The New Math
A few days ago, Ozzie Guillen, manager of the Florida Marlins baseball team, and a Venezuelan National, said in a Time magazine interview, “I respect Fidel Castro. I love Fidel Castro. I respect Fidel Castro. Many people have tried to kill Fidel Castro in the last 60 years, yet that SOB is still there.” For his trouble, Cuban Americans in Florida demanded he be fired and the club, fearing for their large Cuban fan base in Miami, publicly upbraided the outspoken Guillen and suspended him for five games.
It is easy for many Americans to see Castro as a monster. It falls in line with every Cold War edict we were instructed in. Still, the irony of denying a man his right to his livelihood – even short term – is rich here. That in disgust for a dictator whom we shun for imposing on the political freedoms of his nationals, we punish one of ours for the expression of his political views.
The subsequent press conference found Mr. Guillen having to answer not just for this embarrassment (his word), but for every political view he might have. In particular, he was asked to answer about his views on the current leader of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, who while democratically elected, America has cast in the role of villain. There are many reasons for this not least of all his nationalization of Venezuelan business (oil in particular) and we know how America gets when it can’t get at your oil – but I digress. Guillen found himself having to respond to a very McCarthy-esque minefield of questions. At the time he must have been very unsure about how his answers might affect his future employment and we, the public, did not raise our eyebrows.
We did not say we’ve seen this before and it must stop. We moved along, mostly okay with the idea that the message conveyed was that difference of political view is perfectly acceptable, if it falls within the purview of accepted political set up as it already exists. You may publicly state your support for Republican or Democrat, but anything else labels you not just un-American (as we have seen in the right wing’s stupid accusations of Obama as socialist), but some sort of criminal – your ethics and social standing – not to mention your job – compromised.
Meanwhile, in the same state, George Zimmerman guns a black boy down and it takes the police 45 days and international outrage before he is even arrested. In fact, he turned himself in, probably saving the Florida authorities the embarrassment of not being able to find him (which they already could not), when they did decide to arrest him. A clear cut case of murder in which the police told the shooter to stay in his car, is now all of a sudden a mystery, and we’re going to be asked – mark my words – shortly, to believe that Zimmerman ‘had no choice’ but to ‘defend himself’, when he decided to stalk the 16 yr old over several blocks in Sanford, FL.
Meanwhile, the Arizona legislature has decided, in pursuit of stricter pro-life measures that life begins before actual conception – with the egg. This attempts to outlaw hormonal contraception, plan B and of course abortion, ignoring Roe vs Wade, the Supreme Court decision that more than 40 years ago gave women the rights to their own bodies. In response, one astute Arizonan legislator, a woman suggested that added to the bill should be the proviso that life begins before conception for the male zygote as well; providing that sperm should be deposited nowhere but inside a vagina. The Republican lawmaker’s response was that a man’s body was his own, and how could she possibly tell him what to do with his sperm. The Jedi mind trick here is stunning. To wit, (my sperm) are not the droids you’re looking for.
Meanwhile, a teacher in the same lovely state of Arizona is arrested for teaching Mexican American history. Wait, let me say this again. This week in the United States of America, a teacher was arrested for teaching Mexican American studies, because it violated that state’s recent statutes against the teaching of ethnic studies. This is days after the Guillen snafu in Florida.
When the conservative right, and those who would have us in everlasting war (Orwell’s words), tell us that freedom is not free, who knew that the price of freedom was well… Freedom. What we must recognize, and hopefully before it is too late, is that these incidents are not unrelated. The attack on ethnic studies, women’s bodies, Guillen’s political freedom and the deaths of black and brown young men at the hands of white Americans (as highlighted in the Trayvon Martin case, but too real throughout the entire country), represent the emboldening of the American conservative (racist) right.
This is not an ideological war. It is a war on the potential for personhood, if one is not a white male American. In word and in deed, these incidents come together to remind us that our bodies are not worth as much as other bodies. What Zimmerman knew, in his gut, was that he had every right to pursue and contain the body of this boy, because he was black, an assumption borne out as true when the police refused to arrest him. What Arizona has decided for a long while now is that the bodies of brown people are worth less, and that their right to pursue personhood as they see fit, must also be contained, and Alabama with its recent statutes to allow any citizen to demand proof of a stranger’s immigration status is that too.
We in the liberal white North have a tendency to shake our heads at the still-racist South. We lament jokingly, that places like Arizona and Alabama and Mississippi and Texas are still part of the union, without recognizing (or refusing to recognize) the ways in which the Northern states have managed this continuous decades old containment of the lives of the colored and poor. From red-lining to segregated school districts, America has enshrined in law its right to institutionally confine and contain the bodies and potential of millions of Americans.
We must understand Arizona, Alabama, Florida – not as aberrations, but as a new American vanguard which has found foothold in the North several years ago, but is manifesting anew in the attacks on labor in Wisconsin and Michigan, for instance, and the attacks on public education that has spawned the charter school movement and the privatization of prison, such that several states add prison cells based on 3rd grade or 8th grade reading scores. It is not that our politicians do not know the correlation between a lack of education and incarceration, it is that they bank on it. And I mean, they bank on it.
As citizens, part of our job is to not allow ourselves to be hoodwinked. We cannot account by this New Math which says it is alright to fine a man for stating a political view in favor of a man we hate for not allowing folks their political views. We can’t allow ourselves to tout our own freedom, while we are unable to stop the runaway train that is the prison industrial complex. Do some light reading and find out how many black and brown youth have been killed by whites – particularly the police – all over the country and ask yourself why you are constantly told that you need to be afraid of our neighborhoods. White people do not get stalked and shot in black neighborhoods or dragged behind trucks or shot crossing our borders, or run onto highways.
How did the black male become at once so fearsome and so repeatedly killed? Why are the schools in our neighborhoods achieving at lower rates? Why are white gunmen, lone crazy people and brown ones terrorists? Why has it been okay to speak about the first black president of the United States in the ways we’ve never thought it okay to speak to white presidents? What does the Tea Party mean when it says it’s taking America back? From whom? Whats the panic? Black folk are taking over? America is browning? Nah… I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you. These (niggas) are not the droids you’re looking for.
Roger Bonair-Agard is a native of Trinidad & Tobago, a Cave Canem fellow and author of Tarnish and Masquerade (Cypher Books, 2006), GULLY (Cypher Books, Peepla Tree Press 2010), and the forthcoming The Gospel According to St. Moses the Black (Haymarket Books, 2013). He is co-founder and Artistic Director of the LouderArts Project and teaches at Fordham University. He lives in Chicago and Brooklyn. twitter:@rogerbonair / facebook: bonairpoet