Category Archives: human rights

Tracking Death

The Washington Post has created a gruesome but necessary database that tracks those shot and killed by police. The database was begun in 2015 after the murder of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri, police officers led to the discovery that many police killings were never recorded in the FBI database.

The data is clear: young, black men are killed more often than others.

Unfortunately, the database focuses on shootings so this morning’s news about the cousin of a Black Lives Matter co-founder who was killed by police with a taser may not be included. The young man from Washington, D.C. was visiting family in Los Angeles for the holidays. The video, released at the request of the family, shows his fear, driven by his sense that he was probably going to die like so many others. It will stay with me, alongside George Floyd calling for his mother. I won’t post it but encourage you to watch it. I think about Emmett Till’s mother who insisted the casket stay open so people were forced to confront the truth.

Reading for Pleasure

Chilly gray winter coupled with angry voices have left me feeling blue and a bit angry myself. I have a list of possible blog entries but can’t seem to get past the feeling that they are frivolous in a time of great seriousness.

The New Yorker published a list of books that various writers are reading now, and Caleb Crain comments about his reading of Langdon Hammer’s biography of poet James Merrill:

In such parlous times, I felt a little guilty about indulging at length in reading for mere pleasure—the one lacuna in Merrill’s cosmopolitanism was politics, which he seems to have found boring—but only a formidable pleasure was capable of drawing me away from the news, and for the sake of my mental health I decided I had to license it.

I’m reading a lot this year, but my path does seem to have taken a serious turn that Crain might not count as reading for pleasure.  The year started with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee’s prose poem/ethnographic study about poor southerners who worked as cotton tenants during the Depression. It seemed a good place to start to understand division and anger in America, and in The New Yorker article, Judith Thurman references it in her review of the 1960 book Crowds and Power, a book she says is about the dangerous resentments of those who feel helpless:

It seems that we are seeing something parallel taking place in Trump’s America: the panicked reaction of a crowd that feels it has been devalued and is looking to project that sense onto a group that can then be driven from the fold. This process has happened before in American history, notably in the post-Civil War South, when defeated whites, many of them poor and dispossessed, projected their sense of depreciation onto the even poorer population of former slaves. (Read James Agee on THAT subject.)

I read Agee as a follow up to Hillbilly Elegy, the new book about these same people. If I had to do over, I would read Agee first as the historical understanding helps with Vance’s more abbreviated memoir.

For Martin Luther King Day, I read all three volumes of The March, John Lewis’s collaboration with Nate Powell. The graphic novel takes us to the heart of the Civil Rights movement. Hatred and violence pulse in the black and white images of murder and mayhem during a time when it seemed as though black lives really didn’t matter and the police and courts were the handmaidens of systemic evil. As he tells the story, Lewis is preparing to attend the inauguration of the first Black president. A moment of pride and success that now seems under attack by that same evil cloaked not in KKK robes but suits and ties and forked tongues.

Sabrina Stevens’ twitter thread was one of the first things I saw on February 1. She provided a list of the myths that were going to be told to kids during Black History Month to make slavery seem not so bad.

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s story of a runaway slave who moves through a world where whites implement diverse evil ways of dealing with slaves, deals with all these issues. While I suspect it would not pass the censors in high schools, it would be historically realistic in a way that is, as Sabrina writes, is often not presented in public schools classrooms. Whitehead drew his characters from slave narratives and runaway slave advertisements, and in the book the runaways move along a real railroad, built deep in the ground, each station bringing them to new places where they had to discover the rules and underlying secrets in order to navigate dangerous paths. I think the most sinister of all places was South Carolina where the slaves seemed to be treated respectfully even as whites were experimenting in terrible ways. The novel was powerful, often mentally jarring, and I am still thinking about it. It would certainly overturn the myths of the happy slaves and paternal owners that are the usual fare of this month and black history in general.

My nonfiction reading–Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling–provides an ethnographic view of the racial divides that exist in seemingly integrated schools and shows the legacy of continuing prejudice. Even though they are in the same school, black and white students are not getting the same quality of education. Expectations for the students are different with many black students finding their way into special education classes while white students take advantage of advanced classes or after school programs. He describes an ugly 1985 redistricting battle that clearly hinged on race and sounded a lot like my local suburban school division lived through much more recently.

Next on the list is Hidden Figures, about the Black women of NASA. It may be a bit more uplifting except the segregated world where they did their work kept them from them from advancing. Even now, they would probably face discrimination–they might be able to use whichever bathroom they wished but the upper levels of engineering still seem to be off limits.

These are the books students should be reading rather than watered down textbooks that don’t want to make anyone feel bad about themselves or their ancestors. It is “reading for pleasure”? While it is not always pleasant, it is reading I have chosen as a way to understand the world around me which I think helps define reading for pleasure. But it doesn’t matter. It is reading for knowledge and understanding and that is more important right now.

Sometimes It’s the Journey

I was prepared to write a blog post recommending Ted Bell’s Nick McIver series as great reads for middle schoolers…historical fiction with a little time travel thrown in. Maybe a little violent but in the swashbuckling tradition. They are set on the Guernsey Islands at the start of WW II but take us back to other great historical battles. In Nick of Time, we meet Lord Nelson just a few weeks before Trafalgar, and in The Time Pirate, we stand with George Washington at the Battle of Yorktown. The second volume would be a great addition to an American history class.

There’s the recommendation…here’s the journey. Along with the review, I was going to post a list of links related to WW II and the Revolutionary War as part of my Diigo posts. I’m still going to do that but as you browse the links, you’ll see the  journey I took from checking out these animated maps to learning about the Battle of Gallipoli (which, for the record, is a WW I battle but was the brain child of Winston Churchill) to checking out even more interactive maps to thinking about the definition of genocide.

The interactive maps are examples of the way media can bring history alive. As I was reading about Gallipoli, I was thinking how useful a map would be and was a little relieved to discover that I wasn’t going to have to create it myself.

But the definitions demonstrate a much more profound use of the Web: opening the world of ideas and debate to our students. As I read about Turkey’s plan to keep Australian officials from attending the 100th anniversary, I thought about the treatment of native peoples’ around the world. Why wasn’t that genocide? Turns out there is disagreement about the definition and its application despite the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was adopted by the United Nations in December 1948.

Meanwhile, how did I know I had reached the end of my journey? It took me here.




Using Digital Photography to Fight Torture

A colleague posted a link to the TED 2008 video about the Worldwide Telescope. What a fabulous project!

Her video led me to the TED website. What an amazing collection of videos of smart people thinking about the issues of our world. I chose the technology topic and found this video of Peter Gabriel from TED 2006. I’ve been a Gabriel fan since his Genesis days, and he is the reason I’ve been an Amnesty International member for some 20 years. In this video, he describes his WITNESS project, which trains people to use digital cameras to document human rights abuses. The group also works to get these videos distributed and provides a hub where visitors can upload their own videos and view others. It’s a different take on how technology can change the world:

These stories always push me towards those big life questions: why me? why here? My video camera is usually right beside me on the desk, not to capture torture, but to capture birds. What a bucolic life I lead. But, I can add my voice to those who say that this is wrong and who are finding ways to use these collaborative technologies to make it impossible to hide human rights abuses.