Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Helen Wins. Uptown, Can We Talk?

So... Helen Shiller wins an election that had 11,282 aldermanic votes cast by a margin of 688 votes.* Am I elated? Well, I sure was once the results became clear. But -- still up eighteen hours after this day started, I'm tired, relieved at the election's outcome. And there is another emotion as well. Before I get to it, though, let me tell a sort of story of the day which might hint where I'm going. If you want to skip the story, just jump to the heading "So What?"

Two Yuppies or Two Human Beings?

I worked with two guys -- well, maybe against them for moments here and there -- in my role as a poll watcher. They were poll watching, too, but for Shiller's opponent, James Cappleman. Both were young lawyers -- one a divorce lawyer, the other one a corporate lawyer. The second seemed very unlike the cliche corporate lawyer, wryly telling of a life where he seemed a gopher for his superiors, working ridiculous hours, aware of the potential futility of spending a lifetime working for giant multinationals.... in short a person I found self-reflective and likable. (I was glad, I admit, I wasn't living his life.) He wasn't from our ward, had landed the poll watcher role as part of his assigned work, and seemed to really enjoy the experience.

The first guy is a near neighbor to me, living within easy walking distance. He did use the catch-phrase often used disparagingly by many Cappleman folks and Cappleman himself -- "blighted" -- to describe parts of our immediate neighborhood. But before I was able to go too far down that "I hate yuppie cliches" road, I had to admit he probably wasn't aware that the term was a catch phrase, and an offensive one. He also talked about his law practice. And the more he talked, the more it made him human. How does a guy stand as both observer and participant while a couple legally finishes off what had once been such a sure and new thing? And -- as further rebuke to the line of reasoning in my head -- we talked over what divorce is. Somehow I ended up telling him a fair bit about my own first marriage's sad ending. We all cried... no no, that last bit did not happen. We'd have needed Oprah. Anyway...

That didn't mean there weren't some rough spots between us. The most awkward came up when it became apparent I had around 12 or so names he was unaware of on the voting roles. That wasn't a surprise, as I'd helped register them, then discovered they'd someone been bounced by the election board. Things had been fixed with some eleventh hour scurrying around and making phone calls and... well, the upshot was I gave a copy of some documents from the election board to the Judges at our poll; my neighbor / election opponent now wanted a copy of this list.

Why wouldn't I just give it to him?

Ah. Remember, this election is a repetition for me of past elections going back to Helen's first one in 1987. Every election thereafter, her opponents (and it was always a new face) came after us with all sorts of ideas, ideas that always seemed to involve removing from some or all the right to vote. One year it was for a poll watcher to stand up every time our address was announced and yell, "Challenge!" (I was an election judge myself that year, but didn't know I could have thrown him out summarily without appeal -- pretty cool power, but only if you use it!) Other years we had even judges that got bizarre. One suddenly snapped at the end of the election day, "These numbers do not add up! We're going to throw all these votes out!" (Luckily, I was a judge that year, too -- and told her I'd physically hold her down if she even made one move to do such a thing.) Various other forms of harassment had been used against both our building's residents and the residents of a nearby half-way house called The Grassmere (not sure on that spelling). These folks are often mentally and / or physically challenged, and easily cowed by people yelling at them, questioning them in a hostile tone, and generally showing disrespect.

But these two lawyers... could I trust them not to do this to my new voters? I decided I would not share the names with them, since they could always challenge the votes after the election (which were done on so-called "provisional" ballots anyway) if they really thought I'd done something wrong. I wanted to avoid voters being hassled -- my least favorite thing as any sort of election official. By the end of the evening, I was mostly convinced I could have shared the names... only mostly, though. Sigh...

I even talked a little with them about the awkwardness of it, the friendly banter and even serious discussions we'd had all day about my living in an intentional community (and all that entailed), yet our respective understanding that we were, after all, pitted against one another in working toward different ends. As it turned out, though, I *think* they would not have attempted to stop people from voting unless that person were clearly committing an illegal act. I for myself could say with good conscience that the most important thing to me during an election day's voting is make sure everyone and anyone who has even the most tenuous legal claim on a ballot be given it. I myself had, as an election judge, helped disabled voters asking for assistance vote for a candidate opposite to the one I hoped would win. In fact, it was yet another of our infamous Shiller vs. Whomever elections....

But my divorce lawyer neighbor turned to me, and offered me his tally on how our own Jesus People building had done. "You had nearly a 100% turnout!" he exclaimed. "That is really impressive." And I sensed from him that same sense I had... how to jump the Uptown Chasm, the perception gap that allows so much hostility to simmer? Could we find a new way...?

Enough of the stories, though, as it is now nearly 2 am and in four hours I'll have been up for 24 hours!


We slowly gathered up our "totals" tapes (print-outs of the day's end results) and said good-bye.

And as I walked up to my room and after an hour or so heard that Helen had won, I found myself thinking about my neighbor. Was he bummed? Was he angry? Did he feel he'd invested his life in Uptown, too, but was stuck with a vision foreign to that which he desired to see?

I know I have the strongest feelings about this neighborhood, especially about making sure that with all the development and condo construction, the poor will not be neglected and left out of the picture. I also know that if I sat down with my lawyer neighbor and tried talking from that starting point, the conversation would quickly mire up to the hubs.

Here's the question. Can we in Uptown, regardless of who we back (and even more important what issues we believe most pressing and urgent for our area), determine to start treating one another more like human beings? That is, to stick to our guns on issues while also going out of the way to speak respectfully to one another and try to find some positive common ground to build one community instead of two with?

We who look across the divide from the poorer side tend to be afraid of how quickly we are left out, forgotten, and even "designed away" by the massive development which has been part of Uptown for the past few years and even longer. Sometimes we let that fear drive us into seeing in every upward young professional "the enemy." That is not only morally wrong, it is also strategically dumb.

Have I done this in the past. Oh, yes. I am trying to reform. What I'm hoping is that perhaps those who backed James Cappelman might go back and cool-like re-read what they or friends of theirs posted on sites such as [removed in toto as of Feb. 28!] and buenaparkneighbors message board (go to the "general" posting area for the most, uh, "lively" posts). I've long known that a computer keyboard brings out the worst in a writer. Every emotion we have comes out of the keys amplified many times over, and I wonder if some of that rhetoric may strike even its authors that way in retrospect.

I can't claim -- and never have claimed -- to have one iota of authority over what anyone else does in Uptown. But I would like to make a modest proposal...

Can any of us who are interested in seeing one another as human beings agree to start a dialogue together? The idea won't be to convince each other of something, but rather to simply get to know one another to a degree we currently do not.

If you are interested, please post a comment here. Add your ideas to my admittedly primitive beginning (though, when I wake up sometime next week, I actually do have more to post on this).

One last thing... I hope none of you go to Lincoln Park. I hope you stay here and help birth something that is the best all of us have to offer one another... listening... seeing... acknowledging another's human reality...

Thanks for listening. I'm going to bed now, before I make myself sick from no sleep.

* [March 3 update: Election totals are finally *all* in and Helen's margin of victory has been changed to reflect that fact. Edited Feb 28 to reflect newer vote totals, which are still apparently incomplete due to one precinct having some sort of ballot counting problem. That precinct won't affect the totals much. Also edited to note whatthehelen's apparent removal from the web.]

Monday, February 26, 2007

Poll Watching Tomorrow...

I remain underwhelmed by blogger's newest incarnation. But at least I have my links back, or some of 'em, anyway.

The election is tomorrow. I'll be running around as a "poll watcher," which basically means I will trying to be as helpful to the judges as they want me to be while not interfering in any way with the electoral process. Poll watchers, unlike Election Judges, get neither respect nor pay. And the worst poll watchers -- those who think their job is to challenge every voter who might not favor their candidate -- deserve neither. They can be chucked out at a moment's notice by any Judge irate or mean enough to do so. A good Poll Watcher helps, within reason, in any way he/she can by getting Judges sodas or water and also by helping them set up booths and so on.

Even that, though, is ticklish. After all, a Poll Watcher could presumably mess around with things. Above all, Poll Watchers shouldn't be caught dead handling ballots (other than their own vote, of course) or hanging around the voting machines. The job should ideally be one of complete boredom.

Alas, in our Ward, that often isn't the case. For instance, in years past we had a guy poll watching who "challenged" every vote from our house. Every one of our voters for the entire morning had been forced to go home (the voting precinct wasn't in our building in those 4707 N. Malden days) and get extra sets of I.D. (His contention is that we were shipping in homeless folk who were masquerading as Jesus People... a fascinating charge being made again this year despite equal amounts of non-evidence. Sheesh!) His actions were finally put to a stop by the Election Board, who sent someone over to put a stick in his spokes. The morning voters, despite being harassed by this chucklehead, had gone home and patiently retured to successfully vote. It did make me wonder how the poor in other areas of the city did, though. Shades of Bush and Florida?

So. There you are. A slice of political life in Chicago. WWJD, eh?

Let's hope this year's election is boring in all the right ways, that everyone gets to vote without harassment, and that those of us called "Shilleristas" by the opposition are in full, if quiet, celebration mode.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Police arrest Cappleman campaigner for violating order of protection in front of Helen Shiller Offices

If my dear readers recall, I did say the Cappleman forces at times behave like stalkers. Well, apparently in one case this seems to have led to an arrest.

Here's the skinny as I received it (and I am quoting):
"This year’s aldermanic campaign continues to take nasty turns. On the evening of Tuesday, February 20th, one of the opposition’s campaign workers was arrested for violating an order of protection while campaigning on behalf of Cappleman. The worker had harassed an aldermanic staff member for the last two months resulting in an order of protection. On Tuesday afternoon, that worker violated the order of protection, threatening the staff member at the Alderman’s Ward Service Office. He was carrying Cappleman literature at the time."
This same fellah (the one arrested) made a comment on another Cappleman site,, about "Denise." Denise is a good friend of my wife and I, and another employee at Helen's office. She was also the person who forced this guy away from the other worker and Helen's offices (pretty darn brave of her) and who called the police. He wrote of Denise: "Not only does she look like like a Drag-Queen, but she is a crazy Draq-Queen!"

This reminded me. Those were the same words contained in another post on the exact same board years ago, when another reactionary candidate was running against Helen. It said the same thing about the same Denise but went on about it at length and had (to me and Denise when I asked her) racial overtones. In one of the very few posts I ever attempted on that board, I wrote a lengthy response to the poster (and a few others who initially applauded his crass dehumanizing of another). As Denise is black, the whole tone of their responses left me (and her, when I later asked her about it) feeling defiled racially and as a woman. Like I needed to tell y'all that. After I vented my spleen, the post was removed. (Very faint applause.) That was years ago, which might tell the discerning soul a thing or two.

Funny thing about this is... Denise has been featured on the front cover of publications (and I don't doubt elsewhere) due to her striking, attractive features and colorful Africanesque style of clothing. My wife covets Denise's wardrobe... but that's off-topic here. We'll leave poor Denise alone now.

As long as we're talking stalking, I think ol' Irish Pirate is a bit creepy / stalkerish, too. If he's interested in "freedom of the press" (as he claims) maybe someone can tell him where the real story is. Like, turning the camera on himself and trying to define what "news story" means.

Campaign stalking. A whole new category of political action...

Maybe local politics is what makes my commentary on other stuff a little spicier than it should be. I gotta vent somewhere!!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Helen Shiller Debates Bush... er, Cappleman

Gosh, but James Cappleman reminded me of our President last night. He was on Channel 11 (PBS) debating our alderperson, Helen Shiller. Helen got off to a nervous start but did fine once the debate got rolling. It was easy to tell she knew what she was talking about, and that Mr. Cappleman did not. For instance, he cited HUD standards for housing as a reason her Wilson Yard project was no good. Yet he seemed ignorant of the fact that the project was NOT a HUD project and that HUD standards are by no means the only standards for housing in Chicago or anywhere else. The fact that Wilson Yard passed through Chicago's rigorous approval process with flying colors seems not to register with Cappleman. Instead, he and his supporters write it all off as a conspiracy. Sigh.

Anyway, Helen did fine. What follows is a spotty and quickly dashed off (therefore not polished) look at what Helen's opponent (and supporters from their website) have to say.

I must say James Cappleman did remind me of President Bush. The facts didn't matter. What he did do was fear-monger, and alas, that works with some people. He also provided some unintentional humor.

Perhaps the funniest moment was when, in apparent desperation near debate's end, he cited a pro-Cappelman, anti-Shiller website, This was a huge error on his part, as that website is one nasty, lie-filed hate fest. More on that in a moment. Helen -- astonished he'd brought the site up -- observed how it reflected his campaign and was run by folks backing him. He denied it, yet brought it up himself. Surreal. Helen repeated the site's url and urged Channel 11's viewers to log on themselves to see the nature of Cappelman's supporters.

So, about that website. Helen said, quite bluntly, that it was racist. I didn't see any overt mention of race on the site. But she's absolutely right in a larger sense, in that the site reflects the reactionary xenophobic core of Mr. Cappelman's campaign strategy. He seems to be all about creating and cultivating fear of "the other." And as I mentioned in a previous post regarding the aldermanic election, the racial breakdown of supporters for each candidate is self-evident and (in my opinion) not accidental. Uptown's poorer families are currently at risk due to wild land speculation and condo developments (many of which are less than half full). It is this class-based struggle which for the past twenty to thirty years has defined Uptown's political landscape. And, like other unsuccessful candidates running against Helen in the past, Cappleman uses the fear of some "haves" to marginalize the have-nots.

How is such fear cultivated? Since he did cite the whatthehelen site himself, let's go ahead and use it for some examples.

To hate properly one has to create and define "the other." And apparently the other in this case includes JPUSA (Jesus People USA), the ministry / intentional community I am a part of. Despite being a member of the Evangelical Covenant Church (a forward-looking Christian denomination with its international headquarters and renowned University and Seminary, North Park, within a mile or so of JPUSA's 920 W. Wilson home), JPUSA is labeled a "cult" over and over again by Cappleman's supporters. We are wildly accused of illegal and/or unethical activities, and videos are posted of our home (which frankly strike me as "stalker" video). Further, the site claims they are going to stalk, with video cameras, voters using our address (we are a precinct polling place for the Feb. 27 elections). If that happens, I will certainly call the election board and / or police and suggest that voter harassment is occurring.

The most bizarre video example offered by their site is one carefully documenting the existence of a "wire" between two of our buildings -- this wire is alleged evidence of wrong-doing on someone's part. (For my part, I think someone has a short in their wires.)

Our faith itself becomes a target. Unfortunately, I have to be self-referential here, as the site does bring me personally into their uninformed version of reality:
"Jesus Camp" is a film about an evangelical Christian philosophy called "The Charasmatic Movement." The local connection to the movement can be found in Jon Trott, of Jesus People USA fame.
I'm sorry. I actually laughed aloud on this one. I get it. I'm supposed to be a fundie who thinks George Bush is at the Right Hand of Jesus (or one day will be), and who thinks invading Iraq is part of God's plan to evangelize the middle-east. The fact I've repeatedly posted -- on this blog -- opinions harshly contrary to those views (whaddya think "Blue Christian" means, anyway?) is ignored by the Cappleman folk.

Did they actually watch "Jesus Camp"? I did. Here's my mostly positive review (which has been up for quite a while. Second, that is "Charismatic" with an "i" -- might want to bone up on your theology, er, philosophy (???). And no, "Jesus Camp" is not about the Charismatic movement, except incidentally. It is about Evangelicalism in general, especially the more far-to-the-right elements within it. Contrary to popular belief, there are also many centrist and to the left-of-center elements within evangelical and charismatic groups. This site is one man's attempt to explore that "blue evangelical" world, which includes folks such as N. T. Wright, "emergent church" leaders such as Brian McLaren, and one-time Chicagoan Jim Wallis (of D. C.-based Sojourners and

Anyone living in intentional community -- especially if that community has faith-based overtones -- can quickly be dispensed with simply by using the word "cult" to describe said group, or "cultist" to describe a member of said group. I will tell you here and now that doing so is essentially the same as calling a black person "nigger." Calling someone a "cultist" is to accuse them of not having meaningful thoughts of their own, not having a meaningful faith, not having compassion or depth of insight into our common humanity. A "cultist" is either stupid or brainwashed, or both, and a "cult" is a malevolent organization bent on using and abusing the innocent to its own nefarious ends. These terms are, like racial slurs, a shortcult -- er, shortcut -- to removing that person's and/or group's humanity from them and turning them into a vicious cartoon. So, yes, the site is racist in the larger sense of the "us/them" mentality.

Seriously, if someone out there actually wants to know more about either JPUSA or evangelicals who lean left -- and maybe some who don't as well -- do let me know. I don't mean to ruin the "JPUSA is a fundie right wing cult" idea... but it just happens not to jibe with hard fact, and is also a despicable slur.

Note that anti-religious bigotry is okay for them, though our traditionally Christian position on homosexuality is not okay and is called "anti-gay."

Yes, we do along with many Christians worldwide believe that sexual expression is meant for heterosexual marriage alone. This is not an unusual or extreme view, whether our friends and neighbors agree or not. But with it, we believe our gay neighbors are our neighbors, and know what the Lord asks us to do: "love your neighbor as yourself." We have consistently worked with gays over the years on political and social issues confronting Uptown, including and especially creating affordable housing. We have publicly and harshly criticized those mis-characterizing homosexuals as child-molesters, "unfit" to teach in schools, and the like, esp. groups such as the nefarious (and in my opinion satanic) "God Hates Fags" sect led by Fred Phelps.

But the bottom line is what does all that have to do with Helen Shiller -- who is pro-gay and has been so consistently? She's been endorsed over her opponent by most of the major gay media voices in Chicago. She works with all the folks in her ward whether she disagrees with them on some issues or not. As do we. Helen also works with most of the faith community in Uptown, much of which holds a position on homosexuality very much like JPUSA's.[*] That does not, again, mean Helen Shiller agrees with us on this. In short, the gay issue as it relates to Helen's re-election is a red herring her opponent is attempting to mislead folks with.

The burning issue in Uptown remains the poorer residents in the area. Schools are shrinking as poorer families are priced out and moved out in favor of new condos mostly stocked with young urban professionals. The neighborhood is increasingly white, whereas it has historically been the city's most racially diverse neighborhood.

As Helen herself said at the close of the Channel 11 debate:

"The real problem is that we have to have ways in which the breadth of people can see themselves reflected in terms of their needs and desires when [those needs and desires] are competing. And we can do that."

In short, Helen is about building consensus in the midst of diversity. Her opponent is about destroying consensus through fear-mongering, then diversity through the systemic elimination of housing and aid to poorer Uptown residents. There's not much else to be said.

* a footnote re charges made by the site that JPUSA removed all articles on homosexuality because we didn't want people to know about our "anti-gay" stance... Actually, those articles were (and technically still are) on our site, which alas I administer. But it was built by someone else, and the ENTIRE SITE is down, except for a few very old links and the front page. Written in Micro$oft ASP by a good friend, the site was moved to a new server and since then all articles in the newer database format -- which is almost all of them -- are unavailable. I'm unable to figure out what is wrong, and have called in help. But at present, we don't have it up. To think I'd take down three quarters of my entire writing output over the years (along with that of many, many others) over a local election is a fairly paranoid way of thinking. The site has been down for months, and it remains a highly irritating state of affairs for me.

Monday, February 19, 2007

"New Blogger" -- And there went all my links

Sorry to say I was finally forced into switching from the old to the new blogger. They really did not give me a choice. And, just as I suspected, it also flushed all my links along with all customizations I made. As Elvis would say, "Thank you very much!"

I'll try to get the links back up. All my pals and acquaintances must be wondering why I'm so anti-social all the sudden. T'wasn't me! It was the software!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

"Touch Not God's Anointed": Trouble at Calvary Chapel

Christianity Today, in an on-line article "Day of Reckoning," is reporting that Calvary Chapel is having both moral and ethical problems, rooted in some dubious theology regarding pastors. Calvary, as many people know, was part of the same national phenomenon that birthed Jesus People USA, the ministry / intentional community I've been part of for the past three decades. So this was a sad article to read. I always felt close to Calvary, and twenty years ago interviewed Chuck Smith, pastor of the original Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa who pretty much single-handedly runs the network of Calvary Chapels. So this doesn't come from an enemy of Calvary... far, far from it.

Much of the problem to me was summed up in Chuck Smith's own words:

During the investigation for this article, Smith cautioned CT's reporter: "The Lord warns, 'Don't touch my anointed. Do my prophet no harm.' I think that you are trying to do harm to the work of God. I surely wouldn't want to be in your shoes."

Unfortunately, such a self-referential claim of authority must be challenged and rejected immediately. Not least, because it amounts to a threat. The reporter is being told "Mess with me and God's gonna settle your hash." Others also using such threatening language in the recent past include Jimmy Swaggart, Benny Hinn, Mike Warnke. I've never thought of Pastor Smith being numbered in such company, but honestly believe Christians should have an almost Pavlovian response when any -- I mean ANY -- alleged authority uses such Scripture twisting language to validate their actions and attitudes.

For one thing, a true prophet is usually known by two things. First, that prophet's words come true. And second, the prophet her or him self usually ends up dead at the hands of people who couldn't stand to hear the truth he was tellling.

For another thing, a true prophet is not the powerful head of what appears to be a corporate entity. He or she is rather the head of nothing except perhaps the lips or hand that write / speak prophetically.

There is rarely a biblical example of a true prophet telling someone "thus says the Lord" in which the prophet profits! I suggest one peruse the OT and NT to see if this stands. On the contrary, in every modern case I can think of where such words have been used, the alleged words from God did in fact directly strengthen the position (financially and power-wise) of the "leader" mouthing those words.

Next comes the issue of just who put the leader there. In fact, is the leader a leader or a misleader? I, for one, question that Mike Warnke (whose alleged "ex-satanist" testimony Mike Hertenstein and myself showed to be fabricated) was ever "anointed" by God to be anything. Likewise, for Benny Hinn to claim God's anointing awakens tremendous skepticism within me. Frankly, I don't think so.

And that brings up the issue of just what does make an American "evangelical leader" a leader. There is in fact very little resemblance between the first century Church's way of doing leadership and our way. Our consumerist culture has assured that the most "popular" leaders are often the worst leaders, not the best ones. But they are often gifted in one way or another, even if it is purely in shoveling hype.

Again, I hope and believe Chuck Smith is better than that. But children ended up hurt and abused sexually as the result of a doctrine Smith (and thus most Calvary Chapels) held regarding leadership. That doctrine, according to CT, comes from Smith's belief that Moses is the role model for leadership today:

"I'm responsible to the Lord. We have a board of elders. We go over the budget. The people recognize that God has called me to be the leader of this fellowship. We are not led by a board of elders. I feel my primary responsibility is to the Lord. And one day I'm going to answer to him, not to a board of elders."

Again, I question this on a number of levels. There is a (to me) undue fascination with Old Testament Israel among some Calvary leaders, linked in part I suspect to their belief that Israel the nation is at the center of prophecy (see Tim LaHaye's novels and Hal Lindsay's "Late Great Planet Earth" for two illustrations of this theology). But let's leave dispensationalism out of the discussion for the present.

Saying "God has called me" is very dangerous when said to defend one's power. It is, in effect, an usurpation of God's Name. A power claim over others is one which asserts authority of a unilateral nature and an alleged omniscient quality. If I tell someone, "God told me to tell you" x, y, or z... I'm treading on very, very thin ice which may end up drowning both me and those I'm claiming such authority over.

Please do pray for Chuck Smith, Calvary Chapel, and those affected by mistakes made.

And as for the rest of us, lest we think we're immune, it might be a time for us to deeply ponder how God uses not just the Word but also human agency to insure that all of us can be accountable and held accountable.

Otherwise, there is only the frightening image I have never forgotten. Jimmy Swaggart, who upon being arrested with a prostitute and a back seat full of porn, said to the TV cameras: "I am responsible only to God."

Oh, yes, sir. You are indeed. If you insist. He gave you the Church for a reason, for as foolish and ungraceful as we can often be (and ARE!), we are also the very imperfect avenue through which His Grace flows out toward others. If we refuse accountability there is only judgement, becuase we by denying accountability also deny the power of conviction and of grace to save us from our own self-destructive egos and lust for power and prestige.

Or so this pilgrim, still very much an egoist himself, sees it...

Friday, February 09, 2007

Lower (for Ralph Ellison) - Black Writers, part 4

What follows is a brief reflection upon, and poem inspired (mostly) by Ralph Ellison.

(Re the poem I also have to thank Toni Morrison for her insightful, if painful, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. It will be obvious to those readers of the latter that I was affected by it even while likely indulging in the very things she finds irritating.)


Ralph Ellison's novel, Invisible Man, is my personal favorite among novels authored by African American writers. There really is not another serious contender against it, though there are many other black novelists whom I like very much. (If I had to choose just one or two more, I'd pick James Baldwin's Another Country [can't wait to see the comments on that!] and Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon.)

Exactly why Ellison flips my tumblers is hard to explain. But I think it has a lot to do with his being able to write a "racial" novel that nonetheless takes us past race into the heart of ourselves. For a white reader, encountering "racial" novels

This quotation from Invisible Man offers a taste:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids--and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination indeed, everything except me.
Ellison's character begins the story as a naive southern black man -- nearly a boy, really -- going to a school suspiciously similar to Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute located in Alabama. He inadvertently gets into trouble for race-mixing (innocently, but appearances are everything!). The head of the school sends him to New York, where he takes a message from the man to various white men. He doesn't know the message's content, and it later turns out the message is a warning not to trust the young man! From there to the novel's ending, which takes place in the sewers of New York City, we observe a man relentlessly in pursuit of himself despite the various definitions others try to overlay onto him. The Brotherhood (Ellison's version of the American Communist Party of his day) attempts to use him; various others do the same.

The end of the novel -- actually its "epilogue" -- is to me one of the most powerful human statements I've ever read anywhere. It's last lines and overall thrust inspired what follows.



Young, I imagined the limbs of
black women wrapped around me,
desperate for rescue, desperate
for one white heart that understood.
I strove with them in loving lust,
Knew gentle every inch of skin, a
Kiss kiss kiss of my own body,
The hope of love rushing toward
Only me, there, in the darkness of
my white and lonely imagination.
(I rescued her to define her -- "mine.")

Young, I inhabited my ignorance
as thoroughly as a diving suit;
down, lower, into depths of darkness
I saw, in my helmet's visor,
My own pale and lonesome reflection.
They swam just out of sight, their
Limbs and murmurs the waters themselves
Waters between us as deep and wide,
Deep and wide as reflected stars'
White light on its dark surface.

Younger, I thought not on these things
Until with eleven year eyes and ears, in spring
I saw our neighbor dance, yes,
dance and sing, screaming "They got him!
They got that commie nigger
Martin Luther King!"[1] Yes, everything
Changed without my knowing,
That same year as my awakening
Innocence died, and I had nightmares
About dark women touching me painlessly
(though I awakened, weeping and terrified)

The sicknesses of light and dark swirled
in a place I could not enter,
and if not enter, then how to fix it?
Singing "red and yellow, black and white"
While white colored the rest, and the best
I could do was read Soul on Ice[2] and
Pretend I understood a rapist's rage
While away from my safe prairies, Watts
Burned[3] and Chicago cops beat yippies[4]
and murdered young black Fred in bed[5]

Still young, though not as much, I
read the books and studied the times,
Hoping for entrance to the dark sea, the
Unity, denied the sinner (who of course was me)
Needing a dark savior, but not yet
Understanding that this too was reflection
and thus, rejection, of the truth of it.
Down, down, into the dark sea, my
Diving suit between good air and water
Which might baptize or might kill me.
(Jesus, sex, and blackness my ghosts.)

I washed ashore, cast out by the waters
Finally willing, though clueless, to learn.
The place where heavenly waters flow was
Barred to me: Unity? My dreams faded.
"This is your suffering, not to know another's,
or in knowing another's, knowing
you cannot save them from it."
This voice, coming to me from the Other, echoed
of Theodicy[6], and breaking, I almost heard...
Ready to cave in to the truth of it all.

There are no waters, and there is no other.
The diving suit of lies makes them real.
The smoking gun of misplaced pity denies, defends,
when nothing else keeps the truth at bay.
Here is the truth, poor boy, dear child.
There are no doorways -- no, not one.
There is only a road, and that road
Goes Lower, takes you lower, down into yourself,
Lower until darkness blinds day's lies
And brings you, newborn, into the sight of yourself.
(Christ, who is God but also one man, will wait.)

-Jon Trott (c) 2007, all rights reserved.

[1] This incident, alas, actually occurred to the author April 4, 1968.
[2] Eldridge Cleaver's book, Soul on Ice, told of his career as a rapist, a prisoner, and an eventual member of the Black Panthers, a 1960s era radical activist group.
[3] The Watts riots of 1965. See:
[4] "Yippies" is a term coined (I believe) by Abbie Hoffman, author of "Steal This Book" among others. In 1968, the Democrat Convention was held in Chicago. As the entire nation (including myself at only 11 years of age) watched, the police basically attacked non-violent yippies, hippies, and even news people with their billy clubs.
[5] "Young black Fred" was Fred Hampton, a Black Panther who (along with fellow panther Mark Clark) was murdered in his own apartment by Chicago Police. Hampton, wounded but very much alive, was assassinated by the police after his arrest with two shots to the head.
[6] A Theodicy is a theological explanation of the antinomy (apparent contradiction) between God being wholly loving and wholly powerful and yet allowing terribly evil things to happen to those He loves.

Links to more info on Ralph Ellison and Invisible Man:

I was glad to find a good page and links on Ellison on Calvin College's site.
PBS "American Masters" page on Ellison for teachers.
Wikipedia on Ralph Ellison

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Black Writers Who Mean Something to Me, part 3

I'm taking my time getting back to the novelists. Today, I'm swinging back to one of, if not the, first African-American poet, Phillis Wheatley.

Phillis Wheatley's name, as with so many slave names, unintentionally mapped her history. Phillis was the name of the slave ship that brought her to America; she was only (according to her eventual owner in a 1772 letter) between seven and eight years old. John Wheatley, her owner's name, became the rest of hers.

She apparently learned English at an astonishing rate of speed. And it wasn't long before she showed abilities as a writer, though it also seemed for some more an amusement (Look, an African can write words!) than art. Thomas Jefferson in particular found her poetry worthless (but seemed, as his affair with Sally Hemmings proved, to have strong opinions on what young African slave girls were for... writing not being among those talents).

Looking back, it is easy to criticize Wheatley from the opposite end of the spectrum. With our hindsight we might think of accusing her of caving in to the white narrative regarding her own race and personhood. But that seems more than a bit simplistic to me. Sure she was a product of her culture, just as we are of our own. But she also gently challenged, or at least bent from their otherwise rigidly defined norms, the way in which she and her race were viewed by the white culture she was embedded within.

Consider this poem as an example:

On being brought from Africa to America.

'TWAS mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither fought nor knew,
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic die."
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.

Today's reader will be perplexed by some of the above and annoyed with some as well. The reference "black as Cain" refers to the theologically erroneous belief that when God marked Cain after the latter murdered Abel, He marked him with black skin. Thus, believers in this doctrine drew a corollary that all Africans and/or dark-skinned peoples were offspring of Cain, marked with his mark of sin. The fact that Wheatley accepted such a doctrine isn't surprising in light of the lack of options she likely had to it.

A deeper issue, likely to perplex and irritate readers, is Wheatley's suggestion that her enslavement is part of a redemptive Divine Mystery. Those waters are too deep for this very white and male human being to go paddling about in. But one thing I do resonate with over the vast expanse of time, race, and gender separating us... meaning and beauty can indeed be drawn from terrible suffering. While I don't want to fall into the usual patronizing nonsense regarding blackness as victimhood (which those of us white folk who have allegedly "tender" hearts love as a narrative!), Wheatley's own words do more than plead.

Christianity is subversive of all authority, though the nature of that subversion works from within as often as from without. In fact, the work within is where new birth originates, a new vision and new interrelationship between human and God, human and her fellow-human. Wheatley's vision was a seemingly passive one, yet not as passive as it seemed. Like the Apostle Paul, so easily misunderstood on the issue of slavery, the message of equality undeniable lies at the heart of things.

Wheatley expressed this in various ways. Perhaps one of the more striking I could find comes in her eulogizing over the death of evangelist George Whitfield, and her recreation of what his message of redemption said as well as to whom it was said:

"Take him, ye wretched, for your only good,
"Take him ye starving sinners, for your food;
"Ye thirsty, come to this life-giving stream,
"Ye preachers, take him for your joyful theme;
"Take him my dear Americans, he said,
"Be your complaints on his kind bosom laid:
"Take him, ye Africans, he longs for you,
"Impartial Saviour is his title due:
"Wash'd in the fountain of redeeming blood,
"You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to God."

[from On the Death of Rev. Mr. George Whitfield, 1770]

Impartial Savior? The One who promises not only to American (that is, to white) but also to African slave, "You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to God"?

This is the most gentle, whispering subversion. Yet at its core it contains a mustard seed enough to overthrow the greatest darkness of heart this nation ever knew.

Wheatley did occasionally let her inmost heart express itself more freely than even this. Attempt to imagine with what care a black slave woman in America had to guard her words when her owners and benefactors were all around her, as well as being her only audience. Then imagine she had only the tools of her captors to express herself with, their thoughts, even their religion (though in truth it was often not their religion--or, to subversively quote Nietzsche, "Christianity is a religion of slaves and women").

Phillis Wheatley's life after the American Revolution began to unravel. When her master died, she shortly afterward married a freed black man, John Peters. But John eventually left her.
In 1784, after giving birth to her third child, Phillis died. Her child died hours later.

A complete second volume of poetry had been completed, it is said. But those poems have never been recovered. Perhaps that serves as a metaphor of sorts for not only the life of one brilliant lonely woman, but for the lives of a people who, in each of their unique and individual ways, had to find the words of poets and, in speaking them, discover the strange and lonely path of the prophets.

I dare not suggest I know such things. At best, I know of such things. But that of is all the difference between Stephen who, as he was stoned cried out to God, and Paul, who stood by holding the coats of those casting stones. For Paul, there remained the need to be knocked off his high horse and to hear the mouth of murdered Stephen -- the mouth of Jesus Christ -- sigh out truth and forgiveness.

This is the quiet, secret subversion of Phillis Wheatley which is also the subversive love of Christ for even the persecutors of his beloved.

Local Politics are Sometimes the Ugliest: Helen Shiller Haters Make Their Move

Politics these days is close to home for me. As someone who campaigned for our local alderperson, Helen Shiller, in her very first election win back in 1987, I have always marveled at the hatred borne her by a fairly small and reactionary part of Uptown's residents. Perhaps their ill-will for her has to do with her refusal to forget about the poorest and homeless of our area, exhibited in one of the most innovative multi-leveled developments on the North Side, the Wilson Yards Project. This mix of an economic engine (the largest Target store on Chicago's North Side) with housing for low-income seniors and families should please nearly everyone... especially because we all helped plan and execute its successful beginning last year.

Helen will be re-elected February 27 this year, marking her twentieth anniversary as Chicago's 46th Ward Alderman. Unfortunately, the group of Helen haters showed up next to our residence as we live next to Joan Arai School, where a Non-Violence Rally was held just a week ago Saturday. Though inside the school a mostly African American audience celebrated with Helen, Mayor Daley, and Chicago's superintendent of police the school's multi-faceted plan involving students and community, the virtually all-white marchers outside yelled angrily as families worked past them to enter the school.

It was a very ugly incident, and without further ado, I offer this further recounting of it by a friend, Jane Hertenstein. She allowed Blue Christian to reprint her letter to the editor of a Chicago newspaper here.


Dear Editor,

Last Saturday I had to make my way through a crowd of angry protesters to attend an Anti-Violence Rally at the Uplift School [Joan Arai]. It would be funny if it wasn’t so disturbing. Alderman Shiller along with community leaders organized the event in order to bring attention to what is being done in the Uptown area. The mayor was there to support our local law enforcement.

In addition about a hundred or so students from Uplift and Senn High School were in attendance. A large part of the program was dedicated to recognizing several students for being “upstanding,” standing up for what is right and taking a stand against violence. Awards and certificates were handed out by Principal Morris as well as public recognition for the school’s girls basketball team and math team—city-wide winners.

It is for those kids that I feel most concerned. These boys and girls gave up their Saturday morning for an Anti-Violence Rally—only to be taunted by the chanting, jeering crowd using a bullhorn to belittle the rally as a political maneuver.

Excuse me? What were they implying:

"No more felons, Get rid of Helen."

"No more fake meetings."

It was this group of protesters that turned the event into a platform for their brand of divisive politics. No matter where a person stands in the debate over affordable housing these kids don’t deserve to be placed in the middle or have their accomplishments degraded.Perhaps those folks needed to attend the rally instead of standing out front, blocking the sidewalks and harassing the people coming into the school. If the sentiments expressed inside the gymnasium of getting along and working toward unity and peace are going to be achieved, then we might have to look to the young people to be our models.

Jane Hertenstein
resident of Uptown


Mayor Daley speaks to the crowd at the Anti-Violence Rally at Uplift Community School, thanking Helen for her central role in UpLift's success.

Links: Helen Shiller's Re-election site.

Tags: , , , ,

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Bee in Every Blossom (for Zora Neale Hurston) - Black Writers, part 2

I promised I'd try to do better by African American women in the literature department. And in the process, I seem to have rediscovered an incredibly powerful voice that for me may end up a star in my personal galaxy. I'd seen the movie of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and also read various bits of her writings over the years. But pondering her this year brought a deeper realization of just what powers of description -- both of nature and of the inner human terrain -- she uniquely possessed.

* A short but good biography of Zora Neale Hurston.
* More on her probably most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
* And the 2005 movie (by the same name).

And... here's my pathetic little homage to her. In it I attempted to borrow some of her own images and reflect them very imperfectly back.


The Bee in Every Blossom (for Zora Hurston)
by Jon Trott

"I did not just fall in love, I made a parachute jump." - Zora Neale Hurston

Your words are rich as honey
And sting like making love
Your suffered lack of money
That's not what you were made of...

You worked in sorrow's kitchen
Licking out the pots and pans
You went under then you came up
Lazarus kind of woman

You're the bee in every blossom
The spring that comes each day
You stung yourself for sweetness
It was a way to let you pray
Zora... Zora...

The spices hang about you, girl
Like dark skin, exotic clothes
A heart / mind kind of fusion
Both as sharp and true as swords.

Your eyes were watching gods
The strange gods of men's design
Your lonely cosmic shadow
Proved their idols dumb and blind

You're the bee in every blossom
The spring that comes each day
You stung yourself for sweetness
It was a way you let us pray
Zora... Zora...

You died in a welfare home
And were buried nameless underground
But I saw you this December
Chicago's winter swirled 'round

Zora of the ageless Spring
Receive this as my offering
I know a man who suffers all
Like you he still loves everything...

Sweet bee, sweet honey, sweet bee...
Love's sting.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Black Writers Who Mean Something to Me, part 1

The fact that African American history, culture, and especially literature means so much to me can be (and probably should be) cause for suspicion. But rather than in futility attempt to submerge into my own motives (and the motives for those motives, and the motives for the motives of those motives), I'd like to offer some quotes (and maybe, maybe not) some later meanderings of my own about specific writers. The latter might even be instructive for someone.

Today's offering comes from the "Harlem Renaissance" writers -- a group of names which came into prominence between the start of the twentieth century and the 1929 stock market crash. The list of names varies from historian to historian, some requiring that the writers lived in Harlem while others requiring only that the writer be relationally or psychologically involved with the movement.

Arguably one of the earliest voices of the movement, Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) had deeply Christian sensibilities and wrote with elequence nearly unmatched. His "We Wear the Mask" seems astonishingly blunt considering the era when he wrote it. But with the background being that of a post-W.E.B. Dubois world where the latter's 1903 The Souls of Black Folk had helped transform the race issue to one of white more than one of black, Dunbar's sentiments gain context.

We Wear the Mask
WE wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes-
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile
And mouth with myriad subtleties,

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but oh great Christ, our cries
To Thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile,
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) may have been the best known of the movement's writers at the time, and his abilities remain evident. Hughes’ poetry captured the agony of race in many tones. Some poems, such as his tragic and stark “Cross,” jab right to the point:


My old man's a white old man
And my old mother's black.
If ever I cursed my white old man
I take my curses back.

If ever I cursed my black old mother
And wished she were in hell,
I'm sorry for that evil wish
And now I wish her well

My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder were I'm going to die,
Being neither white nor black?

Other of Hughes’ poems are (would we expect different?) about simple, painful love, such as "La Vie C'est la Vie," or while dealing with matters of race take a more subtle and nuanced approach, such as “Letter to My Sister”:

Letter to My Sister

It is dangerous for a woman to defy the gods;
To taunt them with the tongue's thin tip,
Or strut in the weakness of mere humanity,
Or draw a line daring them to cross;
The gods own the searing lightning,
The drowning waters, tormenting fears
And anger of red sins.

Oh, but worse still if you mince timidly--
Dodge this way or that, or kneel or pray,
Be kind, or sweat agony drops
Or lay your quick body over your feeble young;
If you have beauty or none, if celibate
Or vowed--the gods are Juggernaut,
Passing over . . . over . . .

This you may do:
Lock your heart, then, quietly,
And lest they peer within,
Light no lamp when dark comes down
Raise no shade for sun;
Breathless must your breath come through
If you'd die and dare deny
The gods their god-like fun.

A fellow poet, known and appreciated by Hughes, was Claude McKay. His poetry was erotic, defiant, yet contained tremors of faith which later in his life flowered into a conversion to Catholicism. All those notes are struck in "Harlem Shadows":

Harlem Shadows

I hear the halting footsteps of a lass
In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall
Its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass
To bend and barter at desire's call.
Ah, little dark girls who in slippered feet
Go prowling through the night from street to street!

Through the long night until the silver break
Of day the little gray feet know no rest;
Through the lone night until the last snow-flake
Has dropped from heaven upon the earth's white breast,
The dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet
Are trudging, thinly shod, from street to street.

Ah, stern harsh world, that in the wretched way
Of poverty, dishonor and disgrace,
Has pushed the timid little feet of clay,
The sacred brown feet of my fallen race!
Ah, heart of me, the weary, weary feet
In Harlem wandering from street to street.

And his cries to a lover seem of a piece with his cries to God, as "A Red Flower" and "Prayer" prove:

A Red Flower
YOUR lips are like a southern lily red,
Wet with the soft rain-kisses of the night,
In which the brown bee buries deep its head,
When still the dawn's a silver sea of light.

Your lips betray the secret of your soul,
The dark delicious essence that is you,
A mystery of life, the flaming goal
I seek through mazy pathways strange and new.

Your lips are the red symbol of a dream,
What visions of warm lilies they impart,
That line the green bank of a fair blue stream,
With butterflies and bees close to each heart!

Brown bees that murmur sounds of music rare,
That softly fall upon the langourous breeze,
Wafting them gently on the quiet air
Among untended avenues of trees.

O were I hovering, a bee, to probe
Deep down within your scented heart, fair flower,
Enfolded by your soft vermilion robe,
Amorous of sweets, for but one perfect hour!

'MID the discordant noises of the day I hear thee calling;
I stumble as I fare along Earth's way; keep me from falling.

Mine eyes are open but they cannot see for gloom of night:
I can no more than lift my heart to thee for inward light.

The wild and fiery passion of my youth consumes my soul;
In agony I turn to thee for truth and self-control.

For Passion and all the pleasures it can give will die the death;
But this of me eternally must live, thy borrowed breath.

'Mid the discordant noises of the day I hear thee calling;
I stumble as I fare along Earth's way; keep me from falling.

Tomorrow or soon... I will offer a few more quotes and thoughts (mostly quotes) from my personal African-American literary favorites, including Ralph Ellison (who knocks me out), James Baldwin, and Richard Wright. A note: yes, I realize my taste is decidedly male-centric. This is not a-purpose, mind you. I'll do a post on feminine African-American voices (fromPhillis Wheatley to Toni Morrison).