Just(ice) Another Day

It is Wednesday morning, my second work day of my four-day work week. I get to work at 10:18   – three minutes late for my first tutorial.  I don’t worry for long as the student does not show. I will sit at my computer and log in stats and information pertaining to the

Troy Davis - Photo courtesy of Savannah Morning News via Associated Press
students who do show up for tutorials. When I am finished I will grade journalism quizzes. If my 11:15 tutorial doesn’t show I will put the finishing  touches on an article I am putting together for my department newsletter. Later, during lunch I will complete an i-photo slide show putting text over two remaining images. I will wander to the next office and talk with co-workers.  I will tutor any or all who come in today appointment or no. At the end of this day, I will gather my things and go home, pet my cats eat my dinner and sleep in my own bed. Such will be my day. But today is no ordinary Wednesday. This Wednesday Troy Davis is scheduled to be put to death by the state of Georgia.

I am saddened and angry that in the face of so much evidence to the contrary that the Georgia parole board would not stay Mr. Davis’s execution.  According to the New York Times,  

Seven of nine witnesses against Mr. Davis recanted after trial. Six said the police threatened them if they did not identify Mr. Davis. The man who first told the police that Mr. Davis was the shooter later confessed to the crime. There are other reasons to doubt Mr. Davis’s guilt: There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime introduced at trial, and new ballistics evidence broke the link between him and a previous shooting that provided the motive for his conviction.

I am no friend of the helplessness that grips me. I search for actions to be done; I sign a petition, a last ditch-effort  to achieve justice for this man – a man who is seemingly quite sanguine about the events that now surround him.  In the Times’ comments section, I come across a letter written by Mr. Davis expressing his gratitude for the outpouring of emotion in his favor.

From Troy Davis, Sept 10, 2011:
As I look at my mail from across the globe, from places I have never ever dreamed I would know about and people speaking languages and expressing cultures and religions I could only hope to one day see first hand. I am humbled by the emotion that fills my heart with overwhelming, overflowing Joy. I can’t even explain the insurgence of emotion I feel when I try to express the strength I draw from you all, it compounds my faith and it shows me yet again that this is not a case about the death penalty, this is not a case about Troy Davis, this is a case about Justice and the Human Spirit to see Justice prevail.

I cannot answer all of your letters but I do read them all, I cannot see you all but I can imagine your faces, I cannot hear you speak but your letters take me to the far reaches of the world, I cannot touch you physically but I feel your warmth everyday I exist.

So Thank you and remember I am in a place where execution can only destroy your physical form but because of my faith in God, my family and all of you I have been spiritually free for some time and no matter what happens in the days, weeks to come, this Movement to end the death penalty, to seek true justice, to expose a system that fails to protect the innocent must be accelerated. There are so many more Troy Davis’. This fight to end the death penalty is not won or lost through me but through our strength to move forward and save every innocent person in captivity around the globe. We need to dismantle this Unjust system city by city, state by state and country by country.

I read this, fighting tears with every line and I wonder if I could be so sanguine in the face of death. Once, when I was 26 years old, I was faced with surgery and a 30 percent chance of survival. I sent the priest away from my hospital bed the night before feeling hypocritical for bo-hooing my young fate when I no longer believed in commercial religion. As I lay on the gurney minutes before the operation I cried at the thought of not seeing my niece and nephews again. And maybe this is what put the fight in me because when I awoke from the anesthesia I knew I did not want to die and if  or when the time came I was going “kicking and screaming” and dragging any perpetrators along with me. So, no. I would not be so calm and I am in awe of Mr. Davis.

In his letter from death row, Troy Davis has done something “wonderful” for all those who would unquestioningly put him to death; with his sanguine honesty and faith he has absolved the executioner of guilt. The expediters of justice can say they are “just doing the job they are told to do.” It is an excuse for the ages; “Just doing my job” has been tossed about in tribunals worldwide.  What is my job? Our job?  It is a question for all of us who live comfortable and relatively free from the injustice that befalls the Troy Davis’ of the world.

I wonder too how this justice system has gotten so far from its original tenet of innocent until proven guilty. This system is not new. In fact, in 1895, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision in the case Coffin v. United States, 156 U.S. 432; 15 S. Ct. 394, traced the presumption of innocence, past England, Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, and, at least according to Greenleaf, to Deuteronomy   (http://www.talkleft.com/story ).

A belief as ancient as the “presumption of innocence” should hold some weight – even in our misbegotten southern system of criminal justice.  My fear is that this is another example of how we have fallen victim to the ravages of this country’s original sin – slavery.  I base this on the southern propensity for executing African-American males. The stale idea that continues to get traction in racist minds is the presumption that African-American males are prone to violence. As recent as last week, in the case of African-American, Duane Buck, a psychologist’s sentencing testimony stating that Mr. Buck’s race increased the chances of future dangerousness, was deemed prejudicial enough to lead the Supreme Court to grant a stay of execution.  The trial took place in Texas – a state  that holds the record in executions.   That the state has no public defenders “for indigent defendants, and instead and relies upon court-appointed lawyers who likely do not have experience in capital murder defenses or appeals”  is unconscionable. “ … incompetent defenses in capital murder cases are legion in Texas.  One decision, which turned down a defendant’s habeas appeal due to bad lawyering, concluded that ‘”[t]he Constitution does not say that the lawyer has to be awake”’ during trial proceedings” (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/execution/).  The fact that a jury of one’s peers cannot be relied upon to render unbiased judgment is monumentally frightening.

It is my hope Troy Davis is not executed this evening and that justice will take off her blindfold and look at the strong presumption of innocence that surrounds this man. The New York Times calls the parole board’s  “failure to commute Mr. Davis’s death sentence to life without parole was a tragic miscarriage of justice.”  By the NYT’s own admission, all evidence points towards innocence – so a “life without parole” sentence is just as dead wrong as death. At best, Troy Davis needs to be set free. At worst – the man needs a new trial preferably in a new venue.

If we want to leave our children a better world then we have to get up and do our job – a job that includes protesting a very criminal justice system.

A Diary of Change: September 12, 2001

I have a picture of the Twin Towers – they stand tall and strong in the background – behind a group of frolicking high schoolers headed for the Statue of Liberty on the ferry out of

The Twin Towers - February 1994. Before the hole that swallowed my memories.

New Jersey. I looked frantically for that picture last night to no avail. I can still see the faces of my students though, BJ’s thousand watt smile, Kim, Thea, Byron, Jessica, Tiffany, Kristy, Nikki, and Katie all in adolescent poses of deep friendship. There were more but these faces found the camera at every turn. It is what I see when I close my eyes. And I could be wrong, relying like most, on the sovereignty of memory. I could be thinking of the picture we took on the eighty-third floor of the Empire State Building – different year but some of the same smiles and definitely the same Twin Towers in the background. I will always remember these pictures and yet over time I know these memories will fight a losing battle with the vision I beheld Tuesday, September 11th. Shocked, I watched the south tower as it belched smoke and flame. I saw the second plane bank and then plunge out of sight into the tower behind, propelling the fireball out beyond the south tower. I knew then that this plane was not coming in to drop flame retardant on the first tower – as I first thought. My heart raced. I held my head.

Only later did I curse technology. Oh to return to the world of word-of-mouth transmission. The time when one hovered around the newspaper or radio, listening to the newscast as it was filtered through the minds and hearts of stoic announcers. I thought of Cronkites’ voice coming over the all-com speaker in my junior high library and how it cracked and caught on the words that our president, John F. Kennedy was dead. That was a time when we were allowed space to form our own mental pictures of catastrophe – however tragic. It is different now.

Even as I write this I shake my head. I had a student write in her English essay, “Change is inevitable…” At fifteen she knows this. And here I am, half a century in age and barely able to remember when a postage stamp was two cents and the closest war was the ‘gas war’ happening over on the boulevard. I’ve missed something about change. Maybe it is the sameness of my days; the only changes are the ones I make.

Now my days are changed. An unseen hand has written A tragic script complete with murderous planes. How does one teach this? I don’t want to gather my son and the sons and daughters of others around me and have to explain hatred and intolerance. I fear it is completely beyond my ability. And yet I must.

I left school on that Tuesday with nowhere to go. There was nothing at home but lure of television news so I stopped and watched my son’s soccer practice. I read the local newspaper, the last one printed before the attack. I could believe, for a few minutes anyway, that the news of the day was light. Periodically, I’d look up at the boys and girls of various ethnic backgrounds on the soccer field in the bright sunshine. The day was exquisite, with the green hillsides only hinting at the golden leaves to come. On the broad expanse of lawn I witnessed young people in innocent athletics giving high fives to friends and competitors alike. I could have stayed there forever, a frozen tableau of perfection – no hatred, no intolerance, no headlines of alarm.

I was asked about our annual New York City trip by a student who assumed we wouldn’t go. I was resolute in my response. “We will go. That’s one thing that will not change,” I told her. But change is inevitable. A fifteen-year-old told me this. And she was right. The New York City trip did happen that spring. Phantom of the Opera enthralled my forty-five students, most from the hinterlands of rural western New York. On the subway to South Street Seaport, I decide not to make the trek to the hole in the ground that changes forever they way I view human nature. Most of the young people go with another chaperone. A few students stay with me and the vendors of cheap memorabilia. I sigh with relief. I am not ready.

Our chartered bus is faithful to our departure time and, after a last minute buying flourish of knockoff glasses and watches, we depart. I count heads then relax amid the excited chatter of adolescence. Even as darkness descends I sense we are on THAT parkway. My senses are validated by the silence that befalls the group. The bus slows to a crawl – not for traffic but for the view of the remains of the Twin Towers – the hole that has swallowed my city memories. I thought if I didn’t look – maybe things would become unchanged.

I looked. Foolish pretzel logic – to think we could achieve some type of retro-sameness. Like the skyline of lower Manhattan,  we are all forever changed.

Helping The Help: The Sliding Scale of Victimization

Bayard Rustin (l) and Cleveland Robinson (r), organizers of the March, on August 7, 1963

I am one of those strong black women who liked the movie The Help.  True, the stereotypes are there, obvious and certainly can be considered offensive.   But it is unfair to hold a work of fiction to the same standards one would judge a documentary.

I agree, in part, with Dr. Patricia Turner’s NYT’s op-ed piece (Dangerous White Stereotypes)  that young people today learn more from “fictive rather than non-fictive sources” is a sad commentary on history in general and African American history specifically. Even so, raging against the entertainment machine by expecting it to get everything right will not solve the problem of white folks trying to tell history from the black point of view. Money, expediency along with the desire to entertain are the coins of the movie industry realm.

The movie’s  director, Tate Taylor, managed successfully to maintain the integrity of The Help’s larger message. It is a message issued through the relationship between black domestics and the southern upper middle-class whites who employ them. The message of domestic work as an acceptable 20th Century form of slavery is writ large in every scene.  Dr. Turner discusses the standard formula that The Help employs and suggests that all the white women of the film (with the exception of one) are unlikable. I disagree. Celia is an innocent, seemingly impervious the “rules”  pertaining to how to treat those considered inferior. Celia wants to be part of the in-crowd on her own terms. Her  inability to gain entrance into Hilly’s circle puts her in the margins with the help where she begins to see the Hilly’s group for what it really is. Celia is unpretentious and quite admirable in her treatment of Minnie. I liked Celia’s message and by the end it is her character who clearly wins; the man, Minny’s respect and above all, integrity.  Celia is the character that challenges Dr. Turner’s belief that this movie advances the troubling falsehood of educated, Christian whites being victimized by southern  “white trash.” That Celia’s character, considered white trash by Hilly’s group,  advances the fact that racism is not the brain-child of “white trash” thinking. It is a system that was endorsed by the educated, good men of the  U.S. Supreme court when they ruled in the  Plessy Vs. Ferguson case upholding  “separate but equal” facilities as constitutional. This case represents just one example of acceptable institutionalized racism. I question the notion that there are people who don’t know the roots of racism. It certainly isn’t the poor whites involved – although there were many to pick up that ugly banner and carry it proudly. 

The Help deals with a racism that transcends the concept of mere good and bad. The reason To Kill a Mockingbird  remains popular with audiences today is the character of Atticus Finch; every decent person wants to do the right thing; that they lack the courage of Atticus or Skeeter does not make them bad – just human. Elizabeth Leefolt  is not a bad person just human in her misguided attempts to parent her unattractive child and her lack of backbone to stand up to Hilly – the movie’s appalling antagonist.

That the racist Hilly is the brunt of the “terrible awful” joke provides a bit of humorous justice. But, even this does nothing to prevent the wincing at the stereotypical Minnie character – the big black, wise-cracking woman who has every right to be angry and stay angry. Also, Minny’s abuse by her husband rang false as we were not even given the opportunity to witness any bits of humanity within such a husband.  We witnessed a redemption of sorts with Skeeter’s mom’s coming to grips with her own bias and Skeeter’s ostensibly decent boyfriend who is so without courage that he cannot appreciate it when he sees it in someone he professes to love. Yet we are left to accept the stock wife-beater character with the name of, wait, wait, don’t tell me – Leroy.

I find it interesting that few seemed put-off by the cavalier response of the New York editor Ms. Stein (Mary Steenbergen) who thought a story on black domestics might work at least before the civil-rights mess blew over. Again, domestics and their story (on both sides of the Mason/Dixon Line) came down to neither good or bad, right or wrong but the good old bottom line.

A big caveat for me was the changing  of the real reason (Stockett’s  version) behind Constantine’s disappearance and the jarring idea of a black man and woman having a very, very light skinned child? Here was a teachable moment that could have provided more insight into the tangled web of human nature. But no, the movie viewer got the stereotype of the northern raised, sassy-mouthed, black woman who was not trucking with any racist southern tradition. With the Daughters of the American Revolution group as foil – this scene could have produced a more meaningful “terrible awful.” But again, The Help is not a documentary.   What the story does is offer balance in the character of Aibileen Clark who, like many domestics, is forced to hide a superior intellect while cleaning up the mess of others and still somehow managing a tremendous quiet strength and integrity.

Growth is difficult and I saw the ‘good’ white people of Jackson, Mississippi clinging to the good-old-days not because they were victims of those who they considered “white trash” but because having someone to clean up behind them was easier – much easier. I am reminded of Frederick Douglass’s narrative in which he makes a salient observation regarding his owner’s wife, the kindly Mrs. Auld who, initially, taught him the rudiments of reading and writing until being informed by her husband of the perils of teaching a slave to read. Once Mrs. Auld was put on the “right” path of considering another human as chattel, a young Douglass observed, “Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me.”  From this I came to understand that while slavery and the racism it spawned battered the bodies and minds of those enslaved it also killed the soul of the enslaver.

I understand too that we are all on this sliding scale of victimhood as we move towards a better understanding of all the permutations of human nature.

Promises from my garden