Current Events Family Youth Issues


What a week to be the mother of a 17-year-old boy.  At dinner a few nights ago, my son asked me if I would talk with him about Anita Hill. His AP Government class is studying the episode and he wanted to know what I remembered about it.  When my teen asks me questions beyond, “What’s for dinner?” my policy is to drop everything and engage. We talked for almost two hours.

He was interested in all of it. Where I was living: seven blocks behind the Capitol. How engaged I was in the coverage: I watched every minute I could and read every news article.  I told him about how electrified I was by the photograph featured here of the seven women who marched from the House to the Senate and demanded that the allegations be investigated. How I desperately wished I could go to the hearings myself.

Then, I told him what I remembered of Professor Hill. How she spoke clearly, without malice, with great dignity, how she introduced her parents to the committee, how she simply told the truth over and over. I told him how, until that time, I had liked Arlen Specter, the senator from Pennsylvania. But after his relentless attempts to embarrass Professor Hill I hated him. I remembered that the senator from Alabama, whose name escapes me, asked her in his slow southern drawl if she was, “a woman scorned” or if she wanted to “write a book.”  And then I told him how every man on that committee, including Joe Biden, cowered in response to Clarence Thomas’ opening punch accusing them of a “high tech lynching.”

And then I told him what twenty-something me took away from watching Anita Hill, although I could not have articulated it then. I learned that, as a woman, it did not matter that you were smart, well-spoken, modest, church going, high achieving, or from a hard-working family.  You could be a “good woman” or one with a more complicated past. But, if you told the truth about how men treat women, you would be over-ruled even if those men knew, in their heart of hearts, you were telling the truth. I told him about my own experiences of harassment and assault, even though they are mild in comparison to others. I told him that if something had happened to me in high school like what Professor Ford says happened to her, I would not have even had language to describe it, much less think it was illegal. Like her, I would have thought it was my fault or at least that there was nothing to be done about it.  I too would’ve been quiet. Indeed, about most violations that have happened in my life, I have been silent or made them into a joke.

We talked again last night after I insisted on listening together to this extraordinary podcast in which Caitlyn Flanagan and Michael Barbaro talk about an attempted ‘date rape’ in Flanagan’s high school past*. Embodied in their talk is the essence of atonement, a demonstration of what miracles are wrought by thorough and sincere apologies. It is a lesson in empathy, forgiveness, and redemption. Judge Kavanaugh should listen to it.

As we listened and then talked, I realized that this oldest and most complicated son of mine has grown up a lot in the last three years. He spoke with great empathy about what he is learning now that he has more female friends that tell him about how they live and move in the world. He cried as he listened to Ms. Flanagan describe her suicide attempt following the attack. He is recognizing the privileged place he occupies and how little the culture asks him to think about his safety or worth. He seems to be reckoning with the responsibility that comes with the unearned privilege he has as he makes choices about the adult he wants to be.

What will happen in the current circumstance is anybody’s guess. The values central to the situation – truth, honor, justice, or even mercy – are being completely ignored, ironic given the goal of filling a seat on our highest court. My son told me he thinks his generation of young men is different. I nodded in agreement, but in truth I doubt it. Unless they are extraordinary, young men will do what older men in their orbits do and what their culture tells them they can.  As the Kavanaugh confirmation continues to unfold, we will learn more about what our culture believes about women today. Silence does not serve us, and as the podcast points out, it does not serve our young men either.

*She wrote about this experience a few days ago in the Atlantic magazine.


Current Events Family race

The Confederates in My Attic

Saturday afternoon on my screened porch in Chapel Hill: You might think I’d hear birdsong and insects as the sticky summer weather lingers in early September. Instead, I hear sirens and helicopters. Once again white supremacist groups from neighboring counties are coming to stand guard at the confederate stump that once held the statue on our campus known as “Silent Sam.” The last time they visited, we walked up to take a look.  Draped in the stars and bars, the group carried well-printed signs about monuments and heritage preservation that told little about their lives or motivations.  We stayed for a bit and then headed home shaken and wondering how this conflict would resolve.

As our campus has been grappling with our confederate past, I have been learning about the confederates in my own family attic. Their stories are complex and in some ways mysterious. Although I’ve known they existed for along time, only recently have I learned some of the details of their stories.

My father is fast approaching 98. He grew up living with his paternal grandfather, a confederate veteran who lost his arm in a civil war battle near Helena, Arkansas. My injured great grandfather John was saved by his brother who dragged him behind a church then left to continue the fight. Union soldiers then captured John, completed the amputation of his arm, and paroled him to a nearby plantation for the remainder of the war. Family lore has it that after his arm healed, those same Union soldiers allowed John to fish the rivers of his childhood and sell those fish to Union troops. The money he earned bought the Missouri farm I roamed during my childhood summer visits. Because John lost his arm, he had to re-learn to write with the opposite hand, was elected county tax assessor, and became a peacemaker in his divided community of northern and southern sympathizers. Think Missouri compromise if you want to know why these two groups were living in such close proximity.

He is not the only confederate in my attic. His father before him, one Coleman Chapman, joined the confederate army to flee the Jay Hawks of Kansas. Great, great, grandfather Coleman was a minister and wheelwright, moving west from Tennessee to make wagon-wheels for the gold rush. He married Annie, the daughter of a slave-holding family. As my father tells it, even though Coleman and Annie did not enslave people themselves, they were not allowed to settle in certain states because of Annie’s family’s actions. They believed they were unfairly persecuted as “southern people,” and my father points out that to his knowledge no one on the Chapman side ever enslaved someone. He is wrong. This summer I found a will in which an ancestor in the 1700’s in South Carolina willed a young girl as a piece of property to one of his descendants. Probably the tip of the iceberg. When I read that will, I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. Nothing compared to what that young girl must have endured.

Then there is the Union soldier in my attic known as Uncle Lem. As my father tells it the divided state of Missouri was populated by what were essentially gangs – much like those described in the novel Cold Mountain. Young men had to join for basic safety and Lem, like Coleman who joined a confederate aligned group to escape the Jayhawks, joined up with a Union aligned militia. He was sent west to a Union garrison in what would become Montana where he was likely involved in “subduing” native populations. He came back to the same Missouri community as his confederate brothers, ran the local store, and made sure my dad had lunch every day through the Great Depression.

To my father, each of these people is a hero in their own way. They are brothers who saved one another’s lives. They are men who persevered after losing a limb so that they could feed their families and contribute to their community. Among these civil war veterans are individuals as real to him as he is to me, who created safety and sustenance for him through bleak days. When I tell him about the confederate statue coming down, he dislikes the idea, believes it dishonors people, long dead, but that he loves still. I try not to talk about it too much.

But I  think about these long gone ancestors as our campus struggles to find a path forward. Should they be honored, and if so, for what? History is a harsh judge; the simple version might make all of them villains. Even Uncle Lem, supposedly on the historically right side, was involved or at least a witness to crimes against native populations. Villain? Victim? Victor? Vanquished?

What I honor in their stories is not what they did or did not do during the civil war. For each of them, their choices may have been as much about survival as conviction. What I honor in these passed down stories are their choices after this conflict, particularly Great Grandfather John. Blessed are the peacemakers and he became one settling Hatfield and McCoy type feuds between northern and southern sympathizers and knitting his town back together through his church and government service. Peacemaking is something to which I can aspire, admire, and honor. Does any confederate statue do that?

As I’ve written previously on this blog, to read the speech that was given at the statue’s dedication in 1913 erases all doubt about the immoral ideals it celebrates. Its presence is an insult to my colleagues of color and taints the good work done daily at UNC. In the easy version of the story, we’d leave the statue in his undisclosed location and erect something that honors our common work, work that bridges divides, finds solutions to vexing problems, celebrates knowledge, and promotes creation of life-changing art and scholarship. But this story is not easy. Like my own confederate history, there is a lot we don’t know or have not acknowledged. For our campus, this moment is a reckoning, a time to face the difficult realities that echo through our buildings, bubble up on our quadrangles, and that have remained hidden for far too long. Once we, as a community, stand together and face the truth that enslaved people were housed in the basement of South Building, that our beautiful campus was built with slave labor, that it was 1966 before we had an African- American faculty member,, and all the rest of our yet unspoken history, then we will have peace. I like to think, although it may be wishful thinking, that Great Grandfather John, the peacemaker, the one who befriended his Union captors, the one who brought North and South back together in his community, would agree.

Acknowledgement: Title adapted from the Tony Horowitz book, “Confederates in the Attic.”

Current Events

There is no excuse.

How long do we have to listen to our leaders defend the indefensible practice of separating children from their parents on our southern border? How long do these children have to cry in their tents, wonder what will happen to them, and wonder what has become of their parents? How long do we have to listen to competing stories of when and why this horrific policy/practice of separating children from their parents at the border started? How long do we have to listen to leaders pass the buck and defend the horror they are perpetuating?

Everyday I wake up thinking that someone with the power to do so will stop this barbarity.  Indeed, candidates are leading marches; former first ladies are speaking out; doctors, social workers, and other professionals are writing strong position statements; citizens are calling agencies and representatives; some clergy are speaking out, while others are stunningly silent. But here it is another Tuesday morning with kids still suffering and no end in sight.  I’m beginning to believe that the only people who can stop this are the border patrol agents themselves. They need to stand down and say they will not participate in this cruelty. Nothing else is getting our leaders’ attention and action. Maybe border agents standing up will.

There are facts about this situation that have been well documented. You can read them here. Perhaps there are policy questions to debate. Fine. Debate them, later! Right now, we must stop this practice. Years ago, I was in positions where I had to be a part of separating children from families because of child abuse. Even in those circumstances, in which separation was the only option and desperately needed, the act of witnessing the child’s fear and the parent’s grief was one of the worst experiences of a professional life in which I’ve born witness to many horrific situations. Separating children and parents when it is not necessary to protect someone’s life is unconscionable.  There can be no equivocation and no excuse. Every person who excuses, negates, minimizes, or ignores this horror is complicit. We have to all do what we can, no matter, how small and keep doing it. Each drop raises the whole sea. We have to drown this practice out.

Photo Credit:

Current Events

Bend the Arc

After Parkland, I told my oldest son I thought something different was in the air. The Parkland students were demanding change. The idea was thrilling. Somehow out of their passion in the truest sense of the word, we might realize progress on gun violence and school shootings. The arc of history was bending.

Yet, here we are again and I am pondering what encouragement to offer my 17-year-old. How must it feel to be a teenager right now? Take your AP exams. Write the college essay. Wonder if your school is going to be safe tomorrow? They must believe they are on their own when adults do nothing to keep them safe. When I was growing up, we routinely had bomb scares at my school. The assumption was that someone wanted to get out of an English test. We’d be relocated to a lower part of the school campus; someone would turn on a car radio, and we’d dance in the parking lot or eat donuts until we got the all clear. No one ever thought there might really be a bomb or a shooter… even in south Texas where gun culture is strong, true violence at school never entered our minds.

For my kids and yours, times are different. They have active shooter drills that are so realistic, at first I worried that the drills would be as traumatizing as an actual  event. But what’s the alternative? Being prepared saved lives in Parkland and perhaps in Santa Fe too. Schools drill for all sorts of situations, yes? Hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, acts of God, unusual events over which we have no control. Drills for active shooters are drills for acts of men, acts we might prevent, if we so chose.

After the last shooting, I asked my son to tell me about the conversations were like in school. He told me something like, “Not much. What is there to say? These shootings just happen over and over, like lynchings at the beginning of the 20thcentury. Just random. Everyone knew about it. Everyone knew it was wrong. But no one would do anything about it. So people had to live walking around knowing this could happen to them. It’s the same.” I was stunned as much by the parallel as his matter-of-fact tone.  But I knew his stance was a mask. His statements weren’t practicality, nonchalance, or realism. They were the voice of trauma: the collective numbing, powerlessness, hopelessness that we are inflicting on our young people because we will not demand that our representatives act. Soon he and others his age will be able to use their franchise to make change but it almost certainly will not be soon enough to avoid the next shooting or the one after that.

As a culture we will wade through the grueling, yet predictable days ahead. We will learn the names of the treasured young people shot in their art class. We will learn about a shooter, a troubled young man, like troubled young men the world over, except that he had access to weapons. We will learn about a town that never believed it could happen there. We will try to believe that it will never happen to us. Like me, you may trick yourself by thinking things like, “He just has one more year. Then, he’ll be safe,” as I try to forget Orlando or Las Vegas or Virginia Tech…the list goes on.

So here is what I can offer my son and others of his generation. We can never be safe from everything. But we are now safe from Polio because we used our knowledge to find a vaccine and created laws to require that most people get it. Many fewer people die from drunk driving because Mothers Against Drunk Driving stood up for tougher laws in the 1980’s. Traffic fatalities are down because we have laws requiring people to wear seat belts. Indeed, most safety measures that we now take for granted were initially described as “impossible, impractical, meaningless, too intrusive, unconstitutional, or unenforceable.” Research, advocacy, loud voices, and some compromise brought us laws that make our society safer. Not always quickly, not easily, and not soon enough for many.  Still those arcs of history bent because people bent them. Think of how many problems we have solved when we collectively put our minds and hearts in it. Stand up. Vote for people who are not hamstrung by the NRA or any other organization. Your representatives should work for you and not anyone else. They should be willing to compromise with others to get things done. When you find those candidates, work for their campaigns. Talk with neighbors who worry about limiting gun restrictions.  Find common ground, points of agreement that allow for progress and compromise. Advocate to fund research on gun violence so that we have strong science to help us know what works and what doesn’t. But in dark hours let leaders of another era echo in your mind. Don’t give up.  Never, never, never give up.



Current Events race

No More Silence on Sam

So many colleges and universities have them. A monument that has been on the campus as long as anyone can remember, located in a prominent place that people pass by each day, and often with a silly, if somewhat offensive legend surrounding them. “General ABC will get off his horse the day a virgin graduates from XYZ University.” Or in the case of the monument currently under scrutiny at UNC Chapel Hill, “Silent Sam will fire his gun the day a virgin graduates from UNC.” For years, these legends were all I could tell you about these monuments on the campuses where I’ve been a student or faculty member. I’ve been around such monuments all my life; many have their roots in the confederacy.

Several years ago, having worked at UNC for quite awhile, my views on monuments began to change. Students and others on our campus were calling for the statue known as Silent Sam to come down. They asserted that it was a symbol of white supremacy and an object of oppression. At first, it was hard for me to muster strong feelings either way. I had no big stake in the statue staying up. I did not feel it was an important representation of my values or “southern heritage.” It was a big statue with a stupid legend attached to it that was passed down from first year class to first year class. Statue up, statue down, whatever – not my issue. Such is white privilege. Nothing in the culture forced me to think about what Silent Sam might mean to people of color in my institution. I had the choice to think about it or not, take a stand or not because the confederacy and what it stood for, a state’s right to enslave black Americans, never felt threatening to me. The confederacy was something for the history books, a question on test, something people I knew romanticized, but not a threat to my very humanity.

However, the student voices were loud. My colleagues were having conversations. There were articles in the newspaper, op-eds, letters to the editor. Those voices pushed me to engage, asked that I listen: listen to how shocked colleagues from other parts of the country were to come to UNC and find a monument to the confederacy at the symbolic “front door” of the University, to listen to how students of color felt walking past Silent Sam every day. For them, Sam was not a statue with a silly legend attached. He was a visceral symbol of hatred and exclusion, something that undermined their ability to trust the institution where they worked and studied. Finally, I learned the Silent Sam’s history. The plaque attached to him described him as a memorial to UNC students who died during the civil war. However he was not erected until 1913 – nearly fifty years after the civil war. The confederate dead had done fine without him until that point. Why was he needed then?

The answer is in the dedication speech made by one Julian Shakespeare Carr, a local businessman of the time.  Here’s a link to the dedication speech.  Look at pages 9B and 10 in particular.  This speech is evidence that demands a verdict. The speech references saving the “Anglo-Saxon race.”  The speaker proudly describes himself “horse-whipping” another human being of African descent and sleeping well afterwards. Though couched in tributes to young men who died in battle for a “glorious cause” and some “all’s well that ends well” language regarding the civil war’s outcome, the violence and values described in the speech churn the stomach. As part of a wider white supremacy movement that was active in the early 1900’s, Sam’s installation sent a hateful message that is and was antithetical to the Lux/Libertas, (light and liberty) creed that UNC holds dear. Sam’s message echoes even if many of us don’t have ears to hear it. He should come down, not because his time has passed, but because he never should have been there to begin with.


All views stated here are my own.

Photo Credit

Current Events

The Papal Visit and the Road to Jericho


As the President and his family have traveled abroad this week, as much focus has been on the women travelling with him, the first lady and daughter, as on affairs of state. From the moment the group de-planed in Riyadh, reporters discussed Melania and Ivanka’s hair covering choices and what Melania’s outfits might be trying to convey. Then, on Tuesday, a Washington Post columnist wrote that Melania and Ivanka were setting examples for the world about powerful women.

What was that definition of female power exactly? As I interpreted it, the message was be beautiful, dress exquisitely, and…be silent. Then you will be admired much like beautiful objects are everywhere. Unless you are an art historian who knows better, beautiful objects have no messy pasts, no complicated presents, no opinions or expertise, and a future in which time stands still. Not so powerful after all.

Then, there were the hand slap moments in which The First Lady appeared to rebuff her husband’s hand holding offers. Whether this was real or clever video editing, I have no idea. Perhaps the strong internet reaction was in part because she appeared to be an actor versus an object in her life…

Even as I tracked these gendered aspects of the trip, I was waiting hopefully for the main event: the President’s audience with Pope Francis. What would their conversation be like? Could the Pope influence this President in ways town halls, intelligence advisors, and the Congressional Budget Office have not? I was holding my breath.

Pope Francis loves the parable of The Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25 – 37), a Bible story that has captivated me since childhood. This parable is the Pope’s answer to questions that vex. What should our attitude be to our immigrant neighbors? How do we treat our enemies? What do we do when we are scared of someone who is different than we are? Five years old or fifty, peasant or president, Christian or not, the parable provides clear and powerful guidance.

  • First, we notice suffering without judging the sufferer.
  • Next, we change our plans so that we can help.
  • We bind the sufferer’s wounds as best we can, even when we think the sufferer is our enemy.
  • We use our resources to make sure they are safe.
  • We act with compassion even on dangerous roads.
  • We act with love, even when, indeed particularly when, we are afraid.

Pope Francis follows this example. He washes the feet of refugees and prisoners. Surely an audience with such a person could transform anyone.

But I was watching for the wrong thing, a transformation. I was forgetting that the Samaritan never knew what became of the person he helped on the Jericho road. The Samaritan’s actions were important because they transformed him, not because they transformed the injured man. The Pope gave the President art that featured an olive branch, a symbol of peace, forgiveness, perhaps even an offer of friendship.  He gave the President his point of view in the form of an encyclical, using the logic and language of the spirit to discuss climate change. And then he spoke to the First Lady, engaging in what was reported as a cute joke or a light interchange, asking whether she was feeding the President too much dessert. Specifically, the Pope asked if she was feeding him too much “potica,” a rich cake served on special occasions in Slovenia, her home country.

Remember, this Pope is from Argentina. Perhaps potica is a regular dessert served at the Vatican. But my guess is he took some time to think of how he might acknowledge the First Lady and treat her as a person versus the object that she is to the rest of the world. In that small moment, by referencing her home culture and language, he acknowledged so much that her beauty and style cover up: a complicated a past, a different heritage, a present that is not easy to manage, an uncertain future. He gave her the tools that he has to help her on her journey: a rosary and a blessing. He was the Samaritan.

Two days ago, I sat with colleagues from multiple disciplines talking about ways to adapt and enhance some training modules we are working on for the helping professions. We observed that trainees want a cookbook: “What do I do if x,y,z happens in a clinical encounter? What do I say if the patient says, ‘abc?’ Such questions skirt the central one: “Who am I when I encounter someone who suffers?” Pope Francis answers in words and in example. Be the Samaritan. Notice. Avoid judgment. Stop to help even if you’re afraid. Use your tools for good. Embed your actions in compassion. Act with love.

Pope Francis says it best. Watch him here.


Current Events Family

Speaking of Health Care

Spring break has not turned out exactly as I had planned. The bliss of a week without teaching or meetings, the chance to runaway with my husband for one night to a “dress-up party” in Washington, D.C., the ability to feel thoroughly prepared for next week’s onslaught…all out the window because of the flu.

On Saturday afternoon, I was chatting with our college friend who was to be our overnight babysitter. As the conversation ended, my younger son walked in coughing. By bedtime his fever was 104. We gave him some medicine hoping to affect a good night’s rest. At 4 a.m. I found myself changing vomit-soaked sheets. By 10 a.m. we were in the pediatrician’s office receiving a flu diagnosis and prescriptions for anti-viral and anti-nausea drugs. By noon, the healing had begun. We were no worse for wear save a few sleepless nights and the stupor that comes from watching too much TV.

Through the coughing, the fever, and the vomit, I did not think twice about getting us to the doctor’s office ASAP. I did not think, “Can I afford the co-pay? How much will the medicine cost? What if I don’t get the medicine; how long will he be sick? How much work will I have to miss? Will I lose my job? What will happen if I miss that meeting or have to take a sick day I don’t have? What happens if my older son gets sick? Or my husband? Or me? Can we afford prescriptions and co-pays for all of us? Should I pay for this and skip my preventive dentist appointment scheduled this week? It will cost about $100 too.” I also did not think, “Darn it. I should not have bought new shoes for my teenager yesterday. I should’ve been thriftier at the grocery store because you never know when someone is going to get sick.” I didn’t think of any of this. Instead I thought, “If I can get him the Tamiflu, he won’t be so uncomfortable. He’ll be able to sleep. He’ll be able to get back to the things he enjoys sooner. And, let’s be honest, I also thought, “Maybe he’ll be well in time for that overnight get-a-way.” I could be selfish for him and for me and that is a privilege.

Like every member of Congress, my husband and I receive affordable health care coverage as part of compensation for our work. Indeed, right now, as of 5:05 EST on March 14th, it is a privilege many working families and poor families in the U.S. have too. That is because of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), commonly known as Obamacare. But it won’t be 5:05 EST forever and members of congress, who like me, don’t think twice about going to the doctor are considering repealing the ACA and replacing it with a GOP sponsored plan that will repeal the Affordable Care Act and end health insurance for 24 million of our fellow citizens according to the just released estimates from the Congressional Budget Office ( ).

The new plan seeks legitimacy through the language of choice. People without coverage will be uncovered because they will “choose” to be uncovered. But as we all know, there are “choices” that are not necessarily choices at all. Premiums and co-pays that are unaffordable, plans that don’t cover you or your family because of health conditions you already have, caps that keep you from receiving the mental health coverage you need, which incidentally, helps people manage their chronic physical health conditions in ways that bring down health care costs. The Affordable Care Act is not perfect. Because of choices not to expand Medicaid by 19 states, the program does not work the way it should in those states. People there are experiencing premiums that are too high. But this is an easy fix. Accept the Federal government’s offer to expand Medicaid. We are finally talking about this in North Carolina but it may be too little too late. There are also other parts of the law that should be strengthened. But in spite of whatever flaw you choose to point to, under Affordable Care Act, more American citizens are covered than at any time in history. That is a success. Any logical approach would fix the things that are not working in the Affordable Care Act, not scrap it.

But it’s not about logic. It’s about money. And money is about values. Under the proposed repeal plan there are big winners and they are people who are winners already. ( ). A small group of U.S. citizens will win because they will get huge tax breaks if the money that funds the ACA is shifted away from covering all Americans back to their bank accounts. Who else wins? Insurance companies. They will be back in the business of charging whatever to whomever for whatever. How will my family fare if the repeal and replace plan is enacted? I’m not sure. But I am sure that many of my fellow citizens will suffer. How do I know? Because, as a country, we’ve tried this before. We’ve tried letting people choose whether they should buy coverage or not. We’ve tried more limited regulation on insurance companies. We’ve tried Medicaid caps and various waiver programs to see if the states can be “creative and efficient.” (Guess what? They are very creative and efficient at covering fewer people!)

So as we listen to competing narratives on the Affordable Care Act and the new GOP plan, perhaps we should think about our values more than we think about how much any one of us might dislike the particular president associated with each plan. What choices do you want to make for your family? What feels like a choice to you and what does not? Would you want for all what you want for yourself?

As I snuggled on the couch with my sick son yesterday watching the Wizard of Oz, I was struck when the wizard said to Dorothy, “Let us return to the land of E Pluribus Unum.” Out of many, one. Yes, please. Let’s do return to that. What is it that we want for ourselves? And can we find it in our hearts to want it for all? I want everyone to be able to do what we did this weekend. Seek healthcare when you believe you need it without a second thought.

Arts and Scholarship Current Events Teaching

“Always listen to the Art.”

The whole culture tells you to hurry while the art tells you to take your time. Always listen to the art.        -Junot Diaz

Several weeks ago I was at UNC’s Ackland Art museum guest lecturing for a class. The photograph that accompanies this post is by Layla Essaydi and was the starting point for our conversation. It was shown to me by a museum educator colleague a number of years ago. I’ve back to it again and again.

When you see it in the museum, it is about 5 feet tall and draws your attention immediately no matter what else is in on display. My first reaction upon first viewing was a kind of alarm and discomfort. Without encouragement to keep looking, I might have frowned and looked away, eager to move on to something I could easily understand or find less threatening. Instead, I’ve been learning to wait. When students come with me to the museum, my goal is for them to begin learn to do the same.

As you can see in the photograph, veiling or covering is central. Each figure in the image is veiled to varying degrees. For many of us in the U.S., the age progression the photograph implies makes us uncomfortable. A child is carefree and uncovered. Covering engulfs the adult. We assume these women – somehow everyone assumes each figure here is female –are oppressed. Alternatively, maybe they represent a “veiled terrorist threat” that we do not understand and against which we are powerless to defend. We are nervous, we are frightened, we are angry. We are ready to either reject or rescue the picture’s inhabitants.

My museum colleagues are expert at slow looking, a practice that often translates to sitting with discomfort and noticing details. As I and my students practice staying engaged, our initial associations give way to curiosity. What is on all of their skin, their coverings, and the walls behind them? It looks like Arabic script. The Koran? Something else? Are they all women? Where are they? Who is taking their picture? Why did they agree to pose for it? Why are they looking directly at us with stares that give away so little?

When the curiosity begins, so does the learning. We learn that the artist created the photograph soon after 9-11 in response to the growing prejudice toward Muslims in the aftermath of that terrible day. We learn that she is Moroccan by birth and American too; that she splits her time between the U.S. and her homeland. We learn that those depicted in the image are her friends gathered for a party in a place where women, in days past, were sent when they “misbehaved.” The writing is Arabic script inscribed in henna, a celebratory material. It is used in this work to symbolize women claiming the skill of writing that was denied them in times past.

These bits and pieces generate more questions. What about that gaze? Why so direct? Why no smile? Why does the border look like part of a dark room photographer’s contact sheet? Why, when I ask what magazine this photograph might be in, does everyone say, almost without a breath, “National Geographic?” We are back to new layers of association to sort through. As we progress through them, we gradually learn what this photograph and its inhabitants, with their challenging gazes, are asking of us, even as we are asking questions of them.

They ask us to acknowledge our fears, confront our assumptions, move beyond them to learn more, and to revisit the image instead of walking past it. What we practice becomes part of who we are. Immediate outrage, speaking based on what we think we know versus what we’ve verified, considering the “other’s” point of view. Ideas that seem so basic, so urgent, and in such short supply.

Current Events

Rules of Engagement

This morning I read a powerful article in the New York Times. The author, Phil Kay, is a young marine writing about the complicated world of war, moral choice, and how we as Americans treat our “enemies” in context of combat. He writes about America as an idea as much as a place and argues that how we engage with the enemy is all the more important when the big, beautiful, audacious idea that is America is at stake versus a nation/state alone. His writing is luminous and my purpose here is neither to re-write his piece nor to talk about the ethics of military battle. But in our current cultural moment, I feel under siege in a way that I never have before and vacilate between the desire to retreat and imperative to engage.

For instance, last week, I found myself curious about a university position in New Zealand, entranced by the idea of moving to Portugal, and wondering how to focus on my day to day work as the world seems to be unraveling. Yet, this weekend I was strategizing about how allies could band together to make ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) road blocks obsolete while feeling guilty that I opted out of the latest protest march. To date, I’ve loved the Saturday Night Live political skits. But two out of the three skits I watched today seemed closer to cruelty than satire. I’m on a seesaw and I want to get off. Phil Kay’s article helped me by talking about engaging honorably in a difficult fight. Focusing on honor has given me a benchmark by which to gauge the choices I am making each day.

So as of this morning, I’ve made some decisions that I’ll share here.

1. First, I will not disengage. It is tempting to say that things have gotten too negative. Let’s all talk about something else, post pictures of the soccer game instead of information related to policy or politics. I don’t disagree that it is good to focus on things that unite us. But too much is at stake, particularly for those who do not enjoy the power and privilege that I do. For me to disengage would be to say that my comfort is more important than others safety. It is not. To disengage is dishonorable.

2. Second, I will be judicious in the sources of information I quote, share, post, etc. Until I have seen it reported in one of the following sources, I will not talk about it, post it or recommend it for your consideration. It is dishonorable to share information that has not been well-vetted, well-sourced, or taken out of context.  My go-to sources will be:
– The New York Times
– The New Yorker
– The Atlantic
– The Washington Post
– The Wall Street Journal

If it is real, it will show up in these journalistic venues that have stood the test of time. They provide context and have the highest journalistic standards.

3. I will not share memes, inflammatory videos, or the like. Some are funny and some hit the nail straight on the head. But they provide no real information, no context, and they alienate people. Belittling others, no matter how wittily it is done, is dishonorable.

4.  My focus will be immigrants, refugees, and health care. My work in these areas is long-standing and has been recognized and honored by others. Focusing on what I really know something about means I can make real contributions. I care about the environment, foreign policy, education, and many other issues. But others of you are better equipped to carry those batons. You lead I will follow.

5. I will be at protest marches but not every one. They are important tools in the democratic arsenal. So is less visible and dramatic engagement. It is important to keep steadfastly doing work that is out front and behind the scenes. Both are honorable.

Thank you to Phil Kay for your writing that has helped me focus on what it means to live honorably right now.

These are my rules of engagement. What are yours?