Juneteenth

“My people weren’t slaves. We were always free.”

That’s what my Great-Grandmother Handy told me while growing up whenever the subject was broached. I really didn’t understand it at the time. A young kid who’d been taught, as most people have in U.S. History classes, that if you were Black in the south and living in America pre-1865 you were a slave. But, my Great-Grandmother Handy was proud and adamant and we knew not to question or argue with anything she said. Therefore, I just took this statement at face value.

Now, my Great-Grandparents lived in New Orleans and even as kids we were made somewhat aware that not all Black people were slaves. New Orleans had a large Free People of Color community all through its existence and there are many folks in New Orleans that claim, some correctly and some incorrectly, to be descended from them. Those that claim this do so with a sense of pride (and more than a fair amount of class distinction). So, I just sort of assumed that’s what she meant.

As I’ve grown older, heard and read more family stories, and finally did some research of my own, I found out the real story behind the statement.

My Great-Grandmother’s Grandfather was a Blacksmith in Africa. He was hired by a plantation owner in Kentucky and his passage paid to come work for him. Yes, you read that right. He was hired — paid — for his work. He was not a slave. He came to America as a free man and was given “free papers” to prove it . So, he was free, with job and, importantly, the protection and guarantee of freedom granted by his white boss. In fact, he did so well for himself that he was able to “purchase” his wife who was a slave and, thus, set her free.

They had children and, the thing about “freedom” in much of the slave-owning US at that time is that it was “inherited”. In other words, if you were a free man married to a free woman then your kids would inherit that freedom (and the free papers that proved it). Thus, they would be free. If they, then, were able to marry a free or freed person, then their kids would be free and so on.

And now, you know, that my Great-Grandmother Handy told the truth. She was the descendent of free Black people. I recount this story today mainly to  recount that History is not binary — it is nuanced. That for every “fact” of history you will often find many exceptions. Not all Black people in the south were slaves, some were free.

On this day, Juneteenth, we rightfully celebrate the emancipation of those that were slaves in the United States. We celebrate our Brothers and Sisters for which bondage was a very real and traumatic thing. We celebrate freedom. But let us also remember that freedom is not, should never be, and should never have been a commodity, as it has been from this country’s very exception — like a coin of gold that can be passed down, taken or given by some entity, protected by an army, or granted to some and not others. Freedom is and should always be a human right. That is where we always should have been in this country. That is what this country espouses itself to be. That is the American dream we have yet to live up to. That is the promise we still need to keep working to achieve.

The Problems, The Privilege, and the Pain of Being Invisible

The Problem

I’m a Black man. Yet, for most of my life, in general people don’t see my Blackness. Therefore, I often feel invisible.

People see my light skin and green eyes and, frankly, don’t know what I am. So, they assume. In my experience, Black folks assume I’m either mixed-race or Latino. Latino folks assume I’m Latino. Middle Eastern folks assume I’m Middle Eastern. In my experience, White folks don’t know what to think. They know I’m not White but not sure what I am. I guess I’m just Patrick. I’m just just different. My Blackness is invisible.

And when I speak, I speak the Kings English. I can code switch when the circumstances require it but, for the most part, not even opening my mouth gives my Blackness away.

Being the son and grandson of long time Civil Rights Activists, growing up my Blackness was drilled into me. I was never allowed to forget where I came from — who I was and who my people were. I was never allowed to forget the many times my Mother and Grandmother were jailed during protests or sit-ins. I was never allowed to forget that our family knew the King family. That MLK was a close friend of my my Uncle Talbot (my Grandmother’s Brother) and was his roommate at Seminary in Boston. I was never allowed to forget that my people were in that fight next to him. I was never allowed to forget that the previous four generations of my family had gone to Dillard University, an HBCU, and that I would be expected to as well (which I did). I was never allowed to forget that their struggle and sacrifice was first and foremost for me. Not just for me but for my Blackness and my ability to operate with freedom and dignity within it.

The Privilege

So, in my mind, soul, and heart, my Blackness is alive and visible. Yet…

I’ve never been pulled over by police for little or no reason. Because my Blackness is invisible.

I’ve never been obviously and/or knowingly profiled. Because my Blackness is invisible.

I’ve found I’m often the only one in the room but not treated like I am. Because my Blackness is invisible.

So, while inside my Blackness is alive in me, so is the privilege I receive because my Blackness is invisible to most.

I’ve never knowingly been passed over for a job or paid less or treated differently in the workplace because my Blackness is invisible to most.

So, I’ve personally never experienced what so many of my Brothers and Sisters do, I have and still do experience what White folks do — privilege. The privilege of not having experienced those things because my Blackness is invisible to most.

The Problem

And, here in lies the rub… Many would read this and think I should be thankful for that. That, maybe, I should be grateful that my Blackness is invisible to most. And, this is conflicting in so many ways. The fact that I don’t reveals the problem with racism in this country. That it does have everything to do with a perception of Blackness. A perception based on superficialities. The color of skin and not the content of character as MLK said. The fact that I’m invisible, that my Blackness is invisible, reveals how basically silly it is.

Yet, here’s the other rub, the handful of times I have been pulled over by the police for very legitimate reasons (3 times for speeding and once for rolling a stop sign), I’ve been let off with warnings. Because my Blackness is invisible, my life was never in danger but…

I was terrified. Because while my Blackness is invisible to them it is not invisible to me and I know the moment it is seen I will be treated differently. Though I have no personal experience with such myself, I know that so many my Brothers and Sisters do. And the reasons they do is simply a matter of their Blackness being visible. And, because it is so visible to me, I figure it is just a matter of time before it is visible to, say, a cop.

Like I said, I live in and my life long experience has been in the privilege but because I know who I am and feel who I am, my internal emotional compass points to the magnetic North of the truth — that of being a Black man.

The Pain

But the most difficult thing, the most painful of things, is that my own Black Brothers and Sisters often don’t see my Blackness. My Blackness is invisible to them too.

Growing up, it was that I “talked White” or I “acted White” or I “dressed White”. Because of my light skin I was an “Oreo”.

Lately, it’s been when on a Zoom call full of white folks and there is one other Black person there and they make a comment about being the only one because they can’t see my Blackness, because on a call of more than 5 people my image is reduced to a postage stamp. Which I suppose is a metaphor for how I feel as well. Small. Not fully seen by my own Sister. My own Brother. My own race. My own people.

So, especially lately, I have to speak up about my Blackness. I have to make people see it. I have to make it visible to to everyone, especially other Black folks, in the way it is so very visible to me.

It’s painful and frustrating. Even though I’ve experienced this my whole life each time is like a stab in the heart.

Conclusion

I don’t have a tidy answer to wrap this all up. This is just a rant for now. A way to express a lifetime of frustration, pain, and a deep sense of feeling unseen. Always feeling both a part and apart.

But, ultimately, of asking to be seen and longing for a future where everyone is seen for who they are and it does not make any difference in how they are treated.

To Be Considered Equal

“If you are going for a job, and all the white people applying for that job have a high school diploma, you better have a college one. And if all the white folks have a college diploma, you better have a Masters. And, if they all have Masters, you better have a PhD.”

This is what my Grandmother told me. Growing up, I heard it over and over again.

In order to be considered equal (not “assumed” — because we never are and never have been — “considered”), we had to be better. For us, equal did not mean “the same”. It meant “better”. Because of the color of our skin, we had to be better just to be allowed in the room. To even have a chance. Just to keep our application from going straight into the trash bin.

I will note that my Grandmother had a PhD. As did each of her siblings.

She insited everybody outside of her family call her Dr. Southall. She never let them forget.

A Place To Be

Yesterday, my family and I finally mustered up the emotional strength to visit the intersection of 38th and Chicago — my old neighborhood and the site of the Murder of George Floyd.

Here’s what you need to understand about that place; because there’s no way to get a sense of it unless you’ve been there. It is not only a sacred space — with several bouquet and street art filled memorials constructed to honor his memory. It is so much more…

  • It is a community gathering spot.

  • It is a place of ongoing peaceful protest.

  • It is a place to give speeches that call for change.

  • It is a community free market where personal care supplies, clothing, fresh produce, and fresh cooked BBQ is available for anyone who needs it.

  • It is a place for Native healing dances, because he died on stolen land.

  • It is a place to be amongst shared grief and collective pain. To feel it together, To know that your anger is one with all anger. That all tears flow from the same source.

  • It is a block party. With neighbors talking to neighbors. Connecting with friends. Reconnecting with people you haven’t seen in years.

But, more importantly for those coming from outside the community, its is a place where you can witness that whole of what the community is going through. A place to be a present part of what we as a larger community are working through together.

A place to be.

What I’ve Seen

I’ve seen almost every single business across two cities boarded up. We drove from central Saint Paul to South Minneapolis. We had property in Minneapolis we needed to check up on. It took us through two mostly commercial areas. It’s amazing how quickly you get used to it, the boarding. So much so that the ones that weren’t boarded, were almost shocking. You think, “How could someone be so unconcerned and irresponsible?” The same way just days ago you were thinking about those who were unmasked.

I’ve seen seed fluff from the dogwood trees floating aimlessly under a partly cloudy sky. Directionless. No plan besides landing somewhere eventually and hoping it is fertile enough ground to plant roots and grow.

I’ve seen something painted on almost every board. Black Lives Matter! ACAB! BIPOC Owned! Justice for George Floyd! Please don’t burn! Kids Upstairs! “Roses are red. Violets are blue. Peace didn’t work. What else could we do?”

I’ve seen people who believe that words can save them.

I’ve seen far too many out of town plates. You try to catch a glance at the driver. What is an SUV from Utah doing here?  Male or Female driver? Is he Black or white? Note the plate number. Note the direction they’re going. Do they look OK? Because, we know. Then I feel guilty for profiling. Then, just as suddenly, the guilt fades as I realize it happens to Black folks every day. It’s happened to me.  It’s what the daily is for us. I’ve seen it.

I’ve seen the lilacs blooming and filling the air with fragrance when the wind shifts direction and the smoke from the ruins of smoldering buildings is blowing the other way.

I’ve seen neighbors helping businesses board up. I’ve been helping too. As we were boarding up a row of businesses in the neighborhood three pickup trucks with beds full of 2x4s and plywood sheets pull up. A burly young White guy jumps out of each one. They saw a post on social media about us asking for some help from anyone who could come. They were driving around trying to answer any call. Just good guys looking to do good things for good people they said. Those businesses were boarded in minutes. Beers and waters were shared (they had plenty). Elbows were bumped (were still in a pandemic). And four more businesses were (hopefully) saved.

I saw a beautiful mural of flowers on the boards of the wine shop I passed on the way home from the business I was boarding. It hadn’t been there on the way to there. From blank to beautiful in the same time it took to board up.

I’ve seen the press stifled, beat up, shot at, detained, and arrested. I’m reporting this from the United States.

I’ve seen neighbors collecting food and supplies from other neighbors to go help still more neighbors. Because here all strangers are neighbors in times like these.

I’ve seen people with brooms and mops and shovels and crowbars and garbage bags heading to clean up their neighborhood wherever there is cleaning up to do.

I’ve seen parents trying to help their children understand what’s going on. Trying to make sense of the senseless. Trying to explain the unexplainable.

I’ve seen people doing their best and failing and trying again.

I’ve seen the best of who we are. I’ve seen the worst of who we are. I’ve seen everyone in between.

This is what I’ve seen.

The What and The Why (or Why I Avoid Discussing Politics Online)

Some may have noticed that, in general, I avoid talking about politics online. While I am sure you will find or remember instances where I have deviated from this, it is my general policy.

Online platforms are terrible places to have arguments and even worse places to find common ground.

The truth is that I have plenty of thoughts and frequent robust discussions in my offline life surrounding politics. I think people are sometimes surprised by the breath of political views I welcome engagement with among my friends. I have plenty of friends on the far right and the far left. I have friends who are vehemently pro-gun and vehemently no-gun. I have friends that are pro-choice and pro-life. I have friends who vote exclusively left and others exclusively right. And, of course, I have a fair amount who are decidedly middle.

People are often shocked to find that, though I don’t believe I’ve changed much, where I was on that spectrum twenty years ago is far different than where I fall today. Like many who consider themselves independent, I argue that it is the spectrum that has moved, not me. But, like most things, I’m willing to admit that it is likely a fair bit of both of these changing.

But, I find discussing politics online requires a sort of one-to-one that few venues are conducive to. It certainly can’t be done well with 280 characters at a time. It can’t be done well in comments sections with others chiming in. It can’t be done well in blog posts back and forth. Those forums are great for spouting ideas and hot takes but terrible for genuine discourse, mutual respect, and understanding.

It might be able to be done well between two people on a video call. There you can read body language and facial expressions. You can see the genuine humanity of the person with whom you are conversing. You can get a sense of where they are coming from. What might lead them to a certain perspective or understanding.

Because the “why” is far more important and interesting to me — to our ability to even agree to disagree — than the “what”. I’ll give you an example…

  • What: Taxpayer-funded Universal Healthcare (especially for age 21 and under). I support it.
  • Why: One reason? One of the primary responsibilities of government at the federal level is national defense. To defend the country well, it requires healthy, young, strong, troops. Therefore, it is in the best interest for our national defense that all of its citizens receive free universal healthcare so that they may be healthy and ready to serve when the country calls upon them to do so.

The “what” is a view that would normally be aligned as “left”. The “why” is a view that would normally aligned with the “right”. Some on the left would be satisfied with the “what”. But, I might be able to find a bridge of understanding and agreement with someone on the right with the “why”. Why? Because, in general, humans want the same things, have the same fears, and similar dreams. They want to feel safe and secure in their homes and their country. They want what’s best for their children. They may disagree on the details of how much it will cost and who will pay for it. But, we can probably agree on the broad strokes of the “why”.

The “what” is generally what separates us. I believe what ultimately unites us is found in the “why”.

Online discourse is very good at focusing people on the what. It is generally terrible at allowing discourse and agreement around the why.

Photos? Yep. Print those too.

Look, I get it. These days we all have smartphone cameras at our disposal practically every waking hour. So, we naturally take lots of photos. And, if you have kids or pets or just about anything more active and interesting than slowly growing grass around you take lots and lots of photos. In fact, the younger the kid or more cute the pet, you likely have lots and lots of pretty much the same photo.

And, you have plenty of storage space so you just keep snapping and the camera roll just fills up and, sure, occationally you’ll look back a day or two or maybe a week to show a friend or relative that one cute one you got of little Johnny or Sue or puppy Fido but, in general, you don’t really ever go through the roll yourself. Once you upload it to Instafacetweetok and bask in the likes and loves of those you know, you don’t ever really look at them again.

Trust me. I’ve been there. And, I’ve had many a personal consulting client reach out to me on this very subject. It’s always basically the same story:

“I have thousands of photos. I’m not sure what to do with them but I don’t want to lose them. I don’t even know where to start with figuring it all out. Help!”

I believe they are generally shocked when I tell them the same thing I’m about to tell you…

Getting started is the hardest part because it is the most work. But, if you really care you’ll do it happily… Sit down with a strong cup of coffee, nice tea, or pleasant glass of wine and go through each end every photo in your camera roll and ask one simple question, “Do I love this?”.

If you do, print it. Put it in a frame. Hang it on a wall where you will see it. Or, perhaps, gather a bunch of them and print a nice photo book for your coffee table so that you may pick it up every now and then and enjoy them.

Once you do this the first time, repeat this process every couple of months or so. It’ll be easier and quicker then. Because, hopefully, there will be less photos to go through.

So, what to do with any that don’t make the cut?

Sure, backup is a good thing. Spend some time doing a clean up of the duplicates, etc. and get a good backup plan going. I believe in that but…

Anything that remains digital only — in a virtual box — might as well not exist anyway. You likely won’t look at them enough for it to matter, nor will your children or their children, and they probably won’t even have the technology to open them in 20 years or so (see my previous rant).

But, the ones you print, on good photo paper, with decent ink? Those will be here 100+ years from now. Likely more. Those are the only ones your grandchildren and their grandchildren will ever see. So, whaetever you do with anything that is not printed doesn’t ultimately matter. Print is the only dependable and time tested backup there is. If you don’t love it enough to print it, consider it gone.

You have all of these beautiful photos; precious even. Why keep them in a box in your pocket or on your desk? Why not show them the love you have for them? Why not cherish them? Why not find a way to regularly enjoy them? And, more importantly, why not save them from becoming digital dust?

So, once again, if you care about your photos, you’ll print them.

The Beauty to Come

Thanks to a recent newsletter from Robin Sloan, I was listening this morning to this performance which was in memoriam of the September 11th, 2001 terrorists attacks in New York and Washington D.C. In particularly, I wanted to hear the world premiere of Disintegration Loops by composer William Basinski. The piece itself has an absolutely fascinating back story worth checking out as it gives even deeper context to this stunning work.

As I was listening, and ruminating, and pondering, and, at times, crying, by the end I was struck with a sense of profound hope.

During these equally historic times, we’ve lost so much. Not just so many people dead and jobs lost but also so many businesses and institutions that won’t survive the economic collapse caused by this global pandemic. And, it’s not over yet. In fact, in many ways, we’ve only just begun. There is plenty to mourn and much to fear. We remain in crisis and the future is uncertain.

But, one thing that is certain; much beauty will come out of this. It is true in nature and has been true throughout history. That out of tragedy and crisis, beauty always flows. Great art, music, writing, film, and theater always come out of times like these. Examples abound. The Bubonic Plague spawned Italian Renaissance. In nature, forest fires give way to new growth. The AIDS crisis of the 1980’s gave us Rent and Angels in America. In fact, the work linked above likely would not have occurred had it not been for the destruction, devastation, and loss of the 9/11 attacks. The story behind the Disintegration Loops work is itself a metaphor for this.

So, in a time when hope is so desperately needed and it seems we have so little to look forward to, perhaps it will provide some comfort to look forward to the beauty to come. I know it does for me.

Please Print (A Journaling Rant)

In these historic times, many people have turned to journaling as a way of keeping account for the next generation. So when the grandkids ask what it was like to live through the 2020 Pandemic, you’ll be able grab your pipe, sit them on your lap, and regale them with yarns spun from your own written words.

I see so many that I know discussing how important their digital journaling app of choice has become for this purpose and… my heart sinks. I feel so sad for them. The reason….

None of these apps will be around.

Likely not in 10 years. Certainly not in 20 or 30 or 50.

Take it from a 52 year old who has lost more writing in his 30 years of computing than he has been able to save. The reason? They are on ZIP Disks in my basement using Clarisworks or it was into a BBS system that died silently or they are on a Colorado 250MB Tape Backup of my first computer (A home-brew 486/50 PC) or…

Therefore, let me repeat: THAT APP WILL NOT EXIST NOR WILL ANYTHING YOU TYPE INTO IT.

The history of computing has copious evidence to back me up on that bold statement. The evidence shows that Day One (who I will note bills themselves as a “journal for life”) will likely be long gone in 20 years (Go ahead and bookmark this post and come see me then if I’m wrong). Maybe when the company dies they’ll give you an exit plan to save your work or maybe they won’t. Even if you still have the files twenty years from now you won’t have a working app to open them with. Like those ZIP Disks in my basement, your best hope will be to have some old computers with the right app to be able to open them up and print them out.

Yes. Print. On paper. Why? Because, unlike your app, paper has a proven track record for lasting thousands of years if the conditions are right.

I still have the first piece of writing I ever published as a second grader in my elementary school newsletter because my Mom saved her mimeographed copy of it and gave it to me a few years ago. And, you know what? Unlike any of the digital formats I mentioned, I’ll be able to show it to my grandkids and they’ll be able to show it to theirs.

So please, I implore you, if you insist on journaling using any digital tool, please also regularly print what you are writing. Stick it somewhere cool and dry. Even print a couple of copies and put one somewhere offsite for extra security. If you really want to preserve this important history, and you really care about it, you’ll print it.

Or, you could save yourself a lot of trouble and just simply get a good notebook and write by hand. Use good paper. Use good ink. It’ll last for generations. The Library of Congress has a good guide on paper preservation worth checking out. But, even with none of those things, most paper should last hundreds of years if undisturbed.

Dime Store Thriller

There was a time, in a distant past, when books filled the void for many that phones fill today — on the go escape. Many titles were offered in these dime store editions. Action, adventure, romance! Small, thin, portable, and cheap. Easy to slip into a jacket pocket, briefcase, or purse. Text and spacing reduced to the bare minimum in order to pack a lot of reading into as small a footprint as possible.

Perhaps, we should get back to this. Penguin has tried something bold, releasing a series of books by author John Green and a handful of others as “Penguin Minis” — a line designed to be pocket-ish (if not a bit too thick). That said, I’m not sure YA is the best genre or audience for such a thing. But, I give them a a for effort.

Bottom line is I’d love to see more publishers take a stab at resurrecting this idea. Not sure it will make it into my rotation soon but I’ll be taking this along with me to read again and will be on the lookout for others like this in the little free libraries around town.