Black Literature, Black Lives at Word Week

I’m very excited to moderate Black Literature, Black Lives as part of Noe Valley’s Word Week 2021 on Wednesday, March 10 at 7pm (PST).

Black writers have explored the many shades of Black lives for centuries, reflecting and reporting the hopes and challenges of the community. This panel will present readings by three contemporary voices in Black literature: bestselling nonfiction author Julie Lythcott-Haims (How to Raise an Adult, Real American); poet Dr. Ayodele Nzinga (The Horse Eaters, Sorrowland Oracle); and novelist Maurice Ruffin, who’s debut work We Cast a Shadow is a New York Times Editors’ Choice. I will moderate a discussion with these power writers after the readings.

Please join us!

This event will be broadcast via Zoom on Wednesday, March 10 from 7pm to 8:30pm (PST). Get the Zoom link by RSVPing on our Facebook event page or by emailing wordweeknoevalley@gmail.com. In response, you will receive the Zoom information. Audience size for this event is limited to 100 people.

Please also support the sponsoring bookstore for Word Week, Folio Books, in Noe Valley, San Francisco. You can purchase books by all the authors at this event from them.

Hope you can join us!

The White Privilege Putsch

A doorway away from chaos.

White privilege committed a putsch at the US Capitol on Wednesday, January 6, 2021. Backed into a corner, fearful its unquestioned authority faced total erosion by the reality of a multicultural world, white privilege took their grievances to the home of American democracy itself, with the goal of destroying it. Based on footage of what actually went down inside the halls of the Capitol, the country was a doorway away from mobs attacking the Members of Congress. A doorway away from utter chaos.

White privilege panicked upon the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Those threatened by a Black president disparaged his wife and children, calling the dignified family all sorts of names. And chief among the charges leveled against President Obama was the birther business. He’s not American, they said, meaning he’s not one of us: white. An old trope, its roots dating back to slavery and the Dred Scott decision, which ruled that Blacks could never be US citizens. The 14th Amendment overturned Dred Scott, granting former slaves and their American-born descendants full citizenship. But 153 years later, the rights of full citizenship remain elusive.

Donald Trump leapt upon the birther conspiracy, nurtured it, and kept it afloat. Thus, he became the darling of white privilege, its chief spokesperson. A fitting role for him. His whole life has been the best example of white privilege at work. Trump lacks political or military experience, typical credentials for any presidential candidate. He had a mediocre career in college and his history as a businessman includes numerous bankruptcies. Though he shares writing credit, his “coauthor” Tony Schwartz wrote his most famous book, The Art of the Deal, in its entirety. Despite this parade of mediocrity and failure, Trump won the 2016 election, albeit with the aid of America’s peculiar presidential election system, the Electoral College. He lost the popular vote by over 3 million votes.

With a lackluster background and an election win aided by an antiquated voting system devised to keep the then-slave states happy, Donald Trump is the poster child of white privilege. Small wonder he became its champion.

By contrast, the first Black president was the first Black editor of the Harvard Law Review and graduated from Harvard Law magna cum laude. He was a member of the Illinois Senate and later of the US Senate. In 2008, detractors ignored all that and simply labeled him a community organizer. Erasing the accomplishments of Black folks, to fit a certain agenda, is nothing new. For years after becoming a Nobel laureate, I continued to see Toni Morrison referred to in newspapers as a Pulitzer prize winning author, as if the higher honor never happened.

None of this mattered, however. Trump represents a reclamation of white privilege, a return to normal for those who ardently support him. “Normal” means a society where Black lives don’t matter, where LGBTQ lives don’t matter, where only immigrants from Europe matter, where women know their place.

When threatened, these defenders of white privilege lash out with evil intent. (Look up the rise of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction.) January 6 should not come as a surprise. A group of insurrectionists plotted to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer last summer. Violence is their calling card.

Donald Trump knows this. He has continuously lied and used inflammatory language to incite the worst instincts of his supporters. His speech at the January 6 rally amounted to a call to arms against the Congress and even his own Vice President, labeling them all traitors. His words directly sparked the putsch. 

Here’s the thing, though. Trump and his followers want to overturn the election for two different reasons. Though Trump is the poster child of white privilege and a long-time racist, his main reason for wanting to stay in the White House is to avoid losing his immunity from criminal prosecution. Despite his incessant lying, he knows what he’s done, how much he owes to different individuals and entities, including the US Treasury. He knows he will face a world of hurt the moment he steps out of office.

His supporters, though, see only his position as the mouthpiece for their white privilege. “Make America Great Again.” “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Trump spoke their language, and for that they are willing to support him, even if it means kidnapping a sitting governor. Even if it means invading the Capitol and endangering Members of Congress, Senators, and the Vice President.

Police officers stand guard as supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump gather in front of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, U.S., January 6, 2021. REUTERS/Leah Millis TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Importantly, the insurrectionists’ own white privilege allowed them to get as far as they did with the putsch. Black folks would have been summarily shot on sight the minute they started running past barriers and towards the Capitol. While many officers fought hard to defend the Capitol and the Congress (one officer died), some officers stood aside and allowed the insurrectionists access to the building. Some took selfies with them. And some gently escorted them out during the aftermath. I’m reminded of when police took Dylann Roof to Burger King after he slaughtered nine people in cold blood. By contrast, police in Baltimore did not take Freddie Gray, who had not committed murder, to get food.

While at UCLA, I heard History Professor E. Bradford Burns say many times that oppressed peoples will not go into the 21st century shackled to the institutions of the 19th. Folks wedded to the 19th century—lynchings and Jim Crow, the subjugation of women, the utter destruction of Native Americans, the invisibility and denial of LGBTQ folks—know this. That’s why they will fight like hell to keep the world from changing. Even if it means burning down their own house, our House, the People’s House, to do so.

Misha & Beethoven

Michael “Misha” Guleff, 1958 – 2019

Michael, or Misha as many of us from UCLA called him, and I were in some cafe in the South Bay long ago when Beethoven’s Third came over the speakers. We paused our chatter to listen from time to time. What a badass piece this is, we concluded. We both had heard it countless times, of course, yet the enthusiasm we shared that day, commenting on its nuances, its subtle and profound changes, made it feel like we were experiencing it anew. It felt like a true bonding moment for us.

When Misha told me last November that he had Stage-4 cancer, my mind flashed to the cafe. We were both single, 30 years younger, still figuring out stuff, making plans.

Misha played music, guitar and vocals. He also wrote hundreds of original songs. He had a definitive style, one heavily influenced by George Harrison, a mutual favorite. Misha, seven years my senior, went to one of the Harrison concerts in the 70s. A sort of Concert for Bangladesh on Tour, it featured Billy Preston, Tom Scott, Jim Horn, and Jim Keltner on the one hand, and Ravi Shankar, Alla Rakha, Hariprasad Charuasia, and Shivkumar Sharma on the other, a split between rock and Indian Classical as the original benefit concert had been. I was awed that he had a chance to go.

We played music together, him on guitar and me on tabla. He liked to hear some of the ideas I had to accompany his songs. It felt good when we clicked.

The second thing I thought of after he told me about the cancer was that he was the first person outside of my family that I called when my brother Robert died of the same disease in February 2014. It was a surreal moment for both of us. He loved Robert and admired his bass playing and musicianship. He gave me a recording of a piece of his to play at the concert we had honoring Robert. I still have it on my iPhone.

Misha kept to the periphery of the activist gang at UCLA. A friend to many of us, he watched the demonstrations from afar. It wasn’t that he didn’t have strong political beliefs. He did, and he wasn’t shy about sharing them. But he felt more comfortable just slightly out of the limelight. He tended to live on the periphery, too, as I often teased him about the out-of-the-way places he lived. He really only put himself in the center of things when it came to music. 

Misha could rock out with the best of them, but he also studied classical Spanish guitar at San Diego State. One of his teachers was Celin Romero of the famous guitar playing dynasty that includes Pepe Romero and the patriarch Celedonio Romero. He and his wife invited me to San Diego to see three of the Romeros play, Celin, Papa, and Celin’s son Celino. That was a wonderful treat.

Misha missed the final chapter of the Trump travesty and of course he missed COVID-19. I can only imagine the songs he would have written in response to all that was 2020. But he checked out before it all went down, passing on New Year’s Eve, 2019.

How fortunate that we were able to gather in Misha’s name in January, to comfort the family and each other. Just a couple of months later and we would not have been able to do so. Music featured heavily during the service, including his own. He laid out a set list of his originals he wanted played. In addition to playing tabla, I even dragged my sitar out of mothballs. I think he would have been pleased.

For over 30 years, Misha and I lived a life together, always within phone or text distance, if not physical distance. I met his first wife Kathy when he was at UCLA. I was best man at his wedding to his second wife Ginna and became friend with their two kids Sasha and Olivia. I followed them around and visited as they moved from one corner of California after another. A beautiful family. We had good times. 

On this first anniversary of Misha’s passing, Beethoven’s Third has been on my mind a lot. I’ve been humming passages from the first movement, my mind going back to that little cafe somewhere in the South Bay where we fell in love with that masterpiece all over again together.

Watching the Wheels

I remember the morning after more clearly. My father had the whole month of December off for vacation, so he was home that day. He drove my sister and me to school. We went to a magnet school and normally rode a school bus. It was a four and a half mile drive. Dad had the car radio going, can’t remember which station. They played some Beatles music, but I mostly remember hearing his latest album, the last he would live to see release.

I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round

I really love to watch them roll

No longer riding on the merry-go-round

I just had to let it go

Like most of America, we heard the news from Howard Cosell during Monday Night Football. And we all sort of froze, wondering if we had heard it correctly.

It felt real the next morning, with the music and the tributes. And yet it didn’t feel real at all. The sky felt different. Colors looked different. All turned psychedelic, pastel, flashy, bright, as if the world had tripped into Strawberry Fields. Or Lucy had descended from the sky, her diamonds blinding us with brilliance.

I was just getting into the Beatles music and history at that time. So I knew about the acrimonious breakup. And yet, when I heard Paul McCartney’s first words (“Drag, isn’t it?”) I didn’t hear a flippant answer from someone still holding a grudge, as most of the media tried to portray. Even at 15, I could hear in those words a man at a loss, shocked, probably in more pain than even he knew at the time. Decades later, Sir Paul participated in one of the many marches for gun safety after Parkland. When asked by the media why he was marched, he reminded them that he lost a friend to gun violence.

The music played and the tributes continued that morning. It was a surreal car ride. Even though I barely knew anything, I still felt numb by it. Probably the thing on my mind most at the time was the question, why? 40 years later, on this day, a part of me is still sitting in my father’s car with my sister. And still wondering, why?

An Ode to a Renaissance Man

Ask me who instigated the plot and with hand raised timidly I have to confess my guilt. We were at the Mulholland Tennis Club celebrating our friend Suzanne’s bat mitzvah. A bar served drinks; us kids were consigned to non-alcoholic of course. I had Shirley Temples, probably one too many. A group of us went to the bar and asked for a banana daiquiri. It was a for a friend, we said. Then we went to the DJ and asked him if he could play “Yes! We Have No Bananas.” It’s for a friend, we said. Fortunately, the DJ had it in his collection and squeezed it in between the more contemporary dance music he played. Once it started, we proudly marched the daiquiri to our friend, all smiles—or should I say shit-eating grins.

Jeff Robbins looked at us with those gentle brown eyes, smiling beneath his thick, woolly mustache and beard, and shook his head, keeping whatever profanities he had under his breath. Jeff hated, hated bananas. But he loved a good joke and laughed mightily at our wit and cheek.

My history with Jeff goes back to the Temple, as we old-timers say. 1977, the year the Center for Enriched Studies (CES, as it was known then) first opened in rented classrooms in back of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Jeff held forth in rm. 228. I had him for Photography. We took pictures of objects, buildings, the playground, each other. We even learned how to develop film in a dark room.

But Jeff taught us much more than that. In each subject he taught, he infused all of himself, his myriad of interests. Thus, the Photography class contained more than a small dose of history. In particular, he taught us about Mathew Brady and his importance documenting the Civil War. He also taught Architectural Math, Music Appreciation, and Comparative Religions, among other subjects.

Thus, Jeff was a true renaissance man. His subjects blended together, each informing the other. His broad width of intelligence and interests, along with his taste for bad puns and his wise-ass-but-kind demeanor made him one of the most popular teachers at CES.

We had to do a project in Photography, pick a subject and do a photo essay on it. I cheekily picked Jeff himself. To my surprise, he invited me to his home. That’s when I met his wife Nancy, a wonderful companion for Jeff with an equally wide range of interests and a formidable wit of her own. She also taught in the LA schools and welcomed me into their home as she did all of Jeff’s kooky students. In time, I would meet the two wonderful people they brought into the world, Ian and Courtnay. A man of great passion, it was beautiful to see how much he adored his family.

During that first trip to Jeff’s house, I discovered his great love of trains. His basement office looked like a turn-of-the-century train depot, replete with mounted train schedules, signaling lights, station plaques, everything. Many years later, as a retired counsellor and teacher, Jeff’s first novel, The Layout, would focus on trains and rail enthusiasts. 

We had many mutual loves and interests, music, astronomy, antiques, history. He followed me and my growth over the years, including my studies of Indian classical music. I’ve played both sitar and tabla at their house. And Jeff’s stereo is something I’ve tried to emulate for decades. It had such a lush sound, filling the room with warmth.

While I often say that I wish I had had History with Jeff at CES, in reality I learned much history from him outside of the classroom. He introduced me to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. And like his colleague and close friend John Otterness, like all of the best CES had to offer, he taught independent thinking, free thought, and curiosity. These tools made me the person I am today.

Jeff treated us like humans, not children. Thus, our 43 year relationship really only changed because we as humans change over the course of time. The last time we spoke together, in June of this year, felt like many other times we spoke on the phone over the years. We asked about each other, gave updates, laughed at the absurdity of everything, kvetched about he absurdity of everything.

Nothing lead me to believe or think that he would be leaving us in a few month’s time. Indeed, per his family, his final illness came on suddenly. We talked about the future. I said how wonderful it would be for us to meet at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, that he would make a badass docent. He paused a bit and agreed what a wonderful meet up that would be. Perhaps when COVID-19 passes, we thought, we hoped.

We met when I was 12 and he was 32, both kids, really. Part of us stayed kids, I think, to the very end. I could still see his boyish smile and twinkle as we spoke on the phone that last time.

You were loved, Jeff, by countless students you shepherded over the decades. I love you, more than I can say and I’ll miss you horribly. My deepest condolences to Nancy, Ian, and Courtnay.

Thank you for all the lessons and your friendship.

[Editor’s Note (11/13/20): Fourth paragraph from the bottom revised to reflect information from the family that Jeff did not know he was ill in June and that his final ailment came on suddenly. (See Nancy’s note below in comments.)]

When We Vote We Scare Them, So Keep Voting

They recklessly harassed a Biden/Harris bus on a busy highway because we scare them.

They threatened to march around polling places with guns because we scare them.

They pepper-sprayed children, children, during a march to go vote because we scare them.

They sue to invalidate legally submitted ballots, ostensibly because they didn’t like the collection method of the ballots, but really because we scare them.

They put up phony ballot boxes in California, of all places, to hoodwink voters because we scare them.

They set ballot collection boxes on fire because we scare them.

We scare the Republicans and all those who support Donald Trump, because they know that all the things they did were wrong, immoral, and indefensible.

Because Mitch McConnell blatantly kept President Obama from making judicial appointments, hoping and waiting for a Republican to come into office so that he could stack the courts with right wing ideologues out of step with a majority of Americans.

Because the Republican Congress passed a tax bill that overtly benefits the rich and powerful at the expense of those who live from paycheck to paycheck.

Because the Republicans have done everything in their power to undermine the Affordable Care Act without proposing a substitute; they aren’t even trying.

Because when the pandemic dropped, Republican Congress members and Senators looked the other way while folks became infected and began to die. Worse, some said that the elderly would have to sacrifice themselves for the good of the nation (i.e., their profit margins) so that the lockdowns would come to an end and businesses could reopen.

Because regardless of how many murderous cops and police agencies Republicans prop up, Black Lives Still Matter, Always Have Mattered, and Will Continue To Matter.

Because when all else fails, Republicans lie, cheat, and steal to maintain power. They do their damndest to prevent the opposition from voting. They close polling places and force people to stand in hours-long lines. They shorten the early voting period. They lodge court challenge after court challenge to keep as many ballots from being counted as possible.

Republicans do all of these things because they are morally bankrupt. People in the right who have the votes do not have to do these things.

But today’s Republican Party truly has no leg to stand on. So by hook or by crook, they will do what it takes to win. Every desperate act only proves just how much we scare them, and just how much their fear will drive them to deeper depths of immorality.

We scare them. We cannot let them scare us. Keep voting.

My Interview on the Sandra Moran Book Club

Last July, I appeared on the Sandra Moran Book Club to discuss my novel Sin Against the Race with host Elizabeth Andersen and panelist and poet Mercedes Lewis. I met Elizabeth and Mercedes at the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in 2018 and I’m so happy that we’ve stayed in touch. We had an excellent chat and a thoroughly delightful time during the radio show. For those who missed the live broadcast, you can listen to the episode in its entirety below. Enjoy!

(You can purchase my novel at many independent bookstores. Thank you for supporting them during the pandemic crisis.)

Trump’s World of Illusion

Signing a blank piece of paper in staged photo while at Walter Reed Hospital

Donald Trump has lived his entire life wrapped in illusion. And because of his extreme narcissism, he has expended a great deal of energy over the years to convince others of his illusions, usually to their detriment.

As the New York Times series on his taxes has made clear, Trump is not a billionaire. In fact, he owes many a great deal of money, most notably the US Treasury. Similarly, he is not a successful business man. His casinos went bankrupt and his hotels and golf courses are floundering. He often spends more than he has, living the life of the pampered playboy with yachts, jets, and resorts all gilded in tacky gold trim. He was the perfect subject for a reality TV show, a setting where illusion is the name of the game. 

During those forays, he hurt thousands of people. He burned contractors by not paying them. He burned thousands more by running fake businesses such as Trump University.

By becoming president, though, the stakes went through the roof. Now he could threaten the livelihood of millions all for the sake of wealth and self-aggrandizement, for the sake of maintaining his narcissistic illusions. From his xenophobic immigration policies, to his drive to repeal the Affordable Care Act, to his revised tax code that funnels money to the wealthy, to stacking the courts with right-wing ideologues, he has caused tremendous damage, including to those who support him. And through it all, he has projected the image of a tough guy who gets things done. Illusion, illusion, illusion.

With COVID-19, illusion became acutely lethal. All for the sake of maintaining his tough guy image, he downplayed the disease’s deadliness. He pitted states against each other for necessary supplies. He hobbled his own COVID-19 task force. And, of course, he refused to set a good example by just wearing a damn mask. His policies, or lack thereof, have killed over 210,000 people in the US and wrecked the economic livelihood of millions.

Each day the US lacks specific, detailed, science-based planning to deal with COVID-19, we risk increasing the number of fatalities. And without an effective plan to revive the economy, prolonged economic ruin could condemn millions to homelessness and starvation.

Regardless of what Trump and his supporters believe, science doesn’t care about fantasy or illusion. It simply exists. If I drop a stone while standing on the surface of the Earth, it will fall. No amount of wishing or fantasy will change that fact. Similarly, the current novel coronavirus follows a set of unalterable rules. One rule says that the virus can travel in droplets of saliva and infect others who might inhale those droplets or get them in the eyes. The best way to prevent one’s saliva from infecting others is to wear a mask.

A simple truth, but those invested in maintaining a fantasy disregard it. And now Trump himself has contracted the very thing that he said will one day “just disappear.” Worse, he hosted a huge event at the White House to celebrate the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. It turned into a super-spreader event. No one social distanced or wore a mask. Now many more are infected. 

Prior to becoming president, Donald Trump’s world of illusion impacted the lives of many. Now as president, he has adversely impacted millions across the country and billions around the world. That he should fall victim to his own illusionary world seems quite inevitable. That he has foisted tragedy on others is criminal.

Voting by Mail

Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key.

John Lewis, NY Times Opinion, July 30, 2020

We face the most consequential election not just in one generation but several generations. Simply put, we have to remove Donald Trump and all those who support him from office. The vote is our most powerful weapon, which is why Trump has moved heaven and earth to dissuade and hamper people’s ability to vote. We can’t let him do that.

With COVID-19 still casting a pall over the country and the world, traditional voting becomes challenging. All the more so where jurisdictions have limited the number of voting locations in recent primary elections. For those who wish to vote by mail this November, start planning now.

Vote.org has state-by-state information on how to vote by mail. Some jurisdictions have easier rules than others. California, home of the gar spot, has very accommodating rules regarding voting by mail. Furthermore, per Governor Gavin Newsom’s executive order, all registered California voters will receive a mail-in ballot automatically. These ballots can be returned by mail or taken to a polling station or dropped off in a vote-by-mail receptacle. I’ve used the drop off method for years. (Don’t I look fabulous in my Mardi Gras beads?)

I’ve thought a lot about my hero John Lewis since his passing. His whole life is an example of how to fight for a better world for everyone. And his final words, some quoted above, are our marching orders. May his words inspire us all to go to the polls and to cause good trouble in the name of righteousness.

The Comet Chasers

Comet Kohoutek

During 1973-74, Comet Kohoutek became all the rage. Discovered by Czech astronomy Luboš Kohoutek, scientists believed the comet would become a major event, big, bright, spectacular. I was only 8 at the time, but remember the hype quite well, because no one was more excited about Comet Kohoutek than my mother.

Mom loved outer space. The moon landing beamed onto our TV set, back when we lived with my grandmother, my mom’s mother. Whenever Skylab passed over LA, it became a major event in my family. And by the time the Vikings landed on Mars in 1976, I was old enough to get excited by it, too. Mom had never seen a comet, and Kohoutek promised to be a Big Deal. Dr. George Fischbeck, the Channel 7 news meteorologist, went on and on about it. Dad loved space, too, and loved his wife, so he would take her out here and there to find the perfect viewing spot to see Kohoutek.

But like millions around the world, she never saw it. Comet Kohoutek turned into a major disappointment. Scientists had theorized that Kohoutek had never traveled to the inner solar system previously. Thus, it would contain lots of ice and volatiles that would outgas spectacularly when it heated up during its loop close around the sun. Nope. Turned out it had more rock than expected and it did not spark up nearly as brightly as anticipated.

Kohoutek remained a running gag in my family. Any time another astronomical phenomenon excited Mom, and she dashed outside all hours of the night, we reminded her of Kohoutek. She laughed, but went out anyway. I often joined her. Eclipses, meteor showers, we searched for them all, with varying degrees of success.

In 1996, Comet Hyakutake came round the inner solar system, and the hype machine tuned up again. It appeared in late March of that year. Sadly, by that point Mom had lost much of her mobility, her body ravaged by arthritis and lupus. But that didn’t stop her. She went outside anyway into the front yard in search of Hyakutake. Much to my delight, she phoned me to say that she saw it and we excitedly traded stories. I also saw it from my place in Oakland. A few months later, in June, Mom passed away.

Comet Hale-Bopp put on a much more spectacular show a year later. My husband and I saw it in clear skies from the hills west of Ukiah. The comet’s tail went on and on. It was an awesome sight. Of course I wished for Mom. Dad and I talked wistfully about her and Kohoutek and her finally seeing a comet before passing on.

Last weekend, I trudged uphill on the block where I live in search of Comet Neowise. I needed a clearer view of the horizon the elevation offered. Look in the direction of the Big Dipper just after sunset, the article I read suggested. But in the twilight just after sunset, the Big Dipper remained invisible, so that wasn’t of much help. Just as I was about to text my sister and say “I’m on another Kohoutek run,” I saw it, very small just above Mt. Tamalpias. And in the binoculars, I could see its head and a short tail. Nothing as spectacular as Hale-Bopp had been, but still a thrilling sight.

I may not have become a professional astronomer, but I’ll forever remain fascinating by “out there,” a love I came by honestly thanks to my parents, in particular Mom, our family’s first Comet Chaser.