Black History Month Book Report #2: American Street by Ibi Zoboi

I wasn’t going to read this one second (though it was on the list). But then I cracked the cover and read the first chapter, and, just like that, I was hooked.

American Street begins with a loss. Fabiola Toussaint and her mother, Valerie, are moving to Detroit from Port-au-Prince. Fabiola is American born, and passes through immigration with no problem. But now she’s stuck on the wrong side of the glass: her mother has been detained. Reluctantly, she boards her connecting flight to Detroit, hoping against hope that her mother will follow along shortly.

I don’t think I’m spoiling much if I say that her mother does not. Instead, Fabiola (shortly Fabulous) joins her cousins Chantal, Princess (‘Pri’), and Primadonna (‘Donna’) and her aunt Jo in Detroit, where Fabiola must find a way to navigate this strange and dangerous territory while holding on to who she is and trying to find a way to bring her mother through the gateway and into America.

It’s a neat trick, establishing empathy with a character you’ve just met, and Zoboi does it flawlessly in those first pages and then never lets up. Fabiola must find her way through not only the culture shock of moving from Haiti to America, but also the discrepancies between the America she expected and the America she experiences, all while trying to build a sense of family with her cousins, who were only voices on the phone til she arrived, and restore the family she’s known her whole life by getting her mother through immigration. Add in the dangers of high school, the drug trade, and the particular precariousness of life in Detroit, fallen symbol of the 20th Century American Dream, it’s no wonder Fabulous feels lost. Luckily, she has her vodou practice, her cousins, and her memories to carry her through.

This is one of those books that just grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go. At least it was for me. Tautly-plotted and written in prose that manages to be visceral, poetic, and windowpane-clear all at once, I chewed my way through most of this book in a single day. I can see why it won the National Book Award.

Immigrant stories are an American perennial, both because of the long and mostly positive history of our lifted lamp beside the golden door, and because we can see it most clear through fresh eyes, both in its ideal form (both foreign and domestic) and its actuality. Here that actuality takes many forms: the injustice of splitting Fabiola from her mother, the Faustian bargain she’s offered by a local police detective, and the fruits of that bargain, too, which I won’t spoil but will have you nodding and saying ‘yeah, that’s about right’ even as you wipe a tear from your eye and read on, hoping Zoboi will take it back. But of course she doesn’t, because even though Fabiola is eminently root-forable, this is America, and she and her family – and everyone near their home at the corner of American Street and Joy Road – are black.

That’s not to say this book is a bummer. Much of it is so ebullient and alive that the reader will forgive the inescapably complicated state of things by the end. It is, perhaps, as happy an ending as can be asked for, and one that satisfies even if you don’t get all you root for.

Either way, this is a fantastic book, and one I’d recommend both for its all-too-relevant subject matter and its stunning fulfillment of the promise it makes in those first few pages. Go ahead, pick it up. I’m willing to bet you won’t put it down.

9/11/18

I was gonna write a whole thing about 9/11, but my memories are no specialer than anyone else’s – and less special by far than many. Besides, look around. We haven’t learned a goddam thing. Bin Laden succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

So, instead, here is a sentence that is also a haiku:

Kids born after the
towers fell can now fight the
war we’re not losing.

John McCain’s Death

So… John McCain. Were there things to like about him? Sure. Did he have some good moments? Undoubtedly. There’s the one everyone’s sharing, where he told an old woman to her face that Barack Obama was a decent person and not a foreign-born Muslim spy/interloper/Manchurian candidate. Which, if you think about it, should not have been a high bar to clear. But given the turn toward wackadoodlism the GOP had taken and continues to take, I suppose that counts as political courage. Even if his thrusting of the unvetted, wholly unqualified half-term governor of Alaska into the national spotlight took that emergent wackadoodlism the rest of the way to cloudcuckooland, leading, among other things, to the cyberwar being waged on us by the Russians (remember Jade Helm? How Texans convinced themselves it was actually the US military invading them, to put them in concentration camps built from old Wal-Marts? And Greg Abbott sent the Texas state guard to ‘monitor’ the situation? That’s when the Russians knew they could cause us serious damage without firing a shot, just by feeding the credulous disinformation that fit their confirmation bias).

Of course, he never did meet a war he didn’t like (‘Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran’). Or a tax cut he wouldn’t vote for. Truth be told, he was as reliable a conservative as anyone.

And, let’s not forget that, when the chips were down and the soul of America was on the line in the torture debate, the man who knew how not only evil but ineffective it was folded in the face of political headwinds. The man with the most moral authority on the subject – a man who might have saved us going down that slippery slope – opted to sponsor a toothless bill that exempted the CIA (hello, Gina Haspel, current director) from sticking to the Army Field Guide’s non-torturous techniques for interrogation. Which made the whole thing a distraction at best.

That he remained as popular as he did – and does, even among those who disagree with him – and that he still garners the respect that he does is a testament to John McCain’s real legacy, his greatest accomplishment by far, in which he was, I think, unparalleled: the man knew how to build, and maintain, a brand.

I mean, seriously. He was a torture survivor who signed off on officially-sanctioned torture, who voted with hardline conservatives ninety percent of the time, a man who lent his credibility to Sarah Palin and cleared the ground for the rise of Tea Party conservatism and the worst instincts of the American right. But we still call him a straight-talking maverick who always stuck by his principles and his sense of right and wrong.

Say what you will about the man. But that’s one hell of an accomplishment. Too bad it didn’t do anyone but him any good.

Fuck Depression

Depression is a thing that will fuck you up, no matter how well things are or seem to be going. It saps the foundations like termites, wears away self-esteem like your own personal, internalized gaslighter. It’s kicked my ass up, down, left, right, sideways, and diagonally, and I am a person routinely mistaken for strong. Depression is a cancer, a colonizer of the soul, dimmer of the spark and whisperer of bitterest nothings in your psyche’s ear. It wears you away, eats you away from the inside.

It is also, in some times and some cases, a perfectly rational and reasonable response to the world we live in, which seems to conspire to create misery for most so a few can accrue — if not always enjoy — prosperity and power and wealth.

So yes, be kind, because you never know what kind of struggle someone’s going through, and kindness costs nothing but pays the highest possible dividends. But as we mourn another dead celebrity, another had-it-all suicide, another loved one or friend or friend of a friend, let’s not just be kind.

Let’s resolve to build a world that makes people happy. That takes care of their needs and provides space and opportunity for them to flourish. That asks what they can give and gives more than they would ask. That takes the prosperity and progress we as a species have achieved — and can achieve — and sees to it everyone gets their share, and that no one gets left behind. No one falls through the cracks.

Let’s build a world that takes care of everybody, that lets everyone live their best, most productive, and happiest possible life, so we don’t have to lose these bright shining stars before their time anymore, and because, goddamit, it’s the right fucking thing to do.

So It’s Come to This

Screen Shot 2018-06-07 at 1.33.07 PM
Now I know my ABCs

What do you even say when you see something like this in a kindergarten classroom? I mean, really, what do you say? Given its placement, the way we read left to right, the Lockdown Song is apparently even more important than learning the alphabet.

How has it come to this?

How have we reached the point where school shootings are such a part of the fabric of our national life that someone decided it was better to start preparing children for the worst than to try and preserve their innocence awhile longer, and provide an environment where what’s best in them might flower and grow?

 

These questions are rhetorical, obviously. We all know how. A powerful manufacturing lobby made a Faustian bargain with a political party (and possibly, even probably, Russian oligarchs) to sell as much of their product as possible, consequences be damned. For them, from their position and perspective, it’s actually a virtuous circle. Scientific studies have shown that fear makes people more conservative, makes them buy more guns. Once the market reaches a certain saturation (like, idk, one gun per person in the freest, most prosperous nation in modern history), the feedback loop reinforces itself. There are too many guns, and it’s too easy to get them, to make it harder for upright, responsible citizens (or, really, anyone) to buy guns to defend themselves from all the other people with guns. Never mind how your chances of dying from gun violence vastly increase when you purchase a gun.

But that’s just science talking. And science, despite its dedication to reflecting and clarifying actuality, can’t hold a candle to narrative when it comes to getting people to do (or not do) stuff.

But back to the virtuous circle, which is not really virtuous unless it’s in your interest to make people frightened so you can sell them guns and get them to vote for conservative politicians whose policies are generally terrifically unpopular. I mean, does anyone who isn’t rich really think the rich need more money while the rest of us scrabble and scrape? Does anyone really want to live in a world two steps removed from a battle royale where it’s all against all and fuck everybody who ain’t me and mine? Some people might, but fuck them.

So, the circle. How does it work?

Well, what you need is to cultivate an atmosphere of threat, fear, and scarcity. Which isn’t hard, because people are wired to respond to threats. It’s how we survived, evolutionarily, and though we’ve created a situation in which most of our instincts aren’t really optimal, evolution takes a while to catch up. Anyhow, I don’t think it’s a big stretch to say that when things get scary, or scarce, people’s circle of concern tends to tighten up. They start looking out for them and theirs. They also look for targets, because fear and scarcity take their toll on a person. And because fear produces anger and anxiety — which, let’s be honest, don’t exactly lead to clear thinking — it’s easy to divert that fear and anger away from their actual sources, so the underlying causes and problems never get addressed.

Which brings us back to the Lockdown Song. I mean, just think how many guns a whole generation suffering from a lifetime of fear will buy. Long term, school shootings are going to be great for business.