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Zunguzungu
By Aaron Bady
Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.
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Waiting For

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“You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.” (Sven Lindqvist, Exterminate All the Brutes)

The idea of “the facts” has done a lot of damage in its career, but one of its most insidious effects is its ability to justify inaction. “Until we know all the facts, we can’t” is a phrase that gets placed at the beginning of many a cowardly sentence; in a world where “we may never know what really happened,” waiting for all the facts to come out is a little like waiting for Jesus to come and fix things. When we don’t want to act, it can be a relief to pretend we don’t know what we know—to arbitrarily raise the standards of proof we require—and pose as skeptics, as reasonable doubters. When we don’t like the opinions that we might otherwise find ourselves holding, waiting for “the facts” can be a wonderful alibi from looking honestly at we know.

Courts do not give justice, because they do not try. They follow a formal procedure, at best. The laws on the books require certain things, commands them to act in certain ways, and sometimes they do. Sometimes the arbitrary result of legislative fiat actually describes what actual courts and police do, in practice. But even if courts and police follow that law to the letter—and we all know they do not—the outcomes they produce are always the poorest of substitutes for “justice.” Some would say that courts and police exist so that we do not struggle for real justice; go home, go home, they say, there’s nothing to see here. Wait for the courts to sort things out. You don’t know all the facts.

Is it justice that Michael Dunn will go to prison for shooting a 17 year old because that young man played his music too loud and was black? No, it isn’t. Justice would be if black kids stop getting shot. Had Michael Dunn not been found guilty, it would demonstrate the extent to which killing a black youth is not always a crime in the United States, and that certainly is injustice. But Dunn is a symptom, not the cause of the problem; we live in a culture that can make murderous white men with guns a lot faster than they are—occasionally, rarely, almost never—sent to prison. You don’t get justice by occasionally, rarely, almost never sending murderers to prison; what you get is peace of mind, the ability to tell yourself that justice has been done. And the next time a white man, or a cop, shoots a black teenager to death, we will all say, hmm, I wonder what he did to provoke it. He must have made a furtive movement. We will interview the witnesses, and after the killer tells his story, we will regretfully admit that we may never know all the facts of the case. We will let legal process take its course. We will wait for the formal mechanisms of the law, and we will put off asking for the substance of what the law promises.

That women are assaulted, every day—that men attack and harm women in ways that are both physical and emotional—is a fact that never quite becomes a fact. It is said, sometimes, but it is not quite heard, does not quite get entered into the record of evidence. But if you ask a woman when the last time a man assaulted her body, when the last time she was made to feel unsafe and not in control of her own flesh—and if you need to ask, then you probably are not a women—the answer will probably horrify you. That’s not fact, though; that’s anecdote, the singular that struggles against being made plural. It doesn’t spur the engines of justice into action, because they are always isolated incidents. What made him act in that way? What was she wearing? What did she do? Occasionally, a rapist is convicted; occasionally, a case of molestation results in social or legal sanction for the assailant. Occasionally, something happens that you can call justice, if you want to reassure yourself. But the occasional consequence for the occasional violation doesn’t have anything to do with creating a world where women aren’t systematically and generally intimidated, violated, and kept in their place.

It’s not a fact that it’s legal to kill black kids in the United States, but the occasional guilty verdict for the occasional Michael Dunn is not what makes it untrue; what makes it untrue is our refusal to look at what we know, and have the courage to believe it. A white man with a gun knows quite clearly who he can and can’t shoot. That’s why black kids keep getting shot. The same is true for that delicate creature endowed with a penis, that fragile butterfly whose good name and reputation requires all the energies of industrial misogyny to sustain and propel. They know—we know—where it’s safe to use it, what homes, what bodies, and what desires can be violated. We know who has ground to stand on, whose home is whose castle. We know whose bodies can be secure. None of it has anything to do with justice, or “the facts.” Justice is somewhere beyond the place where we act on what we know.

 

breathless babbling and blathering about Okwiri Oduor

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A profile of Okwiri Oduor, writer. Read the full transcript of my interview with her here.

Okwiri speaks slowly, carefully, gently. Often she doesn’t speak at all. In a group, you will see her listening intently, but in a crowd, she has a tendency to disappear, to retreat into herself. And then, suddenly, she speaks, and it’s worth hearing. She says things. It’s good to listen to her.

In my first conversation with the most recent winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing—arguably the most prominent prize for contemporary African writers—I found myself talking a lot, and listening less than I wanted to. There’s an intensity to her silences that I couldn’t help but babble and blather to fill. Not because she made me uncomfortable, but the reverse: she is a listener. And how do you hear a writer who listens? What is the sound of one writer listening? Of course, any writer worth listening to has already mastered the art, but there’s something almost tangible—almost—about her silences. Indeed, I find myself babbling now, putting myself into what is supposed to be a profile of her.  And maybe that’s the point. I’ve struggled with writing this “profile” for a month now, because while you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who knows her that dislikes her, or has a bad word to say about her, her writing isn’t about her. Okwiri listens and makes you comfortable—in fact, at a certain point in the interview, I found myself telling her about how I stopped being a vegetarian, about my time as a primary school teacher in Tanzania, about all sorts of random things—so much so, that she herself almost disappears. But her writing unsettles, disturbs, lingers, and endures.

People have said a lot of things about the short story that won the Caine Prize, “My Father’s Head,” a story that was rejected so many times that its author eventually gave up and put it in a drawer, but it’s also a hard story to catch. It’s this elusiveness that you try to catch in describing it, in fact: it’s a story that can be read and re-read; “an uplifting story about mourning – Joycean in its reach,” as the novelist Jackie Kay put it; “a story you want to return to the minute you finish it.” As Keguro Macharia wrote, it’s “a story about listening”:

“a story about stories, about the labor of memory-work. It is a story about leaving and returning, a story familiar to so many of us, a story, in some ways, about the way returns are never possible. In the final moments, it becomes a story about a kind of impossible world. It is about a world made less possible because a person imagined to be a fixture in the world no longer exists in that way. It is, in some ways, about the ethics of the stories we tell, how we tell them. It is also about how we listen, and who we listen to.”

It’s about eight pages long, but you find yourself re-reading it. When Okwiri was in London for the various Caine Prize events, she found herself re-reading it—a few dozen times—because she wanted to carefully prepare for each public reading, by practicing first. I like the image of Okwiri reading and re-reading herself; she speaks with a slow deliberation, and constantly doubles back on herself; when I was transcribing the interview, later, I used a lot of ellipses, and I couldn’t help noticing how often she corrects herself, how many words she tries out on the tongue before rejecting them, and trying something different; I can’t help but hear the sharp contrast between my own voice—the way I’m rushing through my sentences, almost speaking over myself—and her measured, very slow pace. At first you might take that gentle uncertainty in her speaking voice to be caution, or restraint, but it’s not, not really; she speaks with such a deep respect for the words she’s using, that she’s always correcting herself, repeating herself with a difference, to clarify or to question. If you didn’t know she was a writer, it might seem like nothing; it might even seem like she’s unsure of herself, nervous. But when you’ve read her stories, and especially as you get to know her better, you can almost see her take up each word, each sentence, with a probing curiosity, brushing it off and holding it to the light.

My first conversation with the most recent winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing was at an event in Nairobi called the World’s Loudest Library, a mix of literary discussion, book-swapping, drinking, and dancing, in a warehouse space on Kijabe street, just above a textbook store. Against one wall, there were ceiling-high boxes of… something, I don’t know what. When we arrived, there were maybe two dozen people or so sitting on lawn chairs and rough furniture, chatting amiably, quietly. As we meandered through the room, Okwiri carefully introduced me to each and every person there, with the same careful conscientiousness that one learns to expect from her. When people congratulated her on winning the Caine Prize—she had only just returned from the awards ceremony in London, so it was their first chance to do so—she shrugged it off, uninterested in being praised and congratulated.

As more people arrived, the event began, and in the foreground, it was energetic, even raucous: after the DJ took a break, the organizers introduced the topic of the night, to the fifty or so people who had been quietly drinking in dimly-lit circles, mostly looking to be in their twenties and thirties. Why don’t Africans read their own stories? the organizers asked; Why are we more familiar with Hollywood movies than with something like Anansi? The discussion that followed was combative, eloquent, meandering, and a little frustrating. Musicians, writers, and artists discussed the problems of being Kenyan creators, both material questions of how and the more existential problem of what and why. What it meant or could mean to be “Kenyan”—much less a Kenyan writer or artist—was passionately up for debate, and was; at several points, the debate broke down altogether and the organizers had to impose strict rules of order on who could speak, and when and how. Okwiri did not join the discussion; much of the debate was familiar terrain, the kind of evergreen arguments that pass through each generation and which had found their way to this one. Much of it was also wildly tangential. There was, for example, the hotly debated question of whether Google Play would allow game designers to upload their creations from Kenya; one person argued that it would not allow it, and another argued—with the courage of deep conviction—that it would. When neither would concede the point, they agreed to disagree, and the question remain unresolved. At a certain point, the debate became a dance party.

Okwiri stayed in the background, quite literally. People at the event kept recognizing her and congratulating her, a celebrity in their midst. But when an organizer asked if she’d like him to introduce her to everyone else, to alert the crowd to her presence, she was blunt, firm, and unambiguous: this was precisely what she did not wish to happen. She took being on stage seriously. and had no interest in doing it here. She was not there as literary celebrity, and certainly not the kind that she had been in London. She is a writer, a distinctly different vocation than the performer of Africanness.

While the argument about African artistic creation raged on, Okwiri and I spoke quietly in the other corner. She talked about being an introvert, about how exhausting it can be to be social. For all the talk in that room about being an artist, a musician, and a writer, I couldn’t help but feel like here was a person who was too busy doing it to talk about how or why. One of the first things she told me was that she had once wanted to be a nun, an image that made both of us laugh. But she certainly does have a vocation. She is a writer.

She’s written a lot, and also not very much. In one sense, she’s barely launched as a writer. She’s in her mid-twenties, and while “My Father’s Head” is a superb story—and she has what I might call a once-in-a-generation way with a sentence—most of what she’s published, in the course of a four-year career as an author, doesn’t quite measure up (as she would be—and is—the first to admit, even to proclaim). She was horrified when I told her that I had done my homework and read her earlier writing; “I shouldn’t condemn myself and them,” she said, reluctantly; “If I’m the writer that I am today, it’s because I had to be that writer, I had to write those stories to become this writer, to write these stories.” But there really is a sharp distinction between her earlier writing and what she’s writing now.

Those stories were written by Claudette Oduor, her name for many years. If you look for things Claudette wrote, you can find stories like “The Red Bindi on Diwali,” “Tentacles of the Same Octopus,” and “The Plea Bargain,” published online. You might also find a story called “Children of the Dark” in an anthology called Fresh Paint: Literary Vignettes by Kenyan Women, and a much-praised, but little-read novella, “The Dream Chasers,” which you can buy as an e-book for $0.99 (you should buy it. Despite what she’ll tell you, it’s quite good).

When I asked her about her earlier work, she cringed. She looked physically pained when I asked her about “The Dream Chasers,” urging me not to read it, and she declared “Children of the Dark” to be “the worst story ever.” She seemed startled—not false modesty, but what seemed like genuine surprise—when I told her that I thought the opening to “The Red Bindi on Diwali” was a spectacular piece of prose:

On the window ledge where glass separated two kinds of night, I watched the two nights. The first night cried out loud, distressed because it could not see the vast horizons where it had buried its treasures. It is too dark, the night wailed. But the stupid night forgot that it was it that brought in the darkness. It looked in the mirror and cursed the folly of its freckled face, forgetting that each freckle was a twinkling star. It cried because a one-eyed monster nestled in its crevices, forgetting that the one-eyed monster was the moon that lit the night’s night.

Inside the window ledge, wherein I stood, the second night thought itself more superior to the night outside. It was proud because it was warm and well-fed, charged with the important duty of keeping secrets and inventing dreams. It patronised the night outside forgetting that it was worse off. It was a caged night, a tamed useless night that would die if let out in the wild…

At some point, she stopped calling herself Claudette. “As Claudette, I was a very different person,” she told me:

“In school, I was very bound to follow many rules, many different kinds of rules, religious, home, or school. After that, it was just a long process of un-binding myself and discovering that the world was… much bigger than I imagined, and my mind was much bigger than I’d been led to believe, and language was much bigger. There are rules, but you don’t have to follow them. Of course there are consequences, but it’s nothing that kills you.”

Okwiri is the name she was given at birth, a name she had “grown up believing was rough and ugly and unacceptable.” As she told the South African Mail and Guardian,

“The things I believed about my name can be taken as metaphors for how I saw myself and my writing as well, and so coming to terms with the person I was meant first and foremost carrying my own name with no shame. I chose to be unapologetic about being myself.”

Her discomfort with her earlier writing—an almost visceral recoil from its existence and continued circulation—is a feeling most writers will probably recognize. There’s also a measure of critical insight in it. She is much harder on herself than anyone else would think to be, but Okwiri Oduor is unquestionably a different writer than the Claudette who wrote stories about young love thwarted by tradition, or parental authority, or circumstance; as Okwiri dismissively joked, they’re the sorts of stories you might find in a UN anthology about on women’s rights. Even her novella, “The Dream Chasers,” takes Kenya’s 2007 Post-Election Violence as the backdrop for a story about star-crossed lovers, divided by tribal allegiance. But however stylistically virtuosic these stories might be, it can still feel like you’ve read them before: the children not allowed to marry because of their parents’ prejudices, patriarchal abuse, the violence of war… these are familiar narratives, rendered vivid and compelling, perhaps, but also recognizable and moralistic. There is also a temptingly false solution in each of them: just let the kids alone! Forced marriage, tribalist prejudice, or female circumcision; in each case, it’s tempting to find a rather simple and reductive take-away. If you take away the parents or patriarchs who violate and control their children, everything will be fine.

She’s written less under the name Okwiri, but what there is, so far, is spectacular. After “My Father’s Head” she has a story called “Christopher” in Saraba magazine, and a story called “Ragdoll” in the Africa39 anthology put together by the Hay Festival. I’ve read them all many times, and I expect to read them a few more times. They don’t so much end, as stop. And that’s part of what it means to put “Claudette” aside, if I may make so bold: the stories written by Claudette can be temptingly simple, capable of resolution. Change one thing, and the tragedy becomes a comedy, a drama that ends with a wedding instead of a corpse.

The stories that Okwiri has written, by contrast, are not stories you’ve read before, and they don’t finish, or let go of you when you put them down. Sometimes she writes beautifully, but her prose is never easy, and never simple. Instead, sense comes apart in her hands, and as her sentences warp and distort, the warped and distorted reality beneath comes into view. Indeed, “My Father’s Head” is about many things, but one of them is this evolving insufficiency of stories themselves: as the protagonist strives to remember that which cannot be recalled, reality warps and twists under her attempt to grasp it. Even the terms of the story we think we are reading, when we begin reading it, have changed dramatically by the time we get to the end: you are not reading the same story at the end as you were when you begin. Some people have used phrases like “magical realism” to describe her writing, but it only gestures towards what she’s doing without saying very much about it: the reality she shows us is not magical, just real in ways we may sometimes lack the perception (or courage) to see. But more importantly, there is, in the uncanniness of the worlds she creates, the familiar incongruity of the self, made strange to itself, the face in the mirror that is, and is not, your own. That it seems magical, and real, is a measure of her accomplishment.

People tend to treat her as if “My Father’s Head” is the only thing she’s ever written—a statement which has almost enough of a kernel of truth to almost let it pass—but I feel confident in predicting that we haven’t yet read the best things that she’s written, much less of what she will write. Her novel in progress, she told me, is set in the Kenya of 1988, amidst some of the deepest political repression of the Moi regime, an era of protest, crackdowns, torture, and dictatorial violence. It’s also, she told me a moment later, a novel about female friendship:

“…half of it is in this world, but half of it is in another world, if I should call it that. I guess there’s two main characters now. One died, but she’s still making a journey, and it’s the same kind of journey that the other girl is making. A kind of journey into…”

And then her voice trailed off. “Um, I don’t know,” she said; “I’m not very good with words. I’m not good with words when I’m writing.” We both laughed at that.

 

 

 

Rape Culture: The War At Home

Mwangi2013-6543(This essay by Wambui Mwangi was originally posted, a year ago, at Diary of a Mad Kenyan Woman, and has been slightly revised. I thank her for writing it, and allowing me to share it.)

When it comes to gender-based violence, Kenyan men like to say “these are women’s issues.” Many Kenyan men also wonder aloud if having a woman as the Defence Secretary and a woman as Foreign Affairs Secretary is a good idea. These men opine that women in general know nothing about war, conflict, violence or international relations of force. They are wrong.

Women know a lot about conflict and war. Women have a very intimate knowledge of violence. Men usually initiate the wars and men do most of the killing, but it’s women and children who suffer the most. It is so also often women who have lost the men in their family who must make the heroic efforts to repair the tattered social fabric in war’s aftermath. It is so often women who suture back together the jagged edges of family and community, with equal measures of desperation and determination.

Nevertheless, as Eve Ayiera has cogently argued, sexual and gender based violence are not “weapons of war.” Sexual violence might intensify in the long-tail aftermath of conflict as some men celebrate their war “victories” and others compensate for their “humiliated” sense of manhood with acts of rape and sexual violence. But these kinds of men prey upon women, children and other vulnerable men on their return from theatres of conflict, as well. When “rape is a weapon of war,” the issue might not be whether men should rape and sexuality assault women; the issue might be which men get to rape and sexually assault “their” women, in ordinary life and at all other times. Men rape and sexually assault women–and sometimes other men–in war and also in peace, even fellow soldiers. Stories and survivor testimonies abound. Many non-military women also experience their homes and lives as a war zone even when their countries or communities are not officially “at war.” Peacetime life can be radically insecure.

Men rape and sexually assault women–and sometimes other men–in brightly-lit bedrooms and in poorly-lit bars. Men rape and sexually assault women–and sometimes other men–in hotels and in hospitals. Men rape and sexually assault women–and sometimes other men–in homes, on streets, in schools, at work, in elite clubs and in public transport locations.

Kenyan women are mostly silent about this violence. Reports have been published on post-election violence, and survivor testimonies tell us that the targets of gender-based violence were mostly women and children, and that the perpetrators were mostly men. But the witnesses who told their stories to the Kenyan Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission had to explain that it was difficult to talk about their experiences. Their communities and families disapprove of women “speaking of sex.”

Sexual violence violates and traumatizes in the initial assault, but the imposition of collective silence violates the victims again. Without justice, without the release of standing witness to their own lives, these women are imprisoned in the memories and the consequences of their untold experiences. By abdicating the emotional labour of grieving, and of building a more sharable and liveable life for all, the community victimizes these women once again.

 

II.

As the Kenyan poet Sitawa Namwalie has said:

Let’s speak a simple truth,
The average man can without much planning,
Take by force most average women in the world, all average children,
Rape her or him,
Whenever,
With an angry penis, or even a metal rod, if one is handy,
And while he’s at it, call his friends,
“Come let’s have some fun.”
An unauthorised coupling, in rhyming couplets?

And then, when it’s over,
And he is discovered,
No need to fret,
Because,
He can rely on the average man to cover-up and declare his crime a mere transgression,
A mistrial it must be!
Because,
It was the clothes she almost wore,
A tiny miniskirt, it barely covered her virtue, she was asking for it you see,
My imagination was sorely tempted,
What was I supposed to do?
It was all her fault.
Because,
She was in the wrong place at the wrong time,
In a bus at night?
Why does she go out in public at all?
A woman’s place is strictly in the kitchen, everyone knows that!
Because,
She fought back,
She should have lain there and taken it, well, like a woman!
She must have enjoyed it, really they always do, with me!
Because,
It was legitimate rape,
Within the bounds of natural justice,
And besides,
A woman cannot be raped unless she wants it.
The man who was a judge quickly declared a mistrial.
The end!

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In June 2013, a Kenyan court ruled that the Kenya police “have contributed to the development of a culture of tolerance for pervasive sexual violence against girl children and impunity.”

In Kenya, men dominate social, political and economic institutions from the rural elders’ councils to elite golf and country clubs; from the labour unions to the corporate associations; from the sports’ federations to the scientific institutions; from the manufacturing to the matatu industry; from the political parties to the prison system’s administration; from the legal to the criminal establishments; and from newspaper columnists to the street-corner vendors who often read these newspapers to their customers.

In Kenya, daily assaults on the dignity and bodily persons of vulnerable human beings continues to the general unconcern of Kenya’s institutions and society. In India, hundreds of thousands of men have held public demonstrations in solidarity with women and in protest against sexual and gender based violence; in Kenya, women die and bear physical and emotional scars for life to a deafening silence, broken only by the occasional wink-nudge encouragement of mostly male politicians, mostly male secular intellectuals, and mostly male spiritual authorities.

Men in the business community mostly do not speak out when women in management, women workers, and women customers live under threat. Radical men working for social justice mostly do not question their participation or acquiescence in daily violence against half of “the people” for whom they claim concern. Fathers of daughters mostly seem not to notice that the daughters of other fathers are being raped. Men who have sisters are mostly not bothered when assaulting the sisters of their friends.

Patriarchal cultures debase and objectify women, and support violence. Misogynist speech encourages violence against women–and sometimes men–by a daily attrition of their humanity. Social attitudes that are habitually passed around also buttress violence against women, against children, and against other men. Fathers teach their sons to feel contempt, habits of mind passed from brother to brother, from neighbour to neighbour and from friend to friend. They are refashioned in popular culture, made respectable by male icons of literature. They are circulated in bars amongst men and in boardrooms amongst men.

 

III.

Some men are quick to blame women for the “dissolution of society’s morals.’” Some of these men are in positions of public authority. Victim blaming works by distracting attention away from the real sources of the violence and terror in our communities. These male authorities do not condemn Kenyan men or accept their own accountability for lost public trust.

Racism recruits some black people into self-hatred. Colonialism recruited some Africans into inferiority complexes. Misogynist practices recruit some women into woman-hating speech and actions, which appear in many disguises in the “normal” daily micro-interactions between men and women. They take on virulent forms throughout our society.

Earlier last year, in Kitengela, Nyeri and Bomet, women passengers at matatu stops were set upon by “mobs” of men who violently assaulted and stripped the women naked while abusing them. These men said they were correcting the women’s “indecency.” The studio anchors presenting this story on television barely restrained their sniggers, apparently not realizing they were watching a horrifying crime. Male authorities advised women “to dress more decently.”

When a powerful Kenyan Minister died, the newspapers reported that the daughter of the Minister’s herdsman came forward to claim that he fathered her son. If her story was true, the Minister must have had sex with her while she was still a minor, statutory rape. But he had been a powerful man, so there were calls “not to speak ill of the dead.” The benefit of the doubt was not for the young woman and her son, but for the powerful man. There were speculations that she was lying, that she had been paid by the dead man’s political enemies. As Shailja Patel noted, some Kenyan citizens are apparently “disposable girls.”

When a flurry of anti-pornography condemnation broke out in the Kenyan mainstream and social media, I turned on the television and saw the image of a man’s hand fondling the buttocks of a woman wearing white trousers. I thought this was the pornography we were talking about, but it turned out that the hand belonged to the long arm of the law. The Kenyan state is in touch with its female citizens. The policeman’s hand was “helping” the woman into the waiting vehicle while arresting her on charges related to forms of “indecency.”

There are many terms of abuse for Kenyan women who work in the sex-industry. Their male clients are “men who have gone astray.” Most of the producers, profiteers, and consumers of the sex-industry are men.

Rappers refer to women as “bitches” with monotonous regularity, a global male habit of contempt for women. The Nyali “pornography” story as it first circulated involved some young women, a mysterious foreigner, and a dog. The dog was later retracted from the public story by the police, but not before the narrative and its exclamations of horror at the women’s “bestiality” had reached every corner of Kenya and the Kenyan Diaspora. The young women’s morals were even compared unfavourably to those of the imaginary dog. Amidst the furor, young men on Kenyan college campuses found it hilarious to bark lasciviously at their female colleagues. Some men of all ages engaged in this behaviour on public streets.

They did not notice how peculiar they looked growling and woof-woofing lewdly at complete strangers.

When a respected psychiatrist and a revered public intellectual responded to the questions of a self-described survivor of incest and child abuse, his considered professional advice was full of tender concern towards the man who inflicted the abuse. The doctor worried about the man’s reputation, warning that he might be “a respected elder by now.” The doctor told the self-described survivor of incest and child abuse that she might be delusional or acting from malicious motives.

These are not “women’s issues.” Women suffer, but suffer in cultures and spaces controlled and dominated by men. These are men’s issues. These are patterns of problems within Kenyan masculinity.
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IV.

Many Kenyan men inflict bodily harm on other human beings in the name of affronted masculinity or compelling masculine “needs.” Many Kenyan men have violently destructive behaviours. Many Kenyan men hide each other’s crimes, with silence, or with complicit nods, winks and shrugs. Many Kenyan men ignore pervasive violence as it occurs in front of their unseeing eyes. Many Kenyan men deny all of this.

Some Kenyan men do not. Some Kenyan men write fiercely and passionately against misogyny and patriarchy with scholarly discipline or poetic lyricism. Male CREAW and Femnet activists work with other men to change the violent masculinity of frustrated and marginalised male youth. “The Men’s Pledge“enlists men against gender-based violence. Wanjala Wafula writes against the “plague of sexual violence;“ Coexist Kenya acts to end it. Kenne Mwikya objected that the men canonizing Prof. Wangari Maathai after her death had publicly vilified her while she was alive. Godwin Murunga has well-researched and rigorous scholarly critiques of flawed hegemonic masculinities. Keguro Macharia repeatedly decries “banal misogyny.” Michael Onsando self-published a poem about the silencing of women’s truths after the doctor’s response to the self-described abuse survivor appeared.

Many other men are committed to creating a safer world for men and women. Many other men work hard to increase all citizens’ everyday security and freedom from harm. Many Kenyan grandfathers and fathers and brothers and uncles and cousins and friends and colleagues ensure that their domestic, professional and public environments are safe and supportive of human dignity for all.

All these men combined are still a miniscule proportion of Kenyan men.

If men stop treating women like chattel; if men stop treating women like second-class citizens; if men stop stereotyping women as available for men’s pleasures; if men stop laughing at misogynist jokes; if men refuse to be complicit in misogynist acts; if men value their daughters as much as their sons; if men speak out about rapists who are their friends and sexual abusers who are their relatives; if men insist to each other that sexual- and gender-based violence is unacceptable; if men acknowledge their responsibility and join other men to transform the culture of violent masculinity: women and men, together, might bend the arc of Kenyan history towards justice.

Objects and Clarity

Objectively, Eric Garner was not killed by police because he was black.

Objectively: “On July 17, 2014, in Staten Island, New York, United States, Eric Garner died of a heart attack while police officers were arresting him for selling untaxed cigarettes.”

Objectivity is important; one must not advocate.

The New York Post writes, today:

Many teachers had worn the shirts to school Tuesday and Wednesday as a show of support for cops in the wake of the Eric Garner death and union-backed rally by the Rev. Al Sharpton. But they were warned by a United Federation of Teachers official in an email late Wednesday that, “as public employees, one must remain objective at all times. Certain T-shirt messages may appear to be supportive, but individuals (parents, students) may see a different meaning in that message.”

NYPOST

According to schooldigger’s objective data, PS 220 has 46 full-time teachers.

A first grade teacher, 2013: “I’m not a teacher — I’m a warden for future criminals!”

tressie

According to schooldigger’s objective data,

“Student population at Ps 220 Edward Mandel is diverse. Racial makeup is: White (40.4%), Hispanic (25.3%), Asian (24%).”

Arithmetic: 40.4% + 25.3% + 24% =89.7%

According to schooldigger’s objective data, there are 58 African-American students at PS 220.

Some Thoughts on Fruitvale Station, and No Angel

“I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.”

–Secretary of State Madeleine Albright

I’ve been thinking about the movie Fruitvale Station, the way—because it begins with Oscar Grant’s death, and because it only becomes a story at all by reference to that morbid telos—it always threatens to become a story about the “value” of Oscar Grant’s life. The entire movie grows from that narrative stem: when Oscar Grant was killed, what was it that died? What was lost? Was he a good person, to be mourned?

I use the word “value,” however, with a sense of loss and regret, and not because of the squandered “value” of his life. That’s a strange way to think about what a person is, to think about a life being “squandered.” There is a word for what happens to a person when you turn them into something whose value can be enumerated, when you commodify the worth of their life so that it has a price. If a life has a price, it can be bought. More to the point, there is a real violence that comes from imagining that a life must have value to be a thing that can be grieved. When you die, will you be mourned because you brought “value” to your society? Will the extent of the loss of you be summed up in terms of how far your credits outweighed your debits?

Fruitvale Station cannot help but answer the question of the value of Oscar Grant’s life, because these are the terms that are forced upon it, the question it cannot not answer. It’s not a criticism of the movie to observe, then, that it shows us an Oscar Grant whose life is worth something, or that his value to the world around him is an important part of what makes it possible to be sad and outraged at his death. We think this way because these are the words and thoughts that are available to us, and the movie is what it is because of what it is forced to be. But the movie is also rather superb in its ability to start from the standard tropes of pathologized black male life—the job, the child, selling drugs, jail—and to build the story of a person struggling to live within a world that will give him life only grudgingly, that forces him to reckon with these, as the terms on which he will be suffered to live. The Oscar Grant that the movie shows us, then, is no angel, but neither is he a devil: if the movie succeeds, it is because it makes those words irrelevant, because we stop caring about that. If the movie succeeds in making it possible for us to grieve Oscar Grant—a stranger to the vast majority of us, until the moment we heard of his death—it does so by doing something different than measuring his value as a human being and finding it to be a positive rather than a negative number.

“I wanted the audience to get to know this guy, to get attached, so that when the situation that happens to him happens, it’s not just like you read it in the paper, you know what I mean? When you know somebody as a human being, you know that life means something.”

—Ryan Coogler

The idea that life “means something” in the abstract is a trap: it gives us the language by which we might say a particular life means nothing, or is worth nothing. Murderers become bare life because they have killed, after all, which means it is (perversely) respect for the value of life that allows us to take life without moral penalty. A policeman can kill someone on the street—or on a BART platform—if they can judge that person’s existence to be a negative on the abstract scoreboard of social life: the life of a particular person representing a threat to “life” (as it is socially construed) can be extinguished, and even must be.

For Coogler, here, the main point is not that Grant’s life measured up to some abstract standard of value, that because he was a good kid, he didn’t deserve to die. If he wasn’t a good kid, would he deserve to die? No, the point is that knowing him as a life in motion, knowing and seeing and feeling him as a person—in the intimate ways that watching a movie enables—forces us to get attached to what disappears when he dies, in ways that have nothing necessarily to do with whether his life had an abstract value to society. We mourn people who have become a part of us, people in whose humanity we see reflections of ourselves and our loves, not because they have value or are without flaw, but because they are ours. If you know a person—if you really know them—you will find it difficult not to mourn their death. You will feel their absence, and it will mark a part of you that is now absent, forever.  You will not need to ask whether their life had “value”; instead of counting, you will simply feel.

If Fruitvale Station succeeds, it’s because it transcends the terms of its genre. As a story about a young black male life, it begins with all of the stories that are told about young black men and their value: jobs, children, crime, and family. But it becomes a powerful movie because it doesn’t end there, because, at a certain point, you stop caring about “Oscar Grant” for his efforts to be a good father or whatever. You stop judging him. He becomes a person, a person not reducible to the question of whether his life has value. You feel him. He is a part of you.

The now-notorious “No Angel” article in the NY Times yesterday fails because it does not transcend the terms of its genre. Its editors should have known better; its writer does seem to know better, or at least acknowledges that he could have written it differently, and should have. I suspect that what he admits publicly about an “ill-chosen phrase” also covers over the realization that that phrase grew from a problematic premise, and I hope that next time, he won’t fall into that trap. Such an article could never have succeeded. A two hour movie has the time and space to grow out of its original premise; a brief newspaper article that begins from the St. Peter-like premise of “Angel or Devil?” is not going to, is only going to make it easier to reduce the irreducible complexity of human beings into a yea or nay, into an obscene referendum of whether a person is to live or die. And by what right would you or I ever have to make that decision? What monstrous arrogance would ever make us even attempt to pretend we should try?