Paule Marshall Resting in Power 1929-2019

August has been a rough month for us lovers of the word.

A couple of weeks ago, the great Toni Morrison took her place amongst the ancestors.

A few days ago, on August 12th, the incomparable Paule Marshall joined her.

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Marshall holds a special place in my heart as a fellow native New Yorker!!

marhsall collage.jpegAlthough she is best known for her 1959 novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, she also authored several other gorgeous works including Soul Clap Hands and Sing (1961), a collection of four novellas, and four other novels, The Chosen Place, The Timeless People (1969), my personal favorite, Praisesong for the Widow (1983), life changing!!!, Daughters (1991) and the Fisher King (2001). She also authored a collection of short stories, Reena and Other Stories (1983) as well as a combination, novella and short stories, Merle, A Novella and Other Stories (1985). Her memoir, Triangular Road, was published in 2009.

Her many accolades include being winner of the National Institute of Arts Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award, recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship Grant. She is also a Literary Lion with the New York Public Library.

Paule Marshall was also loved and will be deeply missed.

Paule Marshall, Novelist of Diverse Influences

Remembering Paule Marshall

Paule Marshall

Paule Marshall at Medgar Evers College

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Toni Morrison Resting in Power 1931-2019

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Rest in your power, Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am documentary interview

Morrison on what motivated her to write The Bluest Eye 

News of her life and transition:

Nobel Prize-Winning Author Dies at 88 

Toni Morrison: Nobel Prize-winning Author Dies at 88

Toni Morrison, Whose Soaring Novels Were Rooted in Black Lives Dies at 88

Toni Morrison at Princeton:

Toni Morrison Papers to Reside at Princeton

The Toni Morrison Lecture Series

Toni Morrison Delivers Keynote at Address at the Princeton and Slavery Symposium

 

The Essential Toni Morrison Reader:

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Review of Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments

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I have long been familiar with Dr. Saidiya Hartman’s brilliance; first through Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America (1997) and then through Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Coast (2008). As a post-doc, I also had the privilege of attending a conference/gathering of several well-respected historians of the African diaspora held at NYU. I was deeply impressed by Dr. Hartman’s presentation as well as her numerous contributions and commentaries on the work of her colleagues.

I admit, I haven’t read her first two publications. One of the reasons I wasn’t particularly interested in Lose Your Mother was because I had spent six months living and traveling around Ghana and another year and some months in Benin Republic, both major hubs of the transatlantic slave trade, each for very different reasons. It may sound silly or strange, but I had no desire to have my own experience influenced or “tainted” by Hartman’s work.

While Scenes of Subjection was well-known in my doctorate program, sad to say, I never took a course for which it was required and I preferred to spend what little free time I had reading novels coming out of African and African diasporic traditions.

I, however, could not wait to get my hands on her latest publication, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (2019).

Unlike Scenes of Subjection, but like Lose Your Mother, Wayward Lives is a literary publication. It is meant to be read by lots of people. As such, it is stripped of the jargon-heavy, endnote-laden texts of academia.

Which makes it a must-read.

This is not to say that it is easy. While the language is highly accessible, the subject matter—black women’s desire to live life on their own terms while the white supremacist state was determined to circumscribe their lives—is the stuff of nightmares.

Nonetheless, it was my treat for several weeks just before bed after I’d spent my days working hard on my own latest intellectual project.

Wayward Lives covers the urban areas of Philadelphia and New York between 1890 and 1935. According to W.W. Norton’s website, the book explores the ways in which “In wrestling with the question “What is a free life?”, many young black women created forms of intimacy and kinship indifferent to the dictates of respectability and outside the bounds of law. They cleaved to and cast off lovers, exchanged sex to subsist, and revised the meaning of marriage. Longing and desire fueled their experiments in how to live. They refused to labor like slaves or to accept degrading conditions of work. Here, for the first time, these women are credited with shaping a cultural movement that transformed the urban landscape. Through a melding of history and literary imagination, Wayward Lives recovers their radical aspirations and insurgent desires.”

In her interview on Rustbelt Radio Hartman expands on the website description, remarking that the book explores the continuities between slavery, the ghetto as an open-air prison, and the contemporary prison industrial complex. She looks at the quotidian practices of women who refused the rhetoric of anti-blackness and begs the question, “What does it mean to love what is not loved?” This question still stands to be answered today.

Wayward Lives is a beautiful text, very well researched, and important. I could imagine it opening up several avenues for exploration of countless histories that have been subverted and erased. It also provides a roadmap for how to do it.

Let us all be inspired by Dr. Hartman’s work and continue the critical work that she has started.

Rustbest Radio Interview with Saidiya Hartman: Rustbelt Radio

 

 

 

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Happy Birthday Octavia Butler!

Happy birthday Octavia Butler!!

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The genius writer Octavia Butler would have been 72 years today!

An interview with Ms. Butler on “Transcending Boundaries

An NPR interview with Ms. Butler and an essay by her.

She was the recipient of several Hugo and Nebula Awards. She was also the first writer of speculative fiction to receive a MacArthur Fellowship.

The New York Public Library has a guide to getting started with Butler’s works: NYPL

Three favorites of Well-Read Black Girl, a brilliant black literature resource:

1.) Kindred

Perhaps Butler’s best-known work, Kindred, reimagines the time travel narrative. The novel’s protagonist Dana moves between 20th century Los Angeles and the antebellum South, where she witnesses the savagery of American slavery. In the process, Dana recuperates some of the erased history that has led to her contemporary moment.

2.) Bloodchild and Other Stories

Bloodchild was a breakout work for Butler, earning her the Hugo and the Nebula in the novelette category. It takes as its premise a world in which insect-like organisms called Tilc establish a parasitic relationship with humans. The collection gathers “Bloodchild” with other works of short fiction by Butler and works as an excellent introduction to the writer’s work for those interested in shorter forms.

3.) Parable of the Sower from the Parable/Earthseed series

Parable of the Sower is the first of the two-book Earthseed/Parable series. Set in a future society that has been ravaged by climate change and economic stratification, its heroine is a young woman living in a gated community who suffers from “hyperempathy” which makes her feel the pain of anyone around her. When her home is destroyed, she leads a group to found a new community, Earthseed.

A graphic novel of Kindred by Damian Duffy and illustrations by John Jennings  is also a great way to get started with Butler’s work for those who are not so much into the written.

Here’s an interview with the authors:

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Wondering: Has Peele read Butler?

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Let me state up front, just so we’re clear, I loooove Octavia Butler. She seems to make her way into my consciousness at least once a day, whether it’s through what I’m reading or a podcast I’m listening to, or just me going about my merry little day. When I first came across her, sometime in the late 1990s—I have no idea how—I fell in love. I have been in love ever since.

Recently, from a deep desire to expose the next generation of budding African-American scholars to her work, I assigned to my graduate student and reread Wild Seed, one of Butler’s earlier novels. The whole time I was reading, a quote that I heard or read from her—that when she was starting out and hungry–she would wake up at 2:30 am in order to write, kept playing through my head. According to Butler, by the time she arrived at the job that she cared nothing about or for at 9 am she was “evil” because by then she was exhausted.  I often awake between 4:30 and 6 am. I do so so that I can write because I, like Butler, have a story in me that needs to get out. I am grateful for her as a mentor and as an inspiration.

I have, through many moves to different parts of the country and at times abroad, managed to hold on to my original edition of Wild Seed, the Warner Books, 1980 edition, and it was that version that I read in preparation for my bi-weekly meeting with my student. What I found during my rereading were typos, a consequence of the unsophisticated editing capabilities at the time, and understandable. The novel also strikes me, at certain moments, contrived in ways that an author, in trying to be thorough, appears contrived and overly didactic and which the contemporary editor and proofreader is able to edit out.

These flaws, so obvious to me, the slow reader, do not ultimately detract from the allure of Butler’s imagined world. Despite the issues, I was able to discern some of the many lessons that Butler wished to convey in her narrative as well as the beauty in the poetry of her words.

But one thing that was really cool about reading this Butler classic, Wild Seedalmost thirty years later is that I got to see connections between past and present and perhaps future, that I might not have otherwise seen.

What I saw in my second reading of Wild Seed, and which I believe is more important that any typos or inconsistencies in the narrative, is the way that the essence of the message is communicated to the reader. It is in the way that, once the efficacy of the transmission is decided upon, it shows up across generations, across time and space.

I found that transcendence of space and time when I reread Wild Seed after watching Jordan Peele’s Get Out last year.

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So, I don’t know if Peele has ever read Butler. I do know that Butler’s mastery of the fantastic/speculative is legendary. I also know that Peele’s foray into the fantastic/speculative with first, Get Out and then Us, has been met with high acclaim. I also know that there are many more gifted African American storytellers who have ventured into the speculative realm and once they say what was there, they never looked back. One of them I wrote about in my last post. It makes perfect sense that people of African descent would be attracted to science/speculative fiction. In the words of the master storyteller, most famous for his Easy Rawlins series, but also known to venture into the speculative, Walter Mosley, “The genre speaks more clearly to those who are dissatisfied with the way things are: adolescents, escapist, dreamers, and those who have been made to feel powerless. And this may explain the appeal that science fiction holds for a great many African-Americans. Black people have been cut off from their African ancestors by the scythe of slavery and from an American heritage by being excluded from history. For us science fiction offers an alternative where that which deviates from the norm is the norm.[1]”

I have personally come to the conclusion that Everything is about slavery. This preoccupation with slavery is abundantly clear in the case of Wild Seed which takes place during the slave era and one of the main characters, Doro’s, relationship with “his people” can be likened to that of a slave master with his slaves. Slavery’s legacy comes through clearly in Get Out in which a white wealthy family zombifies African American people who are lured to their lair by their young pretty daughter. The preoccupation that the two “texts” share makes perfect sense. But here’s what I think also makes sense given the authors’ shared African ancestry and their shared history of being born and raised in the U.S.: The Sunken Place.

“The Sunken Place” is the aspect of the film that has gotten the most attention since the film’s release (Google it and you get over 35,000 hits). It even has its own Urban Dictionary entry.

For the two of you who have been hiding under a rock and not seen Get Out, the main character, Chris, is transported to “The Sunken Place” through the machinations of his girlfriend’s hypnotist mother.

Just a few pages before Wild Seed ends, the main character, Doro takes Anyanwu to his own kind of Sunken Place. When Doro grips her, “Abruptly, she is in darkness, falling through darkness toward distant light, falling. She felt herself twisting, writhing, gasping for some support. She screamed in reflexive terror, and could not hear her own voice.[2]”

According to Urban Dictionary, The Sunken Place is “The metaphorical place an oppressed person goes when they have become silent or compliant to their own oppression. More often the sunken place is used to describe a disadvantaged person who is ignorant or unwilling to see that they have been conditioned into acquiescence. However, the sunken place can apply to anyone who chooses to stay silent in the face of discrimination or injustice, usually of their own.” While the protagonist of Get Out, Chris’ relationship to the sunken place is pretty in-your-face, in Wild Seed, Anyanwu’s relationship may seem a bit more obscured. After all, Doro is also of African descent, although he is able to take on different bodily forms regardless of race. But if we consider how systemic racism works, then it doesn’t matter that Doro is ostensibly black; he’s a dehumanizing, abusive, exploitative prick whose ultimate purpose is to control Anyanwu, body and soul. He represents racism, patriarchy, numerous normative ideologies that keep all of us imprisoned.

So I guess in the end it doesn’t matter if Peele has read Butler. What matters is that both artists have tapped into what it truly means to be black in this country, deeply engulfed by “the sunken place” that is white supremacy. Knowing so is irrelevant. It’s doing something constructive to get ourselves the fuck out of it that matters.

 

[1]Mosley, Walter, “Black to the Future: Science fiction may have a special allure for African Americans.” New York Times, Nov. 1, 1998: A1.

[2]Butler, Wild Seed, 255.

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Review of N.K. Jemisin’s How Long ‘Til Black History Month

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How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? (2018) by science/speculative fiction writer extraordinaire N.K Jemisin is another title that showed up in my Amazon recommendations this past December. The title itself had me hooked; it amazes me that the title had not been snatched up before now!

And that cover!!! holy smokes!!

Because I teach what I do, Black History is not relegated to the shortest month of the year; I (and my students, whether they know it or not) live it EVERY DAY—as we all should. It’s the cure for what has ailed this society since Europeans first landed here.

Jemisin is a New York Times bestselling author. She is the first one in the genre’s history to win three consecutive Best Novel Hugo Awards as well as the Nebula, Locus, and Goodreads Choice Awards.

How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? is Jemisin’s first collection of short stories and is a much-needed contribution to our understanding of and imaginings about the past, present, and future of this country and this world as well as our relationship to other worlds (and lest you think we are it, I’m here to tell you, we are not).

Jemisin is a master storyteller. So, even though I am not what I call a “hardcore scifier”—my imagination only extends so far—I stuck with the more far-reaching narratives because I knew, in my bones, that there were lessons to be learned from her words. My hunch was right. For example, “Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows” is a window into a future dystopia comprised of screen names and blog posts—a world with which we are all too familiar ;).

For most of the narrative I felt like it was treading water, trying to get a handle on where the characters were located, when they were. My patience paid off. The last couple of pages provided necessary closure while leaving me profoundly haunted.  Another story, “The Necromancer”, about a different time and place, is a beautifully haunting tale of dreamers and healers, hopes, and futures.

I had several other favorites: “Red Dirt Witch” is a brilliantly understated commentary on the prices that have been paid for the “successes” that we witness amongst African-Americans contemporarily. While reading “Pauline got married, dreamt of fish, and made her own daughters to carry on the legacy. After a few more years, she ran for city council and won, and nobody strung her up. Then she ran for mayor, and won that too. All the while she turned a tidy profit from her sideline barbeque business” (56) I thought about the record-breaking number of women of color  who have been elected to political office in just the past year (in the age of Trump) and the brilliant speech by the incomparable Congresswoman Maxine Waters at this year’s NAACP Awards ceremony (spoiler alert: she and her family have been threatened with bodily harm and death numerous times by white, scared conservatives).

Close to the beginning of “Red Witch Dirt” the story hints at the role that hate plays in the nation’s many ills. The author: “And late one cold winter’s night, Pauline dreamt again of the White folk. She saw how lean and poorly they were looking these days, deprived of their prey, and as the hate of the world dwindled and left them hungry” (57). Not only does this line reflect the fear that keeps waaaay too many white people hostage to violence—that they will end up lean and hungry if others “succeed”, but it also provides a glimpse into the otherworldly contributors to events that reveal the devastating effects of racism and white supremacy. A prime example of such an event was the debacle that was the (absence of) governmental response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana in 2005. In the final story of the collection Jemisin takes up the hurricane, hovering between what we might consider the real world and the otherworldly.

The story, “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters” is another one that haunted me long after I finished the last line. “Sinners” is about a young man, Tookie, one of thousands of African-Americans who did not have the means to leave New Orleans, despite Mayor Clarence Ray Nagin’s mandatory evacuation announcement, left to fend for themselves. Illustrative of the kind of community commitment that saved countless lives, Tookie rescues his elderly neighbor, Miss Mary, from sure death by, if not drowning, starvation.

The otherworldliness of the story can be found in the noble talking lizard-like character who helps Tookie. This symbiotic character is countered with an adversarial underwater creature or “haint”, as Miss Mary calls it, that represents hatred, white supremacy, and disregard for others’ humanity that made the horror of the U.S. government’s shameful response to poor, mostly people of color, possible. These otherworldly elements are intoxicating in and of themselves, but the many levels of commentary that they provide on the history of this country, its troubled contemporary reality, and its uncertain future make the whole story magical, and dare, I say, enchanting.

The whole time I was reading the story I found myself recalling one of my favorite films: Trouble the Water, a documentary that was initiated by a young woman, Kimberly Rivers and her husband, Scott, who when they found themselves unable to flee Hurricane Katrina like their wealthier, mostly white New Orleans counterparts, grabbed their handheld camera and started filming. Where in Jemisin’s story a mystical underwater creature is to be feared and avoided, in the film, the “haints” are found in Nagin, President George W. Bush, head of FEMA turned motivational speaker Michael D. Brown, the police, and military officers who first abandon, and then vilify the survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

Another favorite narrative was “The Effluent Engine” about a young Haitian woman who is on a secret mission to New Orleans shortly after the Haitian Revolution has made the United States’ acquisition of New Orleans possible. The young woman, Jessaline, is looking for someone to turn the “effluent” that she has brought with her into methane that can be used to power dirigibles, a kind of airship to be used for travel around the Caribbean region. But more than a story of espionage, “The Effluent Engine” is a love story; one that literally left me clapping my hands in joy at its conclusion.

N.K. Jemisin’s How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? is 400 pages of imaginative genius. Several stories beyond those mentioned will stay with me: “The Alchemist” about an elderly jaded chef who discovers new life in unusual ingredients, is great fun, “The Valedictorian” brought back memories of The Matrix (red pill or blue pill), and “Cuisine des Mémoires”, an homage to the incredible Marie Leveaux and a cautionary tale about the importance of letting go of that which no longer serves us left me nodding my head in agreement; a timely reminder.

I absolutely loved these stories and would recommend them to both lightweight sci/fi/ speculative fiction writers like me and the more hardcore of us out there. Whichever your thing, you’re in for a treat.

I recently heard one of my favorite storytellers, LeVar Burton read one of Jemisin’s stories and interview her afterwards, solidifying my awe. Check out the story and interview here:

https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/stitcher/levar-burton-reads/e/57663807

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Review of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s How We Get Free

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How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective (2017), edited by Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, highlights the work of the Combahee River Collective vis-a-vis poignant and illuminating interviews with The Combahee River Collective founders, Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier and its legacy with an interview with Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza. It ends with comments from the historian and author of Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the 21stCentury (2018), Barbara Ransby. While it is not a blueprint for collective freedom, the text definitely is an arrow pointing the way out of the darkness that we currently find ourselves stuck in politically, economically, and socially.

Not only does Dr. Taylor give careful consideration to the kinds of questions she poses to the women, with each one driving home the revolutionary work of The Collective, but the way that the text is written is extremely accessible. By that I mean that, as a reader, I felt almost as if I were eavesdropping on an easy flowing conversation between a deeply curious mentee and her generous mentors. As such, Dr. Taylor’s questions and interjections are revelatory in their deep engagement with the subject matter and the revolutionary thinkers she interviews.

The Introduction sets the stage for the rest of the text by discussing the role that African American women did and did not play in the “disastrous 2016…election” (1) of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency. After weaving together a deft overview of Black women’s historically and contemporarily oppressed position in American society she ends with the declaration that “we talk [about Combahee] because “black women are still not free” (14). Although Combahee had been meeting since 1974 and published its Statement in 1977 Black women remain one of the most disenfranchised groups in America.

The actual Combahee River Collective Statement, profound in its simplicity, follows the Introduction. The Collective asserts from the outset that

The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggle against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. As Black women we see Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppression that all women of color face (15).

Readers will recognize the foundation for the concept of “intersectionality” that was coined by Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 in their words.

The Statement traces the evolution of The Collective before, in the second section, delineating what they believe; simply put, that Black women are inherently valuable. This was, and I believe, isa revolutionary declaration when we consider that Black women have been some of the most devalued beings in the United States from the time they arrived here in chains in the 16thcentury. The inclusion of the word, “inherent” is important because it implies that Black women’s value is not contingent upon her relationship to anybody or anything else. It simply is.

In a world where it is normal to attribute value to women primarily or solely through their roles as wives, mothers, sisters, church members, etc. the thought that they are important because they exist potentially created a paradigm shift for those fortunate enough to have been exposed to it at the time.

It is also in that section that The Collective introduces the term, “identity politics”, which, like intersectionality, has been appropriated, misunderstood, and misused over the decades. Barbara Smith clarifies the women’s understanding of “identity polities: “What we were saying is that we have a right as people who are not just female, who are not solely Black, who are not just lesbians, who are not just working class, or workers—that we are people who embody all of these identities, and we have a right to build and define political theory and practice based on that reality”(61). This is very different from the way that the phrase is commonly used today; as yet another tool to exclude people.

In the third section, The Collective explores some of the challenges they faced in coming together and organizing. One of the most difficult challenges that the women faced was openly claiming their Black feminism when the very country in which they had been born and raised rejected their whole humanity and insisted that they choose one or two fights from amongst the many.  The Feminist movement demanded that they put their blackness on a backburner and the Black Nationalist movement demanded that they put their womanhood on a backburner. As they state, “The major source of difficulty in our political work is that we are not just trying to fight on one front or even two, but to address a whole range of oppression” (22). The women of the Combahee River Collective, inspired by the work of the revolutionary Harriet Tubman at Combahee River in which she freed 750 enslaved people, would not be compartmentalized.

In the fourth section, with an eye toward the future, The Collective introduces some issues that they planned to take up and projects that they were working on; one of which was challenging racism in the white women’s movement. Another, though they don’t mention it, was starting their own feminist press, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, which was active from 1981 until 1992 with the brilliant Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet Audre Lorde’s passing.

One of my favorite declarations from the Statement is at the very end:

In the practice of our politics we do not believe that the end always justifies the means. Many reactionary and destructive acts have been done in the name of achieving “correct” political goals. As feminists we do not want to mess over people in the name of politics. We believe in collective process and a nonhierarchical distribution of power within our own group and in our vision of a revolutionary society (27).

This revolutionary philosophy seems to undergird the work of the founders of #Black Lives Matter, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza, the last of whom Taylor interviews for How We Get Free.

The (almost) final words of the text come from Dr. Barbara Ransby, Distinguished Professor of African American studies, gender and women’s studies, and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago where she directs the campus-wide Social Justice Initiative. Dr. Ransby, in her remarks from the 2017 Socialism Conference, echoes the counsel of the Martinican intellectual Frantz Fanon many years ago: that “each of us has our own work to do in our own time” (177).

The final words are left to Dr. Taylor in her Acknowledgements and should not be skipped as it is indicative of the impact of the firm position that The Combahee River Collective took, explicitly anti-capitalist. Her last line, which reads as a kind of prayer, is also a call to action: “Let us end the economic system that devours the people we love” (186). Amen.

 

 

https://blacklivesmatter.com

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