This is where I stand

I was shocked and angered to see the casual murder of George Floyd, the chilling mockery of the protest stance of ‘taking a knee’. From that moment the United States erupted. I am, of course, looking from the outside and don’t pretend to understand the broad outlines much less any finer details of the protests.

However, I do understand that a great wrong has been committed, not just this instance, but many, many times over. I understand the demands for justice and the demands to create a world where racism cannot rear its head. My heart soars when I see so many people marching together to demand change. (I also worry about the spread of the coronavirus, but let’s put that to one side.)

I found Ryan Holiday‘s latest article to be very profound.

“I’ll say it again: Not being extrajudicially murdered is not a privilege, it’s not an “exception,” it’s more than a tragedy. To try to categorize it as those things is to woefully fail to describe the injustice that is being done in modern America (and elsewhere). Callous indifference to suffering by the authorities towards minorities or the poor or the voiceless is not just a lamentable fact of modern life, it’s an active crime. “

In this post Jeff, from On the Fence Voters, writes another powerful piece. It ends with a list of about 30 things that, because of his privileged white skin, he can do while African Americans have been killed doing. Simple, daily things like shopping at Walmart, reading a book in a car or go jogging.

Of course no one can predict where this is going, and how it will end. We can see that this maelstrom this perfect storm of events creates will alter the world. To me there are some small indications that it is going to be wider and stronger than just the current protests.

For instance, bus drivers in Minneapolis refused to be commandeered by the police to take arrested protestors to police stations. Hundreds of unionists ~ teachers, postal workers, health workers, hotel workers ~ have signed a petition pledging that they will not assist the police during the protests.

As an Etsy seller I received a strongly worded letter from the CEO, Josh Silverman. Part of it read:

“We stand against police brutality in all forms.

We stand against a criminal justice system that disproportionately targets Black Americans.

We stand against the widespread disenfranchisement of Black and Brown communities whose voices are silenced at the polls.”

In Australia Channel 10, a TV station not known for its progressive stance, displayed this statement on air:

‘We stand in solidarity with our black colleagues, storytellers and viewers in Australia and the world because #BlackLivesMatter.’

In Australia we cannot be smuggly complaisant either.

Racism and social injustice exists here. White Australia was built on the dispossession and genocide of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Peoples. We can’t say “Black lives matter in the USA” and ignore the black lives here that are being lost and abused. 432 Indigenous people have died in custody since 1991. There have been very few charges laid against officers involved in those deaths, and never a successful homicide prosecution. 432. We are far more familiar with the names of African Americans who died than we are with the names of our fellow Australians.

The deaths are the tip of systematic racism towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Looking at any marker ~ life expectancy, education results, housing, employment, incarceration, etc, etc ~ you see that there is a marked difference between Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous.

Change is not easy, but there are some points from which we can start.

  • Firstly, move Australia Day from January 26th to a date that is less traumatic to Indigenous Australians.
  • Secondly, let’s have a proper response to the Uluru statement from the Heart. It is a beautiful, thoughtful document, a document that should be prominent in all places. How powerful is this statement:

We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.

The Statement has three key elements for change ~ enshrining a First Nations Voice in the Constitution, the establishment of a Makarrata Commission to supervise agreements with Australian Governments and the Commission will also oversea a process of truth telling about colonisation. You can read more about it here.

This year has been such a tumultuous one. In Australia there has been searing drought, horrendous bushfires, floods and then the pandemic. For me the turmoil actually began six months earlier with my partner needing medical care. It is no wonder that we are all reeling, wondering how much more there is to absorb and how much more we can take.

However, let’s not loose sight of the incredible generosity and courage shown in every one of these happenings ~ from truck loads of hay to drought-stricken areas to millions of dollars donated from all parts of the world; from fire fighters to hospital workers risking their lives to protect others. In the protests we see hundreds of thousands coming together as well as the individual acts of courage where a person is protecting another from the police. And of course, the big one, the shut down the world endured to help save the lives of people more vulnerable than themselves, and often at high personal cost.

I do love a good quote, and this one from Howard Zinn is one of the best. I will leave the ending up to him:

”To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic.
It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty,
but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.
What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.
If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something.
If we remember those times and places — and there are so many —
where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
And if we do act, in however small a way,
we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future.
The future is an infinite succession of presents,
and to live now as we think human beings should live,
in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

A couple of updates

Firstly…..#istandwithadam

[And apologies to anyone who tried to make sense of my post this week. I would like to blame the gremlins, but I suspect it was me deleting the right post and publishing a draft. Hopefully all is restored now.]

Well, Adam Goodes played football on Sunday. His team, the Sydney Swans were playing the Geelong Cats down in Geelong. Usually the teams run through their own banners, made by the cheer squads. This game they jointly went through the same one. The racist booing that had followed Goodes in past matches was not heard. Hooray for common decency! Unfortunately it wasn’t a complete fairy tale ending for Goodes, as they lost to the Cats!

A comment made about Indigenous players struck a chord with me. Someone said that footballers and officials probably have a better understanding of Indigenous culture than most people. You would get to know everyone in the close environment of a football club. For a team to function well there has to be inclusion; divisions that may drive the team apart can have no place if the team is to be a team. To win the ultimate prize, the Grand Final, all the players must be unified and supportive of each other.

I am not saying that footballers are not racist. That is certainly not true, and there have been many public battles over this issue arising on the footy field. I am making the analogy that just as a team can’t afford divisions neither can society as a whole. Societies that are riven by racism, sexism and homophobia are ones that breed suspicion of the “other”; they are ones that are easier for right-wing nationalism to gain hold. It is in everyone’s interests to stand up against oppression.

That’s the wider reason why the support for Adam Goodes was so important.

Secondly, and off my soapbox!……

A couple of posts ago I wrote about my method for stretching watercolour paper. Laura wrote this in the comments

Simply laying it on a flat surface on a towel with a piece of Gator Board on the back and weighting the “sandwich” with books works fine. Billy Showell places hers inside a large pad of paper without a towel then weights it all down with books, encyclopedias I think.
The key is to let it dry slowly.

I have done this with a few paintings now, and I am very happy with the results. The works are just as flat as when I taped them and I save time not having to fiddle around with the tape. So a big thank you to Laura. Jump over to her website and have a look at her art.

And lastly…..I will leave you with some images from John Wolseley’s exhibition, Heartlands and Headwaters currently on at the Ian Potter campus of the NGV. He is the most wonderful, inspirational painter and if you are anywhere near Melbourne before 20th September, go and see it. These images are just small parts of larger works. Each part is a jewel.

 

March Books

Some books I read this month were disappointing, and one I didn’t even bother to finish. But others are definitely worth talking about, and reading. Copies of the first three books came from my local library. Hooray for libraries!!

So what have you been reading this month? Any that I can add to my list? Let me know in the comments.

Karin Altenberg: Island of wings

What I really enjoyed about this book was the new world that Altenberg took me to — the islands of St Kilda, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. It was a place and culture that I knew nothing about, and her novel is based on historical facts. (Although I wish I had googled images for the island before I read the book. Seeing the photos would have helped my understanding of the geography.)

In 1830 and Neil and Lizzie MacKenzie arrive on the island of Hirta. Reverend MacKenzie’s evangelical mission was to bring salvation to the islanders. He was committed to bringing them away from their pagan and uncivilised ways. “He had been chosen to relieve the islanders of their backward ways and show them the rightful path as drawn out by God and paved by the Church of Scotland.”

They were a community that needed help. It was a hard life, where food and fuel supplies often didn’t last the winter. Infant tetanus was rife and many infants died before they were 8 days old. But the land was worked communally, with daily meetings to determine what needed to be done. They had a rich oral culture and crime was virtually non-existent. By the time Reverend MacKenzie left in 1843, the islanders had moved into stone houses and were beginning to divide up the land into individual plots. (Life for the islanders continued to be a struggle, until the last of them left St Kilda in 1930.)

The story is the contrast between Neil, who is driven by his religious fervor to atone for past events, and Lizzie. She doesn’t speak Gaelic, and is isolated — from friendship, from occupation beyond looking after the children, and even from Neil.  She is very aware of the beauty of the island. Altenberg’s delicate descriptions of the island and bird life are often told through her eyes.

Rebecca Stott: Darwin and the barnacle

We all know of Darwin’s fame because of  “On the Origin of the Species by Natural Selection”, published in 1859. We also know that his voyage aboard the Beagle was crucial for his theory. However, I didn’t know how important his barnacle work was — or indeed that he had worked for eight years, from 1846 to 1854, on barnacles. Stott’s book, based on many primary sources, is a fascinating insight into Darwin’s world.

The first chapters recount Darwin’s study of marine invertebrates found on the sands of Leith, as well as his journey on the Beagle. However most of Stott’s book tells of those years Darwin spent dissecting and investigating barnacles. He thought he would only be taking a couple of years away from his theory on species. However, his notes on species lay in a drawer for those eight years, while he came to grips with barnacles. There were two main things he was trying to do. He was trying to classify the species of barnacles as well as attempting to understand how these species had evolved and diversified through time. Barnacles came to him from collectors around the world. Thank heavens for the new postal system!

Darwin’s health had always been poor. While he was doing his barnacle work he was undertaking the Water Cure, which as far as I can tell seemed to be daily immersions in cold water, as well as being wrapped in wet sheets. He was not allowed to work for more than a couple of hours each day. In 1851 his beloved daughter, Annie died. She was only ten, and naturally Charles and Emma were devastated.

Stott argues that these years were very important for Darwin’s future work on The Origins, and for his reputation in the scientific world.

“The barnacle years had been no cul-de-sac in the development of Darwin’s ideas. [Barnacles] helped him fine-tune the way he used homology and embryology to think about species’ origins and relations, they provided the foundation on which he continued to build his credibility, reputation and authority as a systematist, and they had been the means by which he had established a network of correspondents that would hold together and bolster that authority.”

Patricia Ferguson: The midwife’s daughter

In the early 1900’s midwife, Violet Dimond, adopts Grace. Grace resembles Violet’s own dead daughter — except that Grace is black. She grows up in a town in Cornwall, where she faces the whole range of experiences, from overt and subtle racism through blunt curiosity to automatic acceptance. Violet has a fierce determination to protect her and give her strength. Grace certainly has strength, which she needs to get her through an especially ugly patch. The story of her childhood and adolescence unfolds as we watch her develop into an intelligent and beautiful young woman. It is told against the backdrop of a small town coping with the trauma of WW1 and all the changes that it brings.

Violet is a midwife and her story is woven around Grace’s. She has attended most of the births in the town, and has an authority because of her presence at this primeval time. However she is a causality of the professionalisation of mid-wifery, when the authorities demand papers and qualifications. Is it for the better? At the end of Grace’s story Ferguson makes us wonder whether it is.

Helen Scales: Poseidon’s steed: The story of seahorses, from myth to reality

I have mentioned this delightful, informative book before, in my posts about seahorses and seadragons.

Simon Winchester’s review, quoted on the front cover sums up this book:

“This seems to be about the perfect book: small, delicate, elegant, charming, unusual, fascinating, and uniquely memorable, a classic of its kind. Poseidon’s steed is itself a sort of seahorse of the book world.”

 

December Book

While I have read other books this month, this book deserves a place all by itself. It is the best I have read this year, and up there in my All Time Best.

The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman

The best way that I can describe this book is by likening it to a symphony, but probably more a Shostakovic than a Haydn. Like a symphony it sweeps and soars, not only following grand themes but also layering other refrains and melodies.

Largely we follow 2 threads. One is Lamont Williams. He is a cleaner in a New York hospital where he meets Henryk Mandelbrot, a patient and a survivor of Auschwitz. Their friendship develops as Henryk tells of his experiences as a Sonderkommando, a member of the group of Jewish prisoners who had to remove the bodies from the crematoria. The second thread is Adam Zignelik, an academic historian who desperately needs a new research topic. He finds it in the work of Henry Border. Border went to the Displaced Persons camps in Europe after WW2 and recorded the accounts of Jewish survivors.

But that bald outline does not tell of the complexity of this novel, and I can only begin to do it justice by talking about its themes.

The major theme is racism. Perlman dedicates the book to eight girls and young women “who all died from different manifestations of the same disease.” Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins were 14 year old girls who were burnt to death when their church in Birmingham Alabama was bombed by white segregationists. Rosa Robota, Estusia Wajcblum, Ala Gertner and Regina Safirztain slaved in the munitions factory annexed to Auschwitz and smuggled out the gunpowder used in the uprising.

Throughout the book Henryk tells Lamont about his life in the ghetto and Auschwitz. His job was to ready the Jews for extermination and then bury their murdered remains. His story is terrible, and there were parts that I couldn’t read. All the more terrible for knowing that it was true. Around Henryk’s story Perlman weaves other stories, including Rosa’s. She is one of the courageous individuals who was crucial to  the uprising in Auschwitz. And Rosa’s story is woven around Henry Border’s.

We follow Lamont’s life in present day New York. He is a black man, fresh from gaol, anxious about his job, looking for his child, living with his grandmother.

However, within these stories there is resistance to the evil of racism. There is the big resistance at Auschwitz, again described by Henryk. The gunpowder, smuggled out by Rosa, was made into grenades used to blow up a crematorium. That triggered a mass escape and the crematorium was useless. The courage of those involved is inspirational.

But Perlman writes about the less spectacular resistances. How, after the war, James Pearson and Tommy Parks join the Packinghouse Workers Union to fight for more security for black workers. How Lamont finds courage within himself to confront the hospital administration which wants to sack him. How Adam’s father, a Jewish lawyer, fights alongside others in the Civil Rights Movement. The courage of Elizabeth Eckford as she walks alone up to Central High School in Little Rock, between angry white crowds who were outraged at her attempt to become one of the first black students at the school. And so on.

Like the symphony the book has other refrains, such as the need for these stories to be told. Border records stories in the DP camps. Some of the Sonderkommandos write down their experiences and then bury them, so that the evil will not be forgotten. At her execution Rosa defiantly demands “Tell everyone what happened here! Tell everyone!” Henryk insists that Lamont listens and remembers, so that he is able to pass on the knowledge.

And indeed, by writing the novel, Perlman is also making sure we remember. But he makes sure we see the individuals as well as the broad sweep, even the ones that have no names.  As the Jews go into the gas chamber he individualises them.

“Then came another five, then another, a carpenter whose wife used to say he worked too much, a tailor came, then a man with a singing voice that all his neighbours had enjoyed since he was a child, a teacher was there who hoped to be a principal one day, a widow who sewed clothes, a nurse who had an affair with a patient….”

He writes about the woman who dies in in the camp, alone, unknown except for a first name, her death unmarked. Adam worries that the name of a child killed in race riots in early New York is unknown.

As the story sweeps and soars around these themes and characters, times and places, we see the connections. Not just a simple idea of “six degrees of separation”, but how our relationships intermesh in ways we cannot tell. Or, as the Random House blurb says about ‘The Street Sweeper’, “How breathtakingly close we are to lives that at first seem so far away.”

It is a confronting and harrowing read. Many images linger in my mind and surface when I am doing ordinary things like chopping vegetables and planting flowers. However, there is much hope in here too. Like symphonies, there is satisfactory resolution.

As Jake, Adam’s father, says,

“We have to fight (racism) wherever we find it. That’s what good people do.”

(Phillip Adams had an excellent conversation with Elliot Perlman on his radio show Late Night Live, where they discuss the novel, rascim, resistance, the Australian Labor Party and the state of the world.)

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/latenightlive/elliot-perlman/3957810