Philosophy in the American West, A Geography of Thought

Picture of Gerard KuperusUSF Associate Professor of Philosophy, Gerard Kuperus, published a co-edited volume (with Brian Treanor and Josh Hayes, Routledge, 2020) about philosophy in our part of the world—the American West. Cities such as San Francisco and Seattle could be considered to be the contemporary equivalent of Ancient Athens, certainly in terms of its wealth, and possibly also as a place ideal for thinking. While Athens was influenced by Asia to the East, the West Coast of the USA is in dialogue with Asian traditions to the West, Europe to the East, Latin America to the south, and is home to indigenous philosophies. The American West as this meeting ground for different traditions can be seen as a fertile basis for philosophy and it is this insight that provides the philosophical background to Philosophy in the American West.

The project started with the 10th anniversary meeting of the Pacific Association for the Continental Tradition (PACT). The conference took place in 2018 in Yosemite and was organized around the theme “Thinking in the West.” PACT is an organization co-founded by Kuperus and has brought together philosophers from different traditions (including Asian and Indigenous), artists, and writers. As a West Coast organization PACT has always emphasized place even while it has attracted scholars from all parts of the country as well as Europe and Asia. In many ways the book is the result of the collaborations that PACT has engaged in during its first decade.

Philosophy in the American West explores the physical, ecological, cultural, and narrative environments associated with the western United States, reflecting on the relationship between people and the places that sustain them.

The American West has long been recognized as having significance. From Crèvecoeur’s early observations in Letters from an American Farmer (1782), to Thoreau’s reflections in Walden (1854), to twentieth-century thoughts on the legacy of a vanishing frontier, “the West” has played a pivotal role in the American narrative and in the American sense of self. But while the nature of “westernness” has been touched on by historians, sociologists, and, especially, novelists and poets, this collection represents the first attempt to think philosophically about the nature of “the West” and its influence on us. The contributors take up thinkers that have been associated with Continental Philosophy and pair them with writers, poets, and artists of “the West.” And while this collection seeks to loosen the cords that tie philosophy to Europe, the traditions of “continental” philosophy—phenomenology, hermeneutics, deconstruction, and others—offer deep resources for thinking through the particularity of place.

The book contains twelve original chapters, including (besides the chapter and co-written introduction by Kuperus) two contributions from other USF faculty: Amanda Parris (Philosophy) and Marjolein Oele (Philosophy).


For more information:

https://www.routledge.com/Philosophy-in-the-American-West-A-Geography-of-Thought/Hayes-Kuperus-Treanor/p/book/9780367489502

The Pacific Association for the Continental Tradition (PACT): https://pactphilosophy.org/

The Art of Insurrection

Pedro Lange-Churión and John Zarobell

On Tuesday, April 20, 2021, Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd and the public has seen, at long last, that our justice system is capable of prosecuting and punishing police officers who brutalize black and brown bodies. This decision can in no way reconcile the injustices faced by minorities in this country. Indeed, during the trial, it was reported that on average three people of color per day are killed by police officers in the United States. This story is not resolved but the protests against police violence that took place over the summer of 2020 and the civil disorder that resulted have also reignited a creative legacy of protest art that has been a key element of social protest movements around the world and in the Bay Area.

This piece, a collaboration between us, was an effort to capture the political divides in this country as they emerge on the contested streets of Oakland. The rifts left by Donald Trump’s efforts to drag the country away from any social progress we might have achieved over the last 100 or so years frames both, the civil unrest and our efforts to read it through the renegade public art that materialized in the very center of the city. We aimed to create a dialectic between images and texts about the city, about racial politics, and about the revolutionary efforts to demand rights for all people and to assert, above all, that Black Lives Matter.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Floydway

Street sign painted with text "Floydway"
Photo: Pedro Lange-Churión

You had such a vision of the street                                                 As the street hardly understands —T.S. Eliot, Preludes

*

This renaming to Floydway marks the street as a site of trauma. Floyd himself looks on. It is a moment of discontinuity that generates a new symbolic, an intervention against the reality of the power and violence of the state, manifested in the planning and maintenance of the city. Rancière calls this dissensus, this break in consciousness that emerges from the rewriting of the street in the name of those subverted by it. The subversive laughter brings out an unintended response to the city as it is.


Citation and link to the full article:

Lange-Churión, Pedro, and John Zarobell. “Report from Oakland: The Art of Insurrection.” Theory & Event 23, no. 5 (2020): S-110-S-126. muse.jhu.edu/article/775406.

Hard Questions: Learning to Teach Controversial Issues

Photo of Judy PaceJudy Pace, Professor in the School of Education, has published a new book. It’s based on a cross-national study–funded by the Spencer Foundation–that examines teaching controversial issues, teacher educators’ methodology for teacher preparation, and novice teachers’ efforts in secondary classrooms. Pace was recently selected to be part of a pilot cohort of grantees in the Spencer Foundation’s Research Communications Grant Program, aimed at broadening the impact of research.

Teaching controversial issues in the classroom is now more urgent and fraught than ever as we face up to rising authoritarianism, racial and economic injustice, and looming environmental disaster. Despite evidence that teaching controversy is critical, educators often avoid it. How then can we prepare and support teachers to undertake this essential but difficult work? Based on a cross-national qualitative study, Hard Questions: Learning to Teach Controversial Issues, examines teacher educators’ efforts to prepare preservice teachers for teaching controversial issues that matter for democracy, justice, and human rights. It presents four detailed cases of teacher preparation in three politically divided societies: Northern Ireland, England, and the United States.

Pace developed a grounded theory that explains an organizing principle across teacher educators’ approaches called “contained risk-taking.” As a group, the teacher educators taught a set of eight strategies for exploring controversial issues in classrooms while containing the potential risks, such as classroom conflict, harm to students, and recriminations from parents or administrators. Contained risk-taking is particularly relevant for teaching controversial issues in a highly contentious and polarized political climate.

The book traces graduate students’ learning from university coursework into the classrooms where they work to put what they have learned into practice. It explores their application of pedagogical tools and the factors that facilitated or hindered their efforts to teach controversy. The book’s cross-national perspective is compelling to a broad and diverse audience, raising critical questions about teaching controversial issues and providing educators, researchers, and policymakers tools to help them fulfill this essential democratic mission of education.

In the following interview, Professor Judy Pace discusses her new book with Valentina Sarmiento, a recent graduate of the USF Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program. They talk about how the book speaks to the current political moment, differences in approaches to teaching controversial issues, and generative ideas for applying the book’s lessons to curriculum development and teaching in today’s classrooms.

Healing Through Grassroots Social Justice Movements Created for Educators, by Educators

Farima Pour-Khorshid, assistant professor of Teacher Education, writes about Bay Area social justice movements in education and their impact as a researcher and educator.

T4SJ participants on stairs

Over the past seven years, I’ve felt honored to organize with the Teachers 4 Social Justice (T4SJ) in San Francisco. I initially heard about the T4SJ annual conference back in October of 2012 during a time that I was desperately searching for intellectual and emotional support in my practice. To give some context, I had just returned abruptly to California after living and teaching in Nicaragua for two years because my brother, Mazyar Pour-Khorshid Jr., died unexpectedly just after his twenty-fifth birthday. I was struggling with my mental health, and the pain of that tragedy felt all-encompassing. Yet, despite my grief, I started a PhD program and also returned to teach part-time in my Bay Area community two months later. I figured that the busier I was, the less time I had for depression. That year I remember crying regularly in my classroom during recesses, lunch breaks, and after school. The reality was that my teacher education program did not equip me with knowledge or resources to know how to cope through personal and second-hand trauma as a teacher and I felt overwhelmed.

Beyond my personal struggles, I was constantly reminded of my unhealed trauma from my K-12 schooling experiences within the same district that I was teaching in. I felt triggered each time I witnessed students of color being either spoken about or treated in dehumanizing ways. Mandatory district sponsored teacher professional development and school collaboration meetings added layers of frustration to my experience because I began to realize how my professional learning maintained white supremacy. I began to feel like I was part of the problem, because after all, I was an actor within a system that was fundamentally toxic and inequitable in its very design.

I attended the T4SJ annual conference in October of 2012 after having a conversation with a community-based educator at my school. I left the conference feeling so inspired by all of the teachers and organizers that I met, the radical workshop topics, social justice resources and by the collectivism that permeated every conversation and space I was part of throughout the day. I decided to sign up for a monthly drop-in meeting the following month. I attended and felt rejuvenated by the level of commitment that these educators demonstrated after a long school day as they learned about and critically analyzed a range of problematic issues within education. In so doing, they revealed an impressive depth of knowledge that I had been hungry for since I entered the profession.

My involvement within the organization allowed me to conceptualize my research as meaningfully embedded in my practice and in solidarity with other educators in the field. T4SJ shifted my purpose in my practice as a public school educator, my trajectory as a doctoral student, and my activism as a grassroots organizer. For example, the more I reflected on some of my own racialized and gendered traumatic experiences, the more I began to think about what healing could look like within our organization and across education spaces. I wondered about how T4SJ could offer support, and I proposed creating a racial affinity group within the organization, especially because I yearned for that kind of space in order to sustain myself in the field. Two other T4SJ comrades of color, Karen Zapata and Chela Delgado, joined me in this endeavor and led us to cultivate a sacred space named H.E.L.L.A., a racial affinity group to support critical educators of Color. Being that we are situated within the Bay Area, centering the word hella was an important identity signifier and served as our acronym for our group’s political and pedagogical commitments to healing, empowerment, love, liberation and action (H.E.L.L.A.). Our approach has been rooted in healing centered engagement, which was influenced by the work I was doing with my mentor, Dr. Shawn Ginwright and the Flourish Agenda team. Our approach to collective healing is grounded in the power of our counternarrives as we’ve engaged deeply in Testimonio as Radical Story-Telling and Creative Resistance for sustainability in our work.

My involvement and leadership within T4SJ over time led to my involvement in other grassroots activist collectives like the Bay Area chapter of the People’s Education Movement which our very own Dr. Patrick Camangian cofounded. I also became a board member within the national Education for Liberation Network, which organizes Free Minds Free People, a grassroots national conference that brings together teachers, young people, researchers, parents and community-based activists/educators from across the country to build a movement to develop and promote education as a tool for liberation.  Collectively, we see activism as a shared struggle for human being which is essentially the “struggle for the inalienable right of all people to human be—to be liberated from any project of violence that treats persons as property, persons as things, persons as disposable, or persons as in any other way less than fully human” (p. 247). This struggle is also connected to building movements to end the prison industrial complex in our schools, the movement for ethnic studies, healing justice and more.

All of the justice-oriented liberatory education collectives that I have been part of have supported and matured my politic of radical teacher learning and support. My scholarship is deeply rooted in and emergent from these relationships with educators and activists as we collectively navigate structural violence in and out of educational spaces. I think it is critical for educators and educational researchers, spanning any level of their career, to be involved in liberatory education organizations. We are teaching, organizing and researching through an apolitical, color evasive, neoliberal education climate which has negative implications on our socialization, pedagogy and sustainability in the field.

We cannot afford to ascribe to the dominant culture, and our integrity lies in the ways we push back against white supremacist ideologies embedded in everyday school policies, practices and interactions. This work cannot be done in isolation, coalitional resistance is and will continue to be our lifeline. However, there is a deep level of humility that must undergird our solidarity, which mustn’t be confused with charity or saviorism, because in the powerful words of Indigenous Australian activist and educator, Lilla Watson, “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

As we continue to engage in the labor of love of teaching, organizing and researching for social justice, let us not neglect the spiritual and emotional aspects of our lived experiences. Our mental health matters, especially in the face of structural violence and oppression. Collective healing is such an important form of activism that our world is in desperate need of and creating healing spaces is critical for our wellbeing and sustainability in our struggle for liberation because, in the words of Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”.

Guantánamo’s Legacy

Fence

Photo by Alex G.

Today is the 17th anniversary of the opening of the Guantánamo Bay detention center in Cuba. Seven hundred and eighty Muslim men and boys were held in the prison. Many were held for a decade or longer, and nearly all were held without charges. Forty men still languish in the prison, with no possibility for exit. President Trump has stated that he has no interest in shuttering the prison. Instead, he has suggested that he would like to “load it up with some bad dudes.”

The Guantánamo detention center has not been in most people’s consciousness through the seventeen years that it has been open. In fact, when President Obama said on his second day in office that he would close the prison within one year, many people thought he did. He never did.

People today may believe that the men held in Guantánamo were “guilty.” However, hardly any of them were ever charged with a crime, and nearly all of the men were released without charges. America’s foundational belief in due process and the rule of law did not protect these men from being held in Guantánamo without charges. Nor did it protect them from torture. The rule of law also did not matter when the U.S. military purchased some of the men who were later held in Guantánamo—by paying bounties to Afghan and Pakistani soldiers. A British lawyer described these purchases as a modern-day slave trade.

Of the forty men remaining in the prison, six “high value prisoners” are to be tried in military commissions. Preliminary proceedings have been ongoing for more than a dozen years, and there is no indication that these six will ever have a trial. If they die before their trials are concluded and verdicts are given, we will never have the rule of law assurances that the men were guilty of their alleged crimes.

Violating the rule of law in Guantánamo extended beyond subjecting the men to torture and holding most of them for years without charges. Defense lawyers found microphones in client-meeting rooms in the prison. The lawyers also discovered that officials had read the prisoners’ legal mail.

The Periodic Review Board—the panel that reviews the status of the men in Guantanamo—has not recommended release of any prisoner since Trump took office. Five of the men currently held in the prison were cleared for release during Obama’s tenure. However, they were not released before Trump assumed office, and Trump has no interest in releasing them now.

The rule of law was broken in Guantánamo. It continues to be broken today—in Guantánamo and in the culture of the current administration. Producing the Muslim ban; blocking families from lawfully applying for asylum; separating children from parents at the border; directing illegal campaign payments; unilaterally withdrawing from treaties; ridiculing federal judges; and pursuing policies that benefit the president’s business dealings; all reflect that the president is not committed to guaranteeing that our laws be faithfully executed, as he solemnly swore under oath.

With the Democrats winning the House in November, there is hope we may return to civility and the rule of law. But, we cannot fully return until we also recognize the damage to America’s principles and values caused by our continued actions in Guantánamo.

Someday, Guantánamo may fade from our lives and our memories. But, today we must publicly acknowledge that Guantánamo was wrong and unlawful, that the rule of law is inviolate, and that this and every administration must strive to faithfully execute the laws and uphold the Constitution.

Professor Peter Jan Honigsberg is Founder and Director of Witness to Guantánamo and author of books and articles on post 9/11 issues. His latest book will be published by Beacon Press in fall 2019.

112235121

Michael Arcega Michael Arcega Doña Señorita I was asked to share a reflection/response to the exhibit Anting Anting | Magic Objects by Michael Arcega at a Thacher/CRASE collaborative event “Inspirations from Anting Anting: Magic Objects of Protection.”

Art is not only personal to the artist who created it but also to the person viewing it. I chose the piece “Doña Señorita”: Matriarchal power enhancement. I was drawn to it initially because I love señorita bananas. At a deeper level, the piece makes me remember my home, my family. It symbolizes the generations of Locsin women – past, present and future.

112235121

I am from my mother, my father
From Wo Sin Lok
from Amoy 268 years ago
I am from my family,
small, quiet, large, noisy, 5 in 82
I am from the garnet
hard, durable, yet soft, vulnerable
I am from the diamond
unique, creative, reflecting light to make rainbows
I am from my grandmother
petite, powerful, God fearing,
I am from those who attend Mass, pray the novena
yet believe the theories of Darwin and Lemaitre
I am from the sugar capital of the Philippines
from the home of the aswang
I am from the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost
yet believe in the lore of kapre, dwende, tiyanak
I pray the Our Father, Hail Mary and the Glory Be
but say “Tabi Tabi po” to pay respects to the elementals
I am from Washington DC
but call myself a proud Ilongga
I am from the Balay Dako
from the house that burnt to ashes
I am from the Bisaya, Hiligaynon
gentle, soft-spoken, meek
yet direct, honest, to the point
I am from the ones who taught me right from wrong
those who taught me the importance of delicadeza
yet I live in the land where it is non-existent
I am from my Yaya Goya
I am from my Lola Inday
the king, queen, empress, the last word
I am from the Holy Rosary
Ako ang nanay ni Isabel
I am 112235121

Vocabulary:
Ako ang nanay ni Isabel means I am Isabel’s mother.
Aswang means witch
Balay Dako means big house
Delicadeza means being refined or having manners, etiquette. it means having the sense of propriety or how to behave under the circumstance.
Dwende is a dwarf who live in anthills, termite mounds (punso) who are either good or bad
Ilongga refers to the females of the Visayans who speak the Hiligaynon/Illongo dialect.
Kapre is a Philippine mythical tree giant
“Tabi tabi, po” means excuse me, pardon me, please move to the side
Tiyanak is a vampiric creature who imitates the form of a child; sounds like a child and when someone picks it up, it goes back to its true form and attacks.

Liza Locsin is Assistant to the Dean in the College of Arts and Sciences. She is a ninth generation Pilipino (of Chinese origin). 112235121 is her number in the Locsin genealogy. There are 82 people in her family on her father’s side.

Aesthetic Activism: Bullets Into Bells and Social Justice


The day I started writing this essay, two students were killed in yet another high school shooting in the United States. This time it was in New Mexico. The day I came back to revise, a policeman had shot and killed a 6-year old boy in San Antonio. Today, as I go back over this a third time, there was a school shooting in Kentucky. Two students were killed; 18 injured. Every day I have returned to work on this piece, there has been a shooting in this country—two were school shootings. I will type that again: Every day I have returned to work on this piece, there has been a shooting in this country—two were school shootings.

On Monday, December 5, 2017, the nation paid remembrance to the Sandy Hook school shooting, a massacre of 26 people, including 20 elementary school children, which happened five years ago. That same day, a book I’ve been working on for close to two years was published to commemorate and honor those who survived.

And those who did not.

That book, Bullets into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence, is an attempt to address what public health experts are calling an epidemic in contemporary America. Bullets into Bells pairs 50 poems by a range of American poets with responses from survivors of shootings, community leaders, and activists in the anti-gun violence movement. For example, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Jody Williams responds to “Dancing,” an incredible poem by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass, that traces the history of ammunition, beginning with Prometheus stealing fire and ending with an indictment of colonial violence and the American propensity for mass killing, most recently at the Pulse Night Club:

They were dancing in Orlando, in a club. Spring night.
Gay Pride. The relation of the total casualties to the history
Of the weapon that sent exploded metal into their bodies—
30 rounds a minute, or 40, is a beautifully made instrument,
And in America you can buy it anywhere—and into the history
Of the shaming culture that produced the idea of Gay Pride—
They were mostly young men, they were dancing in a club,
A spring night. The radio clicks on. Green fire. Blue fire.

About this poem, Williams writes, “I love the myth of Prometheus stealing fire—stealing some of the god Zeus’s power—for the benefit of humans. I’d like to rewrite it for our times. In my version, Prometheus would steal gunpowder, nuclear weapons, and the makings of killer robots and bury them deep in a cave on Mt. Olympus. To save human beings from ourselves.”

In another heartbreaking collaboration, Samira Rice, Tamir Rice’s mother, responds to Reginald Dwayne Betts’ unforgettable poem, “When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving.” Betts’ poem begins:

My two young sons play
in the backseat while the video of Tamir dying
plays in my head, & for everything I do know, the thing
I don’t say is that this should not be the brick and mortar
of poetry.

Samaria Rice, Tamir’s mother, begins with a heartbreaking confession:

“When I think of Tamir as his mother, the woman who gave birth to him, I wonder why my son had to lose his life in such a horrific way in this great place we call America.” Toward the end of her response, she directs her anger, appropriately trenchant, at larger forces that continue to threaten the marginalized and disenfranchised: “Injustice in this country is pitiful and pathetic. The injustice starts with economics, education, and politicians.”

Samaria Rice’s voice joins a chorus of others – the Emergency Room doctor on call during and after the Sandy Hook shooting; DeAndra Yates, the mother of thirteen-year old Dre Yates, who was killed by a stray bullet fired from outside the birthday party he was attending; Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action Against Gun Violence, and Abbey Clements, the second-grade teacher at Sandy Hook who saved two children. Their words and those of some of America’s most celebrated poets—like former U.S. Poet Laureates Natasha Trethewey, Billy Collins, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Rita Dove—create a chorus that evokes both elegy and action.

None of us involved with the book know if it can have any short or long-term impact in regard to gun violence in the U.S. In truth, probably very little. But, Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro read Abbey Clements’ statement from Bullets into Bells on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. The book has received a great deal of attention from the mainstream press, including features in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and PBS. So, people are listening. People are reading.

But, are people changing? Are ideas galvanizing? I am not an optimist, but I am not a pessimist either. Somewhere between those poles is a belief that the right series of actions can’t, forever, do nothing.

The West Coast launch of Bullets into Bells will take place on February 22, 2018 at the Mechanics Institute Library in San Francisco. It will feature poets Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Jane Hirschfield, and editors Alexandra Teague and Dean Rader. Respondents include Rev. Michael McBride, Catherine Stefani from Moms Demand Action, and George Garvis, Executive Director Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice.

Enemy Alien: Uncovering Family History

Sherise Kimura reflects on an artifact as part of 10 x 10: Ten Objects, Ten Stories presented in conjunction with the Thacher Gallery exhibition Something from Nothing: Art and Handcrafted Objects from America’s Concentration Camps, August 21 – November 15, 2017.

Artist unknown. Cane. Circa 1942-1943
Artist unknown. Cane. Circa 1942-1943, National Japanese American Historical Society, San Francisco, California.

On this beautiful wooden cane, the inscription reads in English, “In enemy alien camp, North America, New Mexico, Lordsburg.” The cane is a work of art, but it also served a useful purpose. I heard that many canes were made by older Issei, first generation Japanese immigrant men, to help with walking on the uneven terrain in the camps.

The “enemy alien” camp at Lordsburg has a special meaning to my family and me because my paternal grandfather, whom I never met, was among the Issei held at Lordsburg. Lordsburg was the U.S. Army camp that held the largest number of Issei, who at the time were not allowed to become naturalized U.S. citizens. Later my grandfather was transferred to the Department of Justice (DOJ) Santa Fe Camp and finally returned home to Hawai‘i in November 1945 after nearly three and a half years.

I only learned about this story of my grandfather about two years ago from a book my cousin, Colleen Kimura, wrote about her father. Because my father could offer very little information, I started doing my own research. I was surprised to find records for my grandfather in the National Archives WWII Alien Enemy Detention and Internment case files, which document the detainment and internment of suspected alien enemies under the Enemy Alien Control Program. In his files were his Alien Registration Form, a warrant for his arrest, camp behavior reports, and various administrative and procedural documents including correspondence about his possible parole to the War Relocation Authority (WRA) camp in Jerome, Arkansas, given that his two sons were U.S. soldiers in combat. Most revealing was the transcript of his hearing shortly after his arrest. I learned that his home had been searched as part of the raids after the attack on Pearl Harbor when martial law was imposed in Hawai‘i. Based on some spurious charges, he was declared an alien enemy and recommended for internment for the duration of the war. His family was not told when or where he was being sent.

My grandfather was 54 at the time and had lived in Hawai‘i for 35 years. He was a blacksmith for a living, worked on a pineapple plantation camp with his family, and was active in the local community.

Growing up in Hawai‘i, I heard few personal stories of internment or incarceration, most likely because Hawai‘i did not experience the same mass incarceration of Japanese Americans that had transpired on the mainland. Fewer than 2,000 people, or 1% of the Japanese population in Hawai‘i at that time, were incarcerated. This was largely due to the fact that the Japanese comprised over one third of the population of the Territory of Hawai‘i and their labor was essential to the economy. Interestingly, the memory of internment in Hawai‘i is finding greater public awareness in recent years, with the uncovering of the Hono‘uli‘uli internment camp, the largest of 17 camps in Hawai‘i.

Late in his life, my uncle reflected on his father’s internment and acknowledged the sorrow my grandfather must have felt when he returned to Hawai‘i at the end of the war while the nation celebrated. In 1956 my grandfather eventually left Hawai‘i and his family and returned to Japan, where he passed away two years later. According to my uncle, although he never spoke it, my grandfather felt he had no place in this country anymore–where he had lived most of life, where he had raised his family, where all five of his sons had served in the military⎯but where he had been treated like a criminal.

Encountering the City and the Self in Khary Lazarre-White’s Passage

On October 18, 2017, CRASE hosted writer, social justice advocate, attorney, and activist Khary Lazarre-White. Lazarre-White discussed his work as co-founder of the Brotherhood/Sister Sol (Bro/Sis) and his debut novel Passage (Seven Stories Press). Brotherhood/Sister Sol is a nationally renowned, Harlem based, comprehensive youth development and educational organization that provides rites of passage programming, arts and enrichment based after school care, counseling, summer camps, job training, college preparation and scholarship, and month long international studies programs to Africa and Latin American. In this post, assistant professor of English Samira Abdur-Rahman, moderator of the event, reflects on the themes of Passage.

In “New York State of Mind,” a track on his debut album Illmatic, twenty-year-old Nas raps “I never sleep cause sleep is the cousin of death.” In Passage, we are told that the protagonist Warrior does not shut his eyes when he sleeps, that this is a trait passed down through the generations: “Even when he really slept, and when he was most relaxed, in his deepest dreams, Warrior’s eyes were open.”  In the magical, Afro-surrealist world of Passage, we are encouraged to understand these open eyes both figuratively and literally. Open eyes are a metaphor for Warrior’s consciousness, for his acuity as a reader of both the surfaces and deeper implications of his experiences and self.

At the same time, Nas and Warrior are describing the reality of their vulnerability in the tones of a guarded masculinity. Sleeping is dangerous and not being on guard could possibly risk your life and/or the lives of your loved ones. The lyrics to “New York State of Mind” are gritty, yet they also operate at a level of myth making and imagination defying the simplistic designation of gangsta rap or pure street documentary. Nas’s Illmatic was released in 1994 and narrated his life growing up in the Queensbridge Projects. Passage is set in 1993, in the boroughs of Harlem and Brooklyn, but its prose embodies the deep and complex knowledges emblematic of what we now identify as the golden era of hip hop, an era that put New York City’s boroughs on the map.  Nas speaks of project living, yet the figurative and literal interiors of his life defy stereotype. So, too, do the interiors of Warrior’s life.

Passage is a novel of the hip hop generation but speaks to the late geographer’s Clyde Wood sense of the symbiotic relationship between blues and hip hop geography. As Lazarre-White stated during his talk, New York City is not simply a geography; it is a character in the novel. Blues tropes are our entry into the world of Passage—they construct a language for Warrior’s encounters with the city, with his ancestors and with his self. In his eloquent study of hip hop aesthetics, Jelani Cobb describes the blue’s bad man figure. Characteristically braggadocious, fearless and mythically strong, the bad man figure was an attempt to resist the very real vulnerabilities that black men faced in the oppressive, racial caste system of Jim Crow.

In the place of myths of badness and heroic strength, the opening scene of Passage describes Warrior’s anger: “It had been the same for years now. Warrior woke angry. Just plain old surly mean. Angry at existence…He knew he was tired…and angry.” The book highlights spaces that produce but also potentially untangle the knot of anger, which allows us to see beyond the misunderstood postures of Warrior’s teen masculinity and takes us deeper into the circles of Warrior’s thoughts, fears and his loves.

Warrior loves his two best friends, one a teenage girl who lives in a house of three generations of Caribbean women. He receives letters from his other best friend, the incarcerated brotherman, a victim of police brutality and the criminal justice system. Warrior’s teacher mother and musician father are loving parents. They respect and understand their son enough to impart on him diasporic lessons, instructions in black history and aesthetics. They respect him enough to listen to him, to let him argue with them, to understand that Warrior is dealing with new terrains of both violence and identity. They love Warrior, yet they cannot offer him complete protection as he navigates the realities of the outside, of the brutal winter, of the blue soldiers who torture and disfigure young black bodies. Still they are committed to helping him through his passage.

At the event, Lazarre-White commented on the significance of the word “passage”—its allusion to the brutality of the transatlantic slave trade and noted it as indicative of the rites of passage needed by Warrior to transition into a new phase. In articulating the hauntings of the past and the possibilities of Warrior’s passage, the novel’s characters speak in folkloric syntax, through riddles, aphorisms and paradoxes, through the language of the everyday, the magical and the sublime. The novel speaks this way because it acknowledges the complex ways that young people feel, experience and narrate their worlds.

Samira Abdur-Rahman’s current book project is Sites of Instruction: The Geography of Black Childhood.