Bodies are often mapped by borders, erroneously, as much as the landscape is. What then are the borderlands of the body? How are those lines marked and re-marked throughout our lives, throughout our living? In work and play our identities are fashioned and re-fashioned. Where we work and what we do shapes who we are. Where we play and with whom we play changes how we view the world.
What, then, is the connection between the perception of a body, a giant balloon and baseball, in this blog post? The enlistment of borders.
Sports have a way of helping us take flight—for the audience and the players alike. By pushing the envelope of what is possible, by meeting new people, we find ourselves with a renewed sense of imagination for our lives. Michael “Air” Jordan wasn’t just one of the greatest basketball players of all time, he showed us what it looked like to defy gravity.
For many athletes, being a part of a team may be the first time in their lives that they get to travel away from home, meet people from communities that don’t look like them and play on unfamiliar territory. In some cases, it is the first time they encounter what it means to play on a different field yet still somehow at home. The Tecolotes de los Dos Laredos, a baseball team in Laredo, Texas, plays on both sides of the southwestern border, crossing for each game between Mexico and the United States. Their name means Owls of the Two Laredos, and their slogan is “Dos Naciones, Un Equipo,” which means “Two Nations, One Team” .
For The Tecolotes, “issues between the countries are among the politicians and leaders,” says infielder Alejandro Rivero, who is from the Yucatán Peninsula, “We’re just the athletes who play on both sides, but we’re showing people can enjoy life and live in peace” . From the binational locations of their home and away games to the border crossing fees waived with game-day ticket stubs, the organizers and coaches are intentionally symbolizing what it means to privilege the person over politics, over border walls.
“It’s hard to live when limits are put on you,” says outfielder Amaury Cazana, who escaped his native Cuba, ended up in Miami and later was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2006. “So when you have the opportunity to move freely across a border, you feel accomplished” .
"...Their slogan is 'Dos Naciones, Un Equipo,' which means 'Two Nations, One Team'"
In a New York Times piece titled, “At the Texas Border, the Home Team Is from Mexico,” the writer James Wagner outlines in detail the ingenuity that it takes to accomplish and orchestrate the Tecolotes’ games. The creation of the cross-border team was pioneered by the genius of Mexican businessman José Antonio Mansur, owner of the Tecolotes, who moved the team from Veracruz to Laredo. It was a creative, logistical feat.
As one of the busiest land ports in the United States, with over $200 billion in trade passing through the town just as of last year, Laredo on average has close to 40,000 people a day crossing the border . While the move on the part of Mansur has a bit of opportunistic shimmer, it is more than a business opportunity: As the Laredo city manager Horacio De Leon states, “Growing up, it was like one community. We go see a family member on one side and go to school here” .
As baseball is, for the Tecolotes, a kind of transport to a binational sense of homeland, in Esi Edugyan’s latest novel, Washington Black, the protagonist finds himself as part of another kind of border-crossing logistical feat: He hops in a flying machine as means to escape the limitations of place and space, to escape from plantation in Barbados called Faith.
Washington Black, a once enslaved person, takes off in a hot air balloon with inventor Christopher Wilde, the brother of his former slaver, crossing from Barbados to Canada. “Washington Black,” who narrates his own story, “will not be dictated by history,” Colm Toibin writes, in a review for the New York Times . In his piece titled “Airborne,” Toibin clarifies, “The novel instead will give [Washington Black] permission to soar above his circumstances and live a life that has been shaped by his imagination, his intelligence and his rich sensibility” .
The realties for Washington Black, during the waning days of slavery in Barbados are grim and gut-wrenching—like the realities of many migrant populations who often have the boundaries of space tightly conscripted for them and onto them. The novel takes place in the 1830s on a sugar plantation called Faith. Although in 1834 Britain abolished slavery, the waning years on that plantation were filled with murderousness, terrifying punishments and random acts of cruelty .
Prior to being whisked away on a flying machine, Washington Black’s sense of hope is embodied in an elder woman on the plantation, Big Kat, whose Africanistic principles helped with imparting a sense of resolve and fortitude. “Death was a door…She did not fear it. She was of an ancient faith rooted in the high river lands of Africa, and in that faith the dead were reborn, whole, back in their homelands, to walk again free,” Edugyan writes .
In a way, Big Kat and Washington Black both represent the temporariness of bondage. Death is not death; it is a reuniting, a returning home. Enslavement is not an identity nor a history of a people; it is a momentary—in the grand scheme of things—conscription, like a kind of borderland.
The Tecolotes repeatedly and legally crossing the U.S.-Mexican border is both commentary and prayer. It shows the short-sightedness of erecting walls as a one-size-fits-all solution to the more complex issue of immigration reform. The Tecolotes are showing what it means to be neighbors. They are saying, in essence, this is what it means to share in and respect each other’s lands—without building a giant, super-surveilled wall. They are having respectable fun. They are incentivizing neighborliness.
"They are incentivizing neighborliness."
By requiring their players to get the proper visas, involving the mayors on both sides, giving discounts on border-crossings with ticket stubs from the games—in my mind, they are saying, “Hey, you want to come enjoy a game, in the stands or on the field? We’ll help you get your papers together to do so. Let’s have compassion for each other’s struggles, respect each other’s guards and—play ball.”
Mayor Enrique Rivas of Nuevo Laredo says, speaking about his border town, “We live in a reality here different than Washington or Mexico City thinks. Baseball came here to unite what politics perhaps hasn’t been able to do” . After being continually under a blanket of “stereotype and stigma,” “violence and insecurity,” as Mayor Rivas remarks, populations like the residents of Laredo have an outlet where their community’s humanity and ability, business acumen and cultural values can shine.
Mansur’s efforts are part of creating a kind of repeated homecoming through the game of baseball in a border town. Edugyan presents a tender and reticent character in Washington Black, who, in his restless and striving mind, has an “urge to live all he can” . In both narratives, we see a creative endeavoring to go beyond the fettered body.
And who can conscript the imagination?
The connection between border-crossing and the Underground Railroad is reimagined in the stories of the Tecolotes (Owls) and Washington Black, who both exemplifies what it means to defy a gravity that has befallen a nation of people.
In my most recent journey from the Midwest back to Upstate New York, one the biggest realizations I’ve had was that—as someone who’s lived a bit of a gypsy life—I now am in a phase where want to get some good roots under me.
When I first moved to the Western New York region three years ago, I worked at the Olmsted Center for Sight. As a job coach and business writing instructor I worked with visually-impaired and differently-abled students seeking to enter into the hospitality and call center fields. My first week on the job, I learned that a large part of the respondents answering the local 211 calls, calls for information assistance, on the other end were visually-impaired persons. It struck me: How powerful is it that I in a small way I got to contribute to helping talented and very capable people build skills that gets them and keeps them employed locally.
Often times, when we think we have little to contribute to our surrounding area, we, millennials, tend to leave and go somewhere else where we are needed. Millennials famously have higher than needed expectations of themselves and their abilities. For what we don’t understand, we know we have been trained to learn. For me, that has meant when I felt like I wasn’t fulfilling a need in a local environment—having little to hold me down—I went somewhere else where I could be useful. The mistake was closing off to what local opportunities there were for retooling and getting back into swing of things. The fact that I got to help local people stay local, did something to me. It is part of my newly emergent understanding: Investment is communal.
"Investment is communal."
Investing is a multi-stakeholder endeavor. Think about it: Serving one public school student in the state of New York costs $22,366 as of 2016 . What that means is that each dollar of the money is allocated to a number of stakeholder: That 22K dollar amount goes to pay for food, housing, vendors, after school programs—and the people, the families and the communities that run them. The African proverb certainly reigns true: It takes a village to raise a child.
While what I am about to say, may be unpopular for a progressive such as myself to vocalize, I believe that many Americans who got behind the whole Make America Great Again mantra did so because of a several-decades trend of American companies taking American investment dollars elsewhere. The American public is the biggest stakeholder that America’s got. They got tired of companies and people defaulting on America.
Senators like Senator Sherrod Brown in Ohio are pushing for initiatives that help to reverse this tide. In new legislation to keep jobs in Ohio, on his official website, Sen. Brown list a new report from the Communications Workers of America that “shows big banks are aggressively offshoring call center jobs outside of the U.S., even after the same big banks disproportionately benefitted from the recent tax bill” that the Trump administration passed .
Local workers in Ohio responding to Brown’s initiative are making their voices heard. “We want and need these good decent jobs in the U.S. We want to put the money back into our economy. Instead corporate greed is being put in front of responsible and professional work. We as the employees should not be competing against call centers located in the Philippines, Mexico and other areas,” said Renee Rouser, a call center worker from Youngstown .
While the Trump administration is debating how many people perished in the wake of Hurricane Maria last year, we have examples of companies modeling what it means to be responsive to the needs of the people. The Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 helped the rich in this country get richer. Meaning that the largest stakeholder in the country got shifted again. “Make American Great Again” turned into “Make Trump’s Friends & His Kind Richer Again.”
The gap between rhetoric and action has always been something bemoaned in politics. Politicians have a duty to serve the public. By trafficking in rhetorical gymnastics, too many politicians are wasting precious energy and time that could be used to direct resources and aid to communities in need.
During disasters, natural or man-made, agility and responsiveness can make the difference between life or death. An administration caught up in discussing the semantics about what counts as storm-related fatalities is caught up in wasting precious time and energy that could be used to help lives and recovery efforts. Efficiency at times like this, in the wake of another hurricane, Hurricane Florence, are crucial.
Here is where the business community has stepped in, showing politicians and government officials alike what it means to be socially responsible. During Hurricane Maria, business leaders like José Andrés, chef and owner of ThinkFoodGroup, were part of initiatives that fed over 3 million people in Puerto Rico in the wake of the 2017 storm . In his new book, We Fed an Island, Andrés recounts the harrowing ordeal and the bravery shown by business owners like José Enrique, who assisted Andrés in feeding hundreds of thousands from his ravaged restaurant in San Juan; their efforts included deploying the resource of “more than a dozen kitchens across the island” .
Andrés and his team respond to disaster relief efforts utilizing the local networks already in place and feeding the people in need the foods that are indigenous to their region. It is about more than feeding people calories for Andrés. His provision is hope.
Listening to what people need while they are in crisis is part of the healing process and the business model of World Central Kitchen, the foundation Andrés created. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, World Central Kitchen was founded based on the belief that “food can be an agent of change;” the organization has expanded globally and has “developed into a group of chefs creating smart solutions to hunger and poverty” . Through the Chef Network that Andrés created, he is using business efficiencies and creative problem solving to help “empower people to be a part of the solution” .
In an interview with Trevor Noah, Andrés said that when he got to Haiti in 2010 he started cooking beans and rice for the earthquake survivors because, as he notes, the food packets that were given were good for soldiers in World War 2—but after a disaster people want comfort food . “They were fed in the way they like to eat,” he said . What Andrés reveals is that the nature of healing is grounded in compassion. World Central Kitchen’s focus is not just about replacing calories, it is a way to heal—way to restore hope.
When I think about companies leaving the United States and building factories in other countries to save on taxes, I wonder what our true notion of prosperity is.
I learned that companies weren’t saving huge percentages by moving off shores. In many cases they got a 10% discount! That means they were responsible for hundreds of thousands of job losses in order to get a 10% coupon on taxes. (See a study on the overall corporate tax rates between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico after NAFTA went into effect in 1994).
So, instead of paying the 21% corporate tax rate in places like Ohio, companies have packed up and went to places like Mexico because of the lower tax rate there. In the long scope of it all, what’s that company’s goal? And are investors, stakeholders and executive’s that limited in scope that the social value and brand legacy of their company could be worth a 10% coupon?
This country is reeling from many things. One of those things is losing sight of what it means to be profitable.
The Empathy Factor: New Studies on Race & Gender Point to Importance of Empathy in Doctor-Patient Interactions by Shayna S. Israel
All space is tempered. There is a set of power dynamics that emerge when two bodies enter a space together. This holds true in the classroom, the boardroom and in the doctor’s office. If more than two people are involved, there is no such as thing the neutrality of space. The interchange between patient and doctor has been studied long before the advent of modern medicine. One thing that has been a consistent thread in evaluating the quality of patient-doctor interactions is: Empathy.
“The healer must become sick to understand the victim’s sickness,” is from a poem I wrote titled “Shaman’s Calabash Artifact” . In shamanistic practices, the healer seeks to gain as much proximity to what made the patient ill as possible—the healer seeks to gain increased empathy. One way of doing that traditionally in shamanistic practices is to help guide and comfort the patient, like many Western doctors do when a patient is going through terminal illnesses, as they go through a difficult process. That is called a shamanic journey. The path to empathy is very much a journey.
Alternative healing practices are found in both low income and middle income communities. The intersection of class, race and gender play different parts in how alternative and holistic medical practices are understood and utilized . In more middle class households, they “did not use it to the exclusion of medical treatment,” and viewed “alternative healing approaches as a complement and corrective to the limitations of modern medicine .
Dr. Thomas R. Egnew, in “Suffering, Meaning, and Healing: Challenges of Contemporary Medicine,” writes, “Holistic healing involves the transcendence of suffering. Suffering arises from perceptions of a threat to the integrity of person-hood, relates to the meaning patients ascribe to their illness experience, and is conveyed as an intensely personal narrative” . The narratives in Western medicine focuses on individual pathology and isolating the variable. Thus, as Dr. Sean McClean notes, “the well-documented ideology in modern healthcare of ‘individual responsibility for health,’” occasionally manifests in a “‘victim-blaming’ ideology” .
The notion of a survivor, that feminists have coined during feminism’s Second Wave, is a response to victim-blaming and shaming that often furthers illness or dissonance. Feminism is a systematic response to the social aliment of sexism. Culture, race and gender are important factors to consider in matching the right patient with the right doctor.
On shamanic journeys, “Shamans enter these altered states of consciousness in order to communicate and connect with helping spirits to retrieve information; the information attained is generally brought back for healing purposes” . The understanding is that whatever injury the patient is suffering is systemic, is connected to the internal, external and interpersonal environments. Thus, forming a narrative of what could have possibly occurred assists the patient in forming counter-narratives that strengthen and restore agency back to the body’s own natural healing process: The immune system.
"The path to empathy is very much a journey."
Knowing the cultural preferences—the cultural system—of a patient can assist with better treatment outcomes. In an article titled “Treating vs. Healing: Understanding What Wellness Means to Patients” by Johnny Hourmozdi, talks about how even after his uncle survived a heart attack he had suspicions about taking Western medicine. “In Iran, where my uncle grew up, herbal medicine was practiced in most households and generally held as a point of pride for Persian-Iranians in the face of a burgeoning Western medical industry” .
Hourmozdi’s uncle is doing alright and taking his regiment of prescriptions. Yet, Hourmozdi noticed that the fret his uncle was experiencing could have been caused by cognitive dissonance due to two different systems, two different concepts of what it means to heal.
In cultures like Iran, ones that value homeopathic medicines, “the emphasis is placed on healing, a concept intimately tied to notions of spirit and comfort—not morbidity and mortality,” Hourmozdi goes on to say, “Biochemistry, pharmacology, stents, and studies all produced discomfort for my uncle; discussions of RCTs and clinical guidelines didn’t help. All of this came into conflict with his existing beliefs and caused a considerable amount of cognitive dissonance” .
Empathy is a process of listening. There are many ways to listen. We listen to verbal as well as body language. Listening closely for the verbal and non-verbal signals patients communicate greatly assists with increasing understanding.
There are often nonverbal cues that help in establishing a rapport with patients, according to a recent study by the National Bureau for Economic Research (NBER). The NBER study of 702 black men in Oakland, California found that “black men seeing black male doctors were much more likely to agree to certain preventative measures than were black men seeing doctors who were white or Asian” . One hypothesis put forth by Dr. Amber E. Barnato, a professor of medicine at Dartmouth, was that the black doctors in the study “used more nonverbal cues to communicate empathy” .
While rewarding once it is achieved, arriving at empathy is a fraught process.
Dr. ChanRandle Jordan, one of the practitioners in the study, noted that “low-income black patients tend to be guarded in the doctor’s office” . One reasoning given by a healthcare economist at Dartmouth College, professor Johnathan Skinner, is that “if you face discrimination regularly in life, you will go into a clinic with even more apprehensions. If you see a physician who is African-American, you will feel some relief” .
Something to consider in this discussion is that—instead of pairing doctors and patients by similarities in race, ethnicity and culture, increased education about the culturally-imbued realities of the doctor-patient dynamic can benefit all practitioners. In fact, the medical community already has begun to move the needle in educating both medical students and physicians as to the nuances of race, class and gender dynamics in the doctor’s office. For example, as of 2015 there is a sociology requirement for the MCATs, the entrance examination for pre-med students to get into medical school, where they have to respond to case studies emphasizing socio-cultural dynamics in doctor-patient relations .
"The emphasis is placed on healing, a concept intimately tied to notions of spirit and comfort—not morbidity and mortality..."
In the article “Should You Choose a Female Doctor?” by Tara Parker-Pope, the question of how the identity of the physician impacts health outcomes is framed in terms of gender preferences. A 2016 Harvard University study of more than 1.5 million hospitalized Medicare patients found that “when patients were treated by female physicians, they were less likely to die or be readmitted to the hospital over a 30-day period than those cared for by male doctors” . Although the difference in effect was about half a percentage point, that equated to 32,000 fewer deaths .
For each person and his or her family, each death matters. That is not to say that all bias is intentional; it instead says that there can be some unintended consequences of unconscious bias that have real social implications.
The medical community thrives by continually educating themselves on new practices, new technologies new innovations in processes. Thus, I agree with the professor of information and decision sciences at the University of Minnesota, Brad Greenwood, when he writes, “I am hesitant to say that women should avoid male physicians or people should focus on getting a single type of physician,” because, like him I feel that the debate circumvents the issue that—“patients should, by all means, make sure that they are being taken seriously and being strong self-advocates” regarding their particular health needs .
As someone who is managing a series of chronic conditions, and has done so successfully throughout my life, I have seen first-hand the improvements in the medical community’s increased empathetic treatment of patients. For the first time, it took me less than two visits with a medical professional to finally get prescribed the necessary treatment I have been needing for quite some time. That practitioner was a woman.
A Place for Grief : Rethinking Responses to Serena Williams' U.S. Open Performance by Shayna S. Israel
On this day of mourning, I reflect on the power of what it means to grieve. On this day, September 11th, seventeen years ago, I was a little girl from Brooklyn in the library of my high school, 90 miles away from New York City. That summer, I recently moved into the “Girls’ House” of the A Better Chance boarding school program, just outside a suburb of Philadelphia. In that library, like millions of Americans, I watched the towers fall in a plume of ash and smoke. From the hallways, I ran in, to find a TV after I heard the first tower had been hit, and saw the plane hit the second tower. My mouth dropped open. The librarian saw me, came and stood next to me, watching beside me. I could not believe what I was seeing. I felt helpless, from my 90 miles away.
The effects from that day are still rippling. The rolls are increasing by hundreds of applicants each month at the World Trade Center Health Program . Fire Fighters, first responders and recovery workers at Ground Zero are still suffering health and lung disease complications . Nearly 7,000 U.S. soldiers and 800,000 civilians died in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars . The people who lost their lives in those towers, nearly 3,000.
Years later I returned to New York City. This time working security at Vesey Street at the American Express tower in Lower Manhattan, after graduating college. At the AmEx tower, there is a reflective pool. Surrounding the pool are the faces of the AmEx employees who died that day. From the ceiling there are syncopated falling drops of water. Right above the pool's surface hovering--giant quartz crystal. The onyx colored pool doesn’t allow you to see in, only your reflection behind the placards telling the stories of the lives lost.
We have monuments for a reason. They help us place our mourning—and our anger, too.
In the frenzy following 9/11, there were calls for retribution that drowned out the voices calling out for thorough investigations, healing and rebuilding. People were angry, justifiably angry—and were seeking some locatable place or person on whom to unleash it.
Anger is a tricky thing. It like all emotions, must go somewhere—and like all emotions, derives from some place good. Emotions, even those inspired by the best intentions, can get corrupted along the way, amplified or misplaced.
Many Arab and Muslim-Americans in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks were targets of over 600 “vigilante attacks and threats” . Many Muslim-Americans began self-policing and working with law enforcement in counterterrorist and de-radicalization initiatives . Yes, there is, like in all communities, a radical fringe wing that does not represent the views and predilections of the group as a whole. The increase in terrorist attacks that the country that has seen since has been in the rise of domestic terrorism by lone gunmen.
Seventeen years later, two wars later, are we safer—and have we fully grieved those we have lost? In some ways, yes. In some ways, we still, as a country have a long way to go.
There are stages to grief. Healing from it is a process. Grief unattended sometimes becomes so bottled that it ferments in to anger.
What have we as Americans not grieved?
The Unite the Right events in Charlottesville, the protests in Ferguson, the Women’s March on Washington, have all shown us that we are still reeling over many of the legacies of injustice in our society. We have shown healthy ways to respond to our grievances. The Black Lives Matter movement offers a multi-race coalition around police brutality; there have been the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas organizing across the country to bring awareness to gun control; there have been a huge wave of minority candidates running for elected office unequalled in the country’s history including women, LGBTQ, people of color—and Muslim candidates. We have made progress. We have a ways to go.
I talk about 9/11 in a post about the Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka because I want us as a country to make a connection between what happened on that tennis court, at the Arthur Ashe Stadium and how the country deals with anger.
Williams got angry—justifiably angry. Carlos Ramos got testy—justifiably testy. I would argue that he, too, got angry and used a technicality to unleash his anger on an already tense situation. What I want to highlight is: We have two models of how Americans get angry. Williams' rage was easily locatable, easier to point at. Ramos' rage was more evasive and masked, yet no less forceful in that his call ended Williams' and Osaka's well-matched, high-stakes game. Both Williams and Ramos equally escalated their anger such that the stunning performance by Naomi Osaka was eclipsed. (By the way, one of her returns clocked in at 114mph. Impressive!)
Anger is a need. Nikki Giovanni at the assignation of Dr. Martin Luther King wrote a poem where she questioned the "rightness" in trying to tell a lover how to mourn for a beloved . What Giovanni was bringing into focus is that when we are grieving, not all of us can be composed--someone needs to be angry.
Williams was angry, but according to Juliet Macur, at the wrong time about the right issue. Macur writes, “Let’s be clear: Tennis has a problem with gender equality,” she continues, in writing about Ms. Williams, “She completely had the right message about women’s inequality, but it wasn’t the right time to bring it up” . Macur’s piece is a poignant one to read. It is balanced in its perspective on each of the three persons involved, Williams, Ramos and Osaka.
"When we are grieving, not all of us can be composed--someone needs to be angry."
In an article titled, “How Neko Case Finally Unleashed Her Feminist Rage,” Joe Coscarelli interviews singer Neko Case on her new album “Hell-On," released earlier this summer, where “she confronts challenges and celebrates the power she was able to unlock.” While unlocking righteous feminist outrage, she also unraveled a depth of grief. Last year a fire decimated Case’s village and home in Vermont. Singing helped her process much of her grief. The blaze consumed a barn full of horses, dogs, cats and baby chickens. Case, distraught, described the aftermath of the tragedy—as “a seven-car pileup of emotions” . She’s still reeling from it.
Serena Williams, while justifiably angry, may have, in slamming her racket, demonstrated a visible representation of a “seven-car pileup of emotions.” Her finger wag at Ramos while calling him a thief and asking for him to apologize, may have been a larger plea to have a decade and a half of slights and overt bigotry that she had not fully placed—placed. Her finger wagging was pointing to a need: She wanted her pain recognized.
Anger is a call to transfer tensions from a resulting hurt to a structured, definitive place that can handle it, dissipate it or meet its need.
Ms. Williams has much to grieve. Most recently, after giving birth and all of the emotions that come with it. She suffered life-threatening complications that followed. She may have needed some time to mourn—the trauma to her body, the many years of vociferous commentary about her body--before getting back onto the court. She may have needed an intimate memorial, a place to put her grief.
We look to heroes. We tend to want to see examples of how to be better than ourselves. We are aspirational folks, us Americans. We both reflect on and imagine greatness. Our heroes are both born—and made.
We look to our ancestors, sports players, musicians, teachers and politicians—yes, for what they did, but also for some hint of how they did it. We look at our heroes' and heroines’ accomplishments and wonder: How they managed to do it all?
In my life, I have set many goals. Yet, time and time again, it is most often what happens when I get stuck, knocked flat on my back, or in a jam that also comes to shape who I am. In American folklorist tradition, there is the story of the small triumphing over the powerful as recurring troupe. Horatio Alger, rags to riches stories.
We also celebrate larger-than-life characters such as American icon Henry Ford. We hear the stories of his triumphs with the Model T and the assembly line technique that he introduced. Yet, less is known about his prior two attempts and failures in 1901 and 1902 before organizing The Ford Motor Company in 1903 . Henry Ford was “an indigenous folk hero,” David Lanier Lewis in The Public Image of Henry Ford writes, he “appealed to millions of his countrymen because in their view, he succeeded through his own creativeness and hard work and by supplying a product to meet the public’s desires rather than by manipulating money or people…he reminded people of an earlier, simpler society.”
"Our heroes are both born—and made."
Ford started late in life at the age of 40; it wasn’t until the age of 51 that he became an “overnight international celebrity by more than doubling the wages of most of his workers” . He was considered very “controversial, paradoxical, colorful,”—“an enigma, endlessly fascinating,”— “an idealistic pioneer in some respects” and “a cynical reactionary in others” . This is our American legacy.
The American hero, like this great country, has many colorful and controversial figures. Some are imported, some are homegrown, some are discovered, some are fashioned, some emerge and some are elected. It is of important note that the American folk heroes of 2018 were an Irish-American man and African-American woman: John McCain III and Aretha Franklin.
The two back to back funerals of McCain and Ms. Franklin this past August sent a message: Here is a model for peace, America. Reconciliation.
The is also something to note: Both of their ancestors have been enslaved.
At a time when the bulwark of our freedoms—our free and fair election process—is compromised, looking to what it means to survive and hold onto one’s principles when faced with great adversity is what McCain and Aretha Franklin teach us.
Former Vice President Joe Biden remarked that McCain lived by “an ancient, antiquated code where honor, courage, character, integrity and duty were what mattered…But the truth is, John’s code was ageless — is ageless" . McCain’s code “was “grounded in respect and decency, basic fairness, the intolerance for the abuse of power .
McCain was one of the last great Lions of the Senate, elected officials who were forged in military battle. I am not one to glorify war. I do believe it is a necessary evil that can be kept at bay by democratic and diplomatic relations. The desire to keep the peace through civil dialogue, through rigorous debate is, I believe, connected to that honor code that Biden references. I do believe McCain’s stance does derive in significant part from his Irish-American heritage, well more precisely his Scots-Irish heritage (Read more on the Scots-Irishman tradition and influence on American Southern culture).
"What it means to survive and hold onto one’s principles when faced with great adversity is what our McCain and Aretha Franklin show us."
Anatol Lieven, in a Prospective Magazine article from 2008, writes “By ancestry, John McCain is a Scots-Irishman. That is to say, he comes from one of the oldest, most admirable and most worrying ethno-cultural traditions in the US. To a remarkable extent, that tradition is reflected in McCain’s character traits: his obstinancy; his tendency towards unshakeable friendship and implacable hatred; his hair-trigger temper; his deep patriotism; his obsession with American honour; and his furious response to any criticism of the US. These are not just the products of his military upbringing and experiences as a prisoner in North Vietnam, but also the result of his being the proud descendant of Indian-fighters and Confederate soldiers” .
As a Belizean-American woman, as a black woman, that last sentence is important to include. McCain has shown us time and again how to live: When we screw up, we are obliged to fess up. He acknowledged his ancestors’ Confederate legacy, AND apologized, acknowledging that there were groups “denied their freedoms by [his] ancestors.” He acknowledged “slavery as a grave injustice” and said that his ancestors “fought on the wrong side of history” .
I once heared that there is no word for “sorry” in the native American language. The closest approximation, as I understand it, is restitution: If you break something, you fix it.
McCain’s life’s work personally and professionally, has been dedicated to living out his creed, in his actions.
The symbolism in his funeral is as much a part of his farewell address as the letter itself: His pallbearers were ethnically and racially diverse as well as from diverse segments of the military; his daughter Mehgan’s outfit (when he was being flown into our nation's capital) had the image of a shining city on a hill, both a republican and a democratic president gave a eulogy. When we needed a hero, McCain was called up.
We have another heroine that has come to signify what it means to be American: Aretha Franklin. Our stories of heroines from the fairy tales many of us were taught as kids are of obedient, exceptionally pristine and submissive young women. Ethel Johnston Phelps in The Maid of the North presents folk heroines who are portrayed as “spirited, courageous and smart” . Those three qualities could equally be used to describe Ms. Franklin.
Aretha Franklin’s known for helping us to “Rock Steady,” taking us to church with her rendition of “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” and for her soulful call to R-E-S-P-E-C-T. The heroines that Ms. Franklin exemplifies have sass, know-how and a fighter’s spirit. Much is known about the style that the Queen of Soul has honed over a half century of singing. Less is known about the courageousness Ms. Franklin demonstrated in the face of adversity and her exceptional business acumen.
Aretha Franklin "was the first woman ever inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has won 18 Grammys (for several years, she had more than any female artist in history), and has sold a whopping 75 million albums over the course of a stellar career," Stereo Williams writes in his piece Aretha Franklin Deserves More Respect. It takes drive, fortitude and discipline to do what she did.
Like any of you, Ms. Franklin's outfits, gowns, jewelry and hairstyles caused us to marvel just as much as her singing or long list of accomplishments did. Her dazzling attire and sparkling accessories are part of what we come to look for in traditional fairy tale stories. Yet and still, while Aretha Franklin's gowns are as much a feature of her career as her singing, she also represents a long line of powerful ancestral figures—where it was understood that women hold the seat of power in their communities. In a time where women are wanting to see more images that represent them as leaders, that celebrate the diversity of body types and sizes, that show women as capable and astute, Aretha Franklin provides a shining example.
Born in the Rust Belt of America, Aretha rose to stardom starting from singing in church. She forged a career spanning six decades when many contemporary singers struggle to maintain longevity through the next news cycle. She transformed and remade herself over and over again. It takes fortitude and determination to continually be in tuned with current trends and to maintain a brand as recognizable as Ms. Franklin's.
Jane Yolen, America's Cinderella, laments that fairy tales like the Cinderella story are where we go to find a “rags to riches," when we should recast our heroines as “ riches recovered; not poor girl into princess but rather rich girl (or princess) rescued from improper or wicked enslavement; not suffering Griselda enduring but shrewd and practical girl persevering and winning a share of the power” .
Aretha taught us attitude. She taught us power. She could take a song and refashion it into a declaration of strength even while being immensely vulnerable: "You better think. Think about what you're trying to do to me ," she warns. Her story is one of a survivor—more than just a little bit.
At the age of six (6), she lost her mother. At the age of 12 she began singing on the gospel circuits of the 1950s. By the age of 14, she birthed two beautiful sons. She has seen her share of heartache and heartbreak. Yet, she persisted. In the era of the #MeToo movement women in the entertainment industry help bring awareness to the struggles women in business face and have had to overcome. Ms. Franklin did this a half century earlier. None matched her work ethic. That ethic was also seen in her championing of Civil Rights, marching alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"Aretha taught us attitude. She taught us power."
Folk heroes emerge during a time of culture-building to help provide a normative model for how to be in trepidations times . For John McCain, his code of honor, fealty to country and warrior ethic—while forged from his American military service can also be traced back to Ireland. For Aretha Franklin, her singing prowess, her sense of style, her righteous power and work ethic while forged in the churches of Detroit can also be traced back to African aesthetic principles.
John Willie Roberts in his book, From Trickster to Badman: The Black Folk Hero in Slavery and Freedom, talks about how cultural heroes in the black tradition are informed by their African heritage even while they emerge in American settings and contexts. He writes, "When we encounter the African American folk hero, we meet a figure whose actions reflect the transformed and, in some ways, transmuted values of African people shaped by situations and conditions in America” . The same thing can be said across the board about the range of ethnic communities that we have in the United States: We have been shaped by the New World while bringing in our Old World values—no matter which immigration wave your folks arrived on.
How to represent our forefathers' and foremothers’ labor, their dreams for us, their hopes for the future is what we are asked to vote on.
The folk heroes of yore are transitioning. As the new generation of leaders emerge, we have a glowing example of two American ideals not at war but very much at peace.
“And to the Republic for which it stands…” is one of the most memorable phrases from the United States’ Pledge of Allegiance. The only noun and verb found in that phrase is “Republic” and “stands.” To make a complete sentence, the two required parts of speech are—a noun and verb: For example, she wept.
This is why Colin Kaepernick taking a knee is such a symbolic gesture. He was saying in essence that something’s wrong with our Republic or that something is threatening it—because—it should be standing differently.
What America will continue to represent and stand for is the question.
Kaepernick, after consulting a military veteran, according to the New York Times, started his quiet protest of kneeling during the singing of the National Anthem during NFL games in 2016 . He wanted to “raise awareness of racism, social justice and police brutality against ‘black people and people of color’” .
During the 2016 Trump Campaign, the social ills that have long vexed America emerged. The resurgence of racist, sexist, xenophobic and ableist rhetoric shed a light on what was left unsaid: A slew of isms that have long existed systemically and in “dog whistle” forms of racism in our business and social relations. America badly needed infrastructure change, faced the threat of our healthcare coverage being stripped and had our election process compromised, according to our top intelligence agencies, by foreign actors . Over the last two years, we had a lot dismantled.
Every country goes through periods of reconstruction—emphasis on the plural. Implied in the word “reconstruction” is that something was “de-constructed.” We have to pause and understand more deeply what was dismantled piece by piece, but particularly in our election process. Why? It is connected to something Americans hold most dear: Our freedoms.
Before answering the question of what was dismantled, before answering the question of what essential freedoms were threatened during the 2016 campaign, first, a definition of terms: What does being in a republic mean? What does being a democracy mean? What does it mean to be in a period of reconstruction?
There have been many kinds of republics throughout the history of organized society. The author of The Decline of the American Republic, John T. Flynn outlines in his blog post “Republics in History,” what he identifies as the five major ones: They are located in Athens, Rome, Great Britain, France and the United States . What they have in common is smaller than their differences. Yet, the common feature between them all is that they have an electorate. The electorate, as I understand it, is a designated group that makes decisions about how to administer the power—the work and the property—of the people.
Administration of power matters almost as much as the power itself. The republican structure, the electorate structure of our democracy is not about party affiliation—it is about a way to organize the precious resources we have been endowed.
This is why whom we choose as our electorate—our elected officials—matters. We have labored. We want the fruits of our work and our working to be honored.
The collectivity of our work is what the state emerged to consolidate. It is a way to organize our activity. Older than the republican structure of governing is the democratic one. Being a democracy is the name we place on the awareness that our power wields something—has capability.
A democracy is one where either consensus, coalition or majority rule is how decisions are legitimated. In The Guardian, there is a notes and queries forum page where someone from New Zealand posted the question, “Which country can claim to be the World's oldest democracy?” Some of the respondents argued that Iceland could have since they follow a constitution dating back to the Vikings (930ad) called the Althing . Some of the respondents cite the ones from Greece and Britain . One other mentioned democracy is the ones that was “perfected” here in what we now call America.
The Iroquois Confederacy is the constitutional government that existed in what we now called the United States. It is a democratic structure. To the shores of America, the Westerners brought the republic structure of governance. Such created—a more perfect Union.
It is important in rebuilding, reconstructing a new America, that we Sankofa, that we go back to get what we need in order to go forward. We need to learn something of our forefathers and foremothers.
The Iroquois Confederacy is a governing system that encompasses the following six nations—or let’s call them for the purposes of parity—the six states: Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas and Tuscaroras . Iroquois is the French name for Haudeenoshaunee, which means “People Building a Long House” .
The Iroquois Confederacy is one of the oldest “participatory democracy” in 100,000 years of history . A democracy is a system where the seat of power is based on the governed, who consent to and lease their powers of governance to whom they choose. The distinction to make between a republic and a democracy is that the electorate in its structure does not gather or touch base with those over whom they govern—in making legislation or taxation; that means not consulting the people on the receiving end of policy decisions. Does the extreme of that ring a bell: Taxation (or policy) without representation?
The perfection that the United States of America has come to constitutionally represent is—a Republic and a Democracy. For the seat of power is always with the governed. And the administration of that power does need specialized hands.
“Under our system, each state is a small republic, supreme over its internal affairs save where specifically restrained by the Constitution,” writes Flynn. The support that holds up that state are the people who work in it, doing what they do day in and day out. Think about it: In physics, the force always exerts its pressure upwards. All of the work that we do holds up those who we elect to wield—to distribute back that power justly and fairly.
It’s an interesting thing to note that it is two republicans: Trump and the late Senator John McCain that have of recent posed two choices for what it means to be in the republican party. It has been noted that Senator McCain is one of the last Lions of the Senate. He represents an elected official who went door-to-door, served in the military, fought for campaign finance reform and believed in bipartisan legislation—activities that put the people and service first.
Then we have Trump. His brand of republicanism puts self ahead of country; he dodged the draft, won’t release is tax returns and refuses to work even with the people in his own party.
While there is some disagreement about the articulation of our democratic ideals, we, at least, agree on the democratic ideals and freedoms themselves. For example, we herald and cherish our right to freedom of speech. The magnitude of that reverence can be measured in all of the tweets or Facebook posts we make every day.
Regarding the ideals of the republic, we are still choosing a brand.