Wednesday, December 21, 2011

It's Hard Down Here (a poem for Advent)

Holy, holy, holy!
Lord God Almighty!
Now might be a good time to say
we miss you in the worst kind of way,
'cause it's hard down here--
hard, I tell you!

Holy, holy, holy!
All the saints adore thee,
throwing down Crown Royal every night
in crystal glasses filled with ice.
We drink 'cause it's hard down here--
hard, I tell you!

Holy, holy, holy!
Though the darkness hide thee,
we come bowed down with grief,
barnyard shepherds in need of relief.
See, 'cause it's hard down here--
hard, I tell you!

Holy, holy, holy!
Merciful and mighty,
have mercy on us who thirst for this--
peace and justice joined with a kiss.
It's just so hard down here--
hard, I tell you!

Holy, holy, holy!
Lord God Almighty!
Oh! How we await thee,
'cause it's hard down here--
hard, I tell you!

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Common History

I just finished a powerful collection of poetry by Natasha Trethewey called Native Guard. Her poems are haunting, filled with the paradoxical beauty and brutality of the South as experienced both historically and personally. In addition to her content, I love that many of her poems have more formal structure than the free verse that I'm used to reading.

Her collection is also dear to me because it adds one more elegant voice to the relatively few who tell the story of what it means to be biracial in America, particularly in the South. Though she was born in a much different, much harder time than me, there is nevertheless overlap in our stories. One of my favorites from the collection is below:

Southern History

Before the war, they were happy, he said,
quoting our textbook. (This was senior-year

history class.) The slaves were clothed, fed,
and better off under a master's care.

I watched the words blur on the page. No one
raised a hand, disagreed. Not even me.

It was late; we still had Reconstruction
to cover before the test, and -- luckily --

three hours of watching Gone with the Wind.
History, the teacher said, of the old South --

a true account of how things were back then.
On screen a slave stood big as life: big mouth,

bucked eyes, our textbook's grinning proof -- a lie
my teacher guarded. Silent, so did I.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Pillow Frame

I am driving, cutting
through fields of sorghum
and soybean, but
all I can see is the dying
day fire, glowing behind
clouds pink and blue,
a familiar hue,
like pillow shadows
framing your face flushed
and drunk after
making love.

Monday, June 13, 2011

On Hip-Hop Salvation

I think part of what is interesting about [The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao] is that it just takes the idiom of hip-hop as a given. And a lot of times in hip-hop literature, they make a big fuckin’ deal out of it. The thing is, once you single it out as an element or as an aesthetic, I think there’s a problem. For me, as someone who grew up in this world just listening to it, we had this understanding that it was just normal. It wasn’t something you became fanatical about, it was just a part of everyday life. Hip-hop for us wasn’t like “hip-hop is life,” it was just normative, man. I thought that that was what was really important in Oscar Wao. I wanted to make the hip-hopness of the book normative, and not something that was sensational. Which I think is very important, because one of the things that happens with this economic shift in hip-hop from a local market to an international brand is that they were really trying to push people into becoming this sensational lifestyle, this almost pseudo-religious practice. And when we were coming up in the Eighties, it wasn’t like that, man. You loved hip-hop, that was that. But you didn’t think of hip-hop as this salvation. Now there’s a lot of corporate money in getting young people to embrace hip-hop in ways that would seem very strange to a lot of people from my era. If you took kids from 1986, 1987 and time-traveled them to right now, I think they would find some of the ways that people are like “hip-hop is religion” or “hip-hop explains the universe” really weird. It was meant to be an organic part of people’s lives, it wasn’t meant to replace people’s lives.
-- Junot Diaz

The rest of his interview with Stop Smiling can be found here. Thanks to John Pattison for passing this on a couple years back.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Lesser Jihad

Do you remember when your friends and family could walk with you all the way to the gate at the airport and give you a hug just seconds before you boarded your flight?

Do you remember when you didn't have to take off your shoes or submit to naked X-ray pictures going through the security line?

If you have darker complexion and a beard like me, do you remember when you could read the Qur'an on a flight without worrying about whether the other folks in your row thought?

Do you remember when the government did not have permission to tap our phones by reason of the Patriot Act?

Do you remember when we at least pretended McCarthyite witchhunts were a bad thing? (Please follow the link and take time to read some of the comments)

Do you remember when the the most infamous Cuban body of water in American history was not Guantánamo, but the Bay of Pigs?

Do you remember when we didn't care much about our president's middle name or want to see copies of his birth certificate?

Do you remember?

I still maintain that fighting and defeating political and/or religious enemies is the lesser jihad. As has always been, the greater jihad is defeating the enemy within ourselves.

Our own prejudices and predilection for injustice do not hide in locked down bunkers in northeastern Pakistan, but instead flaunt themselves in sensational newspaper headlines and viral email forwards about the danger of shari'ah law overturning the constitution. These are the poisonous fruit of a flourishing tree of fear-mongering and hate that has deep roots in the psyche of our country, and ultimately in each one of our hearts.

I pray that we will have the courage to fight the greater jihad. As-salamu `alayna.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

אלי אלי למה עזבתני

Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

This is not a rhetorical question, the answer to which is already known.

This is not an interrogative question, the answer to which can be stated clearly.

This is a cry of deep pain and despair, for which there are simply no words.

When our care for loved ones stirs a desire in us to say something--anything--to try and ease the fire of unfathomable pain, we would do well to remember God's initial response was silence.

In that silence, resurrection power had time to speak louder than words.

Let us consider carefully our response to other people's suffering. Very rarely are the answers that fit into words sufficient.

Monday, April 4, 2011


are watching me
on bustling campus walkways pulled
toward rooms of drab florescent bulbs,
inducing convalescent lull.
As I lay me down to sleep
and rise again to coffee need,
they're watching me bemusedly.

are calling me
with wedding bells aloft and ringing,
from window sills where doves are winging
through heavens rent apart with singing.
Laughing in the yard, they are
a choir of love for all the parts
I've hidden in the closet's dark.

are urging me
to look their way and witness how
they walk the line but don't allow
their consciences to weigh them down.
Floating on the midnight sea,
they have not ceased condemning me,
nor will they heed my guilty plea.

are keeping me
from resting in peace.

Monday, January 31, 2011


Editor's Note:I am aware that all of the links below are from one news source. I must plead laziness and my inability to gauge my small readership's reactions to using news sources like Al-Jazeera. Nonetheless, the links are good topical starting points from which you can search for coverage in other media.

I am in no way advocating violence, rioting, or looting. However, if you have not been able to keep up with the news lately, big things are afoot in several parts of the world right now. Of course, the events garnering the most media coverage are the mass protests in Tunisia (which resulted in the abdication of a president and subsequent governmental collapse/reshuffling) and Egypt (the results of which are still to be determined).

Before those events, things were already heating up in Lebanon with the collapse of the unity government and angry protests in the street after Hezbollah legally forced the ouster of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of assassinated former premier Rafik Hariri. In addition to Egypt, the Tunisia protests have also had a milder ripple effect in Yemen and Jordan.

As I said, big things are afoot. Again making a disclaimer that I do not support violent protests, I want to publicly confess that the recent events stir a certain amount of enthusiasm in me. Why?

Because change can happen.

Change is happening.

While I am immensely grateful for the freedom of speech that allows me to keep this blog and express any opinion that I want, I at the same time get tired of how much us Americans confine ourselves to whining in the ethereal world of the internet. We use our Facebook status updates to complain about what we see as faulty legislation. Many of these people are using Facebook to compel thousands of people to hit the streets in protest.

There seems to be a wide gap in our usage between the words "social" and "media". We don't mind the media part, giving our own views a venue or letting our media personalities carry the "conversation" (ha!) forward. But what about the social part? The actual mobilization of people to come together to do something in society? Why are Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart organizing our political rallies?

Again, I do not overlook the fact that Americans have the right to exercise their freedom of speech. Where I currently live, it is impossible to access this blog without using certain software, and none of my friends here have heard the faintest inkling about what is going on in Tunisia and Egypt. I am very grateful for our right to assemble and exercise free speech.

In fact, that's my point. Let's use those rights! Do you know how much we could accomplish if we spent half as much time getting to know our neighbors and brainstorming ways to make grassroots changes as we did listening to political commentators or watching "Jersey Shore"?

And in case you are hesitant to embrace such activist enthusiasm because of the tinge of violence in most of the above reports, please take note that the media has given much less coverage to what appears to be the largely peaceful dawning of a new age for the people of Sudan.

Hope is founded on the potential for change. It's time that we tapped that potential.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Short Commentary on Selective Memory in the Pursuit of Empire

For background on the following, join in the conversation on my friend's blog about the new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which replaces the epithet "nigger" with "slave". Please note that when I critique empire, I am not critiquing a singular party or movement, but rather the entire American project that rests on the lingering idea of Manifest Destiny. The following is a slightly elongated revision of the comment I left in response to the above post:

Empires thrive on the rewriting of history, and in its short history the United States has shown itself to be adept at this exercise. The problem with the word nigger is not that it’s an ugly spot in our history we don’t want to look at. The problem is that it is a reminder that a previous injustice was in large measure remedied (and that only a generation ago), and thus there is power in the populace to continue effecting change within the structures of empire. Such reminders are dangerous in the extreme and to be avoided at all cost.

From the days that slavery was abolished, the word nigger was used to keep ideological chains on so many black Americans who either transitioned to the semi-slavery of sharecropping or migrated to the cities of the North. Physical violence was paired with these verbal chains in order to communicate one message: “You may have been freed from slavery, but don’t think that EVERYTHING is going to change. White people are still in charge.”

The battle over vocabulary is a battle over imagination. If a country where the word nigger could not be used with impunity was imagined and then realized, why not imagine a country where Latino students can critically examine history from a minority perspective without being accused of sedition?

Such imagination cannot be given room to grow, so the solution is to get rid of words and stories that serve as touchstones of communal memory, which in turn is the foundation for communal transformation. There are two main options to be rid of such words and stories. The first option is to co-opt them. Think of how Martin Luther King Day fixes in time the nation's victory over its own weakness of racism, rather than propagating Dr. King's radical critique of the military-industrial complex and economic inequality.

The second option is simply to delete such troublesome words and stories. Czech author Milan Kundera illustrates this well in a passage from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It's not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories rewritten.

It is this latter option which the well-intentioned professor and editor of the newest censored version of Twain's novel unwittingly chooses with his attempts to make the work more accessible to young readers.

Goodbye, “nigger” – you and all the power (good or bad) in your utterance belong to the past, not the future.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


Yesterday afternoon on my way home delicate snow crystals gently dusted the sidewalk. Due to the dry climate, it rarely snows here in the lower altitudes (7000 feet), so I didn't think much of it. A few hours later I emerged from the front door to find that it was still snowing, a tiny layer had accumulated on the surface of the roads, sidewalks, trees, and bricks.

I know the last part of that list is kind of odd, but bricks are really quite a phenomenon here. Because there is never-ending construction in Chinese cities, and particularly in our slightly rundown Eastside part of town, there are often building materials piled all over the place. Our part of town additionally features many piles of rubble of the hundreds of houses and tiny storefronts that are being demolished to make way for "development". I noticed as I was walking last night that the thin layer of snow blanketing the piles of brick rubble gave them the eerie feeling of ruins.

Apart from those ruins of the recent past, everything else looked new. Even as I was walking, I knew it was temporary. Soon the tread of boots, the trace of dogs, and the dim neon of drunken urination would sully the shallow purity glowing around me. Nonetheless, it was a fitting sight for the start of another year.

As I was walking around 7 p.m. on the first day of the year in China, the denizens of American Samoa were ringing in 2011 in whatever style Samoans celebrate. Except for two tiny Pacific islands on the very edge of the international date line, practically the entire world was artificially united by our clumsy demarcations of time. For all the disharmony in this world of ours, those few moments still descend upon us in which we feel that, somehow, there is a chance for a new start. It is in these moments where we are faced with a difficult question - do we dare to hope?

I am looking forward to and hoping for some things in this new year:

*Scoring respectably on my first national Chinese proficiency exam
*Securing a longish term residence here in Western China
*Taking concrete steps toward the completion of a significant writing project
*Attending the weddings of two of my favorite people (Natalie Ray and Alexis Harmon)
*Learning how to cook at least five Chinese dishes
*Losing enough weight to wear red leather pants
*Thinking better of wearing red leather pants
*Ending my five year absence from New York City
*Attending a Food for Thought reunion of some sort
*Talking to kids who were just babies when I left the States
*Writing and recording at least three songs

There are of course many more things that could be on this list, but I wanted to leave room to tell you that if you are reading this I am most likely more grateful for your friendship than you realize. As I'm cresting 30, sleeping in a bunk bed and still in school without letters behind my name, I have become certain that I will never have much in the way of money. But there is this - I am well loved and feel rich beyond measure. I pray that you may all be rich in love in 2011!