Sunday, March 29, 2009

Book Reviews: In The Time of the Butterflies

A few weeks ago I spent the evening (and a lot of the night!) rereading Julia Alvarez's In the Time of the Butterflies. I had forgotten how devastating and amazing this book is.

In the Time of the Butterflies tells a fictionalized version of the lives of the Mirabal sisters -- Patria, Minerva and María Teresa -- who were assassinated for their resistance to Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo on November 25th 1960, when they were killed on a lonely mountain pass on the way home from visiting their incarcerated husbands. Alvarez's retelling begins in the 1930s when the sisters are very young and switches the point of view of each chapter to a different Mirabal sister, including Dedé Mirabal, the only sister still alive. Alvarez emphasizes the humanity of these women who have become larger-than-life figures -- María Teresa is only 10 when her first chapter begins. She tells her Little Book:
"I don't know if you realize how advanced I am for my age? ... I knew how to read before I even started school! ... My penmanship is also very pretty as you will have noticed. I've won the writing prize twice, and I would have this week, too, but I decided to leave some i's undotted. It doesn't help with the other girls if you are best all the time."
From childhood scribblings to the retellings of their imprisonment, gun-smuggling, near misses with Trujillo, and eventual deaths, Alvarez's book is beautiful and absolutely devastating. It reminds me of Kelly Tsai's poem, "Little Red Books:"
"my friend signs off all his emails / siempre luchando / paz y revolucion / as if the two were possible / peace and revolution / as if bloodless wars didn't still tear psyches apart / change hurts / living it is hard / we've got to be ready / if we decide to / zhan qi lai / stand up / zhan qi lai / zhan qi lai."
It's easy to deify activists like the Mirabals. It's easy to glorify their actions and call for a revolution, but we do them a disservice by forgetting their humanity and the horror of what they went through in the backlash to their actions. In her postscript, Alvarez says:
"What you will find here are the Mirabals of my creation, made up but, I hope, true to the spirit of the real Mirabals... For I wanted to immerse my readers in an epoch in the life of the Dominican Republic that I believe can only finally be understood by fiction, only finally be redeemed by the imagination. A novel is not, after all, a historical document, but a way to travel through the human heart."
I feel like this is the moral calling of great fiction and poetry -- to demonstrate the passion, terror, devastation, humanity and beauty in historical events that have been trammeled into bloodless factoids of banal, dispassionate textbooks.

A few months ago while looking for a book for my students to read that month I was struck by the inability of kids biographies to make their subjects passionate, interesting and human to their readers. My students and I had just finished reading Twelve Rounds to Glory, which is an illustrated biography of Muhammad Ali written in poetry. It fucking rocked because it was passionate and creative and talked seriously about racism and my students were friggin INTO IT. So I was looking for something similarly awesome and passionate about a woman of color for the next month, but nooOOOooo. Everything was stale non-fiction bore-the-pants off you crap. And about awesome people like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman and Daisy Bates. I want fantastic kids biographiess about the Mirabals and Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldua. Imagine if, after talking to my boys about their sexist behavior and trying to convince them that girls are strong, we could all read a biography of the Mirabal sisters.

Boys Will Be Boys: Everyday Misogyny in the Classroom

So I tutor groups of exchange students at a school grades 5 through 9. As soon as I started working there, I noticed that it was 90% boys; however, most of my classes have (obviously) had only boys in them, so gender relations hasn't come up much. My class this semester, however, has 7 students, only 2 of whom are girls. (Two of the five in the entire school, mind you). The boys in this class will regularly refuse to sit next to the girls or to be on teams with them. They make faces and groan when I make them work together. At first I wasn't sure what to do exactly because of course the same thing happened to me when I was in school. I was just like "oh well, that's what kids do, they pretend that boys and girls have cooties."

But really, it's sexist and hurtful and I'm not having it. Maybe it's different in schools where the gender ratio is more balanced -- maybe it's not sexist then -- I'm not sure, I still have to think about it. But what has been going on in my classroom has certainly been a product of a misogynistic mindset. My students and I have talked extensively about race and racism this semester and the conversations we've had have been very productive and strongly felt. When responding to homophobic remarks I have explained to them that hating someone because they're gay is the same mindset as hating someone because of their race. I have to say that I haven't heard a single homophobic slur since. When I talked to them about the misogyny that's been going on I drew a similar parallel. I'm not sure that the main ringleader was much fazed, but the four other boys looked pretty abashed. And, as a teacher, if you can the followers on your side, you've already gone a long way towards controlling your troublemaker.

What would happen if teachers across the country started refusing to let boys ostracize girls simply for being female? What would happen if teachers started calling boys on being sexist and proactively taught their young students about the effects of sexism, racism and other prejudices? Not just as a history lesson mind you, but to say: "Here, we've learned about racism in the past. We've learned about Muhammad Ali and the Civil Rights Movement. Here are the ways that you are perpetuating the same hateful thinking in your own life. This is the way that fear of difference goes down in our classroom. How do you feel about it? What are you going to do about it?"

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Spoken Word Saturdays: Otep

Otep Shamaya performs "Dedicated to My Enemy" at the Def Poetry Jam

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Spoken Word Saturdays: Sunni Patterson

Sunni Patterson performs "We Know This Place" on Hip Hop Speaks

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Our Deplorable Immigration System

Today the Associated Press released a report conducted January 25th analysing the detention system for undocumented immigrants. The report shows that most immigrants who are currently detained have "no criminal conviction, not even for illegal entry or low-level crimes like trespassing." They also report that "More than 400 of those with no criminal record had been incarcerated for at least a year. A dozen had been held for three years or more; one man from China had been locked up for more than five years." This is despite a 2001 ruling by the Supreme Court that the ICE has six months to either deport or release people they've detained. You should really read the whole article though because it just gets more shocking.

Ask Obama to end the detention of immigrants, whether they are undocumented or not. Ask the rest of your elected officials to do the same. You may use my letter (below), if you like, or write your own.

Dear President Obama,

I campaigned for you in Missouri and it still makes me crazy happy to hear people on the radio say "President Obama." I'm glad to see that you've put a stop to the Global Gag Rule, created an office for Women's and Girls' Issues, and ordered the closure of Guantanamo Bay. I'm writing to you today to ask you to do something about the immigration system and particularly the detention system for immigrants.

The Associated Press reports that most immigrants who are currently detained have "no criminal conviction, not even for illegal entry or low-level crimes like trespassing." They also report that "More than 400 of those with no criminal record had been incarcerated for at least a year. A dozen had been held for three years or more; one man from China had been locked up for more than five years." This is outrageous! The article further reports that despite a 2001 ruling that ICE has only 6 months to either deport or release people they've detained, the ICE has flouted this deadline and held more than 900 people for longer than six months.

Our prison system is already bloated, abusive, and of questionable efficacy; it is shameful and condemnable that we are engorging the prison system by locking up folks who have committed no crime, just for being from out of town. When we lose our compassion and start locking up people just because they're different from us we have also lost our humanity.

Please do something to end this crisis in the immigration system. Please release those people who have been detained and never charged. Please release those people who have committed no crimes. Please allow those people who have committed low-level, non-violent crimes or misdemeanors access to bail. Please help those folks who are here undocumented to become documented and to learn English if necessary. Please stop the incarceration and deportation of undocumented people and children who have committed no crimes.

Thank you for your time. I look forward to your steps to end this deplorable situation. Here is the link to the article I'm referring to:


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Spoken Word Saturdays: Suheir Hammad

Suheir Hammad performs "First Writing Since" and the Def Poetry Jam.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Spoken Word Saturdays: Gina Loring

Gina Loring performs "Somewhere There is a Poem" at the Def Poetry Jam