Southern Shrines of (Racist) Memory

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Statue of Jefferson Davis, Monument Avenue, Richmond, Virginia. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2009

MY HOMETOWN OF RICHMOND, Virginia is a city anchored to its past by bronze and marble Confederate shrines of memory, by an undying devotion to the cult of the Lost Cause. I was born and raised in the furrowed, relic-strewn Civil War battlefields on the city’s tattered eastern edge. A captive of its public schools, I was taught official Virginia history from textbooks approved by the First Families of Virginia. But I came to understand the shadowed history of my state by caring for its homeless outcasts.

These lessons began while I was in nursing school. The modern hospital of MCV curled around the former White House of the Confederacy like a lover. My clinical rotations were nearby in the crumbling brick former colored-only hospital, which then housed indigent and homeless patients as well as prisoners. Most of these patients were black, so I called it the almost-colored-only hospital. The prisoners, shackled to their beds and accompanied by brown-clad armed guards, were from the State Penitentiary located across town. One of my patients was a death-row inmate. When I spoon-fed him his medications, I was simultaneously afraid for my own safety and ashamed of being an accomplice to murder. I knew I was nursing him back to health only to return him so he could be killed by the state. I wanted to talk to him, ask about his family, about his life in and outside of prison, but the stone-faced armed guard loomed over me. I knew from experience not to discuss my ambivalent feelings with my nursing instructor. She considered these to be inappropriate topics. I wanted to finish nursing school as fast as I could, so I kept silent. (From the chapter “Relics” in Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net, pp. 57-58).

 

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White House of the Confederacy (right) and Medical College of Virginia (now VCU) Hospital. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2009

These words—my own words— have come back to me this week as I followed the news of contested sites of memory, of whitewashed Civil War memorials literally being fought over once again in places like New Orleans and Charlottesville, Virginia—and perhaps soon in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. In Charlottesville, white nationalists waved lit torches and chanted “You will not replace us” in front of a statue of General Robert E. Lee in a city park. (source: Associated Press, Washington Post, “Torch-wielding group protests Confederate statue removal” May 14, 2017). New Orleans has begun the removal of four Confederate monuments in the city, starting with the Battle of Liberty Place monument commemorating the Crescent City While League’s violent fight against desegregation of the city’s police force—in 1876 during Reconstruction. (source: Christopher Mele, New York Times, “New Orleans Begins Removing Confederate Monument, Under Police Guard” April 24, 2017).

Richmond, as the former Capital of the Confederacy, likely has the largest collection of statues to Confederate “war heroes” of any city. I took my driver’s test on the then still cobblestoned streets of Monument Avenue, a five-mile long stretch of tree-lined divided grand boulevard punctuated by traffic circles around five towering statues of civil war heroes. A sixth and very controversial statue was added in 1996 at the far western end of the avenue—of native Richmonder Arthur Ashe (1943-1993). Besides being an international tennis star, Ashe was also a civil rights and HIV/AIDS activist, and a champion of urban health equity work. His memorial statue on Monument Avenue portrays him standing, holding books in one hand (he was also an excellent student and UCLA college graduate) and a tennis racket in the other hand. In the statue, he faces west, away from the Confederate statues. When Ashe was growing up in segregated Richmond, he was barred from playing tennis in the city’s whites only parks—and, ironically, he also would have been barred from even walking down Monument Avenue, a whites only residential area.

Since Monument Avenue in Richmond is a designated national park and indeed, is the only national park to consist of city street, it is unlikely that any of the Confederate statues will be removed anytime soon. But perhaps it is time to rename the street Memorial Avenue. This idea comes from University of Richmond professor of philosophy Gary Shapiro in his NYT opinion page essay “The Meaning of Our Confederate ‘Monuments'” (May 15th, 2017). Shapiro points out that records of city planners of the Confederate “war hero” statues on what would become Monument Avenue, “show that they meant to legitimize and dignify the white supremacist regime that had taken hold in Virginia.” He quotes philosopher of art Arthur Danto who states, “We erect monuments so that we shall always remember, and build memorials so that we shall never forget.”

Instructive and remarkably prescient here are words of Henry James, in his travelogue book The American Scene, in the chapter “Richmond” about his visit to Richmond in the late winter of 1905. A late snowstorm prevented him from traveling very far from the center of Richmond, but he describes his walk to the then newly developing Monument Avenue and the statue of Robert E. Lee (erected in 1890). James reflects on his visit to Richmond and writes:

“History, the history of everything, would be written ad usum Delphini—the Dauphin being in this case the budding Southern mind. This meant a general and a permanent quarantine; meant the eternal bowdlerization of books and journals; meant in fine all literature and all art on an expurgatory index. It meant, still further, an active and ardent propaganda; the reorganization of the school, the college, the university in the interest in the new criticism.” p. 374 Henry James, The American Scene (London: Chapman and Hall, Ltd).

My own then budding Southern mind, educated in the Virginia public schools of Battlefield Park (named for the Civil War Battle of Cold Harbor) Elementary School, Stonewall-Jackson Junior High School, Lee-Davis High School—and then VCU/MCV nursing school—was negatively affected by that still-lingering, ardent, white supremacist propaganda. Through my father I am related to Varina Davis, First Lady of the Confederacy. That legacy, and the work that I have done and continue to do to actively resist racism, is something I do not want to forget.

Body, Soul, Survival

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University of Washington, Seattle. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2017

“Health is politics by other means,” asserts Columbia University professor of sociology Alondra Nelson in her fascinating book Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011). Nelson acknowledges that her statement is inspired by French philosopher and scientist Bruno Latour’s assertion that science is politics by other means. For anyone who ever doubted either of these assertions—or thought they were alternative facts—you must live in the Land of Narnia.

Before reading Nelson’s book I knew that Black Panther Party for Self Defense had created community-based primary care health clinics in many major U.S. urban areas in the late 1960s/early 1970s. But I did not understand the true breadth of their healthcare activism. I worked as a nurse practitioner for about six years at Seattle’s Carolyn Downs Family Medical Clinic , originally formed in 1968 as a Black Panther clinic. It is located in the Central District of Seattle, a traditionally black neighborhood that is now significantly gentrifying. It is named after an early Black Panther community organizer, Carolyn Downs, who died at an early age of breast cancer—something that most likely could have been detected and more effectively treated if she had had better access to the primary care now provided by the clinic she helped develop. A highlight for me of working at Carolyn Downs Clinic was being able to care for one of Carolyn’s granddaughters.

The Black Panther Party for Self Defense was formed in Oakland in 1966 as a survival tactic “to afford protection for poor blacks from police brutality and to offer varied other services to these same communities.” (pp. 5-6) These services included the establishment of no-cost community-based primary care clinics, sickle-cell and blood pressure screenings, free breakfast programs for children, and after-school and summer tutoring programs. They also formed teams of patient advocates who accompanied their patients to hospitals or specialty care, heralding our current system of patient navigators. The Black Panthers were also instrumental in challenging the formation of the Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence at UCLA, a research center backed by the California governor Ronald Reagan, and which promised to find the origins of violence. It was to be headed by psychiatrist Louis Jolyon West, whose previous research included experiments with sleep deprivation, LSD, and correlating the era’s student activism with antisocial behavior. (pp. 153-154) The Black Panthers contended that aggression for people within marginalized communities was a legitimate response to oppression. They, along with many other activists, were successful in blocking funding for this center.

The American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) dedicated its entire October 2016 special edition issue to the public health work and legacies of the Black Panther Party. As physician and AJPH editor-in-chief Alfredo Morabia writes:

“Now that a new generation is carrying on the ideals of the health activists of the 1960s, it is time to revisit this history, understand the strengths and weaknesses of the BPP public health initiatives, and have a frank debate about what really happened. The stakes are huge for an emerging generation unwilling to accept that certain lives matter less than others, and that, as the recent massive lead contamination of the Flint, Michigan, water system shows, many poor (and Black) communities still remain defenseless against such overtly aggressive assaults to their health in a context in which, as Angus Deaton puts it, the infamous one percent is not only richer but much healthier.”

Read more in this AJPH special issue: http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/full/10.2105/AJPH.2016.303405

Additional resources:

The Seattle Black Panther Party History and Memory Project, part of the University of Washington’s Seattle’s Civil Rights and Labor History Project, led by UW professor of history James Gregory—contains videotaped oral histories, historical photographs and news coverage and more.

 

Beyond Violence: End With Responsibility

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“Face of the Abyss” Josephine Ensign, Mixed-media on canvas, 2015.

“We begin a poem
with longing
and end with
responsibility

And laugh
all through the storms
that are bound
to come

We have umbrellas
We have boots
We have each
other”

~Excerpt from Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Where Do You Enter.”

And from Attorney General Loretta Lynch : “This has been a week of profound grief and heartbreaking loss. After the events of this week, Americans across our country are feeling a sense of helplessness, of uncertainty and of fear. We must reject the easy impulses of bitterness and rancor and embrace the difficult work — but the important work, the vital work — of finding a path forward together.” (As quoted in the NYT article “Shootings Further Divide a Nation Torn Over Race” by Timothy Williams and Michael Wines, July 8, 2016.)

Last night, as the many peaceful protests occurred in cities around the country over the latest police killings of African-American people (Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minnesota), I finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir The Beautiful Struggle (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2008). Coates has been called the ‘angry black man of choice for progressive-type white people,’ and perhaps there is some truth to that quip. His writing manages to be angry but not bitter, highly educated while somehow sounding more authentically gritty.

The Beautiful Struggle is almost a love letter to his father, W. Paul Coates, a former Black Panther, and the founder of the Black Classic Press. Coates’ more recent book, also a memoir of sorts–but one written as a love letter to his own son-(and a much stronger book in my opinion), is Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015). As I look at these two books of his lying side-by-side on my desk, I realize the covers of both (as well as of the hardback edition of The Beautiful Struggle) are black and white and red. A classic and powerful color combination, but also one that today, as the violence and killings of not only African-Americans but also of the Dallas police officers continues and just seems to escalate, black and white and red takes on a new—and gruesome—visual meaning.

“Hate gives identity.(…) We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe.” (Coates, Between the World and Me, p. 60.) But, as hippy-dippy and starry-eyed as it might sound, doesn’t love also give identity? And if we begin to name the loved strangers, don the boots to walk through muck on that path forward, perhaps we get beyond violence and despair. End with responsibility: individually, tribally, nationally.

Who Will Tell the Story?

DSC00528“My hometown of Richmond, Virginia is a city anchored to its past by bronze and marble Confederate shrines of memory, by an undying devotion to the cult of the Lost Cause. I was born and raised in the furrowed, relic-strewn Civil War battle fields on the city’s tattered eastern edge. A captive of its public schools, I was taught official Virginia history from textbooks approved by the First Families of Virginia. But I came to understand the shadowed history of my state by caring for its outcasts.

These lessons began while I was in nursing school. The modern hospital of the Medical College of Virginia curled around the former White House of the Confederacy like a lover. My clinical rotations were nearby in the crumbling brick former colored-only hospital, which then housed indigent and homeless patients, as well as prisoners. Most of these patients were black, so I called it the almost-colored-only hospital. The prisoners, shackled to their beds and accompanied by brown-clad guards, were from the State Penitentiary, located across town. One of my patients was a death-row inmate. When I spoon-fed him his medications, I was simultaneously afraid for my own safety and ashamed of being an accomplice to murder. I knew I was nursing him back to health only to return him to be killed by the state. I wanted to talk to him, ask about his family, about his life in and outside of prison, but the stone-faced armed guard loomed over me. I knew from experience not to discuss my ambivalent feelings with my  nursing instructor. She considered these to be inappropriate topics. I wanted to finish nursing school as fast as I could, so I kept silent.” (pp. 57-58, from my forthcoming medical memoir Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net, Berkeley: She Writes Press, August 9, 2016.)

I was reminded of this passage from my book this past week as I read the NYT article “Who Will Tell the Story of Slavery?” (Lorne Manly, June 29, 2016). Manly describes the (sadly to me, oh so familiar) political dueling going on in my hometown of Richmond over the location of the National Slavery Museum. Former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder (our nation’s first elected African-American governor, who was more recently also the Mayor of Richmond (2005-9), wants to establish the museum in the former First African Church (now owned by the Medical College of Virginia/Virginia Commonwealth University and located next to the main hospital I describe above). But the current powers-that-be, including the current Mayor Dwight C. Jones, want to locate such a museum at the historic site of the notorious Lumpkin’s Jail, a former slave prison, dubbed ‘The Devil’s Half-acre,’ the site of which was recently located and excavated. (see the Smithsonian Magazine article “Digging Up the Past at a Richmond Jail,” by Abigail Tucker, March 2009.)

The Richmond indie bookstore, Fountain Bookstore, where I’ll be doing a Catching Homelessness author event (Tuesday October 11, 2016 at 6:30 p.m.), is located a few blocks from the site of the former slave prison in the Shockoe Bottom area of Richmond. Perhaps I’ll include a reading of this section of my book. And not keep silent anymore…

The Roots of Social Justice: It Starts Here

IMG_0335Poet, dramatist, psychotherapist, and anti-oppression trainer Leticia Nieto, who teaches at Saint Martin’s University near Olympia, Washington, uses a photograph of a tree to represent core power, grounding, and personhood, as she puts it “who we really are when all the layers of rigid roles are stripped away.” The photograph she uses is of a leafless tree with gnarled limbs and trunk in the distinct shape of a human body.

I had the good fortune of attending her workshop titled “Social Justice Through Interpersonal Liberation: Strategic Interventions for Anti-Oppression” at Seattle University’s wonderful Search for Meaning Book Festival at the end of February. I’ve subsequently bought and read her book (with co-authors Margot F. Boyer, Liz Goodwin, Garth R. Johnson, and Laurel Collier Smith), Beyond Inclusion, Beyond Empowerment: A Developmental Strategy to Liberate Everyone (Olympia, WA: Cuetzpalin Publishing). Although it has a fairly heady and pie-in-the-sky subtitle, it is an excellent book. I’ve worked my way through the book, revisited my notes from her workshop, and thought about what it all means for me. I’ve also spent time searching for my own photograph of a tree that represents my own life, grounding, personhood. I considered using a photo I took in New Zealand of the grand Tane Mahuta, an old growth giant kauri tree on the North Island that is upwards of 2,500 years old. That was when I was feeling a bit grandiose. As much as I love that tree and New Zealand, those are not my roots.

My roots, my ‘personhood’ tree is this old Black Oak tree still growing in the leafy green woods of Camp Hanover, my childhood home. This particular oak tree is growing beside on old family graveyard–a family I am not related to as far as I know. The roots of this tree are in complex territory, territory I am still wrestling with in terms of my own social justice and anti-oppression work. Here are a few excerpts from the chapter “First Families” in my forthcoming medical memoir, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net (Berkeley: She Writes Press, August 2016)–excerpts that describe some of this territory:

“The land I grew up on near Cold Harbor [Virginia] had been the site of the bloodiest battles in the Civil War. The two battles were two years apart; soldiers on both sides in the last battle unearthed decomposing bodies from the previous battle as they dug trenches. Our land was strewn with Civil War bullets, musket balls, deep earthworks, and mounded graves. Long before, the Pamunkey Indians had scattered the land with white quartz arrowheads.(…) [There was] as family burial site. leaf-strewn mounds of earth bumped together in a line like the cedar logs on the corduroy road. The site was on a bluff overlooking a ravine cascading down to a small stream. Most of the graves had carved gray headstones: Robert Anderson born March 10, 1792, died July 26, 1853: William Nelson Anderson born February 16, 1837, died May 15, 1851; and, Nancy Peasley Anderson born April 18, 1833, died July 15, 1834. Nancy’s grave was short, but there was an even shorter grave next to it of another Nancy, “infant granddaughter” Nancy Julia Elizabeth with no dates given. A few feet away were six or so unmarked graves, which my mother said were those of Negro slaves. These couldn’t have been content, but I didn’t see their ghosts back then. It was as if they had never existed.”

Crack Houses and Mass Incarceration

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Rooming house in Jackson Ward, Richmond, Virginia. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/1988

The deeply disturbing underbelly of the American life many of us have the mixed-blessing privilege of not having to confront: the racist premises of and fallout from our War on Drugs.

The War on Drugs was begun by President Reagan in 1982, and was continued by both Bush administrations, as well as by President Clinton in between the two Bush presidencies. Remember all the crack houses, crack babies, crack crimes, and Welfare Queens that were invoked to stoke the fervor and the funding for the War on Drugs?

As Michelle Alexander points out in her excellent book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2011), President Reagan began the War on Drugs before crack cocaine was introduced into impoverished, mainly African American inner-city neighborhoods as a ‘cheap high’ substitute for the high-priced White Collar cocaine. All of the ensuing efforts to get ‘tough on crime’ and ‘one strike–you’re out’ have resulted in the U.S. now having highest rate of incarceration in the world. We also have the highest proportion of our racial and ethnic minorities incarcerated. In fact, we have a larger percentage of our black population imprisoned than did South Africa under the height of Apartheid.

The War on Drugs hasn’t made us any safer, as various politicians have tried to make us believe over the past thirty years. It has made us sicker in body, mind, and soul–all of us. It has contributed to a worsening of health inequities since incarceration leads to a never-ending system of debt, to permanent disenfranchisement by taking away people’s voting rights, and of making it almost impossible for people to find jobs and housing once they are released from prison. Not to mention the negative health effects of incarceration on families. I have worked in prisons and in juvenile detention and knew about many of these issues. But I had not really thought of it as a continuation of slavery, Black Codes/ Jim Crow until I read this book and participated in a University of Washington Teach-In on the topic last week.

Here is one of the more piercing passages of Alexander’s book:

“When the system of mass incarceration collapses (and if history is any guide, it will), historians will undoubtedly look back and marvel that such an extraordinarily comprehensive system of racialized social control existed in the United States. How fascinating, they will likely say, that a drug war was waged almost exclusively against poor people of color–people already trapped in ghettos that lacked jobs and decent schools. They were rounded up by the millions, packed away in prisons, and when released, they were stigmatized for life, denied the right to vote, and ushered into a world of discrimination. Legally barred from employment, housing, and welfare benefits–and saddled with thousands of dollars of debt–these people were shamed and condemned for failing to hold together their families.” p175.

And for an excellent recent report on the public health effects of mass incarceration, take at look at the Vera Institute for Justice’s “On Life Support: Public Health in the Age of Mass Incarceration.

At the end of one of the Teach-In sessions “No Sanctuary: Understanding Historical and Contemporary Intersections of Mass Incarceration, Racism, and Health,” Dr. Alexes Harris stated, “The U.S. has always had an insidious system of social control targeted at those who are racialized and poor,” and then she asked each of us audience members, “How do you perpetuate this system?” On this Presidents Day, what an excellent question to ask ourselves.

White People Have Culture

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“Mauri” or life principle, illustration by Nancy Nicholson in Dr. Rangimarie Turuki Pere’s book, te wheke: A celebration of infinite wisdom. Awareness Book Company, 1997.

The word ‘culture’ is misused and abused. We often use the word ‘culture’ as some strangely polite code word for race and ethnicity, for people who are somehow ‘not like us.’ And those of us white people, part of the dominant culture, typically don’t even believe that we have our own culture–like racism, we can’t see it because of our own power and privilege.

Within health care, we have trainings, courses, (and silly multiple-choice tests) on ‘cultural sensitivity’ and ‘cultural competence.’ As if being sensitive to or competent in this thing called ‘culture’ is possible, and if possible, as if it is a good thing. When what we should be doing is teaching to cultural humility and its Kiwi sister, cultural safety: building in self-reflection, life-long learning, and work to see/undo institutional racism.

I’ve written about different aspects of this issue in previous blog posts: “Cultural Competence, Meet Cultural Humility” (8-16-11), “Cultural Humility Redux” (2-2-14)  and “Cultural Safety: A Wee Way to Go” (3-12-14). Until recently, I much preferred the name/concept of ‘cultural humility’ over the name/concept of ‘cultural safety,’ mainly because I didn’t comprehend the need for the word ‘safety.’ My white privilege comfortable blindness there. But the escalating, deeply disturbing litany of racist violence in our country has forced me to see–duh!–the need for ‘safety.’ My recent return to New Zealand, the birthplace of the term ‘cultural safety,’ also opened my eyes to deeper layers of nuanced meaning of this term, of this work.

Jim Diers, MSW and I co-led an international service-learning study abroad program, “Empowering Healthy Communities,” on the North Island of New Zealand this past summer. We had a group of twenty-two engaged university students, across a range of health science and ‘other’ academic disciplines, and from a rich diversity of self-identified race/ethnicities. As many of them pointed out in their final written reflections, they learned as much from living with our group for five weeks as they did from interactions with New Zealanders. We spent a lot of our time working alongside and listening to community members on various Maori marae (villages), as well as Pacific Islander and other marginalized groups in New Zealand. We learned of their strengths, considerable community non-monetary assets, of their hopes for the future–as well as their challenges and historical traumas…the subtext being the need for cultural safety within health care, as well as within all other New Zealand institutions.

As part of a traditional Maori greeting, people introduce themselves–not by our typical name and credentials/work/university, but rather by details of where you are from: the names of the mountain and river of the land of your family/tribe. So for many members of our group, it was “My mountain is Rainer (or Tahoma as local tribes call it) and my river is the Duwamish (currently an industrial dump/Superfund site..).” And “My people are from Italy, England, Nepal, Mexico, the Philippines (and wait–why ‘the’ with Philippines?–important history lesson of oppression there), China, Israel….” Lovely diversity, except that none of us, unfortunately, could claim Native American/Indian ancestry. We were always asked about that by our Maori hosts–another important history lesson that wasn’t lost on our students. Through participating in this seemingly simple ritual of greeting, we all learned about our own cultures.

At the end of our study abroad program, we received an amazingly powerful talk on cultural safety from Denise Wilson, RN, PhD, a Maori New Zealand nurse and Director of the Taupua Waiora Centre for Māori Health Research at AUT School of Public Health and Psychosocial Studies here in Auckland. She talked to the students about her work with cultural safety in New Zealand–about the need for the ‘cloak’ of cultural safety. She told the story of well-intentioned Pakeha (white/European New Zealander) nurses asking their Maori or Pacific Islander patients, “What are your cultural practices,” and being met with polite, blank stares. “Because that’s our language, our terms, not theirs,” she added. She gently admonished our students to get to know themselves, their own cultures and biases, and to practice humility when working with people they perceive as ‘different’ from themselves–to listen, and “really listening takes time.”

Her closing quote, from Dr. Rangimarie Turuki Pere, whose book I reference in the photo caption in this post, was this:

“Your steps on my whariki (mat)/Your respect for my home/opens my doors and windows.”

Words to live and work by.