The Meaning of Freedom and Other Difficult Dialogues (Davis)

Although Davis rightly resists oversimplifying the Civil Rights movement into the work of Martin Luther King, I was – likely because I was taught of his central, if not exclusive role in the movement – reminded of his thoughts on interconnectedness while I read her work. I couldn’t find the quotation I wanted, but I think this one works well.

It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality. Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a Pacific islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, and that’s poured into your cup by a South American. And maybe you want tea: that’s poured into your cup by a Chinese. Or maybe you’re desirous of having cocoa for breakfast, and that’s poured into your cup by a West African. And then you reach over for your toast, and that’s given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on Earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality. — King

What’s amazing in this collection of speeches is how clearly she shows the dependency between intertwined struggles and inextricable problems. Since this is a collection of speeches (it was all City Lights offered – I picked it up because I had only the vaguest ideas about Davis and a desire to fill in one of my many gaps), there are some recurring themes. One that comes up repeatedly is the self-sustaining capitalistic model of our current prison system. But she takes the conversation past what I’ve encountered in one very profound way. She wonders what would happen if we abolished the prison system altogether.

There are many other remarkable moments of insight here – about citizenship and about what it means for the LGBTQ movement to want the rights to marry and be in the military, among others.

The majority of the speeches come from talks given during GW Bush’s two terms, though the book ends with talks shortly after Obama is elected. I count myself quite fortunate that I get to go hear her speak in a few weeks ( I find myself wondering whether her comments will include any kind of reflection on his presidency and / or the upcoming election.

Mostly, I can’t wait to listen and learn.

I can’t find a link to the Pat Parker poem, “Where do you go to become a non-citizen?” but if you can, please share it. But I did find this ( and what a remarkable piece this is.

I appreciated Davis’ relentless hope. For someone with her relentless insight and personal experience to profess hope, well, I can climb on board with that too.


The Last Two Seconds (Bang)

It took me some time to find my way into this collection. It’s all angles. It seemed ripe for the comment that what’s most important is what is between the lines, left unsaid. (Someone once said this about the Dylan song, “Rosemary, Lily, and the Jack of Hearts,” and I still haven’t figured out what they meant or what the song means.) But somewhere in the middle of the collection, around “The Earthquake in this Case Was,” a door seemed to open for me. I think Bang is exploring the small moments, the moments of uncertainty between pretense and reality – a dichotomy that poetry itself explores. I’d love to unpack these poems with someone, but reading poetry is so / too often such a solitary act.

Motivating Black Males to Achieve in School & in Life (Kafele)

There are a few useful tidbits in this 92-page book. What would it mean if we shifted from writing lesson plans to student plans? Why doesn’t every student have an individualized education plan (regardless of whether they have a diagnosis)? As for many of his ideas, it just depends on the school’s priorities.

I worry that Kafele might be a cult of personality kind of leader. I wish that he’d included some observations about how his ideas have (or have not) worked at other schools.

I’d love to hear him in person. Better yet, I’d love to spend time at his school.

On Immunity: An Inoculation (Biss)

Could there be a more timely topic, both for Biss herself and for our country? It’s timely for Biss because she is exploring these issues at the same time she is a new mother – an unimaginable task. And Biss manages this self-awareness nicely, describing a phone call to her husband about a crib mattress or encounters with doctors she questions. She is, simultaneously, on the inside and outside of this topic.

With frequent allusions to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (which I now want to re-read) and Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor (I just found Sontag’s book On Photography, so that’ll be first), Biss explores the balance between the individual and society that all of us face. Do we have the right to make decisions that may endanger others? Is the government obliged to protect us from ourselves?

And Biss notes the metaphors as well and how they invade our everyday understanding of other issues. We battle disease. Immigrants become a kind of virus to be countered. What is a wall or security fence other than a kind of inoculation, an attempt to keep out that which we think will cause us trouble, when that trouble, Biss points out, is already within us? I was particularly interested in Biss’ connection between how we speak of virus in medical terms and in terms of what we dread when it comes to our computers.

It’s easy to forget, with all of the talk of vaccines, that Biss is a tremendous writer. There’s not a wasted word here. Each short piece is artfully constructed. They are not chapters or even separate essays. It took me an absurdly long time that there were no titles for the sections. Biss’ writing is a kind of verbal Jenga game. You can and should not remove one word.

I admit I was wondering about the largely absent husband here. The mattress conversation is, I think, one of his two mentions here. Certainly, there is much to be explored about the idea of a baby as a kind of invasion of the body as well as society’s expectations of the mother. But the issue of autism, among others, has been suggested by some to have a link to the father’s age at the time of conception. We all have things that we may carry and pass along to our children.

I would also like to have read Biss’ thoughts on the film Safe (, a movie that I’ve seen many time. I find it haunting and true. We are afraid, and this fear makes us impoverished. Biss calls on us to remember that “we are each other’s environment [and that] immunity is a shared space – a garden we tend together.”

Incidentally, if you haven’t read Biss’ Notes from No Man’s Land, you need to. Now. (

The Tail of Emily Windsnap (Kessler)

Though there are gaps in the plot large enough to swim through, this story, pun included, made for a good family read aloud. Several archetypal elements are in place here – the mysterious and absent father, the child as outsider, the ‘friend’ of the family who is not as he seems – and the story moves along well enough. Kessler has to invent the rules of this world, so there is perhaps a trifle too much exposition, but that’s forgivable. The illustrations by Sarah Gibb are great.

Citi (Washington)

It’s as hard to describe this existentialist urban apocalyptic examination of male privilege as it is to describe its poetic / dramatic / novelistic form. Both the form and content pop off the page, as Washington the poet keeps the language off balance and the plot (if it’s not insulting to call it that) moving along.

I’ve heard about RA Washington ever since I moved to the area, but this was my first real experience with is writing. And it won’t be my last. My next encounter will probably be this book, again. It makes a book like Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son look absolutely tame.

The Distant Marvels (Acevedo)

This is a story of stories. A swirl of stories, stories told for all different kinds of survival and, finally, stories told that are required for the kind of peace that we’d all like before death.

And there are many wonderful storytellers here, not just the author. (And yes, I know what I’ve said there.) Acevedo manages to give each teller his or her own voice and purpose. It would be fun and probably impossible to map this story.

And Cuba is new to me, and Acevedo opens it up a bit. I’m not sure it was necessary to have an actual historical person be a character, but it was a minor distraction. I would like to go one day. At the very least, I’d like to learn more – and novels are my way in.

And this is a story about women. The women are the storytellers here and, one, late in the novel (but earned) is a devastating example of the power of taking over someone else’s story.

It will be easy to get lost in this story. And wonderful.