Dealing with a not-so-great college experience (while black) and the aftermath

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This one’s going to sound like an epic ramble. I happened to ponder it just this morning. Well, really I’ve been thinking about it for several years, but this is the first time I’ve decided to write about it. Without any further ado:

We’ve all heard the age-old adage about university life: it opens you up. It educates you. it helps you to find yourself. If you were the high school kid who didn’t have friends/a sense of belonging, you will magically find that in the college experience.

But what happens when the college experience becomes underwhelming? Or it’s the eve of graduation and you still find yourself undulating in cycles of crisis and confusion. You want to find meaning and purpose in your surroundings. But what if the surroundings don’t match?

Speaking from experience I can definitely identify some of the blemishes that came with my life as an undergrad. The classes were nice, the professors and staff extraordinarily kind and helpful. But something integral was incompatible: my social surroundings.

True, college is not all about social life. It’s about getting your degree, which I will always be thankful for. But social life determines how we interact with each other. The right environment can help to liberate you from those feelings of shyness, anxiety, self-doubt, and even depression you may have experienced during high school. But the wrong one can multiply them.

Student bodies can often make or break your attitude about the college experience, depending on the kind of people you are surrounded by. I was fortunate to make friends at my school; but I also found myself deeply isolated at times from the rest of the community. I wanted to feel smarter, constantly struggling with my “lack of knowledge” and expertise on certain topics that were essential to my major. I often felt unattractive and boring because of my lack of relationships/social anxiety in that area. At the end of my four years I found myself wanting more. I wished I could have gone back and found an environment where I might have found a better sense of belonging as a writer. And as a black man. Belonging might have filled all those dark areas.

I’m mentioning the race thing for a specific reason. Obviously everyone goes through the pangs of college frustration: self-doubt, anxiety, identity struggles. But this crisis can take on a special form when you are black at a predominantly white liberal arts school. Anywhere you go, the student dialogue is going to be slanted, whether left or right. And, being black, you’re caught up in the middle of two polar opposites that both expect you to accommodate them.

We all know what the “right” slant looks like: heavily conservative, pro-American, militaristic, status quo-Trumping thumping, blind to the plight of others, rich, white male-biased, etc. When you leave high school you thank God that you’ve finally got away from that shit. Then you come to college and find another band of angry, chastising white people arrayed at the other end of the spectrum.

It is this group I am specifically referring to in the university setting that, in spite of its appeal to “solidarity worldwide” still maintains a pretty whitewashed cultural agenda. The key word is “appeal.” Like the greatest television ad ever produced, but with a really faulty project that not only garbles, but leaks, short-circuits, and even explodes.

Diversity comes in two forms: name and thought. Meaning that people of color have a wide range of interpretations in the way we see the world. When you come into a predominately white college institution, where left or right-leaning, you are expected to ally yourself to a certain agenda. And, in some cases, it doesn’t leave much room for the latter form of diversity.

Die hard conservatives expect all black people to convert to conservatism, and die hard progressives expect all black people to convert to progressivism. And, in the case of some colleges it basically goes like this: I’m a white person who acknowledges my privilege. I’m willing to fight for minorities. If I’m so morally upright, why can’t you be the same way towards EVERY one of my opinions. No, no one actually says that, but the attitude of it might as well be written there.

It’s the expectation that morality and having the right attitude towards social justice entitles you to someone’s opinion. It amounts to asking for allies, based on their color, and then condescending to them in the whitest way possible when that person of color who should be ever so gracious you’re fighting on the right side of history DOESN’T share your views.

You’ve got tons of them: the white environmentalists, white feminists (especially), white borderline Marxists, who are overjoyed you can quote prison statistics, but overwrought with frustration when you don’t want to piss on a national monument (I’m exaggerating there, but the basic idea remains). If we’re white and can say that the system’s broken, then why can’t you agree with us on EVERY solution on how to fix it.

You’re a valuable “black asset” to the predominately white establishment. That is, until you open your mouth to speak. And God-forbid, profess something that runs contrary to their ideology. Then you’re just as “wrong” as the others. Black ally card revoked. The ultra conservatives have a form of this too in their world: it’s called “talk our talk.” And pull yourself out of poverty. Don’t do drugs while my rich son snorts coke and crashes daddy’s car. Always respect authority, even when it shoots you, so you’re not considered a thug; but we have the right to form an armed military when authority doesn’t respect us.

Both extremes really suck. One for being completely wrong (in my opinion) and the other for being mostly right, but completely douchie about it. And somewhat two-faced.

If you’re black, you become a novelty for them. A platform, so to speak, that they can stand on and use to amplify their voices. But your “novelty” always gets co-signed to something else: that’s the price. Even if the issue is perfectly noble (which many are) there is an expectation that you’re supposed to fall willingly into every nuance and disposition. Or else you’re cray-cray.

You can call that “fake consciousness.” A perfect example is the Patricia Arquette post-Oscars controversy. When she, never failing the tenets of feminism, told every woman of color that they need to start fighting for women’s rights. It’s your obligation. That’s kind of what fake consciousness is. In a similar case, imagine the middle-class white girl with rich parents who spends half an hour pontificating on black civil rights. And then proceeds to uproot a black student whose views are slightly more “traditional” or not as “liberated” as hers on an issue such as pro-choice. And then she proceeds to whine about how the black community has never been accepting of other people’s perspectives. If she’s a special kind of moron, she may even tell a person of color to “check their privilege.”

That’s kind of what fake consciousness is: it recognizes and calls you an ally due to the “novelty” of your skin, but eviscerates you in the same breath for the “novelty” of your opinion. It takes people of color and paints them under one brushstroke, not in the same way as those on the ultra-right do, but in a detrimental way regardless. Just because you address social justice issues doesn’t give you the right to the opinions of everyone in the group you’re standing up for. Not all black people are going to be 100% liberal on every issue. They might be economically “liberal” here and socially “conservative” there.

Either way, there’s the expectation that black people (along with everyone else) are supposed to pander to you because your position is morally superior. All of their views are supposed to fall in line and accommodate yours. This is otherwise known as E.N.M.(Expected “Nigga Munificence”). It runs rampant, de facto, in the halls of “white P.C. liberals” (and I hate using that term).

What is your Expected Nigga Munificence? Ask how many statuses you’ve read comparing black struggles to pretty much every other struggle that exists. Or if you’ve ever attended a two-hour panel on white feminism complete with herbal tea, flannel jackets, non-binary drivel (cool, just be yourself), organic snacks, pussy-shaped lollipops, the archaic woodwork smell of independent bookstores, color-coded recycle bins, Safe Spaces, SAFE SPACES and even more SAFE SPACES, endless remarks about random micro-aggressive tweets, Eco bottles by Tupperware, clitoris poems, pamphlets featuring newly-revised proper gender pronouns, and all the trigger warnings you could put on an ancient Greek play. Or the time someone talked to you about the realities of race and mass incarceration before trying to slip you a copy of Das Kapital. Congratulations: you’ve been a victim of Expected Nigga Munificence.

To make an unfair but funny comparison it’s basically the sequel to Get Out. There are many manifestations of Expected Nigga Munificence. One might be (for example) the supercharged white girl/white boy with rich parents and a visa to travel in nine countries who jumps up on stage, gives a long diatribe on white privilege (in spite of likely having little to no black friends), and then drops the mic before any of the actually minorities can come on stage. Why did she do that, you ask? Simply because she decided to read Toni Morrison one day.

Anyway, enough of the jokes. Point is, that social environments can go a long way to painting or tainting your college experience. I chose to illustrate socio-political culture because this is one I have found myself especially exposed to. And with race in the mix, it can make things even more complicated. Do your peers seek you for the “novelty” of your skin, only to expect you to pander to them? Or on a broader note, even regardless of race, do you find yourself isolated due to the growing polarized nature of certain (not all) academic settings? It can be a mental drag when you’re constantly facing two extremes and you’re somewhere closer to the middle, but obviously not neutral. When everyone becomes consumed with trying to morally dominate another person, you start to look in rare, but almost non-existent places for those few who can actually sit down and talk.

And maybe at this point I’m just rambling nonsensically. But I really had to get this thought out: the whole idea of coming to terms with a college experience that really wasn’t all that. And the persistent feeling of not belonging in a whole lot of spaces. And the anxiety and depression that followed.

At times it was hard for me to believe that I had a voice that mattered. I guess that’s what led me to find and establish my writing again. Having my own opinion was very important to me, because it made me feel like I was analyzing things and questioning them, rather than taking everything for granted on first notice.

Although I’ve spent most of this post criticizing them, I do identify as a left-leaning person. I just prefer not to grab a pitchfork and go running after the people who don’t. And I wish likewise that all the “right wing” crazies would stop running after everyone else. Either way, everyone’s running with pitchforks. When the noise trickles down to the university setting you can find yourself in a hard and difficult place. Combine that with the struggles of bearing depression/anxiety and you’re like a blind man fumbling in a hall of mirrors. Sooner or later they burst into shards.

Certain types of college experiences can leave you feeling dissatisfied. You didn’t have your big, fun moment. You didn’t get to cherish certain priceless moments. But guess what: college ain’t the end all. It’s only four years. I’m still trying to live to my potential. And yes, I look back and often wonder why I wasn’t this or that during my teen and young adult years. But I am also striving to look forward. And change my environment. That’s what you have to take away from the “not-so-great” college experience if you’ve ever been there. Count the positives and the negatives and use them as a barometer for deciding your future. Find people who are still passionate, just not not blind with it or tunnel-visioned. Cause, trust me, once you’ve been around that in the school setting, that shit rubs off on you. You become bitter, internally frustrated, and even mistrustful of the world around you. It’s a sort of trickle-down cynicism that I’m still feeling the effects of (can’t you tell in my blog writing).

But seriously, learning to change your environment is integral to moving forward. It doesn’t solve everything, but it starts the process. As selfish as it sounds you should make a list of things that you like/values and find other people who compliment those parts of yourself. It’s a slow and piecemeal process, but one that can help you in the end. Just start with the people close by you. When I returned to Washington D.C. for grad school I started talking to the other students in my housing building, with no expectation of the type of person/people I would find. And I forged relationships, proving that I wasn’t so hopeless after all. But it began with openness. Even if I didn’t agree with someone’s politics. People could joke around at times, disagree, and yet still be in the same circle. Something common bound us together: we were all young adults trying to make it out here. And if our politics didn’t match up we could bond over small things like music and movies. Or just going out to the bar together.

This was the kind of social life that I much desired during college. I was able to find it with the friends that I met there (who I still speak to today) but unfortunately it was not very present for me in the school as a whole. And, of course, this is only my opinion. Others can find solace in the type of setting I just described. But I think that, especially being black, there’s a certain pressure put on you to absorb things a certain way. When that pressure comes from both sides, including the one that you more align with, that can be incredibly frustrating. Yes, Expected Nigga Munificence is a made up abbreviation, partly for humor’s sake. But it really is a prevailing attitude.

Your mental health depends on a good environment: one you can feel attached to and call home. If that isn’t the school you’re at right now or were at, think about any place you have been recently. Was there a particular place that you “vibed” with, based on the culture and people? Does it also offer you meaningful development academically and professionally, as well as socially? Try to work forward seeking that place. Even if you’re not that religious, pray to God on it (seriously). And hope.

That was the longest post I think I’ve written. And to be honest, part of it was self-talk, as well as giving advice. I really wanted to be able to express this thought, in order to address certain frustrations I had looking back. And, yes, if you have had the same thing, it is good to talk about it with friends and family/therapy who can help aid you in your growth. It’s good to address it spiritually, in prayers/meditation, even if this is something you struggle to do on a regular basis. Finding yourself is very important, when struggling through mental health issues. If you want to lower the cray-cray, sometimes you gotta separate yourself from the cray-cray around you. And unfortunately college campuses nowadays are breeding grounds for that. The only way to start by seeking things based on who YOU are. Change the environment.

(Something, something, something, final inspirational words).

Posted in Mental Health Stories/Topics, Opinion Stuff | Leave a comment

Two love stories: Anna & Vronsky vs. Levin & Kitty

Keira Knightley and Aaron Johnson - Anna Kareninalevin and kitty

After finishing Anna Karenina I have to say that Tolstoy’s timeless novel is one of the my new favorite books. It is not so much a book as it is a picture: a living, breathing depiction of life. Tolstoy knows how to animate life, quite unlike any other. And his talent is one far from confined to parchment barriers. It reaches into the soul.

In Anna Karenina, love is depicted by comparisons. We see two romances side by side, but completely different in mood and texture. There is the story of young Levin, who is in many ways a hopeless romantic, deeply in love with Katerina (Kitty) Shcherbatsky, a young debutante preparing to make her entrance into Russian society. At first she spurns him, having committed her affections to the dashing Count Vronsky, a Prince Charming-esque character in almost every regard except for one: his unbridled taste for the fairer sex. In more modern terms, he’s basically a man-whore, casting his affections at the drop of a hat. Kitty falls prey to his debonair charm, and expects to receive an offer of marriage. But, at a ball, things go horribly wrong as another woman becomes the object of Vronsky’s affection: the mysterious Anna Karenina.

Vronsky flees from Kitty, romancing Anna. This causes a rift between her and her husband, Alexei. At first he needlessly clings to his wife for the sake of honor alone, but eventually relinquishes her. Anna, still married by contract, now becomes scandalized for her affair with the count. They plunge into passion together, and the affair results in a pregnancy, further ostracizing her from society.

Meanwhile, both Levin and Kitty, heartbroken, begin to build their lives apart from each other, finding purpose in the absence of romance. Later they come together, in renewed spirits, and begin to forge a relationship.

Love blossoms very slowly between Levin and Kitty. With Vronsky and Anna it ignites with passion. Rather than an act of time and patience, love is a selfish matter. Both Anna and Vronsky turn away from their prior obligations: one of marriage, the other of a marriage-to-be. In the case of Anna and Vronsky, love requires abandonment. Alexei Karenin is stripped of a wife, and Kitty is stripped of a suitor.

On the contrast, love is a patient affair with Kitty and Levin. It does not spring from sexual passion; it nurtures like a child. Far from perfect, we see the growing pains of Levin and Kitty’s relationship, even in marriage. There are doubts, there are quarrels, even moments of jealousy. But what Tolstoy is trying to show is that no romance is ever perfect. Even the best and most honest relationships come with blemishes. But these are only natural. And, unlike Anna and Vronsky, they sow maturity and patience, rather than discord.

Anna is a very selfish woman, always prizing her own needs over everyone else’s. She chides Vronsky for any time he spends away from her, but not in the same way as Kitty. Anna uses every instance of quarrel as leverage against Count Vronsky, trying to guilt-trip him into sympathy. She sees him in shades of black and white, rather than gray: he is her greatest love, but also her greatest enemy. In the end, her despair takes hold of her and she takes her life just to revenge herself on him one last time.

Anna thinks only of how things will affect herself, being scandalized. She does believe she has acted in error, but only considers the consequences of the act on her reputation, rather than anyone else’s. She uses it as excuse to bury herself deeper under self-loathing and self-pity.

Vronsky is also a selfish person. His biggest struggle is between trying to choose to commit to one woman whose reputation he has already helped to soil and wanting to live in his decadent, womanizing ways. Levin is far from a womanizer, but he is once tempted by the lure of selfish, masculine independence when he gets a taste of the Moscow city life. The difference is, he chooses commitment over self-interest. He chooses it willing and happily, while Vronsky still clings to Anna out of obligation.

Vronsky and Anna’s relationship is also one defined by excess and gratification. They travel the world, meeting artists and visiting exotic locations. When the throes of passion subside, they try to fill the void with opulence. Luxury abounds, from commissioning a painting of Anna from a famous artist, to lavish vacations and sumptuous feasts and parties. They try to make themselves fashionable to the upper rung of society, while Levin and Kitty are much more content to live a simple, pastoral life. Their romance is simply a show for the world, rather than an honest profession of love. It is a passion that kindles quickly and then clings desperately as its fire dies out. It is merely a trimming that hides its true nature.

Because passion kindles so quick and selfishly it also dies quick and selfishly. There is no room for the growth that we see in Levin and Kitty’s relationship, even though both experience similar things. At one point Levin becomes jealous of Kitty’s attention towards another man and even starts to accuse her, much like Anna accuses Vronsky. Jealousy is never the sole indication of a bad relationship, but unchecked it can sow the seeds for one. However love is patient, rather than quick-spirited, with Levin and Kitty. They argue like any other couple, but are willing to mend their quarrels, rather than let them fester over time. The blemishes, present in any normal relationship, are front and center in Levin and Kitty’s marriage: they are not hidden beneath a tapestry. In their case it takes seeing over the faults of each other, rather than trying to romanticize them.

Lastly, Kitty and Levin are given time to grow in themselves, before entering into a relationship. They learn the value of self-giving. Levin commits himself to his labor and Kitty commits herself to the service of others. Rather than causing a rift between them, this value of self-giving allows them to learn from each other. Kitty, though at times distraught by Levin’s commitment to his craft, comes to respect his integrity. Levin, though baffled at times by Kitty’s selfless attitude towards others, comes to adapt this to his own values. Tolstoy shows that the best loves are ones that can learn from experience. A husband is not “complete” in marriage without the values of his wife, and a wife is not complete without the values of her husband. Two competitors, such as Vronsky and Anna, will only divide a relationship, rather than compliment it. Love must not be swift and selfish; it must have a tender, patient hand. This does not and will never mean perfection, but it does imply a willingness to grow through challenges and obstacles.

Levin and Kitty have a natural relationship, rather than one that is persistently dysfunctional. Anna and Vronsky have a doomed relationship because it is only predicated on passion. It is one of vanity that cannot grow into anything more. Passion is a temporary thing: without the underpinnings of care and commitment, it cannot stay afloat. And crashes undertow.

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Hall of Shitty Presidents: Rutherford B. Hayes

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It was the 1876 presidential election. And two candidates were matched almost evenly with each other in a contested race for the White House. In some ways it was almost reminiscent of Bush v. Gore. But the solution was much different: and it involved yet another corrupt bargain. This bargain became known as the Compromise of 1877, and would spell the end of Reconstruction as America knew it.

The two contenders were Rutherford B. Hayes, the governor of Ohio, who stood on the Republican side, and Samuel L. Tilden, the Democratic governor of New York. The battleground of election territory: none other than the American South. After the presidential election of 1876, three southern states still had pro-Reconstruction Republican states in power: Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. And support for Reconstruction was fast declining in the south.

Most people remember Reconstruction from their high school textbooks. It was a time dedicated to making amends for the horrors of slavery by granting freed blacks the right to vote, as well as citizenship. In order to ensure these rights, in the aftermath of the bloody Civil War, federal troops occupied the South. This was obviously much to the dismay of southern whites, who were enraged that their way of life had been uprooted.

During Reconstruction there were programs established to assist with the rights of African Americans. One of these, for example, was the Freedman’s Bureau (1865), which was enacted to help freed blacks to achieve economic and political rights. Unfortunately, this Bureau was later discontinued by Congress in 1872, due to political infighting and much pressure from southern whites.

Many of these southern whites utilized violence and intimidation to bar blacks from voting. Starting in 1873 were a series of Supreme Court decisions that limited the scope of Reconstruction-era laws, as well as federal support for both the 14th and 15th amendments. Corruption accusations against the Republican party for the Grant administration, along with economic depression made 1876 a very contentious year for election.

When accepting nomination, Hayes promised to bring self-government to the South. Tilden was firmly committed to ending what he and his fellow whites saw as “carpetbag tyranny” there. Hayes was likewise skeptical of the use of federal troops in the South. He wanted the Republican party to be a prominent force in this region. Originally he had championed an amendment for black voting rights during his run for governor. The measure later failed, and a narrow win only convinced Hayes that the cause of black civil rights was something too costly for his political ambitions.

Both southern Democrats and northern Republicans wanted to end Reconstruction. During the election of 1876, power was split between parties: Republicans controlled the Senate, and Democrats controlled the House. On Election Day the Democrats managed to net the swing states of Connecticut, Indiana, New Jersey, and New York. And by midnight, Tilden had 184 of 185 needed electoral votes to win. He also led the popular vote by 250,000.

Sounds like a done deal, right? Wrong. Tilden’s apparent lead was called into question in three southern states where electoral votes were contested: Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. The contested southern states sent in two sets of election returns showing different results. In South Carolina particularly, supporters of the gubernatorial candidate Wade Hampton, a Confederate general, employed the use of violence and intimidation against the African American voting majority. Several clashes even resulted in the deaths of blacks and whites.

Another state facing uncertainty was Oregon. After learning that one of the Republican electors was a federal employee, making them disqualified to serve, the state governor, a Democrat, replaced him with a Democratic elector. What threw the election into uncertainty was when the Republican elector resigned his compromising position, and declared his ballot for Hayes.

The situation would drag on into next year, prompting congressional intervention. In January 1877, Congress set up an electoral commission consisting of five U.S. representatives, five senators, and five Supreme Court justices. Politically, the commission was evenly stratified: 7 Democrats, 7 Republicans, and 1 Independent (well…almost evenly).

The commission hit a roadblock when its one independent member, Justice David Davis, refused to serve. He was later replaced by a moderate Republican, Justice Joseph Bradley, who would sway the commission’s vote to a 8-7 ruling in favor of Hayes. Basically this meant that all the disputed elector votes would go to him. As a result the Democrats threatened to filibuster the counting of votes, in order to stop Hayes from gaining the White House.

It was during deliberations that Hayes’ Republican allies met secretly with moderate southern Democrats in order to convince them not to block the counting of votes through filibuster. This would effectively hand the election over to Hayes. The day was in February: the place was the Wormley Hotel in Washington D.C. Here, the Democrats agreed to accept Hayes’ victory, on one crucial condition: that the Republicans withdraw all federal troops from the South, giving Democrats full control over it. Additionally, Hayes would have to install a leading southerner in his cabinet and support federal aid for the Texas and Pacific Railroad. The Democrats “promised” that once the troops were gone they would respect the rights of African Americans.

On March 2, the congressional commission voted 8-7 (keeping party lines) to give the disputed electoral votes over to Hayes. The final score saw him with 185 votes, and Tilden with 184. Two months later, President Hayes ordered all federal troops from their posts at Louisiana and South Carolina statehouses. Since Florida already had a Democratic victory in the 1876 gubernatorial election, Democratic control was secure there.

This electoral bargain became known as the Compromise of 1877. Removing federal troops from the South effectively ended Reconstruction, as well as federal protections for the rights of southern blacks. They were now at the mercy of their Democratic governments. Despite their promise to respect the rights of African Americans, racial discrimination persisted in the South. Widespread disenfranchisement followed, legally sanctioned by states. From the 1870s on, Jim Crow laws were passed providing for segregation in schools, parks, public transportation, restaurants, and theaters. America would not see an end to this for over a hundred years.

Was absolutely EVERYTHING Hayes’ fault? Not completely. You had racist southern governments that were eager to keep freed blacks in a condition of perpetual slavery. You had wealthy white elites and terrorist organizations such as the KKK using violence to deter black civil rights.

But you also had Hayes: a man who placed ambition over integrity. He knew that southern whites were not willing to grant equal treatment to African Americans. But he was willing to overlook this, in order to consolidate party power. He effectively “sold out” on an issue that was no longer politically expedient for him. And because of this Compromise, the Reconstruction Era came to a sudden close, paving the way for more legally sanctioned, state-sponsored discrimination against African Americans.

Sources:

http://www.history.com/topics/us-presidents/compromise-of-1877

https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-us-history/period-5/apush-reconstruction/a/compromise-of-1877

http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=2&psid=3109

http://www.blacksandpresidency.com/rutherfordhayes.php

Posted in Did you know this shit? | Leave a comment

Isengard represented the Industrial Revolution: Because Tolkien hated technology

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Oftentimes, when we think of allegory associated with Lord of the Rings, we give it a biblical interpretation. Gandalf is Jesus, dying for his followers, and then resurrecting as a much more powerful force, in order to complete his task. He descends, like Jesus, down to the fiery depths of Khazad-Dum, and slays the great demonic force, aka the Balrog.

While this interpretation holds well, there is another, more prevailing view that holds true throughout the story: the fall of the old world. In Middle-earth everything is in decay. And a new force is rising: the force of darkness. It becomes apparent, not only through orcs and Uruks, but through a will to supplant the old world. The method: modernization.

In both the movies and books we see Isengard, the home of Saruman the White, go from forest to factory. Why: to build an army for the dark lord Sauron, who is coming to claim the world. Where trees once rested, swords and armor are being forged deep in the earth. And in the midst of this is the enemy. Their tool of destruction is steel. And flames.

And the forest pays the price. Numerous trees are cut down and burned. Tolkien is showing that in order for this new, mechanical world to prosper, it must abolish the old one completely. Contrast this with the Elves, graceful creatures who live in the wood and are now forsaking it. Their age is now over, as the new world emerges. They can no longer shepherd the earth, as they have done in ages past: they must forsake it.

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The Elves are depicted as pure and immortal. And they are most associated with the forces of nature. By contrast, the villains of the story (Saruman and co., Sauron) are associated with machines. Technology exists for the sole purpose of aiding in the destruction of Middle Earth.

Tolkien’s views reflect a hard look at modern society. England’s Industrial Revolution, the culprit, had lasted from 1760 to about 1870, creating a brand new system of labor, trade, and transportation. Rural life was fast declining in the wake of urban cities and factories. With the Industrial Revolution came a new wave of hazards as well: pollutants, sewage problems, sanitation, workplace injuries, and a plethora of various diseases.

Tolkien himself was never alive for the Industrial Revolution, but he did live in time to witness its effects. He maintained a close relationship with the countryside, where he grew up. He even said that the Shire was inspired by his old home in Sarehole, Birmingham.

We can certain see Tolkien’s love of nature in the books. At times he goes into epic description of the trees, the hills, the roads, and river. In fact, there are times when the descriptions seem to go on and on forever. Obviously he is very enamored by nature, having spent so much of his life in it. In Lord of the Rings, that fondness tends to manifest in his contrast between the forces of good and forces of evil.

The Shire is a place of kindred folk, happy and spirited. But most importantly it is separated from the rest of the world. It represents the idyllic, pastoral landscape that Tolkien always envisioned, unhindered by the forces of modern man. But it doesn’t stay safe forever; modern man encroaches. At the end of Return of the King (book) we are not treated to a warm kindly greeting when the Hobbits come home, but rather a home ravaged by industry. Saruman, in retaliation for the attack on Isengard, has come to the Shire and used his remaining army to enslave the hobbits there, turning their land into a factory ground. He desolates the Shire, both with fire and steel. If you haven’t read it, just think about the vision Frodo saw in the well at Lothlorien in Fellowship. In the book that vision actually comes true.

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Saruman has taken Isengard and brought it home for the Hobbits. What was once green is now gone: supplanted by smoke and steel. As a result the Hobbits must band together to fight for their ravaged land. They mount a defense, and are later successful in repelling Isengard, along with its master Saruman. He is murdered, right in Frodo’s (once Bilbo’s) burrow by his servant, Grima Wormtongue. And all is saved.

When we see nature in Tolkien’s work it is usually characterized by a sense of beauty and tranquility. The mood is one of joy: friends frolic and sing; hobbits dance in the meadows. And even the trees turn out to be living. When Merry and Pippin meet the Ents, they are taken and cared for. Nature is a place of refuge. In Rivendell Frodo repairs from his injury (not completely); in Lothlorien the fellowship is sheltered from orcs. Nature is a sanctuary.

But it is also an angry sanctuary: one that protects itself. No part of the books more clearly illustrates this than the Ents’ march on Washington Isengard. Here Tolkien goes from an avid lover to a militant environmentalist, so to speak. The trees fight back after having their woods burned down by Saruman’s armies. They destroy Isengard by breaching the dam, letting nature take its course. The river floods into every orc hole, washing away their machines. And the forest triumphs.

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Tolkien was opposed to modernization. He liked things simple, the way they are. Rather than driving, he preferred bikes. Rather than English masses, he preferred good ol’ traditional Latin (and even vocalized his dissent, during one service). To him the world of the country was a much more beautiful, fascinating place than the world of the city. It was a place, like the elf-wood, that flourished with memory. It was ageless, as old as the world itself. And by listening, you could learn more from it.

But nature, to Tolkien, was also a force under siege. It had to sustain itself against changing times and practices. Isengard represented those changing times. It was the wheel, the furnace: new, elaborate forces driving against the old. It was Sauron’s villainy returned to life.

 

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Why Oliver Twist works as a passive protagonist

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I’ve heard it all the time: don’t use a passive protagonist. Make your main character decisive and engaging. Give them a purpose, a drive. But most importantly, make them active.

The passive character is one that exists solely at the mercy of the forces around them. And continues to exist that way. They don’t really grab the reins and start driving; they more or less sit in the passenger’s seat, while someone or something else entirely is at the wheel.

Many writers don’t recommend it. But, in a few careful cases, it can be quite an effective literary tool. Especially if your name is Dickens. In the case of Oliver Twist he presents us with a young orphan, born and raised into poverty. Gradually he comes face to face with the ills of Victorian England by experiencing them firsthand.

Oliver starts out in a workhouse, under the hard instruction of Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle. Later, after humbly requesting for “more” gruel (in his immortal line), Oliver is transferred over to the care and apprenticeship of an undertaker. But after dealing with the abuse of the undertaker’s wife, Mrs. Sowerberry, along with Noah, a young bully, Oliver decides to run away to London.

This is where he takes up with Fagin, a notorious criminal, and his gang of pickpocketing children. They adopt him, and Oliver feels that, for the first time, he has found a home for himself. Yet he never fully immerses into life on the streets. Many misadventures unfold: he is arrested, kidnapped, and almost killed at one point.

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Through these constant dangers Dickens illustrates the plight of the poor. The world is a hard and troubling place, and no harder is it on Oliver. Oliver persists, however feebly, as a commentary on the Victorian Era: a time where English society was sharply riven by wealth and power. Much of Dickens’ work was about giving light to the ills of the time, many of which went unrecognized. He did this through characters: everyday people who suffer the hand of circumstance.

That is why Oliver is portrayed as a passive character for much of the book. We are meant to see the circumstance. Ever since birth it has cast him into the shadows, making him bastardized by society. Poverty is not something you willfully choose: in Dickens’ world it is a dark force thrust upon you. Oliver personifies the world of Victorian England in terms of its damning effects. He represents the workhouse, the prison, and every place occupied by the underprivileged. He HAS TO be shown, then, as one harshly affected. He has to be susceptible to the world as a character. Without that, the point of the novel fails.

Another way Dickens accomplishes is by showing the world through the eyes of a child. The world is hardest on its young, and the character of Oliver represents a form of unblemished innocence thrust suddenly into a dark and challenging world. Through his meekness he suffers; his naiveté makes him more prone to the dangers around him. Quite simply, he is molded by them from an early age. As a child, Oliver is living proof that no one, no matter how small or defenseless, is safe from the trials of their surroundings.

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If we see Dickens’ England through the eyes of a child we come to feel it more strongly. It is a cold place that spares no one. In spite of his youth, Oliver is not saved from the plight of the poor: he experiences the streets of London firsthand alongside robbers, drunks, and murderers. The world is thrust upon him, forcing him to mature for his age. And it is a world without morals.

Dickens takes a binary approach to social inequality: there is the oppressor and the victim. Only one of them is truly personified in the case of Oliver Twist. The other is a force of nature. Occasionally it is characterized in the form of villains, such as Mr. Bumble, Mrs. Sowerberry, and main antagonist Bill Sykes. But predominately it is the world at large; it is a system built on privilege. And those outside of it are treated very passively. Like Oliver they are orphaned, voiceless, and marginalized. They are not offered the same chance to determine their lot in life; the lot determines them. That is why Dickens creates his protagonist this way: to personify the effects of inequality.

Oliver is most sympathetic, as a representation of the poor, when he is at his most vulnerable. At one point he is employed against his will in a burglary, after which he is injured by gunshot. In a rare act of mercy, the residents of the house take him in and nurse a wounded Oliver back to health.

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Here Dickens appeals to pathos, depicting young Oliver as yet another innocent victim of forces outside his control. For a time he is lying in bed, almost lifeless, as others attend to him. The scene is representative: he is weak after being set upon so harshly by society and, therefore, requires a helping hand in order to survive, let alone maintain himself. I believe this is the role that Dickens is imploring his readers to take: to heed the cause of the underprivileged, rather than passing them by. By now the cause cannot be ignored: Oliver has become too visible to the people around him. To many, like Mr. Bumble, or Noah Claypole, he is seen as distasteful. But now he reverts to being a child, once more in the eyes of the world. And only the most desperate of circumstances can present him that way.

I think passivity works in Oliver Twist because it describes not only his role, but the role of much of society towards him. They are unwilling to help him, and so he spends much of the novel unable to help himself. Oliver does find a happy ending later on, but you’ll have to read the book to find out. Charles Dickens is criticizing an idle society in the face of poverty. It is both active in building the powers that be and idle in trying to dismantle them. That is why Oliver has to be meek and passive at times: to show the burden of the poor. Unlike the rest of society, he is not endowed with same opportunities, so he has less power to determine his outcome.

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A Comparison of Monsters: Frankenstein’s vs. Dracula

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Notice I used the word “Frankenstein’s” in the title rather than “Frankenstein”. That’s because the monster actually has no name besides “Frankenstein’s monster”. The name actually goes to the doctor who created him. Or it.

Frankenstein and Dracula are two of horror’s biggest icons, both deriving from famous books with completely different authors. For example, Mary Shelley was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft who wrote A Vindication for the Rights of Woman. While Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, expressed rather sexist and unflattering views towards women in his most famous work. But enough about that.

They have both starred in their own brand of horror films, with famous actors such as Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Christopher Lee. Dracula strikes terror as the vampire half-man, half bat, who comes in the night thirsty for human blood. Frankenstein’s monster strikes not only fear, but repulsion as the hobbling zombie comprised of human organs. Both are terrifying. But they represent different kinds of fear.

Frankenstein’s monster is the classic story of the experiment gone wrong. He is a monster created by man. And then rejected by man. Like Quasimodo he is cast into the shadows and marginalized for his hideous form. And then he becomes the villain, stalking down his creator for revenge.

In Frankenstein, the monster is given a conscience. He is not the mindless, bumbling fool we see in movies and cartoons. He is very intelligent and can speak articulately. More importantly he feels the despair and the loneliness that comes with being a beast. He did not ask to be a monster, or make a conscious choice to become one: he was simply MADE that way.

Dracula, by contrast, in depicted as evil incarnate. He is a monster living inside what appears on the surface to be a man, while Frankenstein’s monster is a man living inside a monster. Dracula only exists to feed on the blood of humans, and must do so in order to achieve immortality. He is by nature a predator, someone to be feared.

Frankenstein’s monster, by contrast, is presented as someone to be pitied. He is shown as the victim, rather than the oppressor: a victim of circumstance. We are made to believe, in spite of his hideous appearance, that the “monster” has a soul, desperately longing to live in a world that reviles him. He wants true life for himself, which is what drives him in anger to take it from others.

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Dracula simply seeks life from others. He does not do that out of oppression, but out of selfishness. He wants to sustain himself, not to live as a man, but to live for eternity as a god. And he will do it by any means, even murder.

Dracula is like a poison: sapping the life force out of all his victims. He kills them by draining them slowly, night by night. And he does it with no remorse. Unlike Frankenstein’s monster, he seems to have no origin. He is more of a mythical beast. Stoker uses Christian symbolism to illustrate his evil: the cross, its most notable icon, is something he fears. To Dracula it is like kryptonite, making him weaker the closer he comes to it. The use of religious imagery to ward off the vampire paints Dracula as a form of devil. Also, the depiction of sunlight as the vampire’s mortal enemy. Dracula becomes synonymous with the darkness through his aversion to the light: a metaphysical antithesis to the forces of good.

Frankenstein’s monster, on the other hand, is slave to the forces of man. He is not like Dracula, a monster independent of the circumstances around him. The circumstances are contingent on his being. They have molded and made him. He has not, like Dracula, chosen his monstrosity. The monstrosity has chosen him instead.

The monstrosity is apparent in Frankenstein, both physically through the Creature, and also symbolically through his creator. The creator, Dr. Frankenstein embodies a human folly: ambition. Unchecked, ambition can lead to dangerous outcomes, when man decides to reach for the height of gods. By engineering life, Dr. Frankenstein has reached beyond his right, with devastating consequences. Hence, the monster becomes apparent through human error.

Dracula, on the other hand, is a force beyond man. By nature he has engineered his own monstrosity, rather than having it thrust on him reluctantly. His quest is never vengeance, but eternal preservation. And because of that he is beyond redemption, beyond any morals or sense of reason outside of his own. He is truly absolute evil. And he is defined as monstrous, not because of the way he looks, but because of his monstrous actions.

Obviously that makes Dracula worse. And hella scarier, to boot, since he can’t be killed by regular means. Frankenstein’s monster ultimately turns to evil, but his story is much more tragic because he is driven to it out of despair, fomented by a lack of love. His fate has, in a sense, been settled against his will. He is a human mind living inside a body that can never be human. Dracula, by contrast, has never sought to accept humanity: only supplant it. And he does by robbing others of life, just to complement his own.

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Untold History: Black Wall Street and the Tulsa Race Riots

 

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Greenwood, Oklahoma was known as the Mecca for black enterprise. It was a district featuring 108 black-owned businesses, two theaters, two black schools, and 15 doctors’ offices. With Tulsa being segregated by north and south, there was only one place you could go if you were black and wanted to establish a name for yourself. For many, that safe haven was Greenwood. It became so prestigious and well-renown through the country that Booker T. Washington coined the term “Negro Wall Street of America”.

But on May 31st, 1921, Greenwood was destroyed. 50 square blocks were decimated, burned to the ground by angry white mobs. Many homes and businesses were looted in one of America’s worst race riots. The cause: white outrage over a false sexual assault allegation.

Oklahoma had developed a considerable history for the African American population. In the 1830s it became a place of refuge for many minority groups. During the Westward Expansion, much of the American frontier was up for settlement. Many Native American tribes, including Seminoles and Cherokees, were forced to migrate from their homes in the Southeast (Trail of Tears). They settled in what was called the Indian Territory, comprising modern-day Oklahoma. What is interesting is that many African Americans actually accompanied them as slaves.

After the Civil War, the Indian Territory was divided into two halves: one half Oklahoma, and the other remaining the Indian Territory. In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison opened the Oklahoma Territory to new settlement after pressure from white settlers.

Within 24 hours, 2 million acres were claimed for 50,000 settlers in a homestead race. Many blacks were among them as cowboys, cattle ranchers, and farmers. By 1890, the black population in the region was 3,000. By 1900 that number grew to 55,000. It was even proposed by Edwin McCabe, the former state auditor of Kansas, that Oklahoma become the first all-black state. He later founded the town of Langston.

By 1907, 27 all-black towns were created in Oklahoma. After its statehood, the same year, the first bill established segregation in its territory. After the Ida Glenn oil range was discovered, earlier in 1905, Tulsa experienced a population boom. The range brought in lucrative profits and established Tulsa, Oklahoma as the “oil capital of the world.”

However, the wealth of this meant mainly to white business owners, with blacks receiving small, trickle-down benefits. Because of segregation laws, Tulsa was divided between black populations living in the north end, and white populations living in the south end. Blacks predominately worked in south Tulsa for their white bosses.

As a result of this, many young black entrepreneurs started to create a business district in one of their neighborhoods: Greenwood. Its first business was a grocery store. Later the town acquired theatres, dance halls, poolrooms, and shine parlors, all of which were black-owned.

Tragically, the success of Black Wall Street would not outlast the turbulence of America’s “race problem”. Throughout the U.S. there was an explosion of race riots, in states like Minnesota, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and Chicago. These riots were characterized by an invasion of black communities, often aided by police.

The Tulsa riot all started with Dick Rowland, a 19 year-old black man who had dropped out of school to make money as a shoe shiner in white, downtown Tulsa. Because of segregation laws, only one restroom was open to blacks, on the upper floor of the downtown Drexel building. The elevator was operated by a white woman, Sarah Page. One day Rowland tried to get on and tripped, grabbing onto the woman. She screamed and Rowland fled the elevator, only to be witnessed by a white store clerk who reported the incident to police as an assault. Rowland was arrested and jailed, and a news article highly implied that he had attempted to rape the elevator operator.

After a crowd of angry whites gathered outside the courthouse where Rowland was held, the Tulsa sheriff ordered armed guards to protect it. The Greenwood community decided to take matters into their own hands. A group of armed blacks rushed to the courthouse to defend the jail. They later returned home after the sheriff assured them that it would be protected. The whites of south Tulsa armed themselves in retaliation, numbering up to 2,000.

The group of armed blacks returned to the courthouse and was once more turned away. Only this time there was an altercation between one of the black mob and one of the white mob. It ended with shots fired. And the riot exploded.

The white rioters invaded the black Greenwood district, attacking. Many gun battles went off in the streets and even the police took sides with the white mob, joining in with them. Homes and businesses were burned to the ground, forcing families to flee.

The violence escalated to the point where the National Guard was sent in. Martial law was declared in Tulsa. Troops rounded up blacks in large numbers and took them to internment centers. The white rioters were only disarmed.

According to estimates, at least 300 people died in the Tulsa race riots. 10,000 were left homeless, and more than 1,000 homes and businesses were destroyed. It has even been reported, recently, that private airplanes were used to drop kerosene bombs on houses. White men in places, performing “Negro reconnaissance” missions, were seen shooting at blacks on the ground. By the end of the chaos, 50 square blocks were completely decimated. Black Wall Street was destroyed.

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After being released from prisons and internment camps, blacks were required to wear green tags wherever they went, as identification marks. Many were forced to live in tent cities, where the Red Cross came to assist them with food and medicine.

Many politicians and businessmen in white Tulsa were ashamed by the race riots. They established a reconstruction committee, but this was only used to try and seize more black lands for industrial purposes. A fire ordinance providing tough construction requirements, and heavy costs made rebuilding Greenwood all but impossible.

A black lawyer named BC Franklin set up a law office in one of the tents and proceeded to challenge the ordinance with its stringent requirements. The Oklahoma Supreme Court later struck it down, allowing Greenwood residents to rebuild Tulsa.

The white mob never paid its price for destroying Tulsa. A state grand jury placed the blame for the conflict on “black agitators”. None of the whites were sentenced to prison. The elevator assault allegation, however, never proceeded to trial. Dick Rowland was let off: a surprising outcome for the time.

Much of Greenwood has been rebuilt over time, including a Mount Zion Baptist church. However, desegregation did destroy the prospect of re-establishing a business district in Black Tulsa, as many blacks spent their money elsewhere and patronized white-owned establishments. Black Wall Street never returned.

 

 

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