as a city solicitor who helped with immigration issues. Can you describe your experiences?
The White House Fellows program gave me an education on the world and lifted my profile in my professional life.  The Judicial appointment and election also changed the public perspective of me. Both of these appointments, including the Administrative Judge title, were avenues of increasing diversity in the workplace. Although I was flattered to have been asked to by Henry Cisneros, who is a trailblazer and friend, to become his General Counsel at HUD, I did not want to go to Washington, DC. Henry was persistent and I eventually agreed. By breaking another barrier—becoming the first minority General Counsel—I was determined to increase the numbers of minority and women lawyers hired, retained and promoted because of the shocking lack of diversity among the government attorneys. I have always felt that the inclusion of minorities and women is an important step to changing systemic bias that exists in most institutions. As Latinos, we need to select our own leaders and continue to help each other climb the ladder of success.

Your book’s title is curious, it suggests a lack of belonging. Can you discuss that?
The title of my book, “I am not from here and I am not from there/No soy de aqui, ni de alla,” is about being a Puerto Rican born and raised in New York. We are not accepted here because of stereotypes and prejudice and yet not accepted as Puerto Rican from the Islanders because we were born in the States. It begs the question so where do we belong? That is a difficult barrier to overcome. You continue striving for excellence, inclusion, and moving the agenda forward so there is equality for all. There are many examples of rejection on both sides of the Atlantic both professionally and community where Puerto Ricans resided.

My parents lived most of their lives in Puerto Rico while I lived all of my life in the United States. I visited regularly since the age of 10 was educated in the issues of both countries, despite my professional capacity and assistance was there rarely an opinion they sought or cared particularly as you can see from the major Hurricane Maria. When they used my help it was limited to educate their officials and not my expertise which normally was ignored. That never gave me pause to keep trying wherever possible.

Do you think you achieved the American Dream?
Latinos positively contribute to the wellbeing of this great country. My story demonstrates some of the many ways, Latinos contribute to America. I hope that this book is seen in a bigger context than just my story. In the backdrop of the negative and racist attitudes about Latinos being only “criminals and rapists” my story is one of many, Latinos who work hard every day to put food on the table, house their families as best as they can and educate their children to have equal opportunities for the future. Isn’t that what everyone wants – the American Dream? History has eliminated most of our contribution and we fail to tell the story of how we have made America better.  My book will hopefully inspire young people to strive for a better life.

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A sneak peek at the new issue of KALFOU

This week in North Philly Notes, we showcase the new issue of KALFOU, and the symposium on race and science, a highlight of Volume 5 issue 1.

Volume 5 Issue 1 of KALFOU features a symposium on race and science in which distinguished scholars from across the disciplines address the ways in which current developments in genomic research pose new challenges for analyses of the social construction of race. Advances in genetic research have provoked a revival of the claim that race has a genetic basis, a claim that has now been embraced by pharmaceutical companies seeking to make profits by marketing drugs that profess to address illnesses endemic to specific racial groups and by social scientists eager to explain racially skewed life outcomes as the product of the genetic defects of aggrieved groups rather than the result of racist practices, processes, and structures.  The symposium features astute and insightful articles by anthropologists Michael Montoya and John Hartigan, historians Terence Keel and Gabriela Laveaga-Soto, sociologists Ruha Benjamin and James Doucet Battle, and physician and public health scholar Claudia Chaufan.  Although these authors deploy a diverse range of scholarly methods and perspectives, their arguments cohere around an insistence that genetic research itself actually shows that race is a political rather than a biological category and that the “new” arguments about sciences and race are simply reiterations of very old forms of scientific racism.

George Lipsitz

Kalfou_generic-cover_102015Kalfou Vol. 5 Issue 1. Table of Contents:

SYMPOSIUM ON RACE AND SCIENCE • edited by Terence D. Keel and George Lipsitz

Race on Both Sides of the Razor • Terence D. Keel
Facing Up to Neanderthals • John Hartigan Jr.
What Can the Slim Initiative in Genomic Medicine for the Americas (SIGMA)
Contribute to Preventing, Treating, or Decreasing the Impact of Diabetes
among Mexicans and Latin Americans? • Claudia Chaufan
Race, Genetics, and Health: Transforming Inequities or Reproducing
a Fallacy? • Michael J. Montoya
Prophets and Profits of Racial Science • Ruha Benjamin
Race and the Epigenetics of Memory • Gabriela Soto Laveaga
Ennobling the Neanderthal: Racialized Texts and Genomic Admixture • James Doucet-Battle
Concluding Remarks: Social Justice Requires Biocritical Inquiry • Terence D. Keel

FEATURE ARTICLE
Feminist Mobilization in MEChA: A Southern California Case Study • Gustavo Licón

IDEAS, ART, AND ACTIVISM
TALKATIVE ANCESTORS
Cedric Robinson: “For a People to Survive in Struggle”

LA MESA POPULAR
The Septuagenarians’ Sankofa Dialogue • Kalamu ya Salaam and Jerry W. Ward Jr.

ART AND SOCIAL ACTION
The Play’s the Thing: An Interview with Rosten Woo • J.V. Decemvirale

MOBILIZED 4 MOVEMENT
“It Is Time for Artists to Be Heard”: Artists and Writers for Freedom, 1963–1964 • Judith E. Smith

TEACHING AND TRUTH
A UK–US “Black Lexicon of Liberation”: A Bibliography of African American
and Black British Artists, Artworks, and Art-Making Traditions • Celeste-Marie Bernier

IN MEMORIAM
James Oliver Horton, 1943–2017 • Melani McAlister

When Brazil Hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2014

This week in North Philly Notes, Philip Evanson, co-author of Living in the Crossfire, provides his account of being in Rio de Janeiro during the 2014 FIFA World Cup match between Argentina and Germany.

In June and July 2014, Brazil hosted the twentieth edition of the FIFA World Cup. The championship match was played in Rio de Janeiro on July 13 when Germany defeated Argentina 1 to 0 in double overtime.

These recollections were written in Rio de Janeiro immediately following the German victory.

My wife Regina and I watched the game on TV, thought it a good one with both teams giving their all though showing signs of exhaustion by the second overtime period which was to be expected. The play by play announcers and expert commentators agreed that the game rose to the level of a World Cup championship game. Of course, we were cheering for Argentina, or los hermanos (the Argentine brothers) as they are called here. But it appeared a majority of Brazilians perversely preferred Germany. One local sports writer called this a variation of the Stockholm syndrome. That is, following the unprecedented 7 to 1 massacre of the Brazilian team by the pitiless Germans in the semi-finals, the Brazilians went over to the side of their executioners. They cheered for the German, not the Argentine team. I even heard this from a neighborhood street kid or menino da rua. He told me he was glad Germany won, and asked what I thought. I said to the contrary, I wanted Argentina to win. His response: “Mas eles [the Argentines] são muito bagunceiros!” Bagunceiro is a word used frequently meaning messy, or having a penchant for disorder, that can also mean ready to fight, quarrel. Dona Maria, my 99 year old mother-in-law, uses it when talking about someone who allows things to be out of place, as for example, a shirt, or pair of socks when you want the item. Even worse according to Dona Maria: Bagunceiros are not bothered by the disorder or mess. They need to be called out. Seems our street kid was calling out the Argentines on his street.

GAME DAY. I went to a Zona Sul supermarket Sunday morning to ask if it would reopen after the championship game. This supermarket and most commerce except for bars and restaurants closed during games played in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã stadium, and of course during all matches involving the Brazilian team no matter where they were played. The answer I got: “No, we’re not closing at all. Brazil lost. Nobody’s interested in today’s game. We’ll stay open.” Of course, it’s not true that Brazilians had no interest in the championship game Argentina vs. Germany. They had been watching all the games, and held definite opinions about the qualities of different national teams. They certainly watched this one. But that Argentina, not Brazil, was playing in the final game, with a chance to win it all in Rio de Janeiro’s almost mythical Maracanã stadium (though the original stadium had been more or less demolished and rebuilt for the World Cup) seemed to have struck a tribal nerve. It was hard to accept. Argentina had been the great soccer rival for so many years. And rivals not only in soccer, but in South American politics, economics, even cultural production, though leaders in both countries have striven to damp down rivalry since the creation of Mercosul, a common market bloc of South American countries including Brazil and Argentina created in 1991. There were a few fights after the game in Copacabana which police had to break up. The fights apparently were caused by Brazilians who couldn’t resist taunting Argentines after the their team lost the game, perhaps in retaliation for the way Argentines were coloring seven fingers on their hands for the seven German goals. Some Brazilians made a point of celebrating with Germans in the presence of Argentines.

THE FAN FEST ON COPACABANA BEACH. The media estimate on Saturday was that 100,000 Argentines would be in Rio for the Sunday game. Copacabana was crowded with these visitors. They drove through the streets blowing horns, waving and shouting. Copacabana was the destination for Argentine soccer fans and anyone else who didn’t have a ticket for the game at Maracanã stadium. They could now watch it on a big screen mounted in the Fan Fest “stadium,” an enclosed area on the Copacabana beach stretching the length of a couple of blocks with the giant screen at one end. From what I could see, the space seemed large enough to accommodate as many fans as Maracanã itself, which is 78,000. Admission was free. The game started at 4, but large crowds were already arriving on the underground metro 3 or 4 hours earlier. I know because I went to the Cardeal Arcoverde station to take the metro shortly after noon. To get into the station, I had to pass through a cordon of police checking all bags and backpacks—both for people like myself entering the station, and for anyone leaving and presumably on their way to the beach Fan Fest. The train platforms at this station are deep underground and reached by three sets of escalators and stairs. Getting to them requires a long descent below ground level and the mountains that tower up in the city, which are among its famous identifying features. I arrived at the platform just as a train arrived. An enormous crowd mostly of Argentines exited singing, shouting, and chanting. It was Olé, Olé, Olé, Va! Va! Va! and much more that I couldn’t hear above the roar, comparable to the noise in a packed stadium. The Argentines seemed overwhelmingly greater in number than the Germans, though planes full of Germans had arrived Friday, Saturday and even Sunday morning. The atmosphere struck me as altogether friendly. I even saw Argentines and German posing together for group pictures and photographing each other. Some donned the others national flag. Flags are part of World Cup costumes, often draped over the shoulders rather like capes. Enterprising Brazilians were on street corners hawking Argentine and German jerseys and flags.

Layout 1PUBLIC SECURITY. There were reportedly 26,000 uniformed security workers on duty in Rio de Janeiro on championship game day. These included the heavily armed soldiers of the National Security Force, Rio state police, the Rio de Janeiro Guarda Municipal, the Metro police, and finally unarmed employees of private security companies. The ugliest confrontation was near the Maracanã stadium where manifestantes (protestors) were protesting the World Cup. Nationwide anti-World Cup protests in principal cities began months before the first game and continued into the last game, but they were small by the standards of the June 2013 mass protests in Brazilian cities that numbered millions. This protest counted only 300, but the anti-World Cup protests continually rattled authorities and almost always took place in an atmosphere of police intimidation and violence. Sunday’s championship game was no exception as the Rio state police including a cavalry unit moved against the protesters and journalists covering the protest. Police broke or destroyed some of their equipment. At least 10 people were injured with some taken to hospital. In one example of police overreaction, an entire middle class neighborhood was sealed off for a few hours when residents were not allowed to return to their homes.

AT THE END OF THE DAY. I took a final walk around my neighborhood in Copacabana around 9pm. The many Argentines I saw now made a subdued group. A large number were waiting on Avenida Princesa Isabel for buses and the return trip to Argentina. Like other Latin Americans who came for the games, many were duro or hard up. They couldn’t afford the hotels which in any event were fully booked. They camped wherever they could, many on the Copacabana beach, in tents, in vans or cars in parking areas made available to them. They surely spent less in Brazil than the estimated $2,500 average for visitors to the World Cup. Still they were valued visitors, and Eduardo Paes, the mayor of Rio, said his campaign for the coming 2016 Rio Olympics will aim first at attracting South Americans. The hotels have already made an agreement among themselves to hold down rates for the Olympics, though they likely will still be higher than anything poor Argentines, Chileans or other South Americans might be able to pay. And not only Latin Americans from South America. Thirty thousand Mexicans were reported having come for the games.

FINAL THOUGHTS. On Saturday afternoon a demoralized, lifeless Brazilian team played Holland in the third place consolation match and lost badly 3 to 0. Walking past my local newsstand, the jornaleiro (newsstand owner) gave a thumbs down gesture, and said: “Brasil já era. Temos que reformar tudo. Primeiro, saude e educação. Tambem tira os mendigos da rua, MAS PARA RECUPERAR. Depois futebol.” Translation: “Brazil is finished. We have to reform everything. First, health and education. Also, remove the homeless beggars from the streets, BUT IN ORDER TO REHABILITATE THEM. After this, soccer.” The phrase to remove homeless beggars and rehabilitate them stated so emphatically was perhaps in memory of poor, homeless Brazilians swept off the streets, and in the worst cases, disappeared by death squads largely comprised of police or former police officers. Significantly, soccer came last in the list of reforms.

POSTSCRIPT, JUNE, 2018. Brazil’s international soccer fortunes have risen dramatically since the historic 7 to 1 defeat. It was a matter of selecting the new coach Tite in June 2016. The national team won the 2016 Olympic gold medal in the Rio de Janeiro games defeating Germany 5 to 4 in a penalty shootout. There followed 8 consecutive victories over South American rivals as Brazil became the first nation to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. On the eve of the 2018 competition in Russia, Brazil occupies its usual place as one of the nations favored to win the Cup.

Honoring Mexico on Cinco de Mayo

This week in North Philly Notes, we showcase books about Mexico in honor of Cinco de Mayo.

urban leviathanUrban Leviathan: Mexica City in the Twentieth Century by Diane E. Davis

Why, Diane Davis asks, has Mexico City, once known as the city of palaces, turned into a sea of people, poverty, and pollution? Through historical analysis of Mexico City, Davis identifies political actors responsible for the uncontrolled industrialization of Mexico’s economic and social center, its capital city. This narrative biography takes a perspective rarely found in studies of third-world urban development: Davis demonstrates how and why local politics can run counter to rational politics, yet become enmeshed, spawning ineffective policies that are detrimental to the city and the nation.

effects of the nationThe Effects of the Nation: Mexican Art in an Age of Globalization edited by Carl Good and John V. Waldron

What is the effect of a “nation”? In this age of globalization, is it dead, dying, only dormant? The essays in this groundbreaking volume use the arts in Mexico to move beyond the national and the global to look at the activity of a community continually re-creating itself within and beyond its own borders.

Mexico is a particularly apt focus, partly because of the vitality of its culture, partly because of its changing political identity, and partly because of the impact of borders and borderlessness on its national character. The ten essays collected here look at a wide range of aesthetic productions—especially literature and the visual arts—that give context to how art and society interact.

Ethical Borders sm compEthical Borders: NAFTA, Globalization, and Mexican Migration by Bill Ong Hing

In his topical new book, Ethical Borders, Bill Ong Hing asks, why do undocumented immigrants from Mexico continue to enter the United States and what would discourage this surreptitious traffic? An expert on immigration law and policy, Hing examines the relationship between NAFTA, globalization, and undocumented migration, and he considers the policy options for controlling immigration. He develops an ethical rationale for opening up the U.S./Mexican border, as well as improving conditions in Mexico so that its citizens would have little incentive to migrate.

Sounds Modern Nation smallSounds of the Modern Nation: Music, Culture, and Ideas in Post-Revolutionary Mexico by Alejandro L. Madrid

Sounds of the Modern Nation explores the development of modernist and avant-garde art music styles and aesthetics in Mexico in relation to the social and cultural changes that affected the country after the 1910-1920 revolution. Alejandro Madrid argues that these modernist works provide insight into the construction of individual and collective identities based on new ideas about modernity and nationality. Instead of depicting a dichotomy between modernity and nationalism, Madrid reflects on the multiple intersections between these two ideas and the dialogic ways through which these notions acquired meaning.

MinichCompFinal.inddAccessing Citizenship: Disability, Nation, and Cultural Politics of Greater Mexico  by Julie Avril Minich

Accessible Citizenships examines Chicana/o cultural representations that conceptualize political community through images of disability. Working against the assumption that disability is a metaphor for social decay or political crisis, Julie Avril Minich analyzes literature, film, and visual art post-1980 in which representations of nonnormative bodies work to expand our understanding of what it means to belong to a political community. Minich shows how queer writers like Arturo Islas and Cherríe Moraga have reconceptualized Chicano nationalism through disability images. She further addresses how the U.S.-Mexico border and disabled bodies restrict freedom and movement. Finally, she confronts the changing role of the nation-state in the face of neoliberalism as depicted in novels by Ana Castillo and Cecile Pineda.

Mexican Voices Border Region compMexican Voices of the Borders Region by Laura Velasco Ortiz and Oscar F. Contreras

Mexican Voices of the Border Region examines the flow of people, commercial traffic, and the development of relationships across this border. Through first-person narratives, Laura Velasco Ortiz and Oscar F. Contreras show that since NAFTA, Tijuana has become a dynamic and significant place for both nations in terms of jobs and residents. The authors emphasize that the border itself has different meanings whether one crosses it frequently or not at all. The interviews probe into matters of race, class, gender, ethnicity, place, violence, and political economy as well as the individual’s sense of agency.

Mexican American Women Activists: Identity and Resistance in Two Los Angeles Communities by Mary Pardo

mexican american women activistsMexican American Women Activists tells the stories of Mexican American women from two Los Angeles neighborhoods and how they transformed the everyday problems they confronted into political concerns. By placing these women’s experiences at the center of her discussion of grassroots political activism, Mary Pardo illuminates the gender, race, and class character of community networking. She shows how citizens help to shape their local environment by creating resources for churches, schools, and community services and generates new questions and answers about collective action and the transformation of social networks into political networks.

nothing nobodyNothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Mexico City Earthquake by Elena Poniatowska

September 19, 1985: A powerful earthquake hits Mexico City in the early morning hours. As the city collapses, the government fails to respond. Long a voice of social conscience, prominent Mexican journalist Elena Poniatowska chronicles the disintegration of the city’s physical and social structure, the widespread grassroots organizing against government corruption and incompetence, and the reliency of the human spirit. As a transformative moment in the life of mexican society, the earthquake is as much a component of the country’s current crisis as the 1982 debt crisis, the problematic economic of the last ten years, and the recent elections.

Musica Nortena sm compMúsica Norteña: Mexican Migrants Creating Community Between Nations by Cathy Ragland

Música norteña, a musical genre with its roots in the folk ballad traditions of northern Mexico and the Texas-Mexican border region, has become a hugely popular musical style in the U.S., particularly among Mexican immigrants. Featuring evocative songs about undocumented border-crossers, drug traffickers, and the plight of immigrant workers, música norteña has become the music of a “nation between nations.” Música Norteña is the first definitive history of this transnational music that has found enormous commercial success in norteamérica. Cathy Ragland, an ethnomusicologist and former music critic, serves up the fascinating fifty-year story of música norteña, enlivened by interviews with important musicians and her own first-hand observations of live musical performances.

New ImageSurviving Mexico’s Dirty War: A Political Prisoner’ s Memoir by Alberto Ulloa Bornemann

This is the first major, book-length memoir of a political prisoner from Mexico’s “dirty war” of the 1970s. Written with the urgency of a first-person narrative, it is a unique work, providing an inside story of guerrilla activities and a gripping tale of imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Mexican government.

Alberto Ulloa Bornemann was a young idealist when he dedicated himself to clandestine resistance and to assisting Lucio Cabañas, the guerrilla leader of the “Party of the Poor.” Here the author exposes readers to the day-to-day activities of revolutionary activists seeking to avoid discovery by government forces. After his capture, Ulloa Bornemann endured disappearance into a secret military jail and later abusive conditions in three civilian prisons.

Celebrating National Poetry Month with Temple University Press books

This week in North Philly Notes, we highlight our books featuring and analyzing poetry in honor of National Poetry Month

1215_reg.gifMayan Drifter: Chicano Poet in the Lowlands of America, by Juan Felipe Herrera, Poet Laureate

In Mayan Drifter, Juan Felipe Herrera journeys to the Maya Lowlands of Chiapas on a quest for his Indio heritage and a vision of the multicultured identity emerging in America. He attempts to shed the trappings and privileges of his life in California in order to reduce his distance from the dispersed and shrinking Mayan population. In Mexico, Herrera seeks a deeper understanding of his homeland’s history, its exploitation, and looks to realize his own place in relation to the struggle of his people.

Like the Mayan drifter, the text crosses and extends boundaries. In a variety of narrative voices, poems, and a play, across time, Herrera recounts how the Maya have been invaded by the Spanish, the government, the multinational corporations of the petrochemical industry, and anthropologists. The Maya survive and resist as their numbers dwindle and the forces that mount against them become more powerful.

Inspired by the Maya’s resilience, Herrera envisions the disappearance of borders and evokes a fluid American self that needs no fixed identity or location.

Forthcoming in July from Temple University Press…

Who Will Speak for America? edited by Stephanie Feldman and Nathaniel Popkin

The editors and contributors to Who Will Speak for America? are passionate and justifiably angry voices providing a literary response to today’s political crisis. Inspired by and drawing from the work of writers who participated in nationwide Writers Resist events in January 2017, this volume provides a collection of poems, stories, essays, and cartoons that wrestle with the meaning of America and American identity.

THEFT 2502_reg.gif

Fran Wilde

–For Mia

That morning the officials
stole all the words

We bit into apples sliced thin
and drank coffee, not noticing
that the table had disappeared,
the window
even as we talked and chewed and laughed.

Friends wrote columns of blank space
demanding a return
of sense and empathy

and the officials heard the
and saw the

Then they returned our words
in sacks. Gave them back
to us upside down.

So we sit at the thin
and sip at a table

And we bite into windows
The brittle glass stinging our tongues
and we refuse to stop chewing

Also of interest….

On Becoming Filipino: Selected Writings of Carlos Bulosan by Carlos Bulosan, edited by E. San Juan, Jr.

A companion volume to The Cry and the Dedication, this is the first extensive collection of Carlos Bulosan’s short stories, essays, poetry, and correspondence. Bulosan’s writings expoun1184_reg.gifd his mission to redefine the Filipino American experience and mark his growth as a writer. The pieces included here reveal how his sensibility, largely shaped by the political circumstances of the 1930s up to the 1950s, articulates the struggles and hopes for equality and justice for Filipinos. He projects a “new world order” liberated from materialist greed, bigoted nativism, racist oppression, and capitalist exploitation. As E. San Juan explains in his Introduction, Bulosan’s writings “help us to understand the powerlessness and invisibility of being labeled a Filipino in post Cold War America.”

Yo’ Mama!: New Raps, Toasts, Dozens, Jokes and Children’s Rhymes from Urban Black America edited by Onwuchekwa Jemie

Collected primarily in metropolitan New York and Philadelphia during the classic era of black “street poetry” (i.e., during the late 1960s and early 1970s) these raps, signifyings, toasts, boasts, jokes and children’s rhymes will delight general readers as well as scholars. Ranging from the simple rhymes that accompany children’s games to verbally inventive insults and the epic exploits of traditional characters like Shine and Stagger Lee, these texts sound the deep rivers of culture, echoing two continents. Onwuchekwa Jemie’s introductory essay situates them in a globally pan-African context and relates them to more recent forms of oral culture such as rap and spoken word. 1453_reg.gif

I HATE BOSCO

I hate Bosco
It’s no good for me
My mother poured some in my milk
To try and poison me
But I fooled my mother
I poured some in her tea
Now I don’t have no mother
To try and poison me

Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River by Beth Kephart

The Schuylkill River — the name in Dutch means “hidden creek” — courses many miles, turning through Philadelphia before it yields to the Delaware. “I am this wide. I am this deep. A tad voluptuous, but only in places,” writes Beth Kephart, capturing the voice of this natural resource in Flow.

An award-winning author, 1909_reg.gifKephart’s elegant, impressionistic story of the Schuylkill navigates the beating heart of this magnificent water source. Readers are invited to flow through time-from the colonial era and Ben Franklin’s death through episodes of Yellow Fever and the Winter of 1872, when the river froze over-to the present day. Readers will feel the silt of the Schuylkill’s banks, swim with its perch and catfish, and cruise-or scull-downstream, from Reading to Valley Forge to the Water Works outside center city.

Flow‘s lush narrative is peppered with lovely, black and white photographs and illustrations depicting the river’s history, its people, and its gorgeous vistas. Written with wisdom and with awe for one of the oldest friends of all Philadelphians, Flow is a perfect book for reading while the ice melts, and for slipping in your bag for your own visit to the Schuylkill.

Yellow Fever
It was a low-flying sheen that I could hardly see through.
It was a murderously persistent whine.
The eggs were slime.
I was too shallow.
Forgive me.

Fernando Ortiz Today

This week in North Philly Notes, Robin Moore, editor of Fernando Ortiz on Music, writes about the relevance and influence of Ortiz’s writing on Cuban music, history, and culture

Who is Fernando Ortiz, why should anyone care about what he wrote, and what does he have to offer to readers today? Those are important questions, especially given that Ortiz lived and wrote many years ago; that his writings focus primarily on black music in other countries; and that—as an author trained in late nineteenth-century Europe—he inherited many biases toward Afro-descendant expression. As such, some of his observations sound dated or even racist by the standards of the present day. The relevance of his writings in 2018 may not be immediately apparent to everyone.

I first became acquainted with a few of Ortiz’s books as a graduate student at the University of Texas in the early 1990s. I planned to write a dissertation on Cuban music, and Ortiz loomed large as an individual who undertook the first detailed studies of Afro-Cuban culture in that country, based in large part on ground-breaking ethnographic excursions and interviews. His work was impressive in many respects: he published tremendous amounts of material, many thousands of pages over the course his career, and on a wide array of topics. He read widely in half a dozen languages. His knowledge of Cuban history and access to primary and secondary sources supporting such work were extraordinary. Fernando Ortiz on MusicSMIt became clear to me that countless individuals interested in black history, African-influenced languages in the new world, drumming and dance traditions, Afro-descendant religions, the Atlantic slave trade, and other topics had drawn heavily on Ortiz as they pursued academic work in the US, the Caribbean, South America, and elsewhere. Those influenced by his work in the U.S., for example, include the dancer Katherine Dunham; the anthropologist and founder of black studies in the United States, Melville Herskovits; and the art historian Robert Farris Thompson. Simply put, Ortiz was very influential; and if his work had written in English rather than Spanish, I am certain that it would have met an even more enthusiastic reception internationally.

Cuba, along with a few other Latin American/Caribbean countries, has a unique cultural profile because of the large numbers of enslaved Africans brought the island, and the fact that many of them arrived rather late (clandestinely the slave trade continued there well into the 1870s). In broad strokes, Cuba and the United States share a history of European colonization, the decimation of local indigenous populations, and the use of slave labor. Yet the fact that free and enslaved Africans and their descendants have constituted a majority of the island’s population for most of the past two centuries, and that African-derived traditions have been re-created in overt ways there, means that Cuba looks and sounds very different from the United States. I find that the study of Cuban music and history suggests interesting points of comparison for those based in the U.S. It helps us recognize similar Afrodescendant cultural influences in our own country. Cuba’s music and dance traditions that blend influences from West Africa and Europe are quite similar to our own, providing insights into processes of cultural fusion and how Afro-descendant cultures manifest themselves in repertoire such as black gospel. Reading about Cuban and Caribbean history helps us situate US history within a broader framework and makes us realizes that our “unique” cultural forms — from rap to blues to jazz — emerged out of broader processes.

Not only do I find the ethnographic data in Ortiz’s work still broadly relevant, but I consider even his ideological flaws and limitations to be instructive. The post-WWII period, which represents the apex of Ortiz’s career, was one in which leading authors throughout Europe and the Americas began to seriously question racist beliefs about non-European people for the first time. Much of this soul-searching was inspired by the Nazis and their horrendously racist views of non-Arian people, of course, as well as political challenges to colonial rule in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. Ortiz’s struggles with entrenched Eurocentric points of view, notions of racial and cultural hierarchy, and the “proper place” of Afrodescendant culture within his country represent a corollary to similar debates taking place throughout the Western world and beyond. Including Ortiz in the study of racial debates of the era expands our understanding of such discourse beyond the spheres of U.S. and European academia. It helps “decenter” that literature by underscoring the important contributions and perspectives of those in developing countries. And it helps us better appreciate the true extent of slavery’s impact on politics, culture, and ideology throughout the Western hemisphere.

Revisiting The Kerner Report, 50 Years Later

This week in North Philly Notes, we look at the Kerner Report 50 years later, and our new book,  Healing Our Divided Society edited by Fred Harris and Alan Curtis. 

Following the terrible summer of 1967 disorders in many American cities, like Detroit and Newark, then-President Lyndon Johnson appointed a bipartisan citizens investigative commission, the Kerner Commission, to analyze the sources of unrest and propose solutions.

On February 29, 1968, the Commission issued its historic report which concluded, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”

The Commission recommended significant, long run federal government-led progress in reducing poverty, income inequality, wealth inequality and racial injustice in America.

Healing Our Divided Society_smHealing Our Divided Society is a fifty year update of the Kerner Commission, a kind of Kerner Report 2.0, edited by Fred Harris, former U.S. Senator and the last surviving member of the Commission, and Alan Curtis, President of Eisenhower Foundation, the private sector continuation of the Commission—along with contributions by a 23-member National Advisory Council of distinguished Americans, including Nobel Prize winner in Economics Joseph Stiglitz, Children’s Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman, and Stanford University Professor Emeritus and Learning Policy Institute President and CEO Linda Darling-Hammond.

“In Healing Our Divided Society,” writes former Secretary of State John Kerry,” Senator Harris and Dr. Curtis have curated brilliant pieces authored by a diverse group of respected experts and activists, to examine the places we’ve gone wrong and wrestle with what we must do to live up to the promise of our country, and respond at last to the alarm bell of the Kerner Report.”

Occupied by the Vietnam War and concerned about the legacy of his domestic policy, President Johnson rejected the “two societies” warning.  But leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy strongly endorsed the Kerner Report in 1968.

Since then, Healing Our Divided Society concludes that there has been only some progress, much of it in the late 1960s and in the 1970s—yet we have learned what works and must assemble “new will” among a broad-based coalition of Americans to legislate a better life for the poor, working class and middle class of all races in the nation.

Over the 50 years since the Kerner Commission, we have elected an African-American president.  There has been an increase in the number of other African-American and Hispanic/Latino elected officials and an expansion of the African-American and Hispanic/Latino middle class.

Yet there has not been nearly enough progress, and, in some ways, things have gotten no better or have gotten worse over the last 50 years.

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