We live in an age of tragic anniversaries.
This week marks the one year anniversary of the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly at the hands of men closely aligned with the Saudi government. Later this month, we will be remembering the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in which a man with an AR-15 killed 11 people while shouting anti-Semitic slurs. For many current and former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students and their loved ones, Valentine’s Day will forever be cursed.
I could go on, but you get my point.
As incidents of unspeakable violence continue to tumble into our newsfeeds with numbing regularity, the “first rough draft of history” is quickly becoming the permanent record of what we have allowed our world to become.
But seen another way, the impulse to remember is also an urgent need to never forget.
Poet and storyteller Richard Blanco wants us to never forget one of the deadliest hate crimes against Hispanic Americans and immigrants in modern memory, the mass shooting in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, at the hands of a white supremacist gunman determined to destroy as many lives as possible.
But Blanco has seized the convergence of the two-month anniversary of the shooting and Hispanic Heritage Month to make sure we also remember the humanity of the people the gunman targeted.
His response of choice is an original poem, “The U.S. of Us”, commissioned by and published in both Spanish and English as an opinion piece across the USA TODAY network.
“In the wake of the violence of El Paso shooting, I felt an urgency to take a hard look at our place as Hispanics in the United States,” Blanco said in a statement. “I wanted to honor the victims and survivors of that tragedy, but I also wanted to celebrate our incredible contributions and historical connections to our nation, as an antidote for the fear and isolation we are feeling and fighting right now.”
Blanco knows a few things about contributions.
He is the fifth presidential inaugural poet in U.S. history, and also the youngest, the first Latino, gay person, and immigrant in the role. (And in a delightful bit of intersectional magic, he’s also a civil engineer.)
The poem is a result of a chance encounter between Blanco and USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, proof that we all should put ourselves in position to bump into poets as often as possible.
“After the El Paso shooting, we [in the newsroom] were talking about the profound fear and sorrow in the Latino community. The uncertainty. The worry over being a target for hate. How could we capture that?” Carroll tells RaceAhead in an email.
“I had met Richard at an event and was impressed by his passion and his talent. He was the first Latino presidential inaugural poet. His work centers on identity and culture and dreams and the human spirit. Could his poetry help make connections our reporting could not? I reached out and asked him: Would you be willing to write a poem that captures the complex feelings of Latinos in the United States? His immediate answer was ‘yes.’ The result is the poem we are publishing on our opinion pages today.”
Blanco makes good use of his 11, unsparing stanzas.
“O say, can you see us by the dawn of our ancestors’ light still breathing through the cities we forged from the wind of our wills, drenched in the rain of our dusty sweat, and christened for the faith gleaming in our saints’ starry eyes: San Francisco, San Antonio, San Diego?
O say, when will you have enough faith in us to meet the gleam of our eyes in your own, when will you see us as one in this one country we all so proudly hail, and tear down the ramparts that divide us from you, instead of raising new walls?”
He also asks when we will do better.
“When will you stop drowning us, trafficking us like cattle in trucks, corralling us in kitchen alleys and musty motel rooms, scarring our children’s faces behind the striped shadows of iron bars, rebranding our skin as rapists and murderers lurking behind you? When will our immigrant toil and struggling dreams not be your ploy for profit? When will you praise us as assets and allies?
We will not live our worthy lives in fear and shame.”
You can find the entire poem here.
Blanco is the author of five poetry collections, including “How to Love a Country” (2019) which explores the many sociopolitical issues of our nation, past and present. Learn more about him here.
Big business needs to step up its efforts to save/stop breaking the world This is the grim assessment from Michael Green, the chief executive officer of the Social Progress Imperative (SPI), a nonprofit known for its Social Progress Index, which charts social progress in countries on 51 data points in three broad categories: basic human needs, foundations of wellbeing, and opportunity. This year’s index, which covers some 95% of the population, finds that progress as defined by meeting the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs) are slipping away, and the U.S. is one of four countries whose score on the SPI has declined since 2014. “Safety is not improving; school education improvement has stalled because of concerns about quality; and a rising tide of intolerance, which spans from the US to Brazil to Hungary, is pulling the world back on measures of inclusiveness,” he writes. “Corporations cherry-picking a couple of targets where they have some charity projects won’t get us there. We need a more fundamental rethink, shifting from the short-termism of gross domestic product and quarterly earnings to long-term, sustainable value-creation.”
Muslims are being targeted across China Mosques are being closed or destroyed, the public use of Arabic has been banned, and overt expressions of Muslim faith are increasingly forbidden in regions across China, including Inner Mongolia, Henan, and Ningxia, home to the Hui people, China’s largest Muslim ethnic minority. It is part of a campaign of religious repression undertaken by the Communist Party that has spread from the attacks on the Uighurs in Xinjiang to other areas. The New York Times has reviewed parts of confidential party documents that explain the campaign’s purpose. “It is driven by the party’s fear that adherence to the Muslim faith could turn into religious extremism and open defiance of its rule,” they report.
New York Times
Why does the IRS disproportionately audit the working poor? Short answer: Because they can. This is the takeaway from this investigation by ProPublica that reported a disproportionate number of audits being conducted on the working poor, who profoundly outnumber the 1% of wealthiest Americans, but who are investigated at the same rate. The problem is that auditing complex tax returns are costly, specialized efforts and there is little funding available anymore. “The agency uses relatively low-level employees to audit returns for low-income taxpayers who claim the earned income tax credit,” they report, an easy process mostly done by mail. “It takes senior auditors hours upon hours to complete an exam,” of wealthier taxpayers, and those with expertise don’t tend to stick around. “Congress must fund and the IRS must hire and train appropriate numbers of [auditors] to have appropriately balanced coverage across all income levels,” says IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig in a report on the issue.
The city of Tulsa begins looking for mass graves associated with the 1921 Race Massacre It’s an interesting move by the city of Tulsa, Okla. Officials plan to use ground penetration radar to search for places where graves may be hidden. The effort has been public from the start. “We got some good leads there and we really appreciate the public. We hope that we get more. We know that a lot of people have passed, but we know they shared their stories,” says Vernon AME Church Reverend Robert Turner, who is on the Public Oversight Committee for the investigation. Warning: Take a breath before you read the comments.
News on 6
‘The white people are killing the colored people!’ The 1921 Tulsa Race Riots are better remembered as a massacre or a pogrom, says John W. Franklin, who has spent years working on reconciliation in Tulsa. It began the evening of May 31, 1921; twenty-four hours later, all of what was known as Negro Wall Street would be gone. An angry white mob, with full support of the Tulsa police, burned, looted, arrested, and murdered with impunity. This extraordinary podcast from the Smithsonian explains what happened and the horror of those days. Olivia Hooker, a 101-year-old retired psychology professor, remembers being hidden under a table, men sneaking into her backyard to set fire to doll clothes that had been hung on a line to dry. “The damage that was done was not only the material things—a house destroyed, the entire neighborhood destroyed, the businesses destroyed, all the services destroyed,” she said. It was also the future that was taken from them. “But our school was gone on the day that we should have been getting our report cards to move up to the next class. The children of Tulsa were devastated.”
Smithsonian Sidedoor podcast
In praise of poetry, part two Attorney and poet Reginald Dwayne Betts took a turn at the New York Times‘ “The Enthusiast” column, to sing the praises of Lucille Clifton, a poet whose work uplifted his spirit back when he was incarcerated as a young man in the Red Onion State Prison in Virginia. (His own extraordinary story is here.) Betts was a “befriended by a brother with long locs” who happened to have a poetry anthology book he was willing to share. “This is the thing. Back then every day teemed with violence, and the poems, like all of Clifton’s poems, let me imagine even the wildest dudes around me as my brother,” he writes, interspersing Clifton’s verses into his personal timeline of survival and self-renewal. Against the rules, he typed a copy of Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me” in the prison’s law library and sent copies to members of his family. “I didn’t know then that mostly what I was doing when reading Clifton, more than when reading anyone else, was understanding myself.” Well worth your time.
New York Times
What Tyler Perry means Greg Braxton has produced a wonderful profile of Perry, the most successful African-American filmmaker in history. While Perry never relinquished his grip on his creative process, his painful past growing up poor in the South, never relinquished its grip on him.“I was running from poverty,” he says. “When my mother got sick, I just wanted to do well enough to take care of her. I surpassed that, went farther than I ever thought I could financially, and still felt like I needed to run. I never felt like I was far enough away from it… It’s like people who have gone through trauma or sadness never wanting to look back. That was me. At times, I found it was hard to breathe.” But on Saturday, Perry will welcome the entirety of the black entertainment glitterati to his updated 330-acre Tyler Perry Studios, a state-of-the-art facility with 12 sound stages named after black luminaries such as Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington, Whoopi Goldberg, Sidney Poitier, Will Smith, Halle Berry, Della Reese, and the late director John Singleton. “I am paying tribute to people who have inspired me, who all paved a brick for me to be here,” he says.
Los Angeles Times
Tamara El-Waylly helps write and produce raceAhead.