Teju Cole

What we see is an apparently uncomplicated scene of urban leisure on a Thursday afternoon, but all of this is happening in a historical context, and in the shadow of economic uncertainty… Some of the people are here because they’re out of work. You could say to yourself: New York City is an astonishingly diverse place, but we see around us all kinds of evidence of segregation: white students from NYU, and black women of a certain age working as nannies for white babies. We are looking at the American reality under an overlay of innocence…

This city, like many others, is a space that has been pre-inhabited, that contains the stories of people who are gone, who are vanished. We look at their inscriptions and we engage with their monuments, and we walk along their paths: every time you walk down Broadway, you’re walking along an ancient cattle path that was put down by Native Americans who then had an appalling encounter with European invaders and were more or less wiped out. But we still walk down their roads. And those roads themselves, and many of those buildings, were built by slave labor in this city, by people not only whose lives have been erased from the record, but whose deaths, in a way, have been erased from the record. Only recently was the burial grounds of the slaves rediscovered. And even then, most of that burial ground is covered with office buildings now. There’s this essential mystery of life in the city: it contains others who are not us in the present time — I’m not you and you’re not me, maybe we don’t live in the same neighborhood — but it also contains others who are not us, in the sense that so much of it was made by those others.

Teju Cole with Chris Lydon in Washington Square Park, New York City, May 12, 2011.



Political cowardice

Mike Farell on Troy Davis and political cowardice:  http://www.truthdig.com/avbooth/item/tdr_report_20110915/

This case is an embarrassment to the American people in the eyes of the international community.  Rick Perry is of this cohort, not realizing that an international Texas goodwill trip to Asia means nothing if he does nothing to prevent innocent people to be executed in his own state.

Loving v. Virginia, 1967

Mildred and Richard Loving

Laws that tell us who we can and can’t marry have existed long before the same-sex marriage issue even entered people’s minds.  Mildred and Richard Loving, a Virginia couple in the 1960s, married in DC in order to avoid the ban on interracial marriage in Virginia.  Not only did VA laws nullify interracial marriage and make it impossible to begin with, there was also a provision that treated any attempt to marry in another state a criminal offense.  Police officers burst into the couple’s home trying to catch them in the act of having sex, since interracial sex was also a crime at the time, needless to say.

In Loving v. Virginia in 1967, the Supreme Court finally overturned Virginia’s earlier statutes against interracial marriage on the grounds that they violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Court concluded that “the freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men. Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival.”

Hallelujah, here’s a solid precedent for same-sex marriage, right?  Freedom to marry as an essential right set forth in the Declaration?  Not so.  As some New Yorkers may remember, the New York Court of Appeals ruled in 2006 against using the Loving v. Virginia case a basis for same-sex marriage because the Supreme Court had stated in their ruling that marriage is “fundamental” to “existence and survival”, which points to procreation as the foundation of marriage.

Hmm.  So I guess love isn’t the basis of marriage, but making babies.  Shouldn’t proponents of heterosexual marriages then direct as much attention to married couples who choose not to have children?

The more I read about law in the United States, the more I see its power and its limits in expanding civil rights and creating a more just society.  Dockets are built slowly over the course of years and even decades.  It’s a fundamentally conservative process – an English litigator from the 17th century would probably be able to follow trial procedures that happen today.  A never-ending debate that occurs via incremental battles, and so many that the public are never aware of.

It was only in 2000 that Alabama amended their organic law through referendum to remove the ban on interracial marriage.  Jesus.  The dark days weren’t that long ago.  What was once taken for granted just a few decades ago is now morally reprehensible and backward, and only then through the back-breaking work of civil rights activists and all their supporters.  It makes me wonder what we’re doing now that our grandchildren will look back on and wish we had done differently.

Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square

My mom brought home a discarded videotape from work years ago, when I was a freshman in high school.  On the tape was Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square, a documentary short and autobiography of Wong Shui Bo, a Chinese artist who grew up in China from the 60s-80s.

The tape has since been lost in the re-shuffling of our house, and I’ve always thought of looking for it.  I remember being struck by the narrator’s measured cadence, combined with images of his artwork, and stark photographs of Mao’s China.  Half animation, half documentary, it was a beautiful and powerful thing to watch.

Lo and behold, a 2 minute search reveals the film available online in its entirety.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Mao Zedong and recent Chinese history, having just finished Jung Chang’s biography.  There’s more to think about here – about how superpowers in general are created, almost inevitably through violence, and how they are sustained.  I’ve been thinking that calling people monsters and evil just lets them off the hook.  And lets everyone else who collaborated with them off the hook too.  How appropriate is retroactive moral judgment?  Some answers, more questions.


Currently reading an biography of Mao by Jung Chang.  I remember when it first came out in 2005.  I remember thinking that the cover and title seemed a bit sensationalist, but then again, there’s no other way to justly tell the biography of Mao without hyperbole – unexaggerated hyperbole at that.  The man was directly responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese people – apparently still China’s inexhaustible resource.  And the party line to this day is still “Mao was 70% right, 30% wrong.”

Mao’s indisputable monstrosity aside, the authors of the book seem to have a personal vendetta against the regime that makes me not trust its sources.  The tone felt a bit too  Michael Moore-ish, so to speak.  The London Review of Books has a pretty thorough review of the book that points out its weaknesses in detail.

Chinese history is daunting because there’s so much information that is still suppressed.  Transparency, or at least the right to demand it, is such a precious thing.

In any case, this book has created a visceral feeling of repulsion in me for this man – yet also a strange fascination.  We’re transfixed by monsters, aren’t we?  Yet disgusted at the same time.  I really want to read a history of Soviet Russia and Stalin now.