by M.V. Moorhead
In the summer of 1970, for me the summer between second and third grade, my mother had an operation that left her bedridden for several weeks. I was sent to stay with my Aunt Marion in Washington, DC, for the month of June.
It was a cicada summer that year in DC, a summer of sexual maturity for the Periodical Cicadas—after seventeen summers as underground larvae they had risen, to fill the trees with their vast choral love-music, and to make the birds fat.
Standing on the balcony of Aunt Marion’s apartment one afternoon, I saw a starling grab a cicada in mid-air. Possibly my earliest clear memory of death. Then I went home to Pennsylvania, where I finished out the summer, and finished out grade school, and finished out high school. Then I went to Penn State for a while, but left to get married, and then I got divorced. And then I got accepted as a transfer student at Georgetown, and landed back in DC—not Richard Nixon’s DC; now it was Ronald Reagan’s—seventeen years later, in 1987. That’s when I met Stan Zelinski.
He was drunk when I met him, and in danger of losing his life. I had gone to work, a couple of nights a week, as an usher at a movie theatre on Wisconsin Avenue. One of my fellow ushers was Trent, a big aggressively friendly Georgetown undergrad, and a frat boy. Trent talked me into showing up at a frat party one Friday night after work.
Loud music, smoke and none of the decadence I’d seen in the movies. Oh well.
Less than an hour, and I was about to leave, when I happened to notice a kid of eighteen or nineteen, a yuppie-type with full cheeks and brown eyes, talking to a fleshy, buxom blond girl of about the same age in a blue blouse too small for her.
She was doing the talking, actually—talking and talking away to this kid, and dancing while she talked, with a beer in her hand. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but it looked like the usual: what’s your major, what’re you going to do this summer? The kid wasn’t saying much. He was smiling at her, his eyes lowered. It looked like they were lowered in shyness. It was a charming expression.
Then he grabbed her bouncing tits, one with each hand.
For me, it was like a stretched-out moment in a car accident—I knew he was going to do it a split second before he did.
She yelled and pushed him away, and he fell on his ass. One of the other frat guys also saw it happen, and told several others, including Trent, and they dragged him out the door. I wandered out after them, and followed them around the side of the house. By the time I got there, they had already bloodied his nose.
“Want us to lose our fuckin’ charter, you little fuck?” Trent was saying, as he flung the kid to the ground. He raised a foot over the kid’s head.
“Hey, Trent. Cool it.”
They all looked at me.
“You see what this piece of shit freshman did?”
“Yeah, I saw it, and he deserves everything you gave him. But go any farther, he’ll end up in the hospital. Or worse. And then you’re screwed. There goes your summer.”
I said I’d take care of him. They said to make sure he never came near the place again. I helped the kid up, and walked him off into the milling streets of Georgetown. Bloody and mumbling though he was, we attracted surprisingly little notice from passersby.
“What’s your name?”
“Stan. Who would’ve thought frat boys would take it so hard?”
“Yeah, who would’ve thought. Where do you live?”
“Brlffnglb. Hllllb...” He dropped to his knees and vomited. Then he told me which dorm he was in.
“Shit, that’s far. OK, let’s get you there.”
“You can stay over, if you want. My roommate’s gone for the summer. Thank God. Are you gay?”
He sang a few bars of some song in a foreign language. Odd, he didn't look or sound foreign. Then he stopped, dropped and vomited again, several times. A trio of girls laughed at us as they gave us a wide berth on the sidewalk.
I got him up and kept him going. He started singing again, in English this time. “‘When I get excited, my little China Girl says, ‘Oh baby, just you shut your mouth’...”
“Bowie,” I said. “If you like Bowie, you can’t be too evil.”
“I like China Girls. China Girls.”
“Oh yeah, and that was a real lotus blossom you were putting your smooth move on back there.”
I cleaned him up in the dorm bathroom, then helped him back to his room. It was cluttered on his side, empty on his roommate’s side.
“Like I said, you can stay over, if you want. Are you gay? It doesn’t matter, you can stay. Are you gay?”
“No, I’m not gay. And if I was, I wouldn’t be interested in your drunken ass.”
“Haw. I’m drunk.”
“That’s like saying Madonna’s got an ego.”
I laid down on his roommate’s sheetless bed.
“You’re the best friend I ever had,” he slurred, face down across the room.
“I don’t doubt it.”
Within a few days, we really had become friends. It turned out his name was Stan Zelinski, like I said, and like me, he was a Pennsylvanian. He was from the other side of the state, though, from Philadelphia.
By the middle of May, he had moved in with me. I lived in a one-room cellar, with adjoining bathroom but no kitchen, in the bowels of a rowhouse not far from the steep stone staircase the priest plunges down at the end of The Exorcist. I had shared it that year with a guy named Danny, our futons homophobically at opposite ends of the room. But Danny was moving in with his girlfriend Gretchen in Bethesda, and even a cellar in Georgetown was more than I could afford on my own.
Stan had decided to stay in DC for the summer, so the fit was perfect. He even bought Danny’s disgusting futon for thirty bucks.
By the first week in June, I’d gotten Stan a job, too. Trent had left the movie theatre for a summer job in Florida, and Stan took over for him.
That’s where he met Grace Khanket, which ruined his whole summer. You see, it also turned out that when Stan Zelinski drunkenly told me that he liked “China Girls,” he hadn’t just been raving. He worshipped and coveted Asian—or, as we still said in those days, “Oriental”—women.
He had been an exchange student his senior year in high school, to Thailand. He’d fallen in love with every third girl he met, and also with the food, and the weather, and the land. And also with the language—he’d picked it up easily, and soon discovered that he was the rare and lucky American with a gift for Asian tongues. It was a prodigal gift, really—he was fluent in Thai and Lao already, and had a smattering of Japanese, Cantonese and Vietnamese.
He hoped that a Georgetown degree in Japanese would get him a lucrative career in international business with a Far East specialization. But the a priori behind this ambition was the hope of a string of delectable Asian girlfriends, culminating in a delectable but bringable-home-to-Mom Asian fiancée.
“You’ll have to meet this chick, Grace, who works down at the theatre,” I said.
Grace Khanket, who worked the concession stand, was a tiny, maddeningly beautiful Thai-American girl who dressed in black and wore Lois Lane spectacles.
She was a freshman, too, at George Washington University, but she didn’t live in the dorms; she was local, and lived with her large family across the river in Arlington, near the restaurant they ran.
The minute Stan saw her, the first night he worked, he knew why he had been put on earth. I introduced them, and as soon as she wasn’t looking, Stan turned back to me with his eyes bugging out and his teeth clenched, an expression of something like rage, as if I should have known, should have known upon meeting him that he needed to be introduced to her at once, shouldn’t have delayed this meeting all these weeks.
Though she was really a reserved, even slightly dour young woman, Grace chatted with him pleasantly enough that night. Between shows, when he tried some Thai on her, she paid him the compliment of saying that his pronunciation was better than hers. This was true, too; even a nonspeaker could tell that—Grace’s Thai, while flawlessly confident, was delivered in a honking Yank shopping-mall accent.
Stan was transported. After work he and I got burgers at Roy Rogers, then walked toward home, through the mugginess of a June night in DC. When we reached The Exorcist stairway, we sat on the top step and ate, and looked out across the black Potomac at Virginia.
“The Devil Went Down to Georgetown,” I said.
“I’ve met her,” said Stan. “I’ve met her already. I figured it would be years. I figured I’d be twenty-five, thirty maybe, and I’d meet her over there somewhere.”
“Her. The One. The Perfect One for Me. The perfect balance of sexiness and class. I feel cheated, almost.”
“I had anticipated years as a single man, years to date dozens of women of all races, mostly Oriental but all races, to savor all that life has to offer. That’s out of the question now.”
“You’re drunk even when you’re sober.”
“I wonder if she masturbates.”
“I wonder. Do you think she masturbates?”
“Why am I having this conversation?”
“Seriously. It’s too incredible to imagine. To witness that would be like finding the Secret Elephant Graveyard.”
“I know what you’re getting at there, but you might want to find a different image before you say that to Grace.”
“Seriously, though, I’m going to ask her to marry me.”
“Maybe, say, a movie first, or some dinner?”
“A mere formality. Does she have a boyfriend? I’ll do a fucking header down these steps if she has a boyfriend. Not that it matters; we’re getting married anyway.”
“I don’t think she has a boyfriend.”
“But you still don’t have much a shot with her.”
“Bullshit, why not?”
“I heard her say she doesn’t like American guys.”
“She only likes Oriental guys?”
“No, she likes them even less. She gets into English guys. That guy from Room With a View, Something Something Hyphenated, she gets into him. You know, she’s an English Lit major, which tells you...”
“Excuse me, excuse me,” said Stan. He was looking up. “What the hell is that noise?”
I listened. I hadn’t been paying attention, but he was right. There was a high, insistent whirring, symphonically loud, pealing from the treetops all around us.
“It’s the cicadas,” I said. “They’re out this summer.”
“Cicadas. Okay, as long as I know that.”
“You ever see that movie when you were a kid, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, where the spaceships attack Washington? That’s what it sounds like to me. I thought maybe aliens were down at the Mall, blowing up the Capitol and the White House.”
“No such luck. Nope, just horny bugs.”
We’re not talking here about the big, clumsy, dull-black annual cicadas, or “locusts,” as they’re sometimes called. Like the name implies, those show up every year, looking like giant houseflies, to startle us with their loud, ungainly buzzing. That summer in DC was the season of their more glamorous cousins, the Periodical Cicadas or “Seventeen-Year Locusts”—smaller, sleeker, shiny black, with cherry-red eyes and lacy wings that hum rather than buzz.
Periodical Cicadas remain underground, around trees, feeding on the fluids of the root, for seventeen years, before emerging as yellowish-brown nymphs to crawl up the sides of the trunk. They shed their exoskeletons, leaving them behind, split-back and still clinging to the bark, and take to the air and the upper branches for a few feverish weeks of singing, mating and laying eggs. They don’t sting or bite, but they’re still technically regarded as pests, because the females inflict tiny wounds on trees with their ovipositors, the organs with which they plant their eggs. These “oviposition wounds” can be so numerous that it’s inadvisable to plant young trees too close to a Periodical Cicada season.
Periodical Cicadas are also a classic example of “predator satiation,” an evolutionary adaptation in which the survival chances of individuals are increased by the abundance of prey available to predators. So the cicada I saw the starling snatch that day when I was a kid was just doing its Darwinian duty to its species.
For a couple of weeks, it looked like I was right about Stan Zelinksi’s chances with Grace Khanket. She wasn’t unfriendly to him, and they had long, lively, sometimes even contentious conversations, Stan leaning against the concession stand in the longueurs between showtimes. But she was icy—aloof to his suggestions that they do something together outside of work. They were the same age, but she saw him as a pesky kid with a crush, and herself as a sophisticated woman.
Then one day, seemingly all at once, her manner toward him changed. I never knew how exactly—neither did Stan—but he’d broken through with her. Their conversations became softer, less animated, more intimate, less inclusive of the others that worked at the theatre. They started taking breaks together.
A few evenings later, on a Friday in late June, Grace agreed to go for a drink with Stan after work. He came back from this date to our wretched little cellar, beaming.
“Did you score?”
“Please. It’s not like that, I told you.”
“So you didn’t.”
“OK, so how’d it go?”
“Yep. For like half an hour.”
“That’s not all. I’m meeting her family.”
“I’m meeting her family. This Sunday.”
“You’re going to her house?”
“Nah. I’m going down to the Mall. Some Asian cultural festival this weekend. I saw something about it on the bulletin board. Turns out her family is going to have a food booth there. She wants me to come down there Sunday and meet everybody.”
“I have to say, I never thought you’d get this far. I’m impressed.”
“Don’t be. It’s fate.”
Maybe what happened that Sunday was fate, too. That was certainly Stan Zelinski’s disgusted opinion, after his big date on the Mall that beautiful Sunday, between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. He came back around dusk, and I asked him once again:
“How’d it go?”
“I don’t know. Not good.”
“I was going to order some Domino’s. You want to go in on it?”
“No, I’m definitely full.”
“Well, tell me what happened.”
He flung himself on his futon, and stared at the ceiling for a while. Then:
“OK, I get there. She’s there, gives me a kiss. A kiss. On the lips. Right in front of her old man, who she then introduces me to.”
“Yeah. Her Dad is very friendly, but he seems nervous, like he thinks I’ll kill him or something. Her Mom is not friendly. At all. But there are a bunch of brothers and sisters around, and working the booth is Gramma.”
“What’s she like?”
“Just what you’d expect. Several thousand years old, and about the size of a fireplug.”
“Wispy gray hair, wire-rimmed-glasses?”
“You’ve met her. She doesn’t like me either, I don’t think, but Grace is obviously her favorite, and I’m Grace’s guest, so she hands me a Styrofoam plate. Shrimp. I say thanks, and she just nods. So she doesn’t speak English, I gather. This, I think, is my opening. So I eat the shrimp, and man are they good.”
“Pretty spicy, yeah, more so than the crap you get in the restaurants here. But I’m a vet, right? So I just wolf them down. Then I say thank you to her, and tell her it was great, in Thai. And she gives me a look, the old lady. Not a smile, exactly, just a startled look like I may not be completely worthless. And she hands me another plate, this one with chicken in some kind of black sauce. Absolutely delicious. So at this point Gramma starts talking to me, slowly at first, but then she’s talking faster and faster.”
“About food, mostly, at first. The kind of food they made back in her village in the old country. She’s giving me more food while she talks—a plate of this and a plate of that, and it’s all great. I’m actually starting to get full. She’s talking faster and faster, testing me I think, and I’m keeping up, pretty much, talking back almost as fast. Pretty soon she’s talking about Grace, what a special girl she is and everything, and I’m agreeing all over the place of course. And then Grace’s parents are listening in, they can’t believe it.”
“And then it happened.”
He rolled on his side and faced me.
“The old lady hands me a plate of your bugs. Those cicadas.”
“Oh, Jesus. No way.”
“Oh yeah. Nicely wok-steamed, in some kind of light sauce. All golden-brown.”
“You see the position I’m in? I can’t turn them down. But I figure, anyway, hey, this’ll cinch the deal with Gramma, thus with Grace. So I dig in.”
“Are you shitting me?”
“Nope. I just started crunching them up. There were all these little Americanized Thai kids with their skateboards standing around, and they’re all going, ‘Whoa, Dude, that’s sick.’ But I ate the whole fucking plate.”
“How were they?”
“Not bad. Not real good, either.”
“No. Sort of like shrimp, I guess. But not as good.”
“Oh, shit. You threw up, didn’t you? That’s where all this is heading?”
“Nope. Like I said, I’m full. But after I was finished, I’m thinking, I’ll be Grace’s hero now. I turn to her, and she’s looking at me with this look of revulsion. She was looking at me just like the kids were. She couldn’t believe I’d eaten them.”
“Wasn’t she pleased? I mean, you must have made a great impression with Gramma.”
“Oh, Gramma thinks I kick ass. So do her parents, I think. That’s just it. I don’t think that I was supposed to make a good impression. I think I was supposed to piss them off.”
“Ah. You should’ve showed up in a leather jacket, on a motorcycle.”
“Exactly. Shit, man, I really fucked up. Grace walked me back to the Metro, reluctantly, and she didn’t want me to kiss her goodbye. She shied away and laughed when I went to kiss her. She was too grossed-out by what I’d been eating.”
“After she kissed you in front of her parents.”
“She kissed me in front of her parents, but she wouldn’t kiss me when we were alone.”
“Well, at least you got a good meal out of it.”
“You’re a fucking riot.”
That was that. At the theatre the following night, Grace was back to chilly reserve toward Stan. Even their earlier conversational rapport was gone. After a week he couldn’t take it any more. He quit the movie theatre, and took a job waiting tables at a Chinese restaurant a few blocks away.
By mid-July, the cicadas had gone quiet.
Stan and I lived together for a few more months, but then we both got better-paying jobs which allowed us to move into better digs, mine in Adams Morgan, his elsewhere in Georgetown. We saw less and less of each other after that, and within a few years we had both left DC. I still get an email from him now and then.
He did spend one semester in Osaka, but that was it for his Far East dream. After graduation he got a very good position with a firm in Texas, and married a woman he met there. He sent me their wedding picture. His wife was blond and fleshy and looked not at all unlike the woman he violated the night I met him.
Predictably enough, Grace ended up—according to Stan—marrying a Thai doctor she met at a cousin’s wedding. They had four kids, and still live in Arlington.
I moved west, and I got married, too. The other day it occurred to me that next summer will be cicada time again in DC. The descendants of the very bugs that Stan Zelinksi ate that day on the Mall, in a misguided attempt to win Grace Khanket’s heart, will be singing in the trees, trying to win hearts for themselves.
I wish I could get there, just to walk the streets, and hear the music. After all, how many seventeenth summers do I have left, before the Big Starling catches me?
“A fascination for the macabre… jet-black humour… disturbing… an imaginative collection that probes the darkest corners of the psyche…”
We couldn’t agree more with Alastair Mabbott’s description of Bart Lessard’s book Black Body and Other Stories in The Herald. Click here to read the review.
by daishin stephenson
gloaming eased to darkness, the wind blew steady. a hut nestled within a copse of trees stood above the animal path.
i entered and sat on the earthen floor. there was a small hearth and fire.
i began to cough.
within my throat, a deep scratching tickle intensified. i began to retch. i rolled onto my hands and knees and vomited a dark, long, stringy mass. it was a thick rope of hair.
a few wet hairs stuck to my lips and face; i felt them move as my stuttered breath slowed. i placed the mass of hair in the fire. it smoldered before burning.
from behind, something moved towards me from the corner darkness. i leaned back against its legs to rest. it placed a thorny branch in my left hand and painted three horizontal stripes across my forehead. i closed my eyes. the skin beneath the stripes stung.
by Meat and Bones | 肉そして骨
The sun cleared the horizon. The breeze carried hints of oncoming heat. I walked the road encircling the neighborhood. On one side, a ten-foot wall; the other, open desert.
A car passed, the driver disregarding the thirty mile-per-hour speed limit.
Desert sounds intermingled with those of the neighborhood: mourning doves cried, starlings rattled, air conditioners droned, purple finches chirped, black-tailed gnatcathers whistled, swimming pool pumps hummed, sprinklers ticked.
I saw and heard a male quail call to his mate. Her body lay against the curb, dead. He called then nudged her body with his head, hopped up the curb, hopped down and called then bumped her body again.
The male flew and landed atop the wall, called twice and waited. He flew down to her. He called then stood a few seconds more before flying away.
wee johnny says
is new specs ur sae guid
thit whin e stood oan a bridge
an picked is nose
an rolled ra snotturz intae a baw
an flicked it aff ra bridge
e could see it fawin
aw ra wiy doon
tae ra rivur
by Alexander Thompson
The Mitchell Library is the biggest in Glasgow, occupying five floors and containing more than a million books. The librarians are friendly or not, depending on your accent, skin colour and clothing.
K. would show up there most mornings, go to the general literature section, browse the shelves, pick a book. Sometimes that would take a few minutes, sometimes an hour. K. would take the book to a table, sit down, and read for the rest of the day. Lunch was out of a bag, a cheese roll, packet of crisps, can of Irn-Bru. The first few days at the Mitchell, K. would eat there at the table, reading. But then a librarian came over and said it wasn’t allowed.
“Sorry, I didn’t know,” K. said, and carried the food outside, ate, then came back in.
Some days when K. came back after eating lunch, a librarian would have taken that day’s book from the table, even if there were plenty of unoccupied tables. Sometimes they’d just put the book back on the shelf, but other times they hadn’t, and K. would have to approach their desk and ask them for it.
Some days K. would have finished reading a book by early afternoon, and would browse the shelves and find another one. Sometimes the book K. had been reading would mention another book that seemed interesting, and K. would go to the librarian’s desk and ask if they had it, and the librarian would give K. a card on which to write the title of the book and the name of the author. If the library had the book — it almost always did — they’d either have it brought from whatever department had it, or they’d tell K. to go and read it there. K. never knew why it was sometimes one and sometimes the other.
One morning K. asked the librarian for The Fishmonger’s Violin. “I was going to look on the shelf, but I don’t know the name of the author.”
“Here,” said the librarian, handing K. a card and a pen.
Five minutes later, the librarian said they couldn’t find any record of it.
“Any idea who else might have it?” K. asked.
“No. It’s not just that we don’t have it, there’s no record of it. Are you sure you’ve got the title right?”
“Where did you hear about it?”
I made it up, K. thought, but said, “Somebody told me about it. It’s supposed to be really good.”
“Well. I don’t know.”
K. went to the bookshelves and browsed for a while, but didn’t choose a book.
by M.V. Moorhead
About two months ago, while driving through a rather remote and isolated part of Arizona, I pulled over to read a roadside historical marker. It referred to the Camp Grant Massacre, which happened nearby in April of 1871.
Ever heard of it? I had not, and neither had a friend of mine who worked for decades at a Native American museum. Briefly: A mob of more than a hundred Anglos, Mexican-Americans and Tohono O’odhams, led by Tucson mayor William Oury, raided a settlement near the Camp Grant outpost and murdered more than a hundred Apaches, most of them women and children; others were captured and enslaved in Mexico. It was a national story at the time and led to a shift in sympathy toward the plight of the Apache, although the killers were acquitted at trial in Tucson.
I didn’t learn all of this from the marker, of course; it inspired me to read up a bit on the incident. The marker is a simple stone slab with a metal plaque and plain, functional, unemotional text. If anybody suggested removing it for any ideological reason, or for any reason other than the information was determined to be inaccurate and needed updating, I would object. Despite its lonely location, it’s possible that more people learn about the Camp Grant Massacre every year from this little marker than hear about it in a high school history class. To remove it truly would be “erasing history.”
That’s what I keep hearing from folks opposed to the recent push to remove public statues dedicated to historical figures deemed offensive, especially Confederates—that the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a park or town square, or changing the name of a military base from Bragg or Hood to something, you know, not derived from an enemy of the U.S.—is a foolish and oppressive attempt to “erase history,” like what Stalin did (and, ironically, what eventually happened to Stalin). In some cases, this is even followed by a sage quoting of Santayana’s, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Very respectfully…that’s crap. Is the “erasing history” crowd actually suggesting that a statue of Lee, majestic on his horse in a city park or outside a courthouse or capitol building, is intended to prevent another Civil War?
A statue isn’t a history book. It isn’t a museum; it isn’t even that modest historical marker in Middle-of-Nowhere Arizona. A statue isn’t principally informational in purpose. A statue is—at least usually—intended as a celebration of its subject. People don’t normally erect statues of historical figures they don’t like and admire.
And a historical figure needn’t be perfect, or even close to perfect, to be liked and admired. But it seems to me that they shouldn’t be actual insurrectionists who betrayed their country in the cause of preserving white supremacy and legal enslavement.
This seems so obvious that it’s difficult for me to believe that the “erasing history” complainers don’t know it, deep down. “They’re trying to erase history!” is just a catchphrase, one that they hope you won’t think about too hard.
If you did, it might occur to you that after the Soviet Union collapsed, Russians tore down statues of Lenin. Were they wrong? When Baghdad fell, Iraqis tore down statues of Saddam Hussein. Were they wrong? If you don’t think so, then why is it wrong to get rid of statues of Confederate bigwigs?
Well, I’ve heard it argued that a statue of Lee, for instance, is intended not as a tribute to the Confederacy, but to honor Lee’s supposed military brilliance, or the supposed great gentility of his character. Even setting aside the historians who suggest that both of these traits may have been overrated, you’re going to have to do better than that. Rommel, I understand, is widely regarded as a fine general by military historians, but there aren’t many Rommel Parks or Rommel Memorial Boulevards around the United States (though I’m unsure how much the current administration would mind if there were).
There is, indeed, important history to be found in the Confederate statuary that sprang up so many places around this country in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, but it isn’t, on the whole, a history that the people who want the statues left alone prefer to emphasize. The real, subtle historical significance of those statues is in the calculated and tireless efforts of the Daughters of the Confederacy and other “heritage” organizations to sponsor such memorials, and through them to gradually make the Confederacy and its leaders respectable, even revered and tragically gallant in their romantic “lost cause.”
To give this campaign its due, it’s been far longer-lasting than the Confederacy, far more strategically sophisticated, and far more successful. I experienced it, even as a kid in the North—more than one of my elementary and high-school history teachers passed on the received wisdom that “the War wasn’t really about slavery,” but rather about “economics” or “States’ Rights.” Many years later, it occurred to me that the embrace of these abstractions may have less to do with shame over slavery and more with a desire to debunk the idea that black people could be important enough to fight a war over.
Renouncing the rehabilitation of the Confederacy is an easy call, at least for me. When you move past the Confederacy toward memorials to other notable Americans who were slaveholders or had other aspects of their lives now understood to be reprehensible, I admit that the issue can become more complex.
There were calls this past week to remove statues of Thomas Jefferson from New York’s city hall and from the University of Missouri; another statue of Jefferson was removed from a park in Decatur, Georgia at the donor’s request, for its own safety. Statues of George Washington and Francis Scott Key were pulled down in Portland, Oregon and San Francisco, respectively. And a creepy statue of Teddy Roosevelt outside the American Museum of Natural History in New York, depicting him flanked by and towering over Native American and African-American figures, is reportedly slated to be removed.
This is another issue. Jefferson, at least, should get to stay, in my opinion; despite the despicable, hypocritical aspects of his private life—not to mention his and the other Founders’ failure to abolish slavery at the beginning of this nation—his documents and the vision they articulate have been essential to the progress of civil rights and the ideal of human equality not only here but around the world.
But you know what? That’s easy for me to say. If Jefferson statues have to go, as part of starting to make things right in this country, so be it. A statue or two more or less isn’t the hill I want to die on, if the spirit inspired by Jefferson’s words in those documents is furthered by removing them.
In any case, while I have zero problem with the removal of Confederate statues—and I say this as the great-grandson of a Confederate soldier from Mississippi, albeit one who, family legend claims, deserted and went to Indiana in search of his POW brother—I would also make the “Don’t Erase History” crowd a counterproposal: Leave the statues, but add signage describing the barbaric institution for which they traitorously and ignominiously fought. Or, maybe, add statues of Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, Jr. or Barack Obama next to each one; taller, and looking down with a smirk.
by Brian Quail
Aeons ago, or in the early 1980s, when I was a teacher in a Scottish school, there took place an incident that seems particularly pertinent to present concerns. I was sitting at the table supervising an exam when a colleague came in, and put a sheet of paper on the table with a cheery, “This will help pass the time.” (I’ll call him Dave to spare feelings.)
I read it with incredulity and growing revulsion. I said nothing to Dave, but as soon as the supervision was finished, I went straight to the school office and surreptitiously ran off several copies (this was in the days before personal photocopiers). I distributed these among my more progressive colleagues.
A few days later, the Rector summoned Dave to the office and told him, “I have received a letter from the director of Education about racist material being circulated in this school, and I’d like you to investigate.”
“You need look no further,” Dave retorted, courageously enough. Later that day he came to me in the staff room and rather nervously explained; “One of ‘them’ gave it to me. It’s just a joke. Even ‘they’ found it funny, and etc. But I want you to destroy it.”
“Okay,” I said non-committedly but, acting dumb, didn’t move. He kept insisting till eventually we trailed along to my classroom. There I solemnly opened the filing cabinet, took out the few remaining copies and tore them up in front of his eyes. But the matter was not closed. It had already gone viral, as they say nowadays.
It is an indication of how attitudes have changed that Dave thought it would be amusing to circulate what was, in all probability, material from the fascist British National Party.
Here is a short, and typical, sample of the contents:
APPLICATION FOR EMPLOYMENT (MINORITIES DIVISION)
Address (please give town street, house, room, bed and shift number. West Indians may give minibus or car number).
Degree of suntan: light, medium, dark, very dark, matches Ace of Spades…………………
Are you visible after sunset? Yes…….. No……..
Name of mother……………………
Name of father (if known. West Indians should list all possibilities on a separate sheet)……………
Father’s occupation: Peat cutter, bus conductor, lavatory attendant, underground guard (tick as applicable)
Marital status: Single, shacked up, common law marriage, informal screwing
On another occasion, during a staff meeting the head teacher read out a letter from the Education department on the topic of combating racism in society. At the end he remarked, rather smugly, “Since we only have four of them in the school, it’s hardly a problem for us.”
I found myself on my feet explaining that the implication that the presence of black people was the cause of racism was itself a racist assumption. Racism exists in the heart of the racist, not because of the presence of its victim. I added that this attitude blatantly contradicted the Catholic ethos of our school (it was what is coyly referred to as “transferred”). My contribution was met with a hostile silence, and all eye contact was avoided as I made a lonely departure.
I do not know if attitudes have changed in schools today. I can only hope they have.
Work in a neglected flower garden unearths a vengeful corpse. A drunken executioner befriends a voice from a bottomless pit. Gangster pals indulge in psychopathic pranks. A hoaxer pretending to be a ghost gaslights tenants into health and happiness until a sadistic exorcist calls. Actors in toon costumes wage a cold war against amusement park security. A woodland enclave conspires to vanish from the map. An assassin plays games with a hotel concierge on the swinging ’60s Las Vegas Strip. A wet nurse finds that the infant in her care is far from toothless.
There goes the ordinary in this new collection, Black Body and Other Stories, by Bart Lessard, home to god, fraud, crook, and devil. In these yarns, frightful and funny dwell side by side or are one and the same. Lessard’s books have shown him to be a master of the elegant grotesque whose fearsome imagination rejects all fetters—and this brilliant, audacious volume may be his best to date.
by M.V. Moorhead
Except for a comment or two on posts by other people, over the last week and a half I haven’t said a word in any public forum about the murder of George Floyd, or any of the events that have followed. There are a couple of reasons for this.
First, I’m unable to find words to express my horror and fury and disgust at this atrocity, nor at the fact that it’s very far from an isolated case. Any combination of outraged adjectives seems feeble, both for this individual incident and for the monolithic, deadly reality of deep-seated racism in our justice system.
Second, even if I could find adequate eloquence, I always feel presumptuous in railing against an injustice of which I’m unlikely to be the direct victim. Who cares what some random 58-year-old white dude thinks about racist police brutality?
But I realize that this won’t do. Nobody cares or needs to care what I think on this issue, but it’s nonetheless incumbent right now for all of us—maybe especially us 58-year-old white guys—to say what we think anyway. Modesty and sheepishness and circumspection are not virtues at a time like this. So, lest anyone suppose that my silence has implied either indifference or sympathy with the perpetrators, let me keep it simple:
Black Lives Matter.
I use this now-stock phrase because there is nothing whatsoever about it that a reasonable person should find offensive. Nobody, as far as I know, has suggested in using it that Only Black Lives Matter, or that Black Lives Matter More. Yet many white people, including plenty of people I knew back in high school, seem to find this plaintive phrase infuriating.
Many of these same folks, who seemed to feel no pressing need denounce Floyd’s killing, were swift in their finger-wagging indignation over the looting and other violence connected to some of the past week’s protests. Wrong as this violence (at least some of it probably the work of agents-provocateur) unquestionably is, the hand-wringing response to it by many white people who didn’t seem overly upset by the killing itself suggests the need of a reminder like the phrase Black Lives Matter.
Here's what I hope isn’t true: I hope the elaborate revulsion that some of my fellow white folks evince when they hear “Black Lives Matter” isn’t a reaction to the reflexive internal response “No They Don’t.” Or, “Yeah, But Not That Much.” Not as much as broken store windows or stolen jewelry or re-thinking our own sense of self-justification. But I have to wonder.
In any case, here’s what I think, in the broadest possible terms, about how we should proceed. Black people and other disadvantaged minorities in our country have been trying to engage white society about their plights since at least the end of the Civil War. The vast majority of this engagement, ranging in approach from advocacy to being "a credit to one’s race” to nonviolent resistance to militancy to taking a knee, has been peaceful and dignified on the nonwhite side; white folks have often responded, however, with near-psychotic violence or, on a good day, with patronizing condescension or angry evasion.
Every civil right that white Americans take utterly for granted, down to the most basic, had to be won by black folks, virtually inch by inch in some parts of the country, school by school, drinking fountain by drinking fountain, lunch counter by lunch counter, public swimming pool by public swimming pool, in slow, stubbornly entrenched battle. Black folks have had white allies along the way in this struggle, of course, some of them important, but overall, their victories, which benefit all of us, are their own.
But now it’s time for us white folks to step up. We love things being All About Us; here’s our chance. Black activism can lead the way on changing laws and policies and what sort of language or practices aren’t socially acceptable. But sooner or later this work, essential though it is, runs into the wall of hardwired, often not fully conscious racism. Racist police violence can and should be combatted by protests and changes in policy and training; it can’t be truly eliminated until white folks will no longer tolerate it. And that’s not likely to happen until we are willing to admit that, whether we approved of it or not, we have tolerated it.
I wish I had suggestions more specific than “step up,” but I really don’t. I need guidance on this myself. Ideally, I think, the change would begin within law enforcement culture, with a shift in aspiration from being a thuggish enforcer of an archaic social order to a proud public servant of all people equally. Plenty of cops already see themselves this way; it’s time we asked them to assert themselves as leaders in their profession.
But we can’t wait for this optimistic scenario. The rest of us need to learn to speak up, challenging casual racism on the part of family members, friends, co-workers. And if we witness one of these mortifying incidents of public bullying of black folks by a fellow white person, we need to try to summon the courage to stick up for the black person. It isn’t right that our voices will carry more weight with the bully than the black person’s, but it’s often the case.
Much more often, though, I think that we need to work on mastering the fine and noble art of Shutting the Fuck Up. When we hear or read a racial opinion or observation that we perceive as critical of our own position, we should take a few minutes to think it over before we leap to our own defense or reflexively self-justify. And when I say we should take a few minutes to think it over, I mean we should take a few years.
Also, we should take the earliest opportunity to run the toxic garbage currently polluting the White House, the Senate and many other governing bodies around the nation out of power on a rail. This won’t get rid of racism, obviously, but it can strike a gratifying blow against overt, unapologetic racism.
Black activism can change policy; it can’t cure racism. We can only do that for ourselves, and only if we want to. We should want to.
© DOCKYARD PRESS