Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Babylon, Baldwin and Exile

"[white/european americans] they come through Ellis Island, where Giorgio becomes Joe, Pappavasilu becomes Palmer, Evangelos becomes Evans, Goldsmith becomes Smith or Gold, and Avakian becomes King. So with a painless change of name in the twinkling of an eye one becomes a white American.
Later, in the midnight hour, the missing identity aches. One can neither assess nor overcome the storm of the middle passage, One is mysteriously shipwrecked forever, in the Great New World.
The slave is in another condition, as are his heirs: I told Jesus it would be all right/ If he changed my name.
If He changed my name.
The Irish middle passage, for but one example was as foul as my own, and as dishonorable on the part of those responsible for it. But the Irish became white when they got here and began rising in the world, whereas I became black and began sinking. The Irish, therefor and thereafter-- again, but for one example -- had absolutely no choice but to make certain that I coult not menace their safety or status or identity: and, if I came too close, they could, with the concent of the governed, kill me. Which means that we can be friendly with each other anywhere in the world except in Boston.
What a monumental achievement on the part of those heroes who conquered the North American wilderness!
The price the white American paid for his ticket was to become white: and in the main, nothing more than that, or as he was to insist, nothing less. This incredibly limited not to say dimwitted ambition has choked many a human being to death here: and this, I contend, is because the white American has never accepted the real reasons for his journey. I know very well that my ancestors had no desire to come to this place: but neither did the ancestors of the people who became white and require of my captivity a song. They require of me a song less to celebrate my captivity than to justify their own."

-James Baldwin, Introduction: The Price of The Ticket

This is the end to the introduction written by James Baldwin that precedes of a compilation of his work. In this passage Baldwin is contending that the privilege of european descended (white) Americans is that they are able to come to this country and change their names so that they become white, immediately. And through the ease at which they assume white privilege they forget their own history, their own exile from their home country. The last sentences reference psalm 137, originated from the Jewish exile from Judea to Babylon in 586 BCE.

Direct Psalm:
"By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, we also wept when we remembered Zion.
On willows in its midst we hung our harps.
For there our captors asked us for words of song and our tormentors [asked of us] mirth, "Sing for us of the song of Zion."
"How shall we sing the song of the Lord on foreign soil?" -Psalm 137, Judaica Press Translation

Within recent years this psalm has become a song that not only permeates both Jewish and Christian worship but has been covered by Bob Marley, Sublime, The Melodians and many others...

Song Lyrics, from which the Baldwin Quote seems to be directly derived:
"By the rivers of babylon, where we sat down,
and where we wept,as we remembered zion.
and the wicked carried us away in captivity
required of us a song.
How can we sing the lord's [king alfa] song in a strange land"

Baldwin criticizes white america for not examining themselves, and their own history, for he believes that societal change in America must not come from the black population but from a true examination of how white people constructed and forced black america into creation. In the end he says:

"I know very well that my ancestors had no desire to come to this place: but neither did the ancestors of the people who became white and require of my captivity a song."

he asks, how can the people who are also in exile forget their own history so well that they request a song from me in my exile? It is because of the way that european immigrants, and their decedents can so easily assume american whiteness that they are able to forget that they too are part of the exile, they too are separated from their lands, and they forget what it means to be separated and so they ask that the black population perform, and prove themselves, despite the fact that they, the white population never had to prove themselves, the color of their skin and their assumed white name was enough. Black people cannot assume that whiteness, they cannot change into it by assuming a white name and stepping onto american soil, it is there. White americans can forget their history. So Baldwin asks us to remember that history, and consider what we are asking of him, someone who was never given the privilege to assume that whiteness (and along with white privilege: power, access, etc)...

Baldwin asks us to examine the ways that we have created the system that has forced him into oppression...

Coincidentally the recent Hampshire Divestment from the Occupation of Palestine has forced me into an examination of my history that I was always privileged to be able to ignore before, as my blond hair and lack of strong amherst based religious connection allowed me to pass in some ways as a christian american... or at least to ignore the ways that my jewish identity impacts me

My family changed their name when they came to this country, my fathers grandfather, in the 1910s changed his name to 'horwitz' which in that time did not assume complete white privilege, although of course white skin meant white privilege and white status. However, the name was identifiable as a jewish name, which still carried with it some weight. Which continued as anti-semitism did and still does (although on a much more minor level) exist in society for a period of time. And in the era of post-holocaust fear that my father and uncle were born into they were given middle names that they could use as last names to protect themselves from having to keep that jewish identifier. And yet, had they ever had to modify their names in that way they would have picked up the white privilege that Baldwin talks about. And as time progressed, they, as do I, assumed that white privilege. The marker of the Jewish last name has no negative connotations, and can often carry benefits, I never fear using my name... and only occasionally fear outing myself as a Jew...
But I also never forget about my exile. My people, the jewish people were a people living in exile and were for almost 2000 years, and many still are. This is not to say that I as a jew intend to return to the holy land, nor do I believe that all jews should. But it is to say that I do feel my exile in the sense that I feel a yearning and pain to connect to my former land.

When I was in Israel we went to Jerusalem for the sabbath, and as I walked through the old city to the Wall (the only remnant of a time before the second and final exile) I felt at home, I felt that I was no longer in exile, I felt a place where I could belong. And a place that had been promised to me by the community I grew up in. And so I continue to struggle with how I live out my jewish identity... it becomes a balancing act between my yearn for my promised home land, a rational that says no people have more right to a land than any other people do, and an anger that boils within me for the way that my people have treated the Palestinian people. I do not know if I am still a zionist, I do not know if I will ever return to Israel, I am not a jewish nationalist, and I do not believe that all jewish people should return to the land, but I do know that "Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it". So without my homeland to sing in, I stand across the river, in babylon, in my exile and sing to my history, so that I might not forget, and so that god might not forget me. But I am sure that in my 19 years I have forgotton my history, and my exile? I ask myself not only how to realize what I already have done, but also how to avoid forgetting history and my yearning song again. How do I prevent them from becoming the weapon that Baldwin is subjected to? How do I prevent myself from asking Baldwin to sing for me in his exile?

"If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget [its skill].
May my tongue cling to my palate, if I do not remember you, if I do not bring up Jerusalem at the beginning of my joy."

Final Project Proposal - Indigenous Politics of Latin America


For my final paper I want to analyze how western media portrays indigenous culture and how that has created the “need to save mentality” on a governmental and personal level. Indigenous people of all nations and continents are brought to the US in the form of National Geographic, and other media sources, with painted faces and cultural practices that we fail to understand; we place indigenous people into the category of incompetent. US government has time and time again attempted to play the role of super heroes and save the undeveloped from themselves; this culture of US imperialism has contributed to the creation of a mindset that we must save the “other” people. This mindset has progressed to the point where it has almost become a right of passage to travel to Latin America to conduct community service. This rise in “aid tourism” has become a way by which westerners, and especially white westerners can attempt to eliminate their guilt and come away feeling good about themselves. This tourism has impacted indigenous communities in both negative and positive ways.
The project will be based on analyses of media imagery in television and magazines of indigenous Latin American Cultures, as well as examinations of various United States based government and non-government based organizations that travel to indigenous communities. I intend to investigate US government policies in Latin America and study the history of where those policies are rooted. In the end I will examine how different organizations have effectively and ineffectively operated within indigenous communities and what impact those efforts have had on the indigenous communities.

What is the impact of western aid tourism on indigenous communities?
How has the US government/media system created the savior mentality?
Who actually is helped by these organizations?
What kind of “help” do westerners bring to indigenous communities, is this actual help?
Do western organizations have a right to give aid in these communities?
How can westerners and western organizations work within communities in a way that respects and preserves them?

Thoughts? Sources for me to check out?

Saturday, February 21, 2009


When I was a kid I used to draw maps of israel from memory, in my binders, on my notes in classes. The land stood for me like a promise, a promise of a homeland, somewhere that I could belong.
What do I do when my homeland betrays me?
I feel like my land and my people have betrayed me, left me high and dry and defensive. How do I explain this to my friends, where do I put my reluctant loyalty. What do I do when my values and my land go from being one in the same to opposing forces???

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Operations of Western Privilege in Latin America

The relationship between the west, and specifically the United States and Latin America is a particularly strange one. Starting very early on the American Government mandated that European entities were not allowed to touch Latin American meanwhile the US had the right to go into and interfere in all Latin American countries. Throughout the year CIA sponsored coups have removed countless democratically elected leaders from power, assisted in the assassinations of others, and essentially reeked havoc on the continent to the south of our artificially constructed borders.

On a micro scale US citizens seem to be miniatures of their parents (the government) and now head into Latin American countries in an effort to "save" the poor people of those countries. I myself am guilty of this, in 2006 I traveled to Nicaragua to build a school, and this summer I am heading back to create a documentary about the organization Build-On. I have mixed feelings about the ways that I am involved in community service projects abroad. On the one hand I believe it is a duty of my privilege to share what I can with others, especially with manual labor when I cannot contribute funds, nor do i believe throwing money at a problem makes it go away. On the flip side, as an outsider to a culture and an area I cannot possibly be equipped to asses theirproblems, and therefore I cannot possibly meet all of their needs, nor should i feel the right to 'save' a people who do not need to be, or wish to be 'saved'. I believe that buildOn does good work, and I fundamentally agree with the mission of the organization, which is why I wanted to make this documentary. However, I have been struggling internally with these issues for a good deal of time now and a friend brought them to the forefront when they asked me the following questions.

"I think many times well intentioned westerners go into developing nations. They get to do volunteer work for a month or a year and then feel good about themselves. Have you thought about what it means to go someplace else to help "those poor people"? How can westerners help people in developing countries without the underlying prsumption that they know what the other people need? How do you make sure that people maintain contorl over how thier homelands are developed? How do white people remain respectful of the fact that this is not your home?"

I intend to go into the research segment of my documentary with these questions in mind. I have started to work out answers, and started to compile reading lists that may help me arrive at answers or may push me into further confusion. Either way as I work on this documentary I intend to bring to highlight the ways in which white people interact with Latin America (and other developing countries, but for my purposes and knowledge base, Latin America) and how or if they should interact in a way that would reap more benefits for all involved.

more entries to come as I continue to parse out that block of questions/begin work on the documentary. I am looking for feed back and insights into these questions as well, does anyone have an answer? does anyone know of good resources?

I chose to include these pictures because I feel they show two distinct ways that Americans interact with latin America in a direct basis, the first is one of my trek-mates taking a picture of one of the little boys in our villages. Not that taking pictures of the people you just spent two weeks with is bad, but often times these photos (not from my trip specifically but western photography in general) end up being exploitative and used to evoke emotions of 'o, that poor brown baby'...

The second picture is of me, my morning ritual in the village was to launch into my latest book, which at that time was "Lullaby" by Chuck Palahniuk. While this only lasted about 30 minutes in the morning it was my way of de-stressing and coping with the language immersion. However, looking in this picture I also see an American (and by American i mean US citizen because Latin America is in fact part of the American continents) oblivious to the world around them. Absorbed in a book...

Friday, February 13, 2009

Because I am a jew...

Because I am a jew, I signed the petition for the divestment from the occupation of palestine.
Because I am a jew, I learned to respect my father, my mother and my history.
Because I am a jew, I feel the ghettoization of people who are "dangerous to us" sounds a little too familiar for me to support.
Because I am a jew, I learned jewish values that told me to respect the stranger.
Because I am a jew, I learned to value all life.
Because I am a jew, I learned to spill my wine in respect to the pain of others.
Because I am a jew, I learned to pray that one day ALL people will be free.

Just because I am a jew does not mean I am a zionist, and just because I am a jew does not mean that I support the actions of the Israeli government and the occupation of the NATION of Palestine. Hampshire College, the institution at which I currently attend school, recently made the decision (after months of petitioning from student groups, primarily Students for Justice in Palestine) to divest from companies who are benefiting from the occupation in Palestine.
I have been thinking a lot about my identity as a jew and the way that it is torn up. I was raised in between reconstructionist libralism, conservative movements, and liberal, activist, socialist zionism. I grew up learning that arabs were bad, wanted to blow us up and destroy my family. I grew up thinking that the arabs and muslims that I knew were simply the exception to the rule... And then I realized that they were not, and one day I saw a movie that reminded me that Palestinians were people too. Perhaps it should not have taken me till I was so old to realize this, however, the propaganda within the jewish community is deep. I grew up and my heros were the zionists that founded the state of israel... I grew up hoping that one day I would go to Israel. And I went to Israel, and they told us look- there is an arab village, and there is a jewish village. And they told us that rubber bullets can't hurt. But rubber bullets do hurt, and they neglected to mention that while Jews in Jerusalem are living a 1st world life, arabs in Gaza are living in the third world. They showed us a rocket fired into an israeli village, but neglected to mention the Palestinian children dead because the hospitals are inadequate, the water of poor quality and the living conditions terrible.
I live in a world of mixed feelings over my jewish identity, I balance a desire to re-learn my hebrew and reconnect with my people, and a deep hatred and resentment for my people who I feel have turned the other cheek while the Israeli government puts Palestinians into ghettos...
WE CAME FROM GHETTOS, from spain to germany to poland to russia, we came from ghettos, our people have been locked up and pushed out, disenfranchised for 2000 years, and yet, as soon as we get the upper hand we turn around and lock innocent people up behind big thick walls designed not to protect or help them, but to "save" us from them. We have turned our backs on members of the human race, and the words that come out of our mouths echo the sentiments of the third reich.
When we learned about the Holocaust in hebrew school we read about the Sneetches, the sneetches is a classic Dr Suess book about the division between the plain belly sneetches and the star belly sneetches. In the end, after capitalist driven exploitation they learn that it doesn't matter if you have a plain belly or a start belly, that all sneetches are the "best on the beaches". So I learned that money talks and all people are equal, and divestment (no matter the statement an administration makes) talks, and divestment matters. And because I am a jew, and because I grew up with "jewish" values, I signed the petition for Hampshire College to divest from the occupation in Israel. And because I am a jew, I am extremely proud of my institution for divesting.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Sex Bodies Shame

The moment you pop out and the doctor sees a vagina you are put on this conveyor belt to femininity, and ultimately sex… because isn’t that what the patriarchy is all about, maintaining women for sex, as objects. Young girls are waiting to become objects. Everyday all children are bombarded by media. They are the primary target of the media, they move from dolls to barbies to magazines.
After all, even with the most progressive parents you learn things on the “street”. I learned what sex was when I was very young, and when I learned that sex was bad, I also learned what it was to be forced into sex. Regardless of the innocent nature of child sexual play, by the time I was 6 I had developed shame. Shame over my body, and shame over my sexuality. And then I forgot…
Then I learned that sex could produce a baby, and that when a woman was a grown up she would get married and go on her honeymoon. On her honeymoon sex would occur and then she would have a baby. I learned this in a dark basement, and I emerged that day knowing how life would be…
But then I learned shame again… I learned shame because young kids laugh when they think about private parts, because they have learned shame too. And then I learned shame when I felt cornered by the boy in the doorway at school. I learned shame from big boys teasing me, and I learned shame from feeling unsafe as men examined my body. Even with clothes I felt cornered when ever my body was looked at, if I was hit on, or hollered at.
And then one day, I learned pride. I learned about how a woman could be sexy, and all of the sudden it was like someone had lifted the chains of shame and allowed me to be free…
Young girls poor into media imagery of sex because it is nice to be relieved of the shame that comes with a female body. When boys are being taught to show more of their bodies, for example removing a shirt to reveal a bare chest, girls are taught to hide their bodies,
“put your shirt back on,
girls have to wear shirts,
your cousins are boys,
boys don’t have to wear shirts”

Girls are taught that their bodies are shameful, to cover up, cower and hide.

My own body is a mystery, and my own body is fluid… and my current body has a mix of pride and shame…
… what if all our bodies were allowed to be fluid from birth? How would it change the way that we perceive bodies, gender and sex?