Sunday, June 21, 2015

Take it Down, Pt 2

Yesterday, on my Facebook page, we had a spirited debate about the proper place for the Confederate flag. I support the removal of the flag from all SC government buildings. It is not a flag that should still be displayed on government property; its proper place is in a museum.

The issue of slavery was, of course, broached in the debate. It is really impossible to discuss the Civil War without discussing the topic of slavery, the white (supremacist) elephant in the room. The discussion led to the oft-repeated line that the Civil War was not fought over slavery at all, but rather over states’ rights and the federal government’s interference with states’ sovereignty. I think many of the folks that make this claim counter that saying the Civil War WAS fought over slavery are simply race-baiting in a discussion that should not involve race at all.

So I did some research. I saw a tweet that linked to the text of the Cause of Secession drafted by the State of South Carolina to justify the state’s decision to secede from the Union, adopted December 24, 1860. I went and read it. You should, too. It is both interesting and enlightening.

South Carolina, the first state to secede, denounces the Union’s inability and unwillingness to maintain its end of the compact agreed upon at the creation of the United States of America and the enacting of its Constitution. South Carolina decries the Union’s interference in SC’s internal affairs and states that the US government has become hostile to its right of sovereignty.

Te very first sentence of the statement reads as follows:

“The people of the State of South Carolina, in Convention assembled, on the 26th day of April, A.D., 1852, declared that the frequent violations of the Constitution of the United States, by the Federal Government, and its encroachments upon the reserved rights of the States, fully justified this State in then withdrawing from the Federal Union…”

So there you have it. FIRST LINE. The Civil War was implicitly and explicitly fought over States’s rights, NOT slavery. The rest of the document continually refers back to the Union's repeated breaches of contract. Pretty clear cut sentiments about SC's right to leave if the contract (in this case, the Constitution) has been violated.

Except…the authors of the text then immediately said THIS in the second half of the first paragraph:

“…but in deference to the opinions and wishes of the other slaveholding States, she forbore at that time to exercise this right. Since that time, these encroachments have continued to increase, and further forbearance ceases to be a virtue.” [Emphasis mine.]

Slavery mentioned in the FIRST paragraph. Maybe that's just mentioned for the point of clarity?

Nope. Throughout the entire statement, the authors don’t hold back in talking about their right to own slaves, which is odd since the war is not supposed to be about slavery. Only the race-baiters bring up slavery in regards to the Civil War, right?

Here's a few choice selections for you to peruse (edited for this post, but the full text is available HERE):

“…The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows: "No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due…This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would not have been made…

…But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution…

…In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution…

Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation…”

And here’s where the point is driven home most clearly [bold emphasis mine]:

“…We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection…

…A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens
; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety…

…The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.

Sectional interest and animosity will deepen the irritation, and all hope of remedy is rendered vain, by the fact that public opinion at the North has invested a great political error with the sanction of more erroneous religious belief

That’s a lot of ink spilt about protecting slavery for a war that evidently had nothing to do with.

We can dress our debates up in legalese, we can talk in broad strokes about sovereignty and state’s rights and so forth, but we cannot decouple the Civil War from slavery. South Carolina seceded from the Union and fought a treasonous war because their ability to own other humans as slaves was threatened, and they were pissed that other states were no longer willing to tolerate the existence of such a system in the Union. These are not my words. The words are THEIRS. If we truly want to honor history, stop revising their rationale for the war and recognize it for what it was. Yes, the South fought because their way of life was threatened and was becoming untenable in the Union. But not because the North suddenly became the villain; their way of life was threatened because it was based upon evil, and their enemy was not the North, but rather truth and the harsh light of justice. 

I'm not trying to demonize our Southern forefathers. You must judge those who came before us in their own context to understand history. But that doesn't validate injustices or excuse actions committed in the past in support of terrible deeds. The Confederate flag that was carried into battle to defend this system has no place of honor anywhere in our society other than in a museum. Take down this flag. Remember our past, but let's move forward and not be beholden to the mistakes of our ancestors.

Take It Down, Pt 1

This last Saturday evening, June 20th, I attended a rally on the South Carolina Statehouse grounds demanding that the Confederate flag be removed from the SC statehouse grounds. It used to fly prominently on the dome of the Statehouse before a compromise in the year 2000 removed it from the Statehouse and placed it in its present spot, displayed by a larger Confederate memorial monument in front of the Statehouse. This has always been and continues to be a very polarizing issue for SC. This current push is in reaction to the gunman who killed 9 members of Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Images of the gunman waving the Confederate flag have appeared in the media and prompted renewed calls for the flag to removed.

When I got home that evening, I signed an online petition in support of removing the flag, and subsequently posted the link to the petition on my Facebook page. Soon after, I received a comment asking a legitimate question:

“Why take it down? When has a flag ever harmed anyone?”

This question kicked off a long, passionate debate, one that reflected all sides of the issue and one that thankfully remained civil. I am not going post the content of the debate here, but I do want to share a paraphrased summary of my personal comments and opinions in regards to this issue.

So, let’s again revisit the question: “Why take it down? When has a flag ever harmed anyone?

I don't believe a flag itself has ever hurt anyone. But a flag by its very nature is symbolic, representing the values of those that fly its colors. This particular flag flew over an especially troubling era in our nation's history and more recently has been repurposed in other troubling ways by certain segments of our population. The flag and what it represented has a rightful place in our country's history, but it should not be celebrated on the SC statehouse grounds or any other government building. It should be in museums, the very institutions created to celebrate and record our heritage and history.

It should be noted that the US flag has ALSO flown over a plethora of very troubling events in our history. That said, the Confederacy lost. The USA is still our country, a work in progress, and not a lost cause. Unsavory history and all, the US is our country so we honor our flag as we make our way forward as a nation. The Confederacy is an also-ran, one for the history books. Its flags and other symbols should be a part of our past, not our present or our future. It should not fly on government buildings.

This flag upsets lots of people for very legitimate reasons. Honestly, the sight of the flag doesn't personally upset me; I've seen it my whole life and barely even register it when I see it. However, I choose to listen to the voices of my friends, neighbors, and colleagues who feel that it legitimizes systemic discrimination. When a sizable chunk of our population feels not just uncomfortable but scared when they see it, we should respect that and take it down. People are still free to fly it on their personal property or their businesses. I just feel it has no place still representing our state. I certainly don't need it to represent any values I may hold.

You cannot separate the Confederacy and state's rights from the fact that the Secessionist states who flew this particular flag were fighting to protect the existing of a slave regime. I'm born and bred in Mississippi and live in South Carolina right now. I've lived almost my whole life in the South, and I love the South. I get that the Civil War was more nuanced than "pro-slave, anti-slave." But you just can't separate slavery from the cause. The South tried to protect its way of life which was fundamentally based on the most severely unjust system possible. And thank God the South lost. 

Removing the flag is the easy part of the much larger task of addressing all the social ills we face. But if the flag is still held up by many as an important symbol of Southern heritage, then certainly it must be recognized equally maintain power as a negative image as well. Surely the removal of the flag from government buildings can also be a very meaningful symbolic act in and of itself. Removing the flag won't necessarily change a thing, but it’s a hell of a nice gesture with which to start.

[At this point in the conversation, someone stated that to disavow the Confederate flag was disrespectful to the memory of many people’s Confederate ancestors that fought under its colors. The individual stated that the Civil War was not about slavery, but rather was about states’ rights and individuals defending their lands and families.]

I think most Southern folks with deep roots in the South have confederate ancestors. I am related to Confederate soldiers and had relatives that were indeed slave owners. We have handwritten letters in our family from Confederate camps, as well as copies of legal documents that show the names and genders of the slaves my relatives owned, listed on the same list as furniture and other property. I think this stuff is super cool to look at and I'm glad we have it. It's a fascinating glimpse at the history of the South and my own family history. I didn't know my relatives, but I like to think these were noble men.

That said, I'm glad they lost the war. They may have been noble but their cause was based around supporting an unjust system. As a born and bred Southerner, I feel no reason honor this cause. We must understand the actions of our ancestors from their contextual framework, but that doesn't mean I must excuse a belief system that is fundamentally against what I believe to be true. You cannot deny that the South was protecting a way of life built upon slave ownership. It was an unjust system and if they had won the war, slavery would have continued and possible expanded. And that is why I say thank God the South lost the war. It doesn't matter what values were being defended, the alternative scenario would have been untenable from a human rights perspective.

That said, at Saturday’s rally to have the flag removed from the SC Statehouse grounds, the flag itself was never demonized. There was actually an earnest and heartfelt call to honor the flag for what it was: a symbol that many of our ancestors fought under in support of their cause, which they believed was noble. (And it should be noted that likely 80% of the crowd was White, so the rally was really speaking to majority that would have had Confederate ancestors). But the flag has been repurposed too many times by people resisting change and clinging to an outdated and false memory of a glorious Old South.

The flag causes pain for many people, and for that reason we need to listen to our fellow Americans and we need to remove the flag from our government buildings. Let’s honor our heritage and move forward together- all race, creeds, and colors. As one of the speakers at the rally stated, let’s reclaim the idea of “Southern Pride” as being pride in what we can accomplish together as a vibrant and diverse people, looking forward, learning from our past. Let’s move forward together for a better future for our state. We certainly don’t need to drag along a contentious symbol of oppression along with us.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Christopher Peter Aluah: A Tribute

Yesterday, I received word that a friend of mine, Chris Aluah, has passed away this week. Chris had been fighting an illness for a while now, and sadly his condition deteriorated quickly and he passed away. I had not spoken to him very much for the last few years, but I had hoped to be able to visit him when we returned to the States. I'm very grateful I exchanged emails with him just a few weeks ago to send him some moral support.

I want to pay tribute to this man.

Chris was from Ghana (he can be seen in the picture below demonstrating a traditional Ghanaian dance at a meeting of the International Students Association back in 2010). He has been studying for several years at the University of South Carolina, which is where I met him while I was serving as an International Student Advisor. Chris earned dual masters degrees in Social Work and Public Health and most recently was working toward his PhD in Public Health. (Here's a Student Spotlight about Chris from a few years ago.)

Chris sacrificed a lot to be here. As many foreign students do, he left behind a family to come and earn his degrees. He has a wife and three kids back in Ghana; for various reasons, he couldn’t bring them over to join him in the States. To be so far away from family and so far away from home is a difficult thing, but Chris committed himself to his education to provide a better life not only for his family but also for those around him. He studied Social Work and Public Health; clearly this was a man who wanted to make a better world.

Chris was a fixture of my time at USC, but I am most indebted to him for his assistance in getting a simple idea off the ground, an idea that has grown into one of the most vibrant student organization on campus. Back in 2009, there was a clear need for supporting African students studying at USC. I had an idea to start an African student organization on campus; ideally, it would be a group where students from across the African continent could meet, socialize, and support one another. However, I wanted an authentic African voice to bring this organization to life, the voice of someone who would be speaking not just to African students, but as an African student; I immediately thought of Chris. We shared a Social Work background, and he had already demonstrated a commitment to working to improve circumstances for other African students through various avenues on campus.

I outlined my idea for an organization to Chris and explained that I could logistically pull it together, but I felt the call to create a Pan-African student group really needed to come from an African student. I asked if he would be willing to be the voice of the invitation, and he readily agreed. We decided that he would draft up a letter of invitation to invite any African students to join us for a meeting to hammer out the details and formally draft a constitution for this new group. He would write this letter, and I would send it to all the African students on campus through the channels at my disposal as a International Student Advisor.

Within mere hours, Chris had emailed me a draft of his letter of invitation, and let me tell you, it was beautiful. I wish I had a copy of the eloquent text to share with you here, but I’m afraid it’s lost to time. But it was heartfelt, engaging, and a beautiful call for unity and cooperation. It was the spirit of Africa at its finest. The core idea may have been mine, but the soul of the group, that came from Chris.

A small group of dedicated students from across Africa responded and subsequently gathered for several nights of back-and-forth discussions, brainstorming, and debates. In the end, the group hashed out a constitution, I was selected as the organization’s Advisor, and Chris was elected the group’s first President. The Pan-African Student Association (PANASA) was born.

The founding members of the Pan-African Student Association.
Chris is standing in the center wearing his ubiquitous Ghana shirt.

PANASA is now in its 6th year and is going strong, a vibrant and active campus organization helping to support students from Africa and spread the word with the larger USC community about the beauty and talent that Africa has to offer. In the end, this group rallied to help fund raise and garner support to help cover Chris’s medical expenses; the group Chris helped found in order to support African students ended up supporting him in his time of need. There’s a tragic beauty to that.

With the news of Chris’s death, it’s easy to shake my head and think “What a waste. All that hard-work, all that time and effort, for nothing.” He never finished the PhD and was never able to go back home to Ghana to use his education to better his beloved Ghana. But his death is NOT a waste; it’s a loss. The world is a poorer place without him. Chris was a role model to many and a friend to everyone. And his influence stretched far and wide, directly and indirectly: For every African student that felt they had a home away from home in PANASA, Chris has touched their life. Every student that learned a little more about Africa by attending one of PANASA’s Africa Nights, they ultimately have Chris to thank for that. And for all of us that knew the man, who laughed with him, who learned from him, we are all better people because of what Chris Aluah brought into our lives.

His untimely death is a damn shame, but his life was certainly a life well-lived.

Monday, February 09, 2015

One Safari, Two Idiots, and a Lot of Baboons

The Setting: The Karatu Gate into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania

The Players:

L-R: An Idiot, Another Idiot

So this January, one of my oldest, dearest friends, Jeremy Mucha’ (AKA Cap’n Hardqore, AKA Homeskillet) came to visit Katie and I in Mwanza. As per usual, taking a safari through several of Tanzania’s national parks was on the agenda. So Jeremy and I scheduled a 4-day safari through the Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Crater, and Lake Manyara National Park.

Day One was great but uneventful (except for the lion thing and that hyena encounter, but that's a story for another day).

On the afternoon of the second day, as we are heading back from Lake Manyara, we stopped at the entrance gate into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Each vehicle and all passengers must register at the gate, so our driver, Mashaka, was to handle the registration. As we pulled up, we saw several other tourists standing in a crowd taking photos. As we park, we see a large crowd of baboons lounging at the edge of the parking lot, just about 15-20 feet from where we have now parked.

Mashaka sighs and says, “Those things are a pain, and they will grab anything they can get their hands on. So if you get out of the vehicle, make sure you roll up the windows and shut the doors.”

Now, I’ve lived in Tanzania for three years now, and baboons’ propensity for climbing onto and into cars looking for food is notorious. So I said, “Oh, yeah, no problem. Absolutely.” And nonchalantly start to checking my email on my phone.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Kids Draw the Darndest Things, Part II: Sister Genie's Birthday Edition

Welcome to the second installment of Kids Draw the Darndest Things, wherein I post a lot of earnest, genuine artwork created by children and then make fun of it.

This edition is dedicated to my friend Sr. Genie Natividad. This is Genie:

Sr. Genie is a Maryknoll Sister who lives here in Mwanza. Today, February 8th, is her birthday. Yesterday, we had a gathering of our Chanua children's group, with whom both Genie and I work. In honor of her birthday, I asked the kids to draw pictures of Sr. Genie.

I would be lying if I didn't admit to thinking "Oh, these will be HILARIOUS."

At first, I thought I was gonna be a little disappointed. Because the first few I saw were actually pretty straight-forward, pretty good drawings, lacking the wild, wonky quality of kid's artwork that I love so much.

But these kids...they did NOT disappoint.

Now, I should say once again before we commence that I LOVE these drawings. I love the way kids draw. I love everything about these drawings and I am super proud of them. I make sure to tell every kid what a good job they did with the drawing.

But I'm still gonna make fun of them. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you:
Happy Birthday, Sr. Genie: A Rogue's Gallery

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Seven Years

So, today is the seven year anniversary of my father's death from cancer. That's really hard to wrap my head around; sometimes it seems that it was just the blink of an eye, but today it's the opposite. I can't believe it's ONLY been seven years. I've done a lot of livin' in these last few years, and that time- the stress, the sadness, the laughter, and tears- it just seems like a lifetime ago.

For several days now, I've been mulling over what I was going to write on this anniversary. This is THE day. It's a day to remember a life-changing event in the life of the Reid family. I tried to think of something profound to say.

But I got nuthin.' No profound wisdom to impart or wise words to share. But you know what I DO have?

A ton of dirty dishes to wash.

Mundane? Yep. Boring? Yes, indeed. Necessary? Sadly, yes. I must do the dishes. Life goes on. As it should. As it must.

Sometimes life is amazing, like when I visited with Watatulu people up in the rock hills around Lake Eyasi in Tanzania. Sometime life is miserable, like when I struggled with anger and depression last year. It's fun when I watch Guardians of the Galaxy with friends. And it's plain old boring when I have to do the dishes.

I miss my dad. I would love to talk to him about all of the above (though maybe not the dishes). I think of him every single day. And I hope I always will. I wish he were here with us, yet he is not; but his example still lives on with me, guiding me.

Life goes on, and I think he'd be very happy to hear it.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Small Talk, Tanzania Style

So I have written in the past about language issues here in Tanzania. Indeed, the struggle to communicate is one of the most salient issue here for an ex-pat. Deeper issues of cultural understanding manifest themselves in conversations, but you can’t even approach that level of communication if you’re standing there looking like an idiot trying to remember the word for “pineapple.” Katie can actually have conversations in Swahili. I can sound like a relatively functional 4-year-old.

Beyond simply learning, remembering, and using new vocabulary and then understanding the nuance that may be underneath the words themselves, you also must deal with the fact that people talk differently, and I don't mean accents or simple grammar. I mean the way they think and form sentences is different. In your own culture, you have a basic assumption of how people will speak to you. But here, someone may say something to you that makes sense to them and everyone around you but makes no sense at all to you. What I mean is, beyond idioms, beyond new words, the things that people choose to say and choose NOT to say are often just as baffling, if not moreso.

Let’s take simple small talk, for example.

Small talk here often makes no sense to an American ear. It’s confusing. Even after almost 3 years here, its confusing. But maybe "confusing" isn't the right word...maybe "pointless" is better. It circles around and around and makes no sense. Now, I know there’s very little depth to “Hot today, huh?” or “How ‘bout them Mets?” but you at least know you’re talking about the weather of a football team. (Ha HA just kidding, people).

Small talk here- at least small talk with a Westerner- tends to consist of just stating some random comment about something remotely related to you, but with the crucial point of not clearly stating what that thing may be. Here’s a typical example. Keep in mind that this is often in a mix of English and Swahili.

Me: Habari za leo? (How are you?)

Them: Nzuri. Habari za kwako? (How’s your home?)

Me: Good.


Me: …What?

Them: How is it?

Me: How is what? America?

Them: YES...UGALI. (a local food staple)

Me: …What?

Them: UGALI. Have you tried it?

Me: …Yes. Why?

Them: Sema? (Verb for “say”)

Me: Say what?

Them: MABATINI. (Our neighborhood)

Me:…What about Mabatini?

Them: How is it?

Me: Mabatini? It’s good.


This can pretty much go on ad infinitum until I just smile and walk away (or look very confused and walk away). There will often be thumbs up, high fives, and laughter on their part.

So there’s no real moral to this story. It’s just fascinating (and honestly, often annoying) to see this happen. I feel that a certain amount of their local interaction is on this surface level with minimal information. But I also think this is particular relevant to when locals interact with Westerners. I know that most people here know a little bit of English- often just a few random words they’ve picked up- but in the same way that I felt good when I had my first simple exchanges in Swahili, they are likely proud of themselves for engaging the mzungu in English. Even if it made no sense to the English-speaker. And I can’t really judge them on that, because I see that same confused look staring at me when I open my mouth and use Swahili.