Politics

The Soldiers You Never Learned About in School

Seven years ago, the Texas Board of Education approved a social studies curriculum that fosters inflexible and close minded conservative political viewpoints. Five years later, the New York Times published a story of a Texas high school student and his mother calling attention to a line in a textbook that described the Atlantic slave trade as bringing “millions of workers” to plantations in the South. Millions of workers? Not Slaves?

Regarding school textbooks, what happens in Texas unfortunately doesn’t stay in Texas. Because they are so big, the state is very influential as a market and publishers tend to angle books toward whatever they want (including matters of science). Reading about Texas got me to thinking about the things I didn’t learn in school. While I thankfully had quite a few progressive teachers (in the sixth grade, one noted how African Americans and Puerto Ricans were put on the front lines during the Vietnam conflict), I also had those who still conveyed imperialistic, manifest destiny points of view (in the eighth grade one described Native Americans as awed by Europeans because “their hair was the color of gold.”) Noteworthy people of color were generally not part of my education growing up.

Media literacy has been on my mind a lot lately, most notably with regards to how minority groups are portrayed. The negative images are ubiquitous and have mythic power. You don’t need much education to comprehend an image. Visibility fosters understanding and unity. Writing this on the eve of Memorial Day 2017, I got to thinking about soldiers of color. If military service to the country is a metric for outstanding citizenship, and seen as a noteworthy contribution, then why didn’t I learn about soldiers of color growing up? Their contributions were significant. I would like to honor three groups of soldiers of color whose histories may be even further buried by the direction this country is going.

The Borinqueneers

The 65th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Borinqueneers, was created in 1899 by Congress as a segregated unit composed of Puerto Ricans. The regiment served in the two World Wars as well as the Korean Conflict. The unit was named after the word given to Puerto Rico by its native Tainos that means, “land of the brave lord.” When the Borinqueneers were sent to the front lines in Korea, the men of the 65th performed exceptionally, earning praise from General MacArthur.

The 65th Infantry Regiment were awarded with a United States Congressional Gold Medal in June 2014, 60 years later, after a passionate two-years of activism by a nationwide alliance of volunteers, organizations and lawmakers in Congress. Puerto Ricans inhabit an exacting place in U.S. history because of the island’s commonwealth status: they don’t have the right to vote in U.S. elections, but serve in the military and can be drafted (Puerto Ricans can vote if they live in the United States).

The Windtalkers

Despite gaining the rights to citizenship and voting in 1924 from the federal government, Native Americans in some states could not vote until 1962, in spite of the esteemed contributions made by the Navajo during World War II.

Following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan dominated in the Pacific. Many Japanese soldiers were fluent in English and regularly decoded military messages. The U.S. needed an unbreakable code. In February of 1942, Philip Johnston, an engineer and veteran of World War I, had an idea: What if the military forces were to use the Navajo language as a secret code? Johnston was familiar with the language because he was the son of missionaries who spent a good portion of his life interacting with the Navajo people, and was one of a few non-Navajos who could speak the complicated language.

The Navajo code talker (Windtalkers) program was classified and remained a national secret until 1968. An estimated 375 to 420 Navajos served as Windtalkers. Returning home with no fanfare and sworn to secrecy, the Navajo Windtalkers are finally being acknowledged in mainstream American history. The “Honoring the Code Talkers Act,” introduced by Senator Jeff Bingaman from New Mexico in April 2000, and signed into law December 21, 2000, called for the recognition of the Navajo code talkers. During a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol on July 26, 2001, the first 29 soldiers received the Congressional Gold Medal.

The Tuskegee Airmen

The Tuskegee airmen were the first African American servicemen to operate as military aviators in the U.S. armed forces, flying with distinction during World War II. Even though they were subject to racism in the U.S. and abroad, the 996 pilots and more than 15,000 ground personnel who served with the all-Black units would be credited with some 15,500 combat maneuvers and earn over 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses for their achievements. The publicized successes of the Tuskegee Airmen helped pave the way for the eventual integration of the U.S. armed forces under President Harry Truman in 1948.

After the war, the G.I. Bill was designed to help veterans adjust to civilian life by providing them with benefits that included low-cost mortgages and low-interest loans. African Americans did not benefit from the G.I. Bill anywhere near as much as White Americans. Historian Ira Katznelson notes that “the law was deliberately designed to accommodate Jim Crow.” Of the first 67,000 mortgages insured by the G.I. Bill, fewer than 100 were granted to people of color.

One of the great honors of my life was meeting Dr. Roscoe Brown, former Tuskegee Airman and former president of Bronx Community College, where I have worked for the last fourteen years. He was the squadron commander of the 100th Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group and flew 68 missions and would eventually be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Dr. Brown often noted that the Airmen’s activism after the war was as important as their wartime service—having risked their lives abroad, the Airmen were determined to make the U.S. a more equitable place. Unfortunately, not only are we still working on that, we seem to be taking large strides backward.

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“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” ― Franklin D. Roosevelt

Final Thoughts On Election 2016

The tweet detailed below embodies my feelings regarding this election. I am already seeing reports of violence against people of color; individuals dressed in KKK garb proudly marching around and general unrest.

I am going to point a finger at the DNC, The New York Times, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Donna Brazile for imposing Clinton on us. The hate train for Clinton has been at full steam since the 1990s and when you factor in her thin and flawed service record (e.g. in the Senate, she voted for the invasion of Iraq and for the Patriot Act as well as its re-authorization; as secretary of state, she was a very active in promoting fracking), she was always going to be a difficult sell.

I did vote for her, but we missed a real opportunity to elect a true progressive in Bernie Sanders. Poll after poll showed him easily beating Trump, while those same polls had Clinton in a close race (as we witnessed last night).

I’ve decided to limit my social media use for a while because it was the medium that gave rise to Trump. At the outset, he didn’t really spend a lot of money to promote himself: he had the media doing that and they likely based their reporting on what was trending. A Twitter joke that turned into a dark reality: the reality television “star” with zero experience as a statesman is now President. Instead, life imitates art as the world depicted in the dark comedy Idiocracy seems to be at its dawn.

I want to encourage you from this point forward to use social media responsibly. Allowing Trump to trend planted the seeds of his victory. Don’t just post something because you agree with it. Make sure it is valid and don’t just go by the headline. Make sure it is the truth. Otherwise you are just as bad as Fox “News.”

Return to Sender

I want to vote for Dr. Jill Stein, but have some reservations.

Let me start with this disclaimer: I am in no way supporting La Trump. Interestingly, about a year ago, I wrote that La Trump was a necessary evil in that he would highlight the worst of the Koch-funded conservative candidates. This was supposed to be a good thing because conservatives would never listen to these issues coming from someone like Bernie Sanders. It bizarrely worked. I also erroneously noted that no RATIONAL voter would vote for this reality “star” with zero experience as a statesman. Instead, life imitates art as the world depicted in the dark comedy Idiocracy seems to be at its dawn.

This blog entry is more of an exploration, a sort of brainstorming. I am actually still trying to figure out whom to vote for. I have been a Bernie Sanders supporter since day one. However, the DNC played fast, loose and unfairly with this election and essentially imposed Hillary Clinton on us. If La Trump wins, you can blame the scheming Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Poll after poll had the scandal free Sanders easily beating La Trump with double digits.

My next disclaimer: I am not a misogynist. Like some almost surreal and bizarre knee-jerk reaction, any time I mentioned my support for Sanders, I was immediately accused of misogyny for not automatically supporting Clinton. Really? The fact is Sanders has way more experience as an ELECTED official. And as for Clinton’s achievements, before her senate election most of them were tied to her husband. Her accomplishments, if any, as an elected official and an appointed one are very thin.

Let’s take a brief glimpse at her record since being elected senator and appointed secretary of state.

In the Senate, she voted for the invasion of Iraq and for the Patriot Act as well as its subsequent reauthorization. Clinton also co-sponsored legislation that would make any true progressive cringe. For example, in 2005, she joined a bipartisan group of senators in signing onto the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which, according to the ACLU, would have essentially legalized discrimination.

As secretary of state, she pushed for the 2009 troop surge in Afghanistan and the intervention in Libya and was also been a very vocal proponent of the drone war that has led to the deaths of 2,400 civilians. She was also very active in promoting fracking worldwide through the Global Shale Gas Initiative. Via the State Department, and sometimes personally, she lobbied on behalf of companies like Chevron who wanted to expand fracking (most notably in Bulgaria and Romania). Since stepping down as secretary of state, Clinton continued to express support for fracking, which she outlined in a 2014 speech to the National Clean Energy Summit. She has also remained silent on the Keystone pipeline.

Let’s talk about her running mate, Tim Kaine. On July 18, Kaine was one of four senators signing a letter sent to the Federal Reserve, the FDIC and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency asking that they exclude large regional banks from the “significant burdens” of reporting risk on a daily, rather than monthly, basis. It also called for them to revisit the amount of capital these banks must hold over a 30-day period to cover emergency situations. The senators’ request was undoubtedly deregulatory and irresponsible: SunTrust, one of the banks that would fall under this exclusion, paid $1 billion to settle mortgage fraud allegations.

The Democrats are now the Republicans, circa 1970. From DOMA to the crime bill’s “superpredators” (her word), the former Goldwater girl (again, her own words) has a history of supporting discrimination. And even though Sanders has pushed the party to the left, Clinton the war hawk will keep us in a perpetual state of undeclared war. This is why I am no longer a Democrat, but an Independent voter. I want intelligent dialog on pushing a progressive and inclusive agenda. CLINTON HAS TO EARN MY VOTE. So far, she has not.

Once Sanders was out, I began to explore other candidates. My preference, to date, is Dr. Jill Stein. True, like La Trump, she does not have experience as an elected official, but she has lead initiatives to fight environmental racism and injustice. She has also helped win victories in campaign finance reform, racially just redistricting, green jobs, and the cleanup of incinerators, coal plants, and toxic threats. A stark contrast from La Trump, who once bullied an elderly Scottish woman so that he could build a golf course.

My reservations are not with Stein, but with the Green Party. And it has nothing to do with what they support—in fact, they literally support everything that I support. The problem is that they do not have a lot of people elected into office. According to their website, there are at least 135 Green Party politicians in 15 states currently holding elected offices; all very local and none at the federal level.

We desperately need a third party. Third parties can force progress on political issues. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, they forced the major political parties to pass significant anti-monopoly legislation among other things. But today’s Green Party simply does not have that power. They certainly do not have the power to elect a president YET (though it is interesting to note Gary Johnson’s rise in the polls as well as third party candidates in senate races.)

I despise having to vote for Clinton simply because she is not La Trump. The right choice is hardly the easy choice. Thankfully, I still have time to decide.

P.S. On the back of the envelope pictured above, I wrote: You have Wall Street’s money. You don’t need me.

With Omar Mateen By Proxy

voltairequote

On June 12, 2016, a mass shooting hate crime occurred inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The shooting resulted in a total of 102 casualties including 49 deaths. The massacre was deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in United States history. It was also the deadliest incident of violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex people, as well as their allies, in the history of the United States, surpassing the 1973 UpStairs Lounge arson attack. President Obama described the massacre as an “act of hate.”

This massacre didn’t happen in a vacuum. Omar Mateen was fostered by a toxic combination largely rooted in religious absolutism, self-hatred, mental issues, media illiteracy and easy access to semi automatic weapons.

In allegiance with him, by proxy, are people and organizations like:

Are you seeing pattern?

mattenblogquote1

You can believe in God and still be a tolerant individual.

It is not your responsibility to persecute in the name of God.

You can also believe in God and still be a critical thinker.

mattenblogquote2

Nick Gier, Professor Emeritus at the University of Idaho has noted that Jesus says nothing specific about the sin of homosexuality anywhere in the Gospels. Sodomy as a term for sexual sin began to be commonly used only in the 11th century. Early religious commentators attributed Sodom’s problems with God to many different causes, including idolatry, threats toward strangers and general lack of compassion for the downtrodden. Ezekiel 16:49 advocates that Sodomites “had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”

Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, is an Abrahamic religion. Jesus is mentioned in the Qur’an as a prophet. The Qur’an provides the basis of Islamic beliefs and law, yet does not provide clear answers to questions surrounding homosexuality. Homosexuality existed in Pre-Islamic, Arab society, not unlike Ancient Greece, and played a vital role in some of the early religions. Nicole Kligerman, in the Macalester Islam Journal, noted that Islamic repression of homosexuals may not have always been prevalent and that Western influences may have created a greater social stigma against homosexuality.

William Shakespeare, in The Merchant of Venice, brilliantly noted that, “the devil can cite scripture for his purpose.” If you believe that a person is going to hell because they identify as LGBTQIA, then that is their business and let God deal with it. An infinite and all-powerful God of love should be able to protect himself and continue to thrive. Whenever religion and violence collaborate, no human being is safe.

First Stop in Brooklyn Reusable / Green Bag. Designed by Edwin Roman

Reusable / Green Bags in New York City

Plastic. Whenever I hear that word, the first thing that comes to mind is that hilarious scene in The Graduate where party guest, Mr. Maguire, declares to Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin, “I just want to say one word: plastics.”

How wrong you were Mr. Maguire! Plastic has shaped the modern world in numerous ways that undoubtedly make life easier, BUT it comes at a great cost.

Plastic has left detrimental marks on the environment and human health. David Barnes, a researcher for the British Antarctic Survey, noted, “One of the most ubiquitous and long-lasting recent changes to the surface of our planet is the accumulation and fragmentation of plastics. Within just a few decades since mass production of plastic products commenced in the 1950s, plastic debris has accumulated in terrestrial environments, in the open ocean, on shorelines of even the most remote islands and in the deep sea.”

Earlier this week, the New York City Council voted to require some businesses to charge a fee on each paper or plastic bag. There are several exceptions that include:

  • restaurants, including those that deliver and serve takeout;
  • street vendors;
  • plastic bags used for produce;
  • small paper medicine bags at pharmacies
  • bags used at state-regulated liquor stores;
  • bags used by soup kitchens;
  • and individuals buying groceries with food stamps.

I cheered! This legislation was long overdue especially when you consider the efforts being made the Department of Sanitation’s recycling program and the MTA’s recent innovations in sustainability.

The New York Times noted, “The vehemence of the opposition could perhaps be traced to plastic bags’ daily presence in the lives of New Yorkers, who often shop for groceries spontaneously and then lug the crinkly bags home to be reused as trash-can liners or to pick up after pets. “ (Take note of the photograph that accompanies this article of a plastic bag stuck in a tree.)

I have actually been using reusable/green bags for about nine years and would like to offer a few tips to my fellow New Yorkers looking to adapt. Believe me, it is easier than you think.

  1. I have experimented with several types of bags over the years. The best of them has been the Micro Chico Bag like the one pictured above that I designed and sell via my website. The Chico Bag folds up on to itself and easily fits in your pocket. They are also quite durable and can be hand washed.
  2. If you eat meat and dairy, be sure to set aside bags exclusively for this and wash them often. Also, be sure not to store this bag in the truck of your car.
  3. Reusable/green bags utilized for groceries should not be used for other things.

One reusable/green bag can replace hundreds of single use plastic bags over the course of its lifetime. The next time you go to the market and the cashier asks, “Plastic or paper?” why not support the environment and say, “No thanks, I’ve got my own bags.” Once you get into the habit of carrying reusable / green bags you will not consider it an inconvenience. I promise!

Additional reading:Reusable Grocery Bags: Keep ‘Em Clean While Going Green” by Laura Gieraltowski, PhD, MPH, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Racist Cartoon, 2015. Oil on linen. 9 5/8h x 13w in.

The Pusillanimous Art of Lucien Smith Burns the Bronx

Artist Lucien Smith misses an opportunity and simply creates novelty art for the 1%. 

How did the Bronx become the poster child for urban decay in the 1970’s and 1980’s?

Generally speaking, individuals like Robert Moses siphoned monetary resources out of New York City to build up the surrounding suburbs while concurrently fostering the automobile and neglecting mass transit. The Cross-Bronx Expressway has NEVER benefited the Bronx and actually contributed greatly to the destruction: people once lived where this roadway now stands. And then the 3rd Avenue El, which had played a significant role in the creation of entire neighborhoods, was razed, leaving many isolated from public transportation and further devaluing real estate. Industry fled for various reasons that included moving to southern states that outlawed unions via “right to work” laws. The middle class tax base moved away and the poor and people of color moved into their former neighborhoods, which were subsequently redlined by banks and investors (Harlem, for example, had been red lined since the 1920’s). The media portrayed people of color as gun totting, drug-using savages who burn and vandalize their neighborhoods. They are bad for real estate, a stigma that has had an almost mythic impact. The fact is that the landlords of these redlined areas paid arsons so that they could collect insurance. I am fairly certain that artist Lucien Smith or his recent benefactors, Somerset Partners, are cognizant of these facts or bothered with any research.

On October 29th, in a former South Bronx piano factory, a rave took place that was hosted by real estate developers Somerset Partners. The rave was to launch the re-branding of the South Bronx as the “Piano District” in the tradition of DUMBO, Hudson Heights, iTri and East Willamsburg. The event, which was curated (or decorated, depending on your source) by Mr. Smith, included flaming garbage cans and bullet-riddled cars. From the photographs I have seen, it was essentially disaster porn.

Much has been written about the rave and perhaps the best source is Ed García Conde’s oft quoted blog Welcome2TheBronx. As a fellow artist who works in the Bronx, I found myself wondering why Mr. Smith would produce something so utterly jejune.

Earlier this year, The New York Times Style Magazine interviewed Mr. Smith where he noted:

“I reached a point when I was independent financially and I was able to take a step back. I was producing work like a madman—I wanted to be this “superartist,” and I saw artists going down that road, and I didn’t want that anymore. I wanted to find a more honest approach to making art.”

When asked about future shows he responded:

“As far as future shows, I don’t have anything on my plate. I’m being very careful about what I do now.”

This interview was published in July of 2015. If Mr. Smith was being truthful, he was not working on the rave yet — an indication that it was simply thrown together. In response to the criticism, Mr. Smith noted:

“…people are always going to have their own interpretation. Let’s just remember New York, in its entirety, is a city that has and still struggles with violence and poverty, not just the Bronx.”

Mr. Smith, of all people, should understand the mythic power that images can have and missed an opportunity to use his fame to elevate those who struggle with violence and poverty. It was also an opportunity to convey how struggle creates great art. The late, distinguished CCNY Professor of Political Science, Marshall Berman, once said:

“Grace Paley, one of the great New York writers, has a story written early-’70s South Bronx. And one of the characters, who’s like a community organizer there, says, “The buildings are burning down on one side of the street, and the kids are trying to put something together on the other.” And this could be a parable of one of the great achievements of that period from a lot of the neighborhoods that were most devastated in New York. The earliest form in which most people who weren’t part of that neighborhood saw it were the graffiti that appeared on the subways in the ’70s. And this was on a very rickety, decaying generation of gray trains, they painted enormously exuberant, colored names and reliefs and mottoes. And you can see many films now: a gray day, a gray neighborhood, an El train. And suddenly, the El train, it’s like a rainbow! And it’s thrilling. The next incarnation was rap. The earliest form that people saw would be there would be one kid rapping with small speakers and a drum track in the subway, you know, with a hat open for money. And, you know, these are parables of a city that’s being ruined, that’s being destroyed, and that’s saying, “We can rise again. We come from ruins, but we’re not ruined.” And, I mean, in 15 years, it’s become the basic form of world music. So it’s a thrill, but it’s important to understand that it came from totally burnt-out, ruined districts, and that’s where it was born. And that it was born out of this suffering and misery, and that a lot of the creativity that New York has always had has come from the cellars, from the ruins, from how the other half lives.”

Picasso’s Guernica was painted as a reaction to the Nazi bombing on the unarmed Basque town during Spanish Civil War. It has since become a symbol for peace. Columbia University Art History professor, Simon Schama, once said that Picasso with Guernica “…rescued modern art from the curse of it’s own cleverness, from the curse of novelty. Guernica has always been bigger than art, uncontainable by mere museum walls. It is one of those rare creations that gets into the blood stream of common culture.” In other words, it does what great art should: communicate to everyone regardless of education or economic status.

In August of 2014, Mr. Smith gave a TEDx talk at Columbia College where he discussed how discovering his father cheating on his mother created a fear of failing that has fostered his career. His father responded to this by calling his son a “gold digging bitch” and noting “My ex-wife, who shares his lust for superficiality and materialism, raised him.”

What Mr. Smith has done with this show in the South Bronx is to further foster gentrification by creating novelty art that is exclusively for the 1%: it is their view of the Bronx and is nothing short of pusillanimous.

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Please note that the featured image of this blog entry was not part of the South Bronx re-branding event. I discovered it on Mr. Smith’s website while doing some research and have been wondering why, as a man of color, he felt compelled to paint this.

Racist Cartoon, 2015. Oil on linen. 9 5/8h x 13w in. http://www.luciensmithstudio.com/?s=ls-581-racist-cartoon

A Walk Down 56th Street: A Photo Collection

I have previously written about how former mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg have sucked the personality out of New York City and essentially transformed Manhattan into a gated community for the rich. Now that mindset is spreading to the outer boroughs: take out a subway map and use it to chart the future course of gentrification. Even subway stations are getting gentrified! So you can imagine my surprise when, earlier this year, I walked down West 56th Street and saw so much real New York personality. Yes, one block away from the 57th Street detailed in the Moyers & Company documentary The Long, Dark Shadows of Plutocracy. Fortunately, I had my camera to document it because who knows how long it will last. What surprised me about me this street was how unchanged it was: I was a student at John Jay College during the late 1980’s when one of the campus buildings was on 56th and 10th Avenue. While the surrounding neighborhood and John Jay campus have changed significantly, I found that 56th Street, from 8th to 11th Avenues, was relatively unchanged. I hope you enjoy these photographs as much as I enjoyed rediscovering this street.

Rusted Banister

Rusted Banister

Flower Pot on 56th

Flower Pot on 56th

Dog on 56th

Dog on 56th. First he barked, then he posed.

Wall Molding

Wall Molding