Veronica Robles at the Methodist Church

Veronica Robles

Veronica Robles

I had a very enjoyable evening thanks to Veronica Robles, who performed Saturday for a Habitat for Humanity fund-raiser at the Wellfleet United Methodist Church.

Her show was a great introduction to the dance, costumes, songs, language, and histories of different states in Mexico, including Michoacán, Jalisco, and Chiapas. Robles is co-producer and host of the popular Telemundo show – “Orale con Veronica (Let’s Go with Veronica)”. You can hear samples of her music on the Orales website.

A major goal of hers has been to connect Latino families with social services and programs. She co-developed the Latino Art and Culture Initiative at Centro Latino de Chelsea and founded Dance, Camera, Action! at the Charlestown Boys and Girls Club. She has six CD’s out and recent appearances at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.

Veronica is a natural teacher, who takes her show to public schools in Boston and beyond, promoting arts, diversity, and cultural understanding. She performs with authentic outfits from different regions. The performances are interactive, with group singing and opportunities to dress up and learn dances. There was much amusement at some of the clumsy volunteers, such as myself.

Mariachi in Wellfleet might seem at first to be an odd fit. But it worked surprisingly well and made a nice addition to life here.

See Best bets things to do this weekend | CapeCodOnline.com.

The phoenix in the attic

The May Harper’s has another good essay by Lewis H. Lapham. “Ignorance of things past: Who wins and who loses when we forget American history” is a compendium of great quotes about history, spiced with his own novel insights.

It seems surprisingly easy to slip into dichotomies about the past. As Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities, 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

Our idealized construction of the past then leads us to simplistic views of the present and even more cartoonish views of the future and what to do next. The US Presidential campaign is filled with examples of this, few of which bear repeating.

Cambridge Public Library

Cambridge Public Library, Past, Present, Future

Lapham shows some ways around dichotomous thinking about the past. One of those dichotomies is between the view of history as a detailed, and verifiable account of past events with little room for interpretation and of history as a consensual hallucination. He shows that history requires both careful attention to detail and continual reconstruction.

Most importantly, Lapham makes an effective case for the idea that history is necessary for a critical, socially engaged intelligence in the time in which we live. This means history that grows out of meticulous study of the details, openness to counter-intuitive or disturbing ideas, and investigation of the gremlins that don’t fit our preconceptions. He cites Faulkner’s “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” (Requiem for a Nun), on the way to showing how making sense of the past is part and parcel of making sense of the present.

We use the present to construct our past, just as we use our past to construct our present. For Lapham, then, the past is the phoenix in the attic. No matter how we engage with it, our uses of history shape what is to come. As he puts it,

History is work in progress, a constant writing, and rewriting as opposed to museum-quality sculpture in milk-white marble.

This doesn’t mean anything-goes relativism. Instead, it is a call to realize that who we are and who we may become are inseparable from who we have been. Unfortunately, that realization seems lacking, and the desire to learn is all too meagre for the needs of today.

The New Jim Crow

US incarceration timeline

US incarceration timeline

In his now classic analysis of the criminal justice system (The Crime of Punishment, 1966), Karl Menninger wrote, “I suspect that all the crimes committed by all the jailed criminals do not equal in total social damage that of the crimes committed against them.” That was at a time when the number of people in the US who were in jail or prison amounted to around 300,000. Today, that number is well over two million. The US has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, well ahead of the #2 jailer, Russia, or that of many regimes considered to be dictatorships, police states, backward regimes, failed states, or otherwise democracy-challenged.

In a piece originally published in and recently updated for TomDispatch, “The New Jim Crow: How the War on Drugs Gave Birth to a Permanent American UndercasteMichelle Alexander writes,

The New Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow

If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste — not class, caste — permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.

I just finished reading her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010), which piles on the stunning and depressing statistics. But the book does much more than to amplify a sorry state of affairs that most of us know about, but rarely talk about. Several points came through strongly for me:

  • Through actual case stories, the book shows what these numbers mean for the felons for life, their families, their communities, and our democracy. In many cases the people so labeled are innocent, coerced into a plea bargain, or at most convicted of a minor crime.
  • Those who subsequently become subject to legalized second-class citizenship are disproportionately African American. Large numbers are convicted of drug crimes, even while their White counterparts are bigger users and sellers of drugs.
  • The mechanism by which this happens is a maze of laws and court rulings, which have severely compromised civil rights for all of us, even though their impact is primarily on people of color. One more item was added to the maze this week, when the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that correctional officials may without cause, strip-search a person arrested for the most minor offense. Albert W. Florence was strip-searched twice after being wrongly detained over a traffic fine. Florence said at the time, “It was humiliating. It made me feel less than a man. It made me feel not better than an animal.”
  • The interlocking system including bias, laws, police procedures, courts, prison industry jobs and profits, has created a shameful justice system, far worse than the one lamented by Menninger.
Michelle Alexander

Michelle Alexander

Alexander says that she had several specific audiences in mind for the book. One is “people who care deeply about racial justice, but who for any number of reasons do not yet appreciate the magnitude of the crisis faced by communities of color as a result of mass incarceration. In other words, I’m writing this book for people like me, the person I was 10 years ago.” Another was for people “lacked the facts and data to back up their claims” about how the criminal justice system was operating as a third mode of racial caste making (following first slavery, then Jim Crow). I felt I fit in both of those camps, and fortunately not in the third, that of people trapped in the system.

Following her work on an ACLU racial justice project, Alexander says “I had come to suspect that I was wrong about the criminal justice system. It was not just another institution infected with racial bias but rather a different beast entirely…Quite belatedly, I came to see that mass incarceration in the United States had, in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.”

Coming to appreciate that system in a deeper way makes the book powerful for me. It doesn’t in any way try to excuse crime, or to lay the blame for it on lack of employment, poor education, or inadequate housing, as many liberals might do. Nor does it link the injustice of the system to individual bias per se. Furthermore, it debunks accounts of individual responsibility, moral failure, or familial inadequacy as some conservatives might propose. Instead, it shows how the system operates, how it developed and grew, and why it will be so hard to change. Yes, better Supreme Court justices matter, but they won’t dismantle the system. Affirmative action is helpful, but it’s far from a solution. All of those explanations for crime and incarceration matter, too, but they’re not the central narrative.

The book is disturbing, and depressing at times. It cannot be said to end on a happy note, but in the last section, “All of Us or None,” there is at least a vision of what could make a difference. Alexander calls for a conversation on race in which “us” means “all of us,” or as Martin Luther King said, that a shift was needed from civil rights (interpreted simply as rights for those who are dispossesed) to human rights.

This means, among other things that

Whites should demonstrate that their silence in the drug war cannot be bought by tacit assurances that their sons and daughters will not be rounded up en masse and locked away. Whites should prove their commitment to dismantling not only mass incarceration, but all of the structures of racial inequality that guarantee for whites the resilience of white privilege. (p. 244)

The book closes with an excerpt from James Baldwins’s letter to his nephew in The Fire Next Time. That entire letter is worth reading and re-reading many times, but I’ll just end here with a small excerpt from that excerpt:

this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…It is the innocence which constitutes the crime…They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it…those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality…And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.  For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become.

A house concert with RUNA

Moving to Wellfleet, I wondered whether I’d be trading cultural life for nature. With the National Seashore, ocean and bayside beaches, 17 ponds in Wellfleet alone, walking and biking trails, forest and dunes, I was prepared to make that trade, assuming that we’d seek out music, art, and so on, in Boston or other places. But the reality has been the opposite. Yes, the natural world feels especially close at hand, but cultural events seem more, not less accessible.

I do miss the human diversity of the university or the large city, but there’s been more on that score than I expected. In terms of public events, we’ve been to many galleries and art shows, enjoyed the Saturday Tea and Music concerts in the Wellfleet Public Library, book talks, and just saw the Blind Boys of Alabama in the recently renovated Provincetown Town Hall.

About a week ago we attended a wonderful house concert by RUNA, a Celtic music group. They’re an international ensemble comprising vocalist Shannon Lambert-Ryan, guitarist Fionán de Barra, percussionist Cheryl Prashker, and fiddler Tomoko Omura. They play both traditional and more contemporary Celtic songs and instrumental pieces from Ireland, Scotland, Canada, and the US.

The performances were excellent. I especially enjoyed the traditional songs, but some of the more recently composed ones, too. The video here is not from the concert we attended, but we did hear Fionnghuala there.

People of the rebus

Camp family, 1900

Camp family, 1900

If you’re curious about the rebus baby announcement––Who sent it? Who was the baby? Who was Dorothy?, this may help a little.

Camp family, legend

Camp family, legend

The picture to the left (click to enlarge it) is of the Camp family, around 1900. In the center is Samantha Ann Harris Camp (11), who was known to the others in the photo as “Grandma.” She was born in southern Pennsylvania on July 3, 1835. When she was one year old, her family went down the Ohio by flatboat, then up the Mississippi and Illinois to the beautiful area of Sharp’s Landing, not far from where I’ve done some youth media work in Beardstown and Virginia.

Sharp's Landing area, by JaySRT4

Sharp's Landing area, by JaySRT4

Samantha Harris taught school in Vermont, Illinois, then married Sterling P. Camp and moved with him to his farm in Walnut Grove. They had five children: Thomas (5) William (12), John R. (21), Frank (1), and Anna (13), who surround her in the photo. They later moved to Bushnell. John R. Camp became Editor of The Bushnell Record, the local weekly.

Unfortunately, Sterling died young. One consequence was that Samantha outlived him by more than 40 years and had to raise the five children mostly on her own. She died on January 10, 1913, thirteen years after this photo was taken in front of their family residence in Bushnell.

By the time of the photo, Samantha’s son William had married Jennie Daniels (4), who came from Spokane. Their children were John (20), Glanville (19), and Dorothy (18).

Fannie Daniels (not shown) was one of Jennie’s siblings, the others being Minnie, Annie, and Willie. As far as I know, none of them married or had children. (Aunt) Fannie was the one who created the rebus for Dorothy, about five years after this photo.

What did Dorothy think of it? Did she decode it on her own? Was Fannie in the habit of making rebuses for her nieces and nephews? The Camp family seemed adept at producing offspring; why not the Daniels? How did William from rural Illinois connect with Jennie in Spokane? I need to find a flatboat and go back in time to find out.

The ‘Invisible’ Forces of Haiti

Elizabeth Pierre-Louis

Elizabeth Pierre-Louis

I heard a very impressive lecture yesterday titled, “The ‘Invisible’ Forces of Haiti—How Can Books and Culture Help the Reconstruction Process,” from Elizabeth Pierre-Louis, library program coordinator at the Fondation Connaissance et Liberté (FOKAL), Haiti. There should soon be links to a video recording and the text from the summary.

The talk reminded me of  the devastation of the Haiti earthquake. As bad as the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California was, the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan was many times worse than that in terms of deaths and homes destroyed. But the Haiti earthquake was many times worse than Japan’s with as many as 300,000 killed and 1.5-2 million homeless. The current cholera epidemic shows that even a terrible situation can become worse.

Haiti has neither the money nor the technical expertise to recover, and half of the people are under age 21 (some sources say half are under 18). It’s also one of our closest neighbors, and many of its problems are directly traceable to the US’s unquestioning support for the Duvaliers’ dictatorship that robbed the country of what little it had. Last year, the world pledged $5 billion in aid, which was not nearly enough, but then delivered on only a third of that.

It’s inspiring, and humbling, to see how Haitians continue to live, to create, and to work together in spite of challenges no one should have to face alone.

Searching for trolls in Skurugata

It is generally understood that Trolls, when their territory is encroached upon by mankind, withdraw to some more secluded place. So when Eksjo was built, those that dwelt in that vicinity moved to Skurugata, a defile between two high mountains whose perpendicular sides rise so near to each other as to leave the bottom in continual semi-darkness and gloom (Hofberg, 1890).

It’s also generally understood that humans venture into the lair of trolls at their peril, and wise ones know not to walk defenseless into bottomlands of “continual semi-darkness and gloom.” But we knew of the troll ways and were not about to follow the path that the hunter Pelle Katt did in Hofberg’s fairy tale.

A Swedish friend asked why we were going to Småland, as if searching for relatives were the only thing to do there. We’ve learned there is much more, including visiting 12th century Romanesque churches and meeting local people over coffee afterwards, exploring lush forests with gorgeous lakes, taking walks in well-designed parklands, looking at quaint, red wooden farmhouses, and walking through villages with winding, cobblestone streets. But we were intrigued by the descriptions of Skurugata, which seemed of a different order of things.

Skurugata is about 13 km NE of Eksjö. To get there, we drove past lovely little farms with red houses and barns, cows, and piles of logs from the abundant woods.

The walk to Skurugata itself started off simply enough, a winding path through the woods, with moss-covered rocks and ferns. But it soon descended into a narrow ravine, with straight granite sides. At times, there was little more than 20 feet separating the sides, which rose to 50 feet and more. The walking was a bit tricky, since the rocks were moss-covered and slick from rain. There was also some climbing and descending that benefitted from the use of hands.

It was easy to imagine getting a foot caught in a crevice or losing one’s balance on an unstable stone. But the most dangerous part was neither the trolls nor the rocks, but the sheer beauty that made it hard to focus on walking carefully. The camera was shock-proof, but not my head.

Hofberg’s tale made me more sympathetic to trolls than I’d been before. Being forced out of one’s home is never good, even if it’s to a place as beautiful as Skurugata. He relates that every year a whole battalion of Småland grenadiers would march through Skurugata, beating drums and blowing horns, and occasionally firing volleys. Who knows how the poor trolls suffered through that! And Pelle Katt was no saint either.

We tried not to add to the troll’s’ misery, although we did intrude on what seems like a sacred space and took pictures that only hint at its beauty.

[Double-click on any photo to enlarge it.]

References

Hofberg, Herman (1890).  Swedish fairy tales. Chicago: Belford-Clarke.

A view on learning in Go:

My meetings here at Göteborg University have been held in the School of Pedagogy, which sits in three buildings, labeled, fittingly for an education school, as A-B-C.

But someone showed some imagination, and managed to start my brain spinning, by giving each hus a more lyrical name. I know the dictionary definitions, but I still can’t quite pull these names into a unified whole. Perhaps a Swedish colleague can help?

Hus A, the largest, is named Utsikten, which means “view.” That’s very appropriate, as its windows look out on the beautiful canal with its trees and walkways. The building is trilobite shaped. Its curves mean that each window has a different view. I think of the label as suggesting that we need to look out at the world.

Hus B is named Åsikten. This can also be translated as “view,” but here, I think it means point of view, or opinion. It reminds us that when we examine the world, we all see different things.

Finally, Hus C is named insikten, meaning “insight.” So, we have a view, a point of view, and an insight. Is it saying that as we consider our own view, then that of others, as in Peirce’s community of inquiry, that we develop insight? Or, does it mean that learning involves looking both outward and inward, then recognizing the fallibility of all knowledge? Does insight here really mean reflection, as we find in the water of the canal?

Or, is all of this just playing with the root sikt, and the untranslateablity in order to drive English speakers crazy? I suspect the latter, as I see Göteborg becoming Go:teborg on street signs, and then just Go:. But regardless of the deeper meanings I’m missing, this is just one of the many charming things I’m finding everywhere we look in Go:.

Stopping in Stockholm

We’ve stopped in Stockholm for three nights on the way to Göteborg University and the University of Borås. The weather is very pleasant, with temperatures just above 0°C or 35°F. The sun sets shortly after 5 pm.

I’ve been working each morning, so I haven’t had much time to explore. But here’s a gallery of a few sights we’ve enjoyed.

We did have a good walk through the parks of Ladugårdsgärdet and Kungliga Djurgården. Several of the photos below are from that walk.

On the way, we visited the excellent Etnografiska museet (Museum of Ethnography). Their permanent exhibition, “Bringing the World Home,” presents Swedish explorers such as Carl Linné, A. E. Nordenskiöld, Sten Bergman, and Sven Hedin, who helped create the European image of the “other.”

Double click on any photo below to see a larger version:

World Universities Congress, Çanakkale

Last week I attended the World Universities Congress in Çanakkale, Turkey, organized by Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University. The theme was new aims and responsibilities of universities in the context of globalization.

It was a fascinating and worthwhile event. Conferences like this are intrinsically interesting because of the venue and the assemblage of attendees from around the world.

The sessions highlighted the special role that Turkey plays in the world today, as a bridge between East and West, Christianity and Islam, modern and traditional, Europe and Asia. When you consider Turkey’s neighbors (Greece, Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and just across the water, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Lebanon, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt, Libya), it’s clear that Turkey’s success is essential for all of us.

But there were also a number of excellent sessions and discussions interesting in purely academic terms. For example, in a panel I was on, I learned about a community/university project led by Arzu Başaran Uysal (stage right in the photo) to build playgrounds in Çanakkale. Although the setting was quite different, the course of the project reminded me of many of ours in community informatics. I presented on Youth Community Informatics and co-presented on our GK-12 project.

Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University, or ÇOMÜ, went all out, offering cultural events including music, dancing, tours to Troy and Gallipoli, just across the straits, and a dinner where we saw börek made.

Börek is a baked or fried filled pastry, made of thin flaky yufka dough and filled with cheese, meat, or vegetables. Originating in Central Asia, it’s become popular every place we went in Turkey.

We stayed at ÇOMÜ’s beautiful Dardanos guest house, situated on the shore of the Dardanelles, the straits that connect the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. We could watch the sun setting over Gallipoli every evening, as in the photo above.

[Thanks to Del Harnisch for the second and third photos here.]