Each Friday, we bring you an article from our archive to propel you into the weekend.
In 1996, this magazine asked 40 people—”scholars, journalists, curmudgeons, and poets”—about the most important change they’d seen in the last 20 years. It was an anniversary issue. We began in 1976. And we published responses online in twoparts.
These sort of retrospectives are often the best part of any archive. To see someone think in their particular historical moment is somewhat revealing. To see someone look backwards, with the haughty air of knowledge about what has been “learned,” denudes any pretense—the prevailing zeitgeist of that moment is pinned on a history still playing out up to our moment. So, I went in ready to smirk at the 1990s consensus with all my knowledge. I came out realizing: I’m pretty stuck in my historical moment. (You can see the ouroboros here—a post about my archive posts pointing out my inability to escape my ideological contingencies.)
All that is to say, in 1996 a lot of these answers miss the mark less than I expected.
Take Paul Krugman’s entry, which I thought would be more about globalism as truth. Here it is:
By the early 1970s, throughout Western Europe and to a large extent in the United States, we had managed to produce societies with relatively equal income, relatively little poverty, and all sorts of opportunities for upward financial mobility. While we were a long way from Utopia, you could look around the Western world and say, “These are the most decent societies the world has ever seen.” There are no longer any societies that fit that description.
The current best story for this decline is that technological progress threw us a curve ball. Technology continues to make us richer, but very much devalues the work of people who are not exceptionally talented, and greatly increases the income of a very few. The United States is responding with a flat hostility to the welfare state.
At some point, people will realize just how well-off the well-off actually are, and I don’t think they can continue to blame our decline on government programs. I’m not saying we should instead blame the rich; I’m just saying we should soak them.
Pessimism about the future of the United States began developing 20 years ago and should be dispelled. Lester Thurow’s thesis was that America had peaked economically and was in decline compared to Japan and Germany. He was dead wrong. Japan is in a banking crisis. Germany totally miscalculated the economic costs of reunification, and all of Europe’s unemployment is around 11 percent while ours is under 6 percent.
Wealth is created by venture capital and innovation. We do those best. We are destined to remain the most powerful economic and military power in the world.
My personal favorite is Lewis Lapham’s. Less for anything specific than for a clear line back to my favorite editorial tic. I call it the “whom insertion.” To whom are you speaking? You will see that question inserted in a lot of good magazine writing. It is a way of doing great work breaking down the easily assumed. And I bet some of it comes down to people reading Lapham’s Harper’s. I think the phrase he uses—”who is the ‘we’?”—is a better way to code it. A lot of good writing just asks that basic question.
The big shift in the last 20 years has been from the public to the private sector. The word “public” has become a synonym for corruption and futility. All things bright and beautiful flow forth from the clear stream of the private sector.
Politics was a public thing; the state was something we held in common. Now it’s everyone’s favorite enemy—including those in Washington. The public sector is not a living presence protecting, animating, and inspiring, but has become a dead carcass, a beached whale we Eskimos are going to strip of all its blubber.
It’s a shocking change. Common thought and ideas have declined. I think democracy is over as it was conceived in Philadelphia. We don’t know what the narrative is. That’s why we hate the public. Whose public? Who is the “we”? The times demand a writer or writers who can write the new American narrative.
Roxane Gay is one of the most prolific and versatile writers of our generation. Her works include a best-selling collections of essays (Bad Feminist), a blockbuster memoir (Hunger), the Black Panther comics, and countless essays of cultural criticism. She has a New York Times advice column on work, money, and careers. Add to all this, a book of writing advice coming out in November called How to Be Heard, and a screenplay for Hunger and a YA novel that are works in progress. And, oh yes, she also has a podcast and is running a monthly online book club.
How does she do it? How has she cultivated her voice over the years? How does she write things that make a difference?
Gay answers these questions and more in her sharp and accessible series on MasterClass called Writing for Social Change. She joined Jamilah King for a conversation in late February. For the full experience, listen to their interview on the Mother Jones Podcast or read the transcript below, which has been lightly edited and condensed.
Jamilah King: I wanted to start by asking you about something that you said in the course: that cultural criticism brought about the revolution we’re experiencing in entertainment right now. I speak as a big TV buff, and there’s been no better time to watch TV. How would you describe that revolution and the role of cultural criticism in making it happen?
Roxane Gay: I don’t know that cultural criticism made it happen. I think that our television tastes have evolved and matured, and writers have been given more leeway. I think it was really paid cable premium cable that made it possible, and it is cultural criticism that sustained it and gave it the gravitas that it now has.
What is cultural criticism to you?
Cultural criticism is the way we contextualize the media that we consume. We tend to do it based on who we are, and what we prefer and our identity. Cultural criticism that I might write is going to be vastly different from the cultural criticism that a white guy is going to write, or that an Asian woman is going to write. I think that’s what makes it such a rich field. When it’s done well and you have a diversity of perspectives—not just in terms of demography, but in terms of intellectual thinking and ideas and aesthetic—it makes for a really rich conversation. We’ve seen some really great conversations about film and television and literature in recent years.
How do you approach blending cultural criticism and politics? Do they automatically go together, or are they different?
I feel they go together. I think culture exists on a spectrum. A lot of what we see on our televisions and in movie theaters has been shaped by the political climate.
So there’s this term that I honestly hate: “culture wars.” It’s a term that’s been bandied about for decades. Does it mean anything to you? And if it does, how do you think it’s changed over the years?
It doesn’t mean a whole lot to me. I think it’s the kind of thing that people say when they’re too lazy to engage with the world as it is, and they want to dismiss the very material realities of most people’s lives. I get really frustrated when people are like, “Oh, it’s the culture wars.” What precisely does that mean?
Right. Nowadays there’s something called canceled culture. Does that actually exist?
No, it does not. Cancel culture is this boogeyman that people have come up with to explain away bad behavior and when their faves experience consequences. I like to think of it as consequence culture, where when you make a mistake—and we all do, by the way—there should be consequences. The problem is that we haven’t figured out what consequences should be. So it’s all or nothing. Either there are no consequences, or people lose their jobs, or other sort of sweeping grand gestures that don’t actually solve the problem at hand.
Speaking of cancel culture, there’s been a major story happening in the small but mighty world of podcasts. I’m sure you know the Reply All/Bon Appétit controversy. Reply All has announced that they’re canceling the series partway through due to some really disturbing revelations that came to light about the host. What are your thoughts on this?
I think it’s a mistake. I understand that the reporting is not finished on the final two episodes. But this is not the Mona Lisa. Somebody can finish these stories. I think the Bon Appétit story is interesting. And it’s typical. And it deserves to be told. I think it’s really reflective of how important the story is that two of the creators of the Reply All reportage were doing some of the same behaviors they were reporting on. It just speaks to how endemic this issue is. It would be a step in the right direction for Reply All to finish those two episodes and release them, and then do a third episode about what happened with Reply All.
You said that it’s typical. What do you mean by that?
A lot of media organizations have serious problems. The Gimlet situation is not special. It’s not unique. There are all kinds of faves who are really terrible and who are not really interested in progress, change, or making room at the table for others. That’s unfortunate because they’re working from a place of scarcity, and this idea that there can only be a chosen few. I get where that comes from. But I don’t think it’s a useful way of being a professional. Then some people are just mean and petty. I think people should be whoever they are, but when your meanness is racist and homophobic and transphobic and any other kind of bigotry, that’s where the problem lies, and it has to be addressed.
I saw that recently, you interviewed Sohla El-Waylly, the chef and Youtube star who very publicly left Bon Appétit, on your podcast, Hear to Slay. I know that fried chicken was a major topic of discussion. But did you learn anything from her that changed your insights into what happened at Bon Appétit?
What I learned is about the human cost of being at the center of one of these stories. It’s not fun for the person. Sohla was a delight. The renewed interest in her was a long time coming and deserved. I got the impression, though, that she just wondered, are you going to be here next month? Next year? Are you going to care then? In a few weeks people are going to forget all about what happened at Bon Appétit. It won’t come up again until another media property is exposed for being a mess. There’s so much about consequence culture that we really need to think through and talk about to figure out: What does happen next? How do we sustain this level of energy? Especially given the political climate of the past four years, I understand why we have very limited attention spans. But the underlying issue is is racism and misogyny and so many other forms of bigotry. So how do we root that out? How do we create equitable workplaces where people can thrive?
It seems like you get inspiration from everywhere. You were recently interviewed by AV club about your love-hate relationship with HGTV. How do you approach the things you watch, read and listen to as fodder for your own cultural criticism?
I actually don’t go into watching pretty much anything with a mind to use it as fodder for cultural criticism. I’m generally watching something for pleasure, and I see something that makes me think. Then I start to follow that thread. The only time I watch something going in knowing I’m going to do cultural criticism about it is when I get an assignment.
You talked in your MasterClass about how expertise comes in a lot of different packages. What are some of the barriers to entry that still exist in media?
The biggest barrier is either you have generational wealth, or you don’t. And if you don’t, it’s a lot harder to take these ridiculous $35,000 a year jobs. The jobs are not ridiculous, but the pay is. Living in New York on $35,000 a year is a real challenge. Frankly, living on in New York for under $100,000 a year is a challenge. It is done all the time. I’ve done it. You know, I’ve been that $35,000 a year person. And less. Fortunately, I was able to do it elsewhere. When you’re living in Charleston, Illinois, or Houghton, Michigan, it’s like, yeah, I can make this work. But would I have been able to make it work in the city? No. I think it’s really that about removing some of the economic barriers so that a more diverse range of people are able to take these jobs. It’s not a pipeline issue. And I wish people would stop dismissing it as one.
Do you think the pandemic and COVID and people working remotely so often is gonna maybe change a little bit of that?
I do. I have a project coming up that’s going to be announced, and I’m going to be hiring an editorial assistant. Normally they would have to be in New York, but now they can be anywhere. I’m really excited about that. I think more publishers and people in media are going to be willing to consider remote candidates.
So back to MasterClass, the self-help space is overwhelmingly white. Books, shows, all of it. That can be really tough if you’re Black and queer. What does it mean for you as a Black feminist to be on a platform like MasterClass?
It’s great to have many, many, years of writing—well before anyone even knew who I was—recognized. Maybe I do know something. Maybe I am something of an expert on writing. It’s great to be recognized. The most important thing to me is that I’m not the only one. Who’s next? I don’t know who that next person is going to be, but I could give you 10 names. I am excited, but I hope that this is just the beginning and that MasterClass continues to recognize that there is a lot of talent out there. A lot of Black women, queer women, women across the racial spectrum are ready and willing and able to step up to the plate and demonstrate their excellence.
I want to talk about a particular video in the MasterClass series about how you write about trauma. You also published a Scribd essay recently, Writing into the Wound, and a really interesting conversation with Monica Lewinsky about trauma that was published in Vanity Fair. How do you approach writing about trauma in a way that is generative and useful and not exploitative?
There are a lot of different ways. A lot of times I choose to write directly into it because nothing is worse than the trauma itself. For people to understand the effects of trauma, they need to understand just how profoundly people have suffered. I think that there’s a way to do it without being exploitative. That’s not the only way to do it. But I find that that can be a really useful way: to not flinch.
So your MasterClass is called “Writing for Social Change.” What does social change mean to you?
To me, it means finding ways to get people to consider other points of view, because that’s the logjam in a lot of our political discourse. We are, and I include myself in this, very deeply entrenched in what we believe. There’s very little that’s going to move us. Take, for example, reproductive freedom. There’s literally nothing you’re going to say that’s going to make me change my mind about a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. So how do you have productive conversations about that with people who believe in the sanctity of life but don’t think that it extends to women? It’s challenging. And so you have to find ways to write beyond that impasse and try to reach people so that they will be open to changing their minds. Once they’re open, okay, now what more do I need to do to get you to actually change your mind? So that we can see some movement from the really stark divides that we’re currently dealing with, not only in this country, but in many countries around the world.
Tomorrow, as you know, is National Grammar Day, which makes today a good time to brush up on history. President George W. Bush wrote a letter commemorating the day’s founding, in 2008, on White House stationery, replete with two spaces after periods. I’ve contacted the George W. Bush Presidential Center to authenticate the letter:
The White House
February 29, 2008
I send greetings to those celebrating National Grammar Day 2008.
Effective communication is critical to understanding the needs of others and building a prosperous future for our country. By encouraging proper grammar in speech and literature, the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar helps educate people about the importance of mastering the English language. National Grammar Day is an opportunity to recognize how communication skills can help more Americans prepare for the challenges ahead and compete for the jobs of the 21st century.
I appreciate the members of SPOGG and all those dedicated to inspiring a love of learning in their fellow citizens. Your efforts help strengthen the character of our Nation.
Laura and I send our best wishes.
George W. Bush
I’ve also attempted to contact the Office of George W. Bush to seek comment, but his Media Inquiries contact page is broken. Clicking “Submit” yields an error:
I tried on multiple browsers:
Dear Office of George W. Bush,
I’m writing about National Grammar Day, which is this Thursday, and want to confirm with you that President George W. Bush did in fact write the landmark February 29, 2008, letter on White House stationery commemorating the day’s inauguration as I’ve seen at www.quickanddirtytips.com/images/ngd/bush-letter.jpg. Could you please authenticate the letter? Does President Bush stand by the day?
The day was founded by Martha Brockenbrough, the author of Things That Make Us [Sic], and although pedantry and prescriptiveness are actually the things that should make us [sic], there’s something recharging about a commemorative day, as long as grammar is viewed expansively and pluralistically and free of piety and sanctimony, including the right we all have to write run-on sentences. Tomorrow is World Grammar Day; today we run sentences on. And yes, you noticed that I just promoted National Grammar Day to World Grammar Day. It contains multitudes. Bush, known for his uniquely Bushian style, can join (or not).
If you observe the day, immediately donate $5 or $50,000 and nothing in between to Mother Jones. I will thank you. I am not suggesting quid pro quos, whose plural I have unpacked. But I am suggesting a moral imperative to safeguard democracy and the independent reporting on which it depends by donating $900 million to Mother Jones today—act fast—and not a penny shy. (You can donate any amount.) Unless you dislike democracy. Send strongly worded letters to email@example.com. Never use two spaces after a period.
Harry Belafonte and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on March 24, 1965 in Montgomery, AlabamaBettmann/Getty
In 1956, a New York musician born to Caribbean immigrants “released the first million-selling LP in history,” wrote Joshua Jelly-Schapiro in a vital 2011 interview with the artist and activist. “Harry Belanfonte was bigger than Elvis”—a knowingly fraught comparison that quickly gets released: “But where Elvis built Graceland, Belafonte used the proceeds from Calypso to bankroll his friend Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement for civil rights” and propel one of the paramount marches and coalitions in American history. Belafonte is the only person “to talk to both King and Bobby Kennedy on a daily basis through those years” and secured the airlifting of a plane of Kenyan students to the United States in 1961. On that plane was Barack Obama Sr.
The many links, lineages, and threads that intersect in Belafonte’s life are traced in that interview. It’s an incredible Q&A. Returning to it now, on the week of his 94th birthday, expands the impact of the West Indian American singer and songwriter who, the interviewer pointed out, was “a critic of a president who would not have been possible without him.”
Read it here, and revisit Belafonte’s sit-in on The Tonight Show as host with guests including King, Kennedy, Sidney Poitier, Lena Horne, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Wilt Chamberlain, and Freda Payne.
As intergenerational collaboration goes, a big new one: Jason Moran and Archie Shepp have teamed up on Let My People Go, a pitch-perfect dialogue between piano and saxophone. Shepp was active in the civil rights movement and created theater and music in response to the Attica prison uprising. As Shepp told me, “I’ve been engaged, speaking out, and raising money for radical organizations my entire life” of 83 years and counting, finding new voices onstage and off. If you’re new to Moran, start with this ballad.
Lastly for today, bassist Christian McBride joins organist Cory Henry tonight at 7 ET / 4 PT as part of Newport Jazz Fest on Instagram live.
More than 400 players from 45 countries competed in the first Online Chess Olympiad for People With Disabilities recently, and the games are growing. Programmers are developing a virtual platform for blind and limited-vision players to access “all the functionalities and possibilities” of online chess, according to the International Chess Federation (FIDE).
And a Recharge salute to five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand, from India, who just launched the Global Chess League, with eight teams from across the world.
"Drop the I-Word" launched in 2010 as a campaign to change "illegal alien" and "illegal immigrant" to "undocumented immigrant" and other terms, a call answered by the Biden administration.Manuel Navarro/Picture Alliance/Getty
In a major milestone for immigrants’ rights activists seeking shifts in language and law, the Biden administration has dropped “illegal alien” from government communications, taking federal agencies out of the business of branding people—instead of actions—illegal. The move marks the culmination of the yearslong “Drop the I-Word” campaign, spearheaded by author and Mother Jones board member Rinku Sen. Her movement is widely credited with creating much of the groundwork for retiring the phrase.
The shift was made in an internal Homeland Security Department memo directing officials to replace “alien” with “noncitizen,” and “illegal” with “undocumented.”
“I feel real pride” in the change, Sen tells me. Biden’s decision wouldn’t have been possible, she says, if it weren’t for many broader changes first, especially in the media. “This would have been much harder for the administration to do if we hadn’t first changed most journalistic and some governmental practice on the I-word.” Many newsrooms including ours use “illegal” only to describe actions, and Sen had amplified that distinction. (Tell us at the bottom of this post which language changes should come next.) But she’d met heavy resistance from some newsrooms whose editors construed her pitch as a call for euphemistic substitution rather than a material improvement to accurate reporting.
“We faced a lot of cynicism from movement people, news consumers, and journalism at the beginning,” she says. “Some thought it would make no difference, some thought it was less important than focusing on policy change, and some thought there was no need for a shift. But as we told more stories about how the word affected peoples’ actual lives, momentum began to build.”
The Associated Press agreed when in 2013 it dropped “illegal immigrant” from its stylebook after a group of 24 scholars issued a statement calling “illegal immigrant” neither neutral nor accurate. Protesters, including a son of César Chávez, marched outside the New York Times headquarters that year with signs that read “No Human Being Is ‘Illegal’ Drop the I-Word,” and delivered more than 70,000 signatures asking the Times to change its use. The Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, had written, “I see no advantage for Times readers in a move away from the paper’s use of the phrase ‘illegal immigrant.’”
In response to the protest, Times standards editor Phil Corbett loosened the guideline but stopped short of a one-size-fits-all rule. He said “undocumented” “has a flavor of euphemism and should be approached with caution outside quotations.”
“Flavor of euphemism” is telling here. It too has a flavor of euphemism, and it gets to the heart of many language choices: Is there anything more variable and less neutral in journalism and law than a flavor palette? Maintaining any living guidelines is tough work made tougher by an ethic in journalism that assigns equal and equivalent weight to all interpretations of a phrase. Although “undocumented” doesn’t always fit—some immigrants have documentation short of authorization—“undocumented” has never been a euphemism; it’s always been a clarifying corrective to the euphemism before it.
That’s why a landmark Supreme Court opinion omitted the term “illegal immigrants” in 2012 except when quoting other sources. It’s why New York City’s Commission on Human Rights issued language guidelines to similar effect. And it’s a change boosted by Sonia Sotomayor when she became the first Supreme Court justice to issue an opinion using “undocumented immigrant.”
One of the unspoken assumptions of top editors is a need to balance the appearance of not getting out over their skis—jumping to a wrong “side”—with the appearance of not being a hired guard of old convention. That’s a separate debate. The clearest measure of language is which words serve the facts and truth on which our work depends. That’s all; the rest is reputational. The rest gets you friends and critics, but if you count on those, you’ve lost the plot, which is to improve accuracy, reduce harm, and frame fairly. “Illegal immigrant,” unlike “undocumented immigrant” and “illegal immigration,” is a grammatical misfire because it’s a misreading of history.
The archives agree: “Illegal immigrant” and “alien” are cudgels. “Alien” was baked into this country’s founding vocabulary to strip British of personhood and legal rights. It appears in the Alien and Sedition Acts to limit criticism of government and make citizenship harder to come by. That’s the backdrop of Donald Trump’s five uses of “illegal alien” in last year’s State of the Union, and his Justice Department’s memo telling federal prosecutors to say “illegal aliens” instead of “undocumented.” It’s the reason he named a National Day of Remembrance for Americans Killed by Illegal Aliens.
The Times has long avoided “illegal aliens.” But “illegal immigrants” is misplaced on the same grounds. It’s “pejorative,” says Richard Prince, media critic and author of the Journal-isms newsletter, who tells me, “Remember that in 2019, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists disinvited Fox News as a sponsor of its convention. NAHJ returned $16,666 after Fox radio host Todd Starnes’ comments about ‘a rampaging horde of illegal aliens’ in reference to Latin American migrants.”
“Why go out of your way to antagonize people? Language changes,” Prince tells me.
The Times’ internal guidelines still accept “illegal” to modify people, not just actions. In an email last week, Corbett told me, in part, “We are continuing to discuss possible additional changes. We encourage writers to use a variety of terms and be as specific as possible in describing individual circumstances.”
The truth about labels is that they constantly change, and editors without a trace of misguided intention can be left using earlier defaults while judged by today’s practices—a feature of label evolution. But the euphemism treadmill is not what’s happening here. One has always been more accurate. Perhaps Biden’s decision to change will be a tipping point for the media too.
What do you think? Share your ideas below. (Our style guide is here.)
Less than a week after the health journalist Julia Métraux, who is hard-of-hearing, tweeted about Zoom’s lack of free captions as an accessibility and human rights issue, the company has met the call. Until yesterday, Zoom hadn’t offered closed captions on free accounts, unlike Skype, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams. The feature is vital for deaf and hard-of-hearing users and many second-language learners. In a statement to Métraux last night after her inquiry for a Gizmodo article that published moments ago, Zoom said it plans to release live captions for everyone this fall, and people can fill out transcript requests in the meantime.
“It should not have taken as long to get captions on Zoom as it does for people to get vaccines during a pandemic, but glad it happened,” Métraux tells me.
Zoom said it made the change to “provide a platform that is accessible to all of the diverse communities we serve,” though Métraux also credits a petition by hearing-loss advocate Shari Eberts—with more than 80,000 signatures—and a class-action suit against Zoom from people with hearing loss. The combined efforts “likely played a role in the announcement,” she says.
The first high-resolution color image sent back from NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover on February 18, 2021NASA via Getty
Since Mar-a-Lago isn’t going anywhere, let’s skip town for Mars. Far away, on a planet less warped than one that elected Donald Trump and invented American cheese product, NASA has given us the first sounds ever recorded from the planet’s surface. Just as impressive is the first panorama from the rover.
A recap of Mars music is in order: Mars Breslow, the jazz photographer, has a classic portrait of Ornette Coleman, and Mars Volta, the rock band, has a song fit for Mars. Bruno Mars, the singer, has one. And John Coltrane’s “Mars,” from Interstellar Space, is transcendent. Here’s one from Branford Marsalis, who makes the cut because “Mars” is right there in his name and he’s got a riveting live one of “Giant Steps.”
It’s been a big time for the planet generally. Scientists recently cracked a mystery. Glaciers on Mars reveal many ice ages, offering a glimpse into its past and settling whether the planet has had just one ice age or multiple. Not that ice ages are paradise, but expanding our understanding of what’s beyond us—beyond our news cycles, election cycles, supply chains, bicycle chains, chains of favorite restaurants—can sharpen our perspective by scaling our sense of space. And a new study finds that Earthly organisms could temporarily survive there.
Mars, you know, is named after the Roman god of war, so, on that subject, heed this warning from astronomer Carl Sagan: “Mars has become a kind of mythic arena onto which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears.” Careful where you plant your hopes and fears. And take my colleague Jackie Flynn Mogensen’s advice: “Stop Building a Spaceship to Mars and Just Plant Some Damn Trees.”
Lastly, recall H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, in which Martians try to escape their dying planet by invading Earth. They appear to have succeeded.
Welcome back to Earth. Sorry for the turbulent landing. Mar-a-Lago is on your right. Say hello at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last August was the ninth year running of Black Philanthropy Month, a designated stretch of observance that both amplifies and compresses a lot of history, justice, injustice, and joy. That month’s haul was the largest ever. More than 18 million people from 60 countries have participated since its inception, and it continues year-round at #BPM365. I spoke with the movement’s founder, Jackie Copeland, by Zoom shortly after Donald Trump’s defeat in the presidential election.
Copeland told me she’d launched the campaign less as a finite financial pitch than as a movement to cultivate acts of giving and reframe philanthropy as a practice instead of a one-off gesture. “The intent of Black Philanthropy Month 2020 was to move from mobilizing and talking to taking action,” she said.
Less than 1.3 percent of global assets are managed by people of color, and “denial of equal access to private capital has been an instrument of economic oppression since the founding of many countries,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons we see wealth levels in African American and Black Brazilian communities are so much smaller than in others, because we’ve had histories of laws that prevent us from capital and wealth. In the case of women it wasn’t long ago that you couldn’t get a loan unless your husband signed for you.”
Women are the core driver of another movement she founded, the WISE Fund (Women Invested to Save Earth). Her new WISE You Community is a virtual network to fund Black and Indigenous climate change organizations in partnership with the tech startup Flerish. Her program’s members get live and AI-based coaching, “something sorely needed by donors disrupted by COVID,” she said. “There’s a degree of health and economic carnage because of COVID and it coincides with a range of uprisings around human rights abuses in Brazil and political injustices in Nigeria,” the two most-populous Black countries in the world.
Brazil features heavily in the WISE Fund. It’s a partner of Brazil Foundation, whose president and CEO, Rebecca Tavares, joined us on the call. Tavares told me she’s “gathering solidarity and support for the access of women of African descent to digital technology for addressing climate change.” She wants to “formalize the rights of domestic workers in Brazil because the great majority are Black women whose rights have been violated on every standard, including sexual violence and abuse, labor rights completely ignored, way overtime working. As informal workers they haven’t had recourse.”
Also joining our Zoom were co-architects of Black Philanthropy Month Tracey Webb and Valaida Fullwood, who is the founding member of New Generation of African American Philanthropists. Fullwood said she wants to “engage funders particularly in the South to sign a pledge like Brazil Foundation and WISE Fund. I got into some of this work through Tracey. She’d founded a blog that featured Black philanthropy stories, a first of its kind. Working as a writer for her introduced me to Jackie and gave me a line of sight on all the things happening in the US and globally around Black giving.”
Even the definitions of philanthropy are changing: “The word was hijacked and used in ways that focused solely on money and dollars and not as much on impact and relationships,” Fullwood said. “Part of my work is making it more accessible not just to high-net-worth people but as commitments of time, talent, treasure, truth. Those can be as powerful as any grant. I define and break down philanthropy as love of what it means to be human.”
“‘Philanthropy,’ the actual term, has always been a culturally specific Western way of organizing acts of giving and mutual support,” Copeland told me. “But if we look at the term more broadly, it’s about community impact and helping someone else. That’s an overlay on ancient giving structures, principles, and philosophies. A lot of successful movements across the Black world—abolition, underground railroad, civil rights movement, anti-apartheid movement—were supported first by Black people giving each other what they had.”
I asked Copeland what she makes of certain corporate billionaires who donate as acts of reputational self-laundering, a public-relations move to purchase the appearance of caring instead of changing structurally. “It’s a legitimate critique,” she said. “That’s certainly a dimension of some institutional philanthropy. Philanthropy has been a way to ‘clean’ money and wealth that may have been accumulated through dubious means. That’s an undeniable factual part of the history that continues. Sometimes philanthropy has been overcommercialized and lost that essential human-rights heart of giving—the whole notion of love for humanity. I think there’s a countermovement now.”
Copeland’s team is looking ahead to the month’s 10th anniversary this year, whose theme is TENacity: Making Equity Real, with an ever-growing focus across countries, communities, and sectors.
Mirroring the effort to drive donations to Planned Parenthood on Mike Pence’s birthday a few years ago, scores of people not-quite-mourning Rush Limbaugh’s death are rallying to mobilize similarly and donate in his name. “It’s what Rush would have wanted,” reads the Instagram pitch.
The goal of donating $10,000 to reproductive health care has been far exceeded. More than $425,000 and counting has already been raised by 17,000 donors in Limbaugh’s memory. Read more about his legacy here.
Each Friday, we bring you an article from our archive to propel you into the weekend.
Fifteen years ago, almost to the day, the White House released a report titled “The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned.” Frances Fragos Townsend, assistant to the president for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, wrote in a letter to President George W. Bush a tale playing out again today in Texas. It was a disaster that could, if studied, be prevented from happening again. Yes, Katrina was “a deadly reminder that we can and must do better,” Townsend wrote. But he was confident: “We will.”
We have not. And we never did.
As James Ridgeway (who recently passed away) and Jean Casella documented in a timeline of events published for this magazine in 2007, the lessons of Katrina fell short. What is occurring in Texas now, what has been occurring in California, what is still every day visible in a New Orleans refurbished but certainly not fixed, is that whatever lessons the massive state failure of Katrina offered did not stick. Bush was blamed (rightly) for a bumbling response. But the aspirational redefinition of the political landscape to address problems of poverty and racist policies was cast aside.
The timeline is a damning indictment of what could come next for us. Our coverage on Katrina is all worth a read to understand how the unnatural is spun as “natural” disaster. We’ve also reported on the horrific statistics making clear that there was no end for victims of Katrina—and we’ve shown that this was clear for anyone who visited New Orleans, no matter the “happy face” some attempted to put on the new New Orleans.
Less than a day after I’d reported about a Georgia town where the state took away the largest medical provider’s vaccines as punishment for vaccinating teachers, my story’s main source, Dr. Jonathan Poon, emailed with encouraging news: He’d received word from the state that the sanctions will be lifted. His clinic will be allowed to order vaccines and resume vaccinating shortly.
“I believe your piece was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he wrote me. “We did hear from the state [Department of Public Health] today and they have eased our sanction to be 6 weeks rather than 6 months. We’ll be able to reorder…and start vaccinating” again soon.
I’d written about his county’s ordeal:
In late December, the county had finished vaccinating health care professionals and first responders, so the Elberton Medical Center opened up appointments to what they’d thought was the next tier: people over age 65 along with essential workers, including teachers. Most people in town cheered this development. The schools had been open since August, since remote learning was impossible for the community’s many children who lacked internet access. But the doctors at the medical center didn’t realize that the Georgia Department of Health had changed the guidelines in January, and teachers were not eligible after all. When the Georgia DPH found out that the Medical Center of Elberton had vaccinated 177 school workers with Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, state health officials meted out a harsh punishment. They suspended all vaccine shipments until July and seized most of the remaining doses in the clinic’s freezer, leaving only enough for those who had already gotten their first dose to receive a second.
During my visit to Elberton, I got to know the town a bit, and I spent time with Dr. Poon, whose clinic had its vaccines taken away:
Elbert County is in the far northeastern corner of Georgia, close to the South Carolina border. Many of its 20,000 residents are employed making tombstones and memorial statues out of stone—a mural downtown in Elberton, the county seat, boasts the town is “the monument capital of the world.” Trucks bearing slabs of granite rumble through the modest downtown, a square of municipal buildings and a few storefronts still open for business: Stan’s Music World, say, and Tena’s Fine Jewelry & Gifts. On Friday nights, people go to see the the Blue Devils football team from the high school play at the Granite Bowl stadium, which is carved out of 100,000 tons of blue granite. The people here live modestly: In 2018, the median household income was about $44,000, and nearly 20 percent lived below the poverty line.
On the day that I visited, I watched as residents stopped to greet each other around town. The older ladies had names like Sarabelle and Shelly Anne. “How’s your mama?” They asked neighbors at the pharmacy. “She managing okay?”
Almost everyone in this county knows Dr. Poon because he’s lived here almost his whole life. His family, originally from Hong Kong, moved to Elberton when Poon was 3 months old so his father could practice family medicine. Poon decided to follow in his father’s footsteps, and after medical school and residency, he moved back home to practice family medicine. Today, he sees patients down the hall from his father.
Poon, who has an unflappable air about him and speaks in a slow Southern drawl, isn’t used to being in the spotlight. He spends his days at the clinic, seeing local patients at all phases of life: children with sore throats, pregnant women, elderly people who need medication for diabetes. But in the last few weeks, Poon has appeared on TV news shows, talking about how much the people of Elbert County need the vaccines that the state took away. As he and I walked from the parking lot of the medical center to the pharmacy, neighbors greeted him like a conquering hero. “Thank you so much for what you’re doing for our town,” a man in a pickup truck said through his window. “I really mean it.”
The situation in Texas is so grim—millions without power, heat, water, food—that any act of community support needs amplifying and multiplying. Against the storm’s backdrop are volunteer efforts by chef José Andrés, whose World Central Kitchen has partnered with local eateries to freely feed people affected by outages. His nonprofit has distributed 2,000 meals to residents of senior living homes without power. And it’s not enough.
As we continue to learn what’s disastrously wrong at the level of emergency management and systems of accountability (much of it well-aired), mobilization continues, including in this related story of giveaways by Boombox Taco Truck. The truck is feeding nearly 1,000 families. Truck owners had no power themselves for days before opening to hand out 2,400 tacos at eight apartment complexes. Learn more about Boombox. Or about restaurant owner Max Bozeman II of Greasy Spoon Soulfood Bistro, who’s giving away $10,000 to families needing food and shelter all while battling medical challenges of his own. Follow his giveaways on Instagram.
If you live in storm-battered states or have friends and family who do—and there’s good news—reach us at email@example.com.
No, I don’t have sources telling me that world chess champion Magnus Carlsen is seething with jealousy of his rival Hikaru Nakamura, who topped 1 million stream followers yesterday. But Carlsen ought to be impressed and, if he’s human, a bit jealous. Nakamura has a growing fandom for a reason: The five-time US champion is adventurously risk-taking, blazingly fast, and creatively resourceful, and whoever produces his video thumbnails is twitchingly funny and deserves awards.
Congratulations on 1 million followers. He’s also a generous steward of charitable giving, having used his platform and power to drive donations to good causes. Also on the rise to chess stardom are the Botez sisters, Alexandra and Andrea, standout players with a growing audience. Each is a sharply instructive commentator who, as the game’s popularity surges, offers some of the best video creation and narration. They get supportive boosts from US Chess Women’s program director and two-time champion Jennifer Shahade.
Today is also the birthday of the first women’s world chess champion, Vera Menchik, born 115 years ago. She defeated the sharpest players of her era, from Samuel Reshevsky to Max Euwe. And yesterday marked a defining political anniversary: Garry Kasparov’s open rebellion against the Soviet chess authorities. The game’s governing body arbitrarily and corruptly terminated his championship match—he was winning—against Soviet-friendly Anatoly Karpov, in 1985. The termination set off “widespread speculation that the unprecedented action was designed to save defending champion Anatoly Karpov from defeat,” the Washington Postreported that year.
A salute to Kasparov, then and now. What’s all the popularity about? In addition to The Queen’s Gambit, a revealing article about the game’s pandemic appeal is headlined “Pawn Addiction Helps Me Beat the Lockdown Blues.” And yes, there are more possible chess games than the number of atoms in the known universe: 10^120 possible games, and 10^81 atoms in the universe (plus or minus). No word yet on whether Barack Obama will accept Nakamura’s chess challenge for charity.
Each Friday, we bring you an article from our archive to propel you into the weekend.
In 1976, Annie Gottlieb reviewed a trio of books asking how “feminists look at motherhood.” In response to her sister’s deep physical attachment to her newborn (“I can feel my stomach knot when he cries”), Gottlieb sends along a quotation from Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born.
No one ever mentions the psychic crisis of bearing a first child…the sense of confused power and powerlessness, of being taken over on the one hand and of touching new physical and psychic potentialities on the other, a heightened sensibility which can be exhilarating, bewildering, and exhausting. No one mentions the strangeness of attraction—which can be as single-minded and overwhelming as the early days of a love affair—to a being so tiny, so dependent, so folded-in to itself—who is, and yet is not, part of oneself.
The passage has stuck with me. The sense of “being taken over” is double-edged. Love can isolate. In an even more patriarchal society, Gottlieb writes, motherhood would “have divided us irrevocably from each other—and from ourselves.” How to reckon with this? What do some of the women Gottlieb writes about do in a society or pandemic in which love for another—in maternal relationships, yes, but also in relationships to partners—can drive them away from community and from other women; can drive them away from the support of their (literal) sisters?
The COVID-19 pandemic, which has particularly hurt women, brings up even more complex questions here in reconsidering Gottlieb’s work. And it is why I’ve found the Rich quotation so vexingly topical. Patriarchy and sexism mean love is sometimes used against women. A mother does not have a patent on love for child, yet it is a mother’s love that must be more—versatile, adaptive—and chillingly all-encompassing.
Even the usually casual or happy Valentine’s Day, this Sunday, brings a bit of dread on this front—more hurrahing of the loved ones we can’t escape. Haven’t we all done a good amount of sacrificing and loving for those close to us (those always in the room next to us)? Rich, and other writers, argue for a larger conception of love. One that admits a mother’s needs beyond motherhood. The mass communal love that stretches beyond family is hard to come by at any time, and it seems almost impossible right now. Feminists in 1976, as many have now, called for more, both from institutions and from men. It’s worth collectively remembering that on this Hallmark-propped holiday. The cliche is an intimate love, the outside world shut out. But feminists ask for—insist on—more: love that doesn’t isolate, but expands.
Although 9,000 pounds of trash might sound like the equivalent of the Senate impeachment trial’s subject, removing one is easier than convicting the other. I don’t want to give river trash a bad name, and the analogy ends where it begins: Yesterday’s garbage is today’s challenge, environmentally and politically. And like the kind evicted by voters, 9,000 pounds was also removed from the Tennessee River by volunteers over three days last month.
A team of volunteers from Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful joined state park workers to clean the river. The group’s goal is to remove 100,000 pounds by the end of the year. Progress is underway; the river floor is improving. Will the Senate floor? Or my kitchen floor, currently an abject nightmare? No and yes, respectively. The ocean floor gets 14 billion pounds of new trash every year. And any volunteers collaborating selflessly to clean rivers of environmental or political pollution deserve a full salute.
Is impeachment over yet? No, and neither am I; one more thing. Happy Valentine’s Day on Sunday (behold, third-century Saint Valentine of Rome, worshipped by sweethearts everywhere or nowhere) and Presidents Day on Monday (behold, the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which ensured many holidays were Mondays providing three-day weekends). Your good news is welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Year of the Ox starts Friday. In celebration, chef and author Anita Lo—winner of Eater’s Cookbook of the Year award, Michelin-star winner, Iron Chef winner, and Top Chef master—is streaming a tutorial on how to make some of the world’s best dumplings. On the virtual menu are shrimp-and-pork pockets of goodness with vegetarian options easily swapped. The class requires registration. Yes there’s a fee, but it unlocks top techniques and live time with Lo, who describes her ethos in Cooking Without Borders as a view of food as a form of memory: “In every mouthful of food lie hints of history—personal and global.”
Dumplings are also constitutionally expansive, with all shapes, sizes, fillings, wrappers, pleats, prices, histories, and methods, from xiaolongbao to pierogies to gnocchi. Are ravioli dumplings? Yes. If it’s a small mass of dough rolled to encase a filling (or none) and gone in a bite (or two), you’ve got one, a glimpse of regional tradition. Lo ran Annisa in the West Village for 17 years after growing up near Detroit with a mother from Malaysia and father from Shanghai.
“When [my mother] arrived in the United States, her first stop was Tennessee, where she received her pre-med degree. My parents met in San Francisco—she was interning at the same hospital where my father was a doctor,” she says.
A steady stream of day care workers from several countries introduced her to new histories of food. “True hospitality extends to others and to yourself,” she writes in Solo: A Modern Cookbook for a Party of One. “Too often we forget about the latter.”
Register here. If you can’t make the tutorial, a free printed version is here.
P.S. Are knishes dumplings? Many sources say yes. I say no. Senator, I served with knishes. I knew knishes. Knishes were a friend of mine. Senator, knishes are no dumplings. Unless they’re dumplings? Wait, are knishes dumplings? I guess so. Share your recipes, definitions of dumpling, memories of food and family, and photos of your homemade best at email@example.com. (Here’s a long list of dumplings.)
Indian Country Today correspondent Joaqlin Estus first reported this news: Six Indigenous artists have won $50,000 prizes for their “bold artistic vision,” and each is honored for “inspir[ing] curiosity, empathy, and action toward building a more honest and just world.”
Cannupa Hanska Luger—who installs ceramics, video, sound, fiber, steel, and repurposed materials for “political action to communicate stories about 21st-century Indigeneity”—joins Nathan P. Jackson, Kawika Lum-Nelmida, Geo Soctomah Neptune, Delina White, and Emily Johnson.
As Luger notes, it’s important to see the awards in context with the outsize impact of the pandemic on Native communities: “I’ve returned to my studio practice and taken active steps to protect the health of my loved ones and our Indigenous communities who are being affected by this pandemic disproportionately.”
COVID-19 is killing one in 475 Native Americans, a higher and faster death rate than in any other community, according to new analysis by APM Research Lab published by the Guardian and posted by Mother Jones as part of our Climate Desk partnership. The pandemic’s grip makes it both harder and more urgent to surface stories of strength right now. While creative funding is by no stretch a substitute for immediate pandemic fixes, it’s an all-of-the-above effort—art as amplifier, and material medical solutions as demand—that tells the fuller picture.
Immanuel Wilkins Quartet: bassist Daryl Johns, drummer Kweku Sumbry, saxophonist Wilkins, and pianist Micah ThomasRog Walter/Blue Note Records
Take just four minutes to start the week with “Dreamer,” an impressionistic ballad honoring civil rights activist and artist James Weldon Johnson, born 150 years ago. The song is by 23-year-old saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, nominated days ago for an NAACP award for outstanding jazz album. It’s an instrumental, monumental tribute punctuated by the rhythms of stanzas and syllables in Johnson’s 1910s poem “A Mid-Day Dreamer.”
The livestream was released last week, and on Saturday he won the LetterOne Rising Stars Jazz Award, with a fast-growing footprint. Wilkins is a New School professor, a Juilliard jazz graduate, and a Blue Note bandleader with Jason Moran producing him. Watch as the piano, bass, and drums create a wash of harmony and rhythm before Wilkins, minutes later, floats in. The song, like the poem, applies small strokes to paint a big picture, with each pause mirrored in the saxophone: “I love to sit alone, and dream, and dream, and dream / In fancy’s boat to softly glide / Along some stream.”
The song is anchored by bassist Daryl Johns, pianist Micah Thomas, and drummer Kweku Sumbry. And while Wilkins leads it, the sheer subtlety and alchemy of each are stunning on their own. The video is here. The studio version is loopable. Recharge is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Each Friday, we bring you a piece from our archives to help propel you into the weekend.
One of Billy Bragg’s most overtly socialist albums is The Internationale, from 1990. It includes the title song as well as “Nicaragua Nicaraguita,” “The Red Flag,” and covers of Sam Cooke, Woody Guthrie, and Phil Ochs. Bragg stuffed in live material from playing in the Soviet Union, too.
This is the kind of “redder than ever” material that gets you a Mother Jones interview in 1990.
Bragg would bristle at his obvious MoJo-fodder reputation in 2004, in another interview with us: “I am a writer of songs, and a lot of them are love songs and a few of them are political. But because so few people write political songs, I find myself being interviewed by Mother Jones.”
Well, sorry! Yeah, Billy Bragg is the kind of musician we like to interview. Check out the full one from 1990 here. And the one from 2004 here. Bragg also recommends an album from Smithsonian Folkways that I think deserves a shoutout as well: Don’t Mourn—Organize!