Tagged: social justice

A love letter to Squirrel Hill

I loved Pittsburgh from the moment I stepped out of my parents’ mini-van for a tour of Pitt 13 years ago. The sun shone bright and high in the sky, and the Cathedral of Learning (still covered in soot back then), reached up to it as if in prayer. It felt like home already, though I’d only just arrived.

When I graduated four years later, the decision to stay was easy. By then I’d learned how precious those few sunny days were, how inadequate and frustrating the public transit was, how the neighborhoods were divided—segregated, essentially—by race. I stayed because, despite the negatives, despite the downsides, it still felt like home. I was young and thought, too, that maybe I could make things better. Not just in Pittsburgh, but the world.

I’ve never lived in Squirrel Hill, but I did and still do spend a lot of time there. As a student I spent countless Friday nights at the now-closed Barnes & Noble, spending what little money I had on books and more books. I wrote endless pages of terrible novels at the 61C Cafe, smoking clove cigarettes on the patio and watching the bright sunflowers nod in the breeze. And on late nights, studying or just escaping from the pain of a bad breakup or another rejection, I sat with my friends in Eat ‘n’ Park, drinking stale coffee and eating pie that tasted like cardboard, but the taste wasn’t the point anyway.

My favorite tea shop is in Squirrel Hill (Margaret’s), my favorite diner (Pamela’s—specifically the Squirrel Hill one), the best gaming store (Games Unlimited). I always find something delightful at The Exchange (the Star Wars soundtrack on 8 track, for example). My friends live there, and when out-of-town friends visit we meet up at 61C or Common Place. I spent two and a half years at Chatham, heading to the Squirrel Cage with friends after class for a stiff drink and literary dreaming.

In my boring adult life, I spend one Sunday a month in Squill (as we affectionately call it) pretending to be an X-Man with my nerd friends. We usually go out for a post-gaming dinner at Cafe 33, which is arguably the best Asian restaurant in the whole damn city. The Barnes & Noble is gone, but we have two indies in its place: Classic Lines and Amazing Books. 61C is still one of my go-to writer hangouts, especially in summer. I don’t visit Eat ‘n’ Park as much, but it’s tradition to kick off NaNoWriMo there at midnight on November 1 every year, and I plan to be there tonight.

D.J. and I often head to Pamela’s for a weekend brunch after a run. When we miss the North Side’s Friday farmer’s market, we stop by the Squirrel Hill market on Sunday for our local produce. I go out of my way to use the Post Office there, because the clerks are always smiling.

In short, I love Squirrel Hill.

On Saturday, a racist Nazi murderer walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue and massacred 11 people gathered for worship and community. The signs were there—after all, we elected a blatantly racist president who called literal Nazis “some fine people,” and just last year another racist Nazi spread anti-Semitic flyers all over the neighborhood.

My heart is broken, and it cracks anew every time I open the news or social media and see the world over talking about what happened here. I want the world to know and love the Squirrel Hill I know. The multicultural neighborhood full of love and such a vibrant community. I didn’t directly know anyone involved in the shooting. But I know people who do. They are my friends, they are my neighbors. They are my community. Every act of horrific mass violence like this cuts me to the quick, but this one hurts more because Pittsburgh is my home.

I’m a white woman. I’m almost always “safe.” And if I feel as if the world is stuttering to a stand still a thousand times a day, I cannot imagine the pain and grief my Jewish friends and the local and global Jewish community is going through. And what’s more, this was not the only shooting this weekend. This was not the only recent Pittsburgh tragedy. This the way things are, but this is not the way things have to be. It starts with me. It starts with you.

Together, we are stronger than hate. Love alone is not enough. We must stand whenever and wherever injustice strikes in this city we call home, whether against our Jewish neighbors, our Black neighbors, our immigrant neighbors, our refugee neighbors.

Stand for Antwon Rose.

Stand for Irving Younger.

Stand for Melvin Wax.

Stand for Bernice and Sylvan Simon.

Stand for Jerry Rabinowitz.

Stand for Joyce Feinberg.

Stand for Richard Gottfried.

Stand for Daniel Stein.

Stand for Cecil and David Rosenthal.

Stand.

Let’s talk about the NFL and Colin Kaepernick

I was in the middle of writing a post on body image and running, but I’ve seen too many Facebook posts about Nike, the NFL, and Colin Kaepernick, and truthfully, I’m spitting mad. But I’m not going to try to change anyone’s mind here. Instead, I have some questions for you. For those of you who feel that Kaepernick is disrespecting America, the flag, and our soldiers, yes, but also for those who find his protest admirable. Because if we’re going to talk about respect and justice, well, we need to actually talk about respect and justice.

So, did you boycott Nike in the 90s when the report on its use of sweatshops came out?

Did you boycott Nike after that because they never really improved their labor practices?

Did you boycott the NFL after owners willfully covered up and actively distorted science to hide the numerous, life-long, devastating complications from players receiving concussions? (See also the book League of Denial, which was also made into a documentary.)

Did you boycott the NFL after player after player was accused of murdering, beating, raping, and assaulting woman after woman after woman after woman, and some dogs for good measure?

Did you boycott the NFL after almost every single one of those men walked free?

Are you boycotting Nike and the NFL now because you disagree with Nike hiring an athlete who designed a peaceful protest of injustice in conversation with a Green Beret, who fought and risked his life for the country you claim to love so much? Are you certain there aren’t other reasons, maybe ones you aren’t comfortable facing?

Because if you answered “no” to the first five questions and “yes” to the sixth question, I have to ask you another, even more pressing set of questions.

You respect a flag, a symbol of a country, but where is your respect for women? For laborers in third world countries—working class people struggling to get by? Where is your respect for human life? For the right to pursue life, liberty, and justice for all? Do you show your respect for people and values the same way you show respect for a symbol? Why does THIS, a peaceful protest that harms no one, make you so angry, when all those other things didn’t?

And to those who are now applauding Nike/Kaepernick/the NFL, what about those first five questions? Are you a “yes” or a “no”? If you’re a “no,” why not? Why is Kaepernick’s protest against injustice praiseworthy, but the suffering and death of real people across decades doesn’t warrant a pass on those two brands, at the very least?

I’m not going to make any arguments here or tell you what to think. All I ask now is that you consider your answers to these questions, and examine the reasons behind them. I’m happy to discuss this further in the comments here, or elsewhere on the net. However, I will not tolerate any racism, sexism, disrespect to myself or other commenters or troll bullshit here or elsewhere.

For the record, I’ve never been a football fan. I’ve always thought it was stupid, and the more I learned about its violence and concussion issues, the more I grew to despise the NFL. My record with sweatshop clothing isn’t perfect—it’s damn hard to avoid—but I make an effort, and will and do pay more for ethically sourced clothing (and I also shop secondhand).

Finally, I leave you with this line from the musical Hamilton: If you stand for nothing, what will you fall for?

#FridayReads: Kindred by Octavia Butler

 

cover for Kindred, showing a Black woman with short hair

If you read science fiction but aren’t acquainted with the fantastic work of Octavia Butler, please take yourself to a library RIGHT NOW and check out a few of her books. Hell, even if you don’t normally read sci-fi, read Octavia Butler.

Kindred tells the story of a modern Black woman, Dana, who is pulled back in time to the South by one of her ancestors. There, Dana has to confront the reality of slavery.  Dana serves as a sort of translator-avatar for the reader—neither she nor any of us have ever experienced slavery first hand. She quickly realizes that if she behaves as a Black woman from the 1970s normally behaves, she’ll get herself killed. Her only real safety net in this strange world is her ancestor, Rufus, the son of a slaveholder and the reason she keeps traveling through time.

Rufus calls Dana to the past—not consciously or purposefully—every time his life is in danger. Dana saves him over and over again, knowing that if she does not, she may never be born. On her second trip, she meets the Black woman Rufus impregnates with her direct ancestor, and knows instinctively that the union between Rufus and Alice can’t by its nature be consensual. As she watches Rufus grow into a cruel man who shows occasional flashes of kindness, Dana contemplates letting him die, but knows that if she does, she may never exist. Even when her worst fears are confirmed and Rufus rapes Alice, she saves his life the next time he’s in danger.

While Kindred is somewhat of a time-travel thriller, its real genius lies in Butler’s characterizations and excellent world building. No character is simply evil or simply good. Even Rufus, who begins life as a kind boy scared of his father and grows into someone just as cruel as the man he once feared, has sympathetic moments. Despite his flaws, Dana cares for him the way a mother might care for a troubled child. He is a product of his time, but Butler doesn’t use that as an excuse to let him off the hook from consequences (and boy, are there consequences).

The way Butler characterizes the slaves Dana meets on Rufus’s plantation is equally important, if not more so. She shows us heartbreaking moments, such as Black children playing “slave trader,” runaways being mauled by dogs, vicious beatings, and families being torn apart when spouses or children are sold. Because Dana has gotten to know these families and these individuals, we mourn with her when tragedy strikes. It’s not all depressing, though. Butler also shows us moments of tenderness and love, and the many many ways slaves resisted their circumstances and found dignity and purpose in their lives outside of their owners’ desires.

Dana goes into the past thinking she could never be a slave, only to learn that she will do what it takes to survive, even if that means swallowing her pride and sacrificing some of her dignity. As she gets to know the slaves, she sees how strong they are. She realizes that they, too, are a product of their time, though their time doesn’t define who they are as individuals. Through Dana’s eyes, the reader is able to see the complex social dynamics and entrenched patriarchal and racist values and structure involved in slavery. As Dana experiences what it’s like to be a slave, so too does the reader—and therein is Kindred’s real power.

It’s impossible to read Kindred and not recognize the echoes of slavery that we, in the year 2018, live with today: entrenched racism that’s built into the very structure of our society. The book begins with a scene of Dana in the hospital, having lost her arm after her last trip to the past. The lost arm is the physical embodiment of the mental and emotional losses Dana has suffered throughout her journey. And like Dana, the reader will come away from the book having lost any illusion of what they may or may not have done during slavery. The loss of that illusion, hopefully, will shed light on the work that still needs to be done in dismantling racism here in the present.

 

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