Exercise or Weaponize My Privilege?

Back in November 2022, while on our way to the Stanley Museum of Art, we saw the two murals on the East Burlington Street Parking Ramp. It was the first time we saw them in person although photos were available last fall. The Little Village article published an article about them on September 30, 2021. It’s the Oracles of Iowa mural project, conceived by Public Space and the Center for Afrofuturist Studies partnered with the artists, Antoine Williams and Donte K. Hayes. The artists sought to stimulate a conversation in the community about how black and white people relate to each other.

The murals are painted on parking ramp at two locations along East Burlington Street. One says “Black Joy Needs No Permission” and the other says “Weaponize Your Privilege to Save Black Bodies.”

The Little Village article points out that a survey of public perception of the murals revealed that 64 percent of white respondents supported the murals while only 40-50 percent of minority respondents supported them. The stickler for minorities was the use of the word “weaponize” and the phrase “Black bodies,” which were thought to raise impressions of “violence” and dehumanization.

Because I’m a writer, retired psychiatrist, and a writer, the word “weaponize” made me wonder what other word might have been chosen in this context. The only definition of “weaponize” that I can find which makes sense to me is from Merriam-Webster: “to adapt for use as a weapon of war.”

I’m a retired physician, so I have a perspective on the “privilege” to “save” lives, and by extension to enhance health and well-being. I’m also Black. I grew up in Iowa and I can recall getting bullied and being called a “nigger.” I can remember my psychiatry residency days, which includes a memory of a patient saying “I don’t want no nigger doctor.” I didn’t have the option to switch patients with another resident. When I saw the patient on rounds, I did my best and every time the “nigger” word erupted, I left the room.  It was one of a few episodes which were marked by frank racist attitudes.

I was given the University of Iowa Graduate Medical Education Excellence in Clinical Coaching Award in 2019, one of several esteemed colleagues to be honored in this way. Many of those who nominated me were white. It was one of many joyful experiences I had before my retirement in 2020, when the pandemic and other upheavals in society occurred, including the murder of Black persons, resulting in many consequences prompting the creation of the murals.

I have other memories. I was privileged to be given a scholarship to attend one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) in this country, Huston-Tillotson College (now Huston-Tillotson University). It’s one of the oldest schools and is the oldest in Austin, Texas. The scholarship was supported by one of the local churches in my home town of Mason City. I don’t think it had any black members. Although I didn’t take my undergraduate degree from H-TU, it was one of the most valuable learning experiences in my life. It was the first time I was ever not the only Black student in the class. It was marked by both joy and a struggle to learn where I belonged.

The murals did for me what the artists hoped it would do. It stimulated me to reflect on the meaning of racializing life. They stir me to seek perspective on whether joy has any color and why anyone needs permission for it. And I believe I would rather exercise my privilege to respect and care for others than to weaponize anything, including my sense of humor.

MLK, Jr and me

Putting the Exley in X-Files

A couple of nights ago Sena was looking at some old X-Files episodes on the web. It was on the Dailymotion site. For some reason, we could see them without login registration. I think it’s usually required. We watched the full length, The Unnatural episode two nights in a row without ads. It was an inconsistent experience. We saw it in both HD and non-HD modes and got slammed by ads at times and other times couldn’t access the show at all unless you logged in.

The weird thing was that all the subtitles and captions, and even the scenes were shown in mirror image. It turns out this mirror issue is not uncommon. I googled it and others have noticed it on YouTube as well as Dailymotion. You can flip the video out of mirror mode—often for the price of software being peddled for that purpose. The most common reason I saw given for the videos being mirrored was to avoid copyright strikes.

OK, so other than that, a lot of the old X-Files shows were available and Sena watched a little of the brutal episode “Home.” Sena can do a hilarious mimic of part of Mrs. Peacock snarling “I can tell you don’t have no children. Maybe one day you’ll learn… the pride… the love… when you know your boy will do anything for his mother.” Sena always ad libbed “the joy” to the “the pride, the love” phrase.

We used to watch the X-Files regularly, making popcorn downstairs in the kitchen and getting upstairs to watch it in bed just in time.

Anyway, we could watch the mirror version of “The Unnatural,” comfortably despite the backwards captions. This is one of our favorite episodes. There are many obvious references to racism and identity. I looked all over for a simplified plot summary, but found a lot of them have glaring mistakes, are too long, and wouldn’t fit with my simple-minded geezer interpretation. So, I’m going to cobble together something from reading a number of them. I’m not saying it’ll be straightforward.

I have to call it a Monster-of-The-Week (MOTW) episode because that’s what a lot of writers do.  It refers to X-Files episodes that usually feature some paranormal creature or a criminal with a supernatural ability.

Here’s a tangent I can’t resist because we just watched Mountain Monsters Sunday night for the first time, and I think it was the first episode of the new season of this show which has been on for 8 seasons. It is surely a parody of several shows of the Bigfoot adventure type. It’s basically an ongoing MOTW series featuring a cast of characters who survive on sasquatch snacks and cryptid colas and stage uproarious, slapstick comedy searches for legendary creatures (some of which are apparently part of genuine local folklore) like Spear Finger, the Smoke Wolf, the Cherokee Death Cat, and a dozen others, some of which are unfortunately prone to violent attacks of diarrhea, which Wild Bill (arguably one of the funnies members of the cast) did a side-splitting impression of by hanging on to a couple of trees and sticking his butt way too far out in a stunningly hysterical pantomime of projectile Hershey squirts, all the while getting more and more bug-eyed, cursing a blue streak and brandishing a gun which looked like a kid’s toy you could find at Walmart. The camera angles are all too perfect. We laughed until we cried.

Anyway, getting back to The Unnatural, the show is basically the reminiscence of an ex-cop named Arthur Dales who was assigned to protect a black baseball player named Josh Exley from being killed by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Actually, Josh is an alien who shape-shifted into a black man because he loves the game of baseball. He can also sing the old Negro Spiritual “Come and Go with Me to That Land” on the team bus so well that it was recorded on YouTube and one commenter said he’d pay $100 for a full version of it.

The episode starts with Fox Mulder finding an old newspaper clipping about a baseball game in 1947 in Roswell, New Mexico, the site of so many UFO crashes that the local landfill could not keep up with all the debris local ranchers were trucking in from the fields. He finds a story which shows a picture of an Alien Bounty Hunter in it. This is an executioner who also shape shifts and knocks off other aliens who misbehave by threatening to expose the alien colonization project going on at the time.

The KKK is threatening the team of black players and the head of the gang is the Alien Bounty Hunter. He’s after Exley because he threatens to expose the project simply because he loves to smack home runs and, even though Exley thinks the game of baseball is meaningless, it’s perfect because you can chew tobacco and get knocked out by wild pitches—which leads to him getting beaned and bleeding green blood on the catcher’s mitt. He wakes up speaking alien but because he remembers he’s from Macon, Georgia, everybody thinks he’s OK. The catcher’s mitt is sent to the lab guy for analysis.

Officer Dales finds out Exley is an alien after he breaks into his room and sees him in his alien form. After Dales wakes up from fainting a half dozen times, Exley tells him that he’s an alien; he’s forbidden from intermingling with humans, and he masquerades as a black baseball player because he loves the game and to escape notice. The way Exley puts it, “They don’t like for us to mingle with your people. The philosophy is we stick to ourselves; you stick to yourselves—everybody’s happy.”

Where have you heard this before? It sounds like Jim Crow to me.

The Bounty Hunter, masquerading as Exley, kills the lab guy and Exley is now fingered as the murderer.  Exley and Dales have a short talk while playing catch in the ball park in which Exley says it’s time for him to face the music and go back to his family. When Dales basically asks him why the human race can’t be his family, Exley takes either a surprisingly Green Supremacist attitude or just states the facts saying, “We may be able to look like y’all—but we ain’t y’all.”

In the end, the Alien Bounty Hunter executes Exley. But just before he kills Exley, he tells him to show his “true face” so he can die with dignity. Exley says simply, “This is my true face.”

 And while he dies in Dales’ arms, despite Exley telling him to get away because his green blood is poison to humans, Dales sees that it’s red and says “It’s just blood.”

I don’t know exactly what this means and some have called it ambiguous. I speculate that this might have been the culmination of a transformative process and it reminds me of Atticus Finch telling Scout (in To Kill a Mockingbird), “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

University of Iowa Free Webinar Tonight: The Stories That Define Us”

We just found out that the University of Iowa is presenting a free webinar this evening from 4:30—5:30 PM. It’s a zoom meeting and the title is “Breaking Barriers: Arts, Athletics, and Medicine (1898-1947)”. It’s part of a 4-part series that started February 1, 2022, “Uncovering Hawkeye History: The Stories That Define Us.”

Presenters include:

  • Lan Samantha Chang (93MFA), Iowa Writers’ Workshop director and acclaimed author
  • Quinn Early (87BA), Hawkeye football star and film producer
  • Patricia Winokur (88R, 91F), professor of internal medicine–infectious diseases

We discovered this presentation after a long, spirited conversation about race relations generally this morning over breakfast. Authors mentioned included Ralph Ellison, author of “Invisible Man” and James Alan McPherson, long time faculty and director of the Iowa Writers Workshop, author of first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction with his collection “Elbow Room.”

There were several cross threads in our conversation. One of them was my memory of a visiting professor (whose name, however, I can’t remember) who gave a presentation about being Black in America at Huston-Tillotson College (now Huston-Tillotson University; one of the HBCUs in America) in Austin, Texas. He said something I’ll never forget. I mentioned this in a book review published over 20 years ago in the American Journal of Psychiatry:

A guest lecturer (who, as I recall, had also written a book about being black in America) told us that the white man would never allow a black man to be a man in America. He had only three choices: he could be a clown, an athlete, or a noble savage. These corresponded to the prominent and often stereotyped roles that blacks typically held in entertainment, sports, and black churches. It begged the question of what on earth could we hope to accomplish— JAMES J. AMOS, M.D., Iowa City, Iowa (2000). “Being Black in America Today: A Multiperspective Review of the Problem.” American Journal of Psychiatry 157(5): 845-846.

This is related to another memory, that of the quasi-character Rinehart in Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” The name refers to the multiple perspectives from which a black person (or any person, really) can look himself. You can look at the word itself as compound, containing two words, “rind” and “heart.” Understood as metaphors, you can readily see how it could apply to anyone. We can have a surface personality socially, and we can have an inner core, a heart that is hidden and which can truly define who we are. We’re always changing, inside and out, backwards and forwards.

On the subject of hidden stories, I am also reminded of the book “Invisible Hawkeyes: African Americans at the University of Iowa during the Long Civil Rights Era”, edited by former UI faculty, Lena and Michael Hill. The book describes the mixed reactions of African Americans to the interracial climate in Iowa City and at the University of Iowa during that era. Not all felt welcome, although James Alan McPherson did. Indeed, the Hills often highlight the fluidity of the interactions, which makes me think of Rinehart.

David McCartney, the university archivist, is joining the presentation. He led the drive to rename Johnson County in Iowa for Dr. Lulu Merle Johnson, an accomplished University of Iowa alumna, by putting up an on-line petition which gathered 1,000 signatures. We’re looking forward to this evening’s presentation.

New Namesake for Johnson County

I never knew until today that Johnson County; Iowa had originally been named for a slaveholder. That has changed since the Johnson County Board of Supervisors voted to rename the county for distinguished African American scholar, Dr. Lulu Merle Johnson on June 24, 2021. Read the Iowa Now story for the details. The drive to rename the county for Dr. Johnson, an accomplished University of Iowa alumna, began last year with an on-line petition that gathered 1,000 signatures, led by David McCartney, an archivist in UI Libraries’ Special Collections.

According to the Iowa Now story, the drive to rename the county for Dr. Johnson was also in the context of the deaths of several African Americans by police officers earlier this year. It reminds me of another famous African American, James Alan McPherson, a long-time faculty member at the Iowa Writers Workshop, for whom a local neighborhood park was recently renamed. Part of the drive for that came from members of Black Lives Matter.

McPherson was written about in the book Invisible Hawkeyes: African Americans at the University of Iowa during the Long Civil Rights Era, edited by former UI faculty, Lena and Michael Hill. Although Dr. Johnson was not mentioned in their book, she certainly could have been because of her towering status as an educator, historian, and activist.

Support for the change also came from Leslie Schwalm, professor of gender, women’s and sexuality studies, and members of Dr. Johnson’s family.

Live Together

There are lots of reasons why humans find it difficult to live in peace with each other. I don’t pretend to understand them. Artists are sometimes better at capturing the differences we have; not so much about how to overcome them.

There’s this really brief scene in the movie Men in Black (MIB) 3 that I notice every time I watch it (which is every chance I get). It’s in the MIB headquarters where young Agent K is questioning Agent J, who has traveled back to the year 1969 in order to prevent the killing of Agent K by the Boglodite, Boris the Animal, who has also traveled back to 1969 to kill Agent K in order to prevent having his arm shot off by Agent K, being arrested and sent to the LunarMax prison on the dark side of the moon.

Agent J uses a time travel device to “time jump” from the top of the Chrysler Building in New York City with the help of Jeffrey Price, the son of the man (Obadiah Price) who invented the time device. Agent J time jumps, reluctantly, after Jeffrey warns him not to lose the time device because if he does, he’d be “…stuck in 1969! It wasn’t the best time for your people. I’m just saying. It’s a lot cooler now.” This is, of course, a reference to racism in the 1960s.

Anyway, while Agent is chasing Boris the Animal, who has just killed the alien Roman the Fabulist, young Agent K captures Agent J and hauls him back to MIB Headquarters for questioning. The young Agent O interrupts to warn young Agent K that Agent X, the boss, is really upset about the Coney Island incident in which Boris kills Roman.

Now all that is to highlight the short exchange about the Coney Island incident that happens next between Agent X and young Agent K. Agent X stops by his desk and in front of Agent O and Agent J, asks “Any casualties?” Agent K says “Yes, Roman the Fabulist.” Agent X looks scornful and snarls, “Any human casualties?”  Both Agent K and Agent O wince and look down at the floor as Agent K says, “No sir.” It’s an uncomfortable moment because you realize that Agent X doesn’t seem to value any life unless it’s human. I could find lots of quotes from the movie on the web except for these.

Later in the film, when young Agent K decides not to neurolyze Agent J as he begins to trust him, he says “I knew Roman. His wife cooked me dinner once, and while it was not pleasant, he was my friend.”

It’s subtle but I think the implication is that alien life is just as precious as human life. And by extension it means that all life is precious and it’s too bad we can’t somehow learn to live together, regardless of racial, ethnic, cultural, religious, and other differences. MIB 3 is by no means a social message type of film but there are references to at least race relations in the film, even if they’re only framing gags, like the scene with the two cops stopping Agent J because they think he stole the nice car he’s driving—which he did but “…not because I’m black.”

This post used a big buildup for making a point which might seem to many people, as Jeffrey Price said, “…like little blip on the historical radar.”

But, in the broader context of us all learning how to respect and live with each other, that’s a pretty big blip.

Silence Is Not Always Golden

I don’t know where the saying “silence is golden” came from but I suspect silence is sometimes not golden. I notice that The University of Iowa quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.  for MLK Human Rights Week is “We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Although I could not find the exact words, that doesn’t mean it’s not written in one of his books or letters. I found a similar statement in one of his speeches which I think captures the sense of it:

In Dr. King’s, Address at the Fourth Annual Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change at Bethel Baptist Church, in section VI: A Plea to the White Community: “If you fail to act now, history will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

Pertinent here is a presentation given by University of Iowa Health Care psychologist and professor of psychiatry Dr. David Moser, PhD and medical student Destinee Gwee, entitled “Responding to Mistreatment.” One of the first bits of advice is to speak up if you see racism happening.

When I was a first-year resident on rotation in the inpatient psychiatric wards, one of the patients assigned to me roared at me “I don’t want no nigger doctor!” more than once. I discussed the issue with my supervisor. It was a difficult conversation. It was a long time ago and I recall mostly the sense that we both felt awkward. I asked that the patient, who clearly didn’t want anything to do with me, be transferred to the care of another resident. I don’t recall whether he offered to talk with the patient and he deferred on asking another trainee to take over the patient’s care. My recollection is dim about how I handled it. I suspect that’s because it was emotionally painful. Although I had to see him prior to rounds every day, I think I excused myself as soon as he spat the word “nigger” in my face—which was practically every day. I told him I didn’t’ have to tolerate that.

In that situation, the silence was deafening and certainly not golden. This kind of insulting scenario was not common, but it was not the only one.

I wasn’t exactly shocked. I was born and raised in Iowa. While Iowa historically has been more tolerant of African Americans, I grew up hearing the word “nigger” and was called that enough times to become pretty sensitive.

I had plenty of positive experiences over the course of my medical school and residency years. But they never erased the memory of that incident.

That’s why the approaches recommended by Dr. Moser and Destinee are so vital today.

A Pair of Cufflinks

My wife and I were watching an episode of Antiques Roadshow this evening and saw a spot about a pair of cufflinks that turned out to be worth a lot of money.

That reminded me of the first and only pair of cufflinks I ever owned. Back when I was an undergraduate in the mid-1970s at the private, historically black Huston-Tillotson College (now H-T University), in Austin, Texas, a wealthy, successful white businessman who was fond of my English professor bought me a suit, dress shoes, tie, and cufflinks.

I was ambivalent about the gift as I was being fitted for the suit at the men’s store in downtown Austin.

I wasn’t sure what cufflinks were supposed to do for me. I suppose I shouldn’t judge the guy too harshly. After all, he was just trying to be generous—and probably trying to impress my English professor.

It was the 1970s and it was not a great time for black people in America. There was violent racism of course. There was also a sort of paternalistic generosity which may have emphasized superficial symbols of economic success.

Anyway, after a while the shoes started to squeak. I outgrew the suit. Despite those losses, I became successful through hard work and good luck.

I lost the cufflinks.

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