Searching for Ubuntu

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A Letter From Africa

by Michael Mpofu

Dear Ryan

I hope you’re doing we’ll and enjoying shaping the young minds of Brooklyn.

It’s been a while since you last set foot in Cape Town and I thought I’d send you a little note from Africa.

I’ve had some time to reflect on some very sad events in the last few weeks in the political and socio-economic worlds that affect those in the great continent. And I must say, I haven’t been inspired – the expression would be more along the lines of “distraught”.

It seems like such a hyperbole, an exaggeration, but when you really think about it, some of the stuff that is tolerated here, is unbelievable, shocking, almost unheard of in your part of the world. This is not to discount the challenges people on your side of the sea face, but I’m simply saying, the reaction to the atrocities experienced by our people down here would stir riots or some form of protest action in your world.

Because I have the privilege of working where I work, at the centre of where key (political) decisions are sometimes taken in the South African context, it has given me perspective. Having spent some time listening and watching laws being made that ultimately shape the future of almost 52 million people, I recently had a “eureka” moment:

The reason why Africa, in fact, the world, is what it is today – far from what our predecessors envisioned – is because presidential boardrooms and government offices, banks and educational institutions are filled with people who have good intentions.

That may sound like stating the obvious, but it is in fact true.

In years gone by we have listened and watched politicians, businessmen and philanthropists make inspirational speeches about how they would help change the world. And no doubt, some of them have. The trouble is that those of us who have been tasked with carrying the baton further have simply become people with good intentions.

When listening to people speak and debate, make resolutions or whatever it may be, there is a sense of hope in their rhetoric. What is mind-boggling is that when faced with the opportunity to truly make a difference, we tend to withdraw into our cocoons and do nothing.

Most African leaders have some of the most exciting and inspiring stories in their rise to power. It’s the stuff that movies are made of, and that’s the trouble, it remains on television and cinema screens and never translates into reality. I’m not sure what possesses people, but it appears easier to have good intentions than actually doing something because maybe we can feel better about wanting to do the right thing when the going gets tough – so we can still enjoying the benefit of taking an exit. After all, we had the right motive we just couldn’t keep going.

You may be asking why I have felt the need to pen this half an hour before midnight in South Africa? Frustration. Frustration that those who are fighting the people in positions of power and have the intention to actually do something to uplift the plight of the people – are actually becoming the people they despise.

While they have good intentions, they are becoming the devil they despise. The trouble with Africa is not that we lack the people to do it; instead it’s that those that are willing to get their hands dirty end up with dirty hands, muddled in corruption and greed. But that’s okay, because they meant well.

Liberation movements in the fight against colonialism meant well, to free a people from oppression and institute freedom for all! But given the opportunity to outwork that freedom, they decided to hold on to the intention, the idea of the dream, make the exit and take solace in their good intention.

It frustrates me.

And that’s why Africa will remain the way she is – dark, disease ridden, poverty stricken and conflict dominated. Because of men and women who meant well, but found it easier to act otherwise.

Perhaps our search for that thing that brings us together must begin by introspection. What and how do I want to change the world? Great intention – let me roll up my sleeves.

Until the next one Ryan,

All the best with shaping young minds.

Sincerely

Michael

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Founded in Hate and Fear

by jwdalton

Dear Ryan,

It was wonderful to receive your letter back to me a little over a month ago.  I am afraid I am horribly delinquent in my response to you and I apologize.  Things have been quite busy at work, as I have been trying to wrap up a few assignments before our new little one arrives, and at home for the same reason.  I have finally reached a point of calm though at work, as now only the excitement and anticipation of a new child remain.

Despite my delinquency, I have thought a great deal about your last letter, as George Stinney’s gaze bore a hole in the back of my head while I sat in the office.  One night when I was at home, Callie looked up at the calendar on the wall in our home and looked at those same eyes and said, “That’s sad.”  This wasn’t something we had talked with her about, but she could see it in his expression  — a palpable somber gaze.  It’s truly heartbreaking.

You noted in your letter to me that this execution of a 14 year old occurred only 69 years ago, which is certainly in our collective recent memory, but our practice of allowing juveniles to be sentenced to death extended far beyond that.  Amazingly, it was not until 1988 that the Supreme Court ruled that executing a juvenile 15 and under would be cruel and unusual punishment.  The following year, the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty being imposed on a 16 year old and maintained that position until 2005, when the Court finally held (in a 5-4 decision) that executing anyone under the age of 18 would be cruel and unusual punishment.

Many people were furious with this decision at the time.  Indeed, Justice Parker of the Alabama Supreme Court wrote an op-ed shortly after this decision, criticizing the other members of his court for following this precedent (that they were bound to follow), and arguing that they should have refused to overturn a juvenile’s death sentence in Alabama.  He said if they would have refused to follow this precedent, then maybe the U.S. Supreme Court wouldn’t have overturned them since they have limited cases that they review, and the juvenile “would have been executed as he deserves.”  Needless to say, Justice Parker’s views must not have been too unpopular here in Alabama, as he continues to be elected as a judge on the Alabama Supreme Court.

All of this is to say that, at least in certain parts of the country, we have truly not come very far — and certainly not far enough — in the last 69 years.   Indeed, living here in Montgomery has shown me just how much further we still need to go.  One area that is especially amazing and troubling to me is the school system here in Montgomery.  As I often drive down the road and pass one of the largest private schools in Montgomery, it makes me ill to read their large brick sign out front: Montgomery Academy — Founded 1959.  That may seem harmless to some who pass it.  Some may not realize the story that sign tells.  But that sign speaks volumes about the history of schools in Montgomery.   It might as well read: Montgomery Academy — Founded in Hate and Fear.  A private school was founded in Montgomery in 1959 because in 1954 the United States Supreme Court said what we all know is true: separate is never, ever equal.  A private school was founded in Montgomery in 1959, because the white citizens of Montgomery knew that desegregation was going to be forced on them, so they wanted no part of the public schools anymore.  They wanted to create their own private school that they could keep all-white, that they didn’t have to integrate, that they could send their children to.

Sadly, not much has changed in Montgomery schools in the last fifty years.  While Montgomery Academy now has an official non-discrimination policy, according to Great Schools, the school is still 89% white and only 7% African American.  Meanwhile, the vast majority of the public schools have been all but abandoned by the white population.  Darcy and I live in a predominately white neighborhood, but the school that our children would be zoned to go to is 98% African American and 1% White.  There are four major public (non-magnet) high schools in Montgomery.  Two of them are 99% African American and 0% White (as a note, my children, and the other children in my predominately white neighborhood are zoned to one of these schools).  The third (Jefferson Davis High School, no less) is 94% African American and only 3% White.  Only the fourth (Robert E. Lee High School!) has any semblance of diversity: 75% African American and 21% White.  All of this in a city that is 57% African American and 37% White.  And this is not a problem unique to Montgomery.  It exists throughout this region of Alabama and in Mississippi as well (and likely in other Southern states, though I hesitate to overstate, since I do not know).  In these regions, de facto segregation continues along — like Brown v. Board of Education never happened.  And as you would expect, most of those schools I linked to above (and countless others in this area) are failing schools.  Unsurprisingly, separate is still not equal.

Living in the South, I am often struck by the so-called “Southern hospitality” that is truly present here.  When we had Callie in California, I remember one of my co-workers getting us a gift and I was struck by it because she was the only person who got us one.  It wasn’t that I was surprised no one else did — in fact, it was the opposite, her gift was unexpected and touching.  By contrast, here in Montgomery, my co-workers threw us a lovely “diaper shower,” loading us up with supplies.  In another example of this “Southern hospitality,” one of Darcy’s mom friends set us up a “Meal Train” so that when Tessa comes we will have food prepared for us for days.  It’s an amazingly kind act that will ease so much stress off of us.  As I was thinking of this act the other day, it occurred to me that it is a perfect example of the spirit of Ubuntu living and breathing here in the South.  It is as if people are saying to us, we know it is stressful to raise two children on your own, let us help you — let us ease the load — we are in this together.

In many ways, even with all the problems that exist in this society I now live in, I see so much more Ubuntu here than I saw in California, where people often chose to keep to themselves.  In addition to the examples listed above, there are countless other simple, daily examples.  For instance, we own a ladder and leaf-blower jointly with our neighbors across the street, and we are constantly meeting and talking to complete strangers who want nothing other than to say hello and hear just a piece of your story.  My hope is that we can find a way to tap that spirit of Ubuntu, that under-current that exists in some facets of this society, and get it to apply in more areas.  My hope is that the care that most of the people of the South do actually show for their true neighbor or friend, can be expanded out to the metaphysical neighbor, the unknown friend, the greater society that they are a part of whether or not they realize it or want to be.  Until that happens, people will continue to suffer in this society.

And as I type these last words, I realize my letter has nearly become a prolonged sermon.  My delay in writing you has led me to ramble for some time in my overdue reply.  I hope that all continues to be well for you in Brooklyn.  I would love to hear about your experience in your school or anything else that is on your heart.

Love from Montgomery,

John

An Open Letter to Humanity – Five…

by capetownbrown

Dearest Humanity,

It’s been a rough week for us; though I assure you it has been no rougher or easier than any other week we find ourselves living within in this world in which we live, and how “rough” or “easy” a week is or was is merely dependent on and determined by the relativity of our perspective and what corner of this earth we find ourselves existing in.

Unimaginable tragedies happen every single day, all over the globe, unfortunately.

Tragedy is always tragedy, and indeed this world is plagued with it; although we often pick-and-choose which tragedies we pay mind to, inherently and semi-understandably biased toward those that befall close to home. We seem to have developed ways of rationalizing and or ignoring tragedies that occur far from us (“far” not only in geography, but also in the level with which we are affected by said tragedies), or even more, tragedies we are responsible for; and for those particular tragedies, ignorance is most definitely bliss, and denial mixed with justification is our celebratory cocktail.

This is not to make light of any tragedy, but rather to raise the bar when it comes to our attitudes, expressions, and grief connected to those tragedies we overlook or ignore.

Being American, I can speak as an American. And as an American, I find that our responses to American tragedies are sometimes more tragic than the tragedy itself; not always, and not by everyone, but yes, by many, and much of the time. American media tragically thrives off of tragedy, with obsessive, non-stop, 24/7 coverage, even before all the facts and details are known, reporting on every angle, even those angles that do not exist, adding more drama to an already-dramatic situation; the unnecessary “we go now to the puppy of a dog of a person who was almost affected by the terrible events” of a tragedy.

All of this, of course, only feeds our emotion and fuels our anger and increases our thirst for vengeance. If the perpetrator is American, the media finds ways of making that person appear less American, less human, a monster. If the perpetrator is not American, God forbid, the media exploits the patriotism and xenophobia that already subsists within us, and we respond with pride steeped in hate. And before we know it, we are chanting, “U.S.A, U.S.A, U.S.A!” over and over again; a blinding nationalism that often reduces and diminishes sympathetic sentiments of our international brothers and sisters.

Before knowing all the details and motives, we jump to conclusions, focusing on the fact that “Dzhokar Tsarnaev is Muslim,” focusing less, or not at all, on the human depravity that goes beyond religion, ethnicity, or citizenship, the depravity that causes a 19-year-old to do such an egregious thing; a 19-year-old.

In our hurt and shock and horror and dismay, we focus on the person or people responsible for a tragedy, with little focus on the society, culture, or conditions that developed, cultured, and created the level of depravity found in that person or those people; the individualistic tragedy we have become. We find all the ways that that person or those people are different, then we label, blame, and make threats, only furthering the polarity that already exists between “us and them”. We allow tragedies to continue to beget tragedies, as that very tragedy was begat.

Being human, I can speak as a human. And as a human, I wish death on no man; nor do I celebrate the death of any one of us, no matter how evil or terrible the dead individual was perceived to be. I mourn the loss of every human, even if, and especially when, that life is lost before the death of that person, for whatever reason that individual felt such a disconnect from us that they chose to respond in such a tragic and terrible way. We are all depraved in one way or another; the level of depravity is merely more obvious in some than it is in others, those who wear it on their sleeves. Human depravity knows no bounds, is not linked to a particular religion or ethnicity, nor is it confined to a specific race or class.

Depravity is a human thing; inescapable for the most part.

So, as a human, of course I mourn the death of an eight-year-old American child, along with the other lives lost, in Boston. But my tears do not begin and end with that child, or those others.

I mourn the death of the eight-year-old, and others, in Iraq.

I mourn the death of the eight-year-old, and others, in Afghanistan.

I mourn the death of the eight-year-old, and others, in Libya.

I mourn the death of the eight-year-old, and others, in Yemen.

I mourn the death of the eight-year-old, and others, in Pakistan.

I mourn the death of the eight-year-old, and others, in Palestine.

I mourn the death of the eight-year-old, and others, in Somalia.

I mourn the futility found in the reasons for these deaths, and the frequency at which they occur.

I mourn our involvement in all of these deaths and others, whether direct or indirect, acknowledged or unacknowledged, intentional or unintentional, hidden or exposed, covered by the media or swept under the rug.

I mourn the daily existence of tragedies in the form of poverty, inequalities, injustices, discrimination, violence, and hate, that build, and bubble, and fester, and eventually turn to “bigger” tragedies we deem worthy of headlines.

But at the same time I mourn these tragedies, I also celebrate the goodness I see around me. And I know that the goodness found in humanity outnumbers the badness by far, though the attention-seeking nature of tragedy often steals the spotlight. We are all depraved in one way or another, but at the very same time, we are all capable of immeasurable goodness. And, good or bad, I love us very much. I hope we can work all of this out.

Love and peace,

Ryan

Looking Into George Stinney’s Eyes…

by capetownbrown

Dear John,

I was delighted to receive your letter. It indeed found me in the most well of well places, thank you; right smack-dab in the middle of Spring Break, well-rested, well-fed, relaxed. Give that sweet little Callie a big squeeze from me. I can’t believe how she is growing! Her birthdays are relentless, with another one coming up this week. Time has surely sped up; when I was in elementary school, an hour seemed to drag on and feel the length of a week, but now a week feels like a minute. Nevertheless…

Though I expected no less, I am thrilled to hear that you are enjoying your work with EJI! I can, however, only imagine how frustrating it must be to daily grapple with, and fight against, the all-too-rife injustices found within our American “justice” system. But as you know, your work is most definitely not in vain.

Speaking of your work, thanks again for the EJI calendar. It hangs on my wall as an, often disturbing yet, important reminder of where we have come from as a nation, alluding to why we find ourselves in many of the circumstances in which we currently live. As hard as some may try, we cannot separate ourselves from that terrible history, though we can battle to ensure that it does not carry on, or repeat itself; it is shocking that some individuals are still so resistant to allow that pertinent battle to ensue. Mama Maya Angelou said it better when she said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again,” though I am not sure we always display the courage and resolve needed to guarantee that it not be lived again.

george stinney cal

This month, for its duration, George Stinney’s unfaltering gaze is watching everything I do. I often make uncomfortable eye contact with him, which, several times, has ended in a blur of tears on my part. Face on, his eyes are brave yet tired, strong yet surrendered, innocent yet tricked, tough yet sad, childlike yet forced to grow too soon…defeated. It is only in the profile shot that his eyes begin to reveal fear, insecurity, anxiety, concern, unease. He was only fourteen-years-old, the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th century. I read somewhere that his “confession” was coerced with the bribery of ice cream, that he was innocent of the crime he was forced to accept the guilt of, that he was deeply loved by his family who—before his one-day trial—were run out of town with the threat of them all being lynched, that he was so small they had to stack dictionaries on the seat of the electric chair for him to sit on, in order for his head to reach the head-piece, so he, a small child, could be electrocuted to death—barbaric, tragic, inconceivable, unjust, tormenting. And now, we boast in being so far-removed from atrocities like this, yet it happened only 69 years ago; our grandparents were alive at that time, our parents not far from being born. We boast in advancements, yet, as you mentioned in your letter, we continue to be the only “developed country” that sentences children to life with no parole, a mere small step up from execution; not to mention the systemic racism that continues to contribute to which children are sentenced.

Anyway, our youth, such as Trayvon Martin and Kimani Gray, are still being executed; the venue has merely moved to the streets, and the unfair trials are even shorter and more nonexistent than they were in the past.

I know privilege is blinding, but I do not see how so many people fail to see the connection between the injustices of the past and the injustices that plague our communities today—unless, of course, they are conveniently not making any attempts to see the connection. Dr. King understood that connection on the deepest of levels, and, in the end of the Civil Rights Movement, he immediately transformed his work and energy into fighting the history-created ills of the ghettos of Chicago, for he knew the struggle was far from over when segregation was abolished; that the toughest struggle had only begun. I wish he would have been spared to live, and fight, and die of old age. Having seen the 45th anniversary of his assassination pass by last week, it is fitting, for a number of reasons, that you chose to refer to that particular quote of his:

“[A]ll mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be – this is the interrelated structure of reality.”

This inescapable mutuality Dr. King speaks of is the heart and soul of humanity, and the purest definition of Ubuntu. It is astonishing to see how some of us put forth such elaborate efforts in trying to escape that inescapable reality, never actually escaping, but sometimes convincing ourselves we have escaped, if only in the gated communities of our minds. I think you are right that the individualistic nature of our societal constructs poses a threat to mutuality, evolving into other community misfortunes and social ills. Selfishness tears down anything Ubuntu wishes to build up, and as I mentioned in my letter to Chris, we use fear to rationalize and justify our egocentric life choices and stances.

Ubuntu recognizes the I in you, and the you in I—maybe, because we are so focused on our selves, a starting point would be to ask each other to simply look for our individual likenesses in others, hoping our self-awareness is at a level that we would  actually recognize ourself when we see it. I don’t know. I just want the best for us—for us all.

Let me end this letter here. Give all my love to Darcy and Callie. I will certainly pass your greetings to Dayde and Kyle; they are doing well and continue to bring youthfulness, joy, community, and conversation to my life. It seems Spring has finally sprung up here, and I hope it is here to stay. I am enjoying the longer days and the warmth it has already brought. I hope you are too.

Love and warmth from Brooklyn,

Ryan

An Open Letter to Humanity – Four…

by capetownbrown

Dearest Humanity,

It is true that we most often find exactly what we are looking for. Therefore, if we are constantly looking for the bad in us, we will surely, quite regularly, find it. Let us seek out what is good in us, and see where that takes us.

Love,

Ryan

An Open Letter to Humanity – Three…

by capetownbrown

Dear Humanity,

What is with our obsessive, poisonous, malignant, self-loathing, destructive, unhealthy, fatal love affair with violence? Can we break it off, please?

Patiently waiting for your response,

Ryan

Use the Sticks to Build a Home…

by capetownbrown

Dear Cirvant,

It was so wonderful to receive your letter! It does me well to hear that you have understood the necessity of this season, no matter how difficult or trying it may be, even if the fullness of the necessity has yet to reveal itself. What resonates in both of our experiences is how hard it is to live somewhere when you have left your heart elsewhere. Unquestionably difficult! I also, very frequently at that, think of the time spent with you and your family (our family) in Nashville during my time in Tennessee. Those weekends I spent in Nashville were bursts of light in a fairly dark time for me; but let me not be too dramatic, for it was most certainly not all doom and gloom.

The stick analogy in your letter really spoke to me and provoked some interesting thought:

“I aimed at being intentional in building thriving friendships; trying to gather sticks from under the tree, intent on building a raft that could carry me through this season. I found those sticks only useful for fire to keep me warm in those moments. I learned quickly the differences between hanging out and spending time with brothers.”

I too can relate to wanting more out of relationships than the intermittent “coffee shop buddy” you spoke of, providing warmth for only the moment, and if that. In retrospect to when I first moved back to the States, at the time, I really felt like the average conversation I had with the average person did not scratch the surface — the surface of what I was feeling, or anything genuine, or what I perceived as “real life” in general. The typical conversation would jump from the latest celebrity scandal, to a game of a particular team of whatever sport was in season, to whatever was happening on the popular sitcom of the day, to the most recent Youtube video that went viral, to the autotuned version of the most recent Youtube video that went viral; most of which was like a foreign language to me.

On a side note, I think another form of pseudo-sharing that occurs in our celebrity-obsessed, entertainment-addicted culture is the overwhelming level of investment so many people have in the lives of famous people. What if, as a culture, we spent that level of time and energy and investment in our actual relationships with actual people around us? But that is possibly another subject for another day.

Back to the conversations…

I was uninterested in, or could not relate to, most of the above mentioned topics, though the Youtube videos were usually entertaining. And it sometimes felt like I was having carbon copies of the same conversation, over and over and over again; smalltalk is great as an appetizer to the conversation, but it cannot give subsistence and sustain as the main course, meal after meal after meal. Simultaneously, during those conversations, I recurrently felt like people were looking at me, but not really seeing me. I know that sounds odd. But all I truly wanted, from the bottom of my heart, was to cut past the superficial surface and bleed out conversationally.

I occasionally experienced that too, and those conversations were cathartic.

However, revisiting your stick analogy, I have, as it seems you also have, realized the importance of seeking far more than to merely be kept warm, or even to be carried by a raft built from other metaphorical sticks; lest we forget that we are also sticks, with the ability to serve a purpose in the lives of others. The spirit of Ubuntu is not satisfied with solely feeding into our individual needs, with no personal responsibility to give back. Rather, true community is when we gather the sticks around us, our stick-selves included, and build a home of mutualism and sodality, a place where we can all hold up one another and be held up, support each other and be supported; and I know you know this type of communion, as you speak of it so fondly in reference to your time in Johannesburg.

Every stick might not be able to hold the same weight or provide the same level of stability, but linked together as one, they collectively provide shelter, a home, community, Ubuntu.

You ask how’s Brooklyn? Extraordinary! As a matter of fact, I have managed to build a beautifully diverse “stick-home,” with “sticks” being added by the day. Let me count a few…

My apartment door is a revolving door, with daily visitors of all ages.

Friends and neighbors stop by unannounced, more often than “expected” visitors, at that.

My across-the-hall neighbors’ microwave broke, so they come over to use mine.

My neighbors often share their food with me, and I share mine with them.

I help the neighbor kids with their homework.

My way-across-the-hall neighbors look out for the UPS man and hold my packages when he comes when I am at work.

I bake cupcakes with my twelve-year-old neighbor.

My young neighbors sometimes bring me presents, and very often bring youthful conversation.

My colleague-turned-friend, who also happens to be a neighbor, comes over and we sit like two grannies, sipping hot tea, speaking about the problems with the American education system, the need for community, these “kids of today”, or other dilemmas of the world that seem to be so fixable in those moments.

I read books with my four-year-old neighbor.

We all joke and laugh and live together.

I assure you, those are simply a few glimpses into my life here, and I could tell you story after story, for days and days, but the summary of all of those stories is: I am happy, loved, loving, and content. I would love for you to visit Brooklyn someday, to see this “stick-home” for yourself. Again, please send my love to Woodie and the nephews; I really miss watching all of their sports games! As usual, let me know about any signs of Ubuntu you encounter in your day-to-day. Stay well!

Love from my Brooklyn stick-home,

Ryan

An Open Letter to Humanity – Two…

by capetownbrown

Dear Humanity,

I trust we all made it through the reign of the “Monster Moon”, though obviously, and naturally, some of us did not, but that is most likely of no fault to the moon, and more just a testimony to the never ending cycle of life and death that we are daily faced with.

Speaking of death, we have rockets pointed at one another.

This development has many people living in fear, panic even. I am not scared. Humans have sadly been trying to obliterate other humans off the face of the earth, for various different reasons, since the beginning of time. Having said that, I must make note of the immediate response of many people I have seen: something like, “They have rockets pointed at US?! LET’S BLOW THEM TO SMITHEREENS!”

This is all so tiring, really.

I know I am a dreamer of sorts, but what if, with rockets pointed at us, we decided to humbly extend love, kindness, and humanity to the rocket-weilders, until they decided to lower the rockets. I just heard your laughter. Nonetheless, as insane as this sounds, it is no different to the actions of Gandhi and Dr. King and Mandela and other pacifists who were faced with violence but dead set on peace; yes, I realize the pun. And in the chance they decide not to lower the rockets, blasting us off of earth’s edifice, would we not go out as happier, less angry, less fearful, more peaceful people? I don’t want to exit this life as a ball of fear-and-hate-and-anger-filled flesh.

This seeming inherent desire that we have to annihilate each other is very disturbing to me. Surely I am not alone in this. As a matter of fact, I know I am not. Will you let me know if you are with me in this?

Well, in the tragic case that we never speak again, I do love you.

Peace to us,

Ryan

Fear and Loathing in Las Comunidades…

by capetownbrown

Dear Chris,

I hope this letter finds you in a moment of rest amidst your busy schedule. I think it is hilarious, wonderful, and bizarre how well I feel I know you, even though we have only physically been in the same room a handful of times. I guess that boasts in the positive inverse of the pseudo-sharing I spoke about in my letter to James, since most of our many interactions have been of the cyber nature.

However, I will never forget the fun and hospitality of the first time Cirvant and I were invited over to your house for a lovely grilled cheese dinner; instantaneous offerings of drinks, hand-made-and-facilitated games with the kids, good food, great conversation, tears (mostly yours) over the Wikipedia page of a story of an Amish community’s forgiveness, and much laughter, amusement, and deep sharing; Ubuntu in its purest form.

And after hours and hours of terrific communion, and several mentions by all parties how it was, “probably time for us to go,” around 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, Cirvant and I were on the edge of our seats about to stand to leave, and right there, from your sprawled-out-flat-on-your-back-on-the-carpet position, with your eyes closed, you sighed a weighty sigh and said, “Alright. But one more thing before you go…What is your take on the war in Iraq?” The laughter in the room was probably amplified more by the fact that we could all tell that you were absolutely sincere in your query. That memory will surely stay with me forever.

Anyhow. I’ve been thinking about one of our recent (cyber) conversations where I asked you, “Why are [certain people] so nasty, self righteous, and mean?” Your response was simple: it’s fear. Though my question was more rhetorical than not, and there are probably plenty of other factors that also come into play in some situations, I think you really hit the nail on the head. So many people are so driven by fear in most everything they do. We live in such a fear mongering culture; and if Yoda is correct in his famous quote, then it is obvious that this fear mongering eventually leads to hate mongering, and all of that to our greater suffering. According to the philosophy of Ubuntu, even if only one of us is suffering, then we are all actually suffering.

In this case, I’m not sure who suffers more, the one fearing or the one being feared.

Fear is undoubtedly one of Ubuntu’s most destructive adversaries, for it not only convinces us that we do not need each other, but it further enables and empowers us to be cynical, distrustful, and suspicious of one another. All too often, instead of using our likenesses and similarities to bring us closer together, we use our differences to push each other farther apart; race, religion, class, nationality, sexuality, age, gender, and the list goes on. We set each other up as “the other”, and whisper twisted lies into our comrades ears about how “they”, “the other”, will taint, ruin, or take away what we have.

Fear tells us diversity is to be avoided at all cost, treated discriminatorily, kept at arms length. Fear makes up lies to rationalize the avoidance of “the other”. And we hold those lies as “truths” in our tightly clinched fists, until they fester and turn into hate. Then, we feel completely justified in our hatred for “the other”, because we have convinced ourselves that what they “stand for”, or who they are, or how they live threatens our tiny, little world, our bubble, our warped reality.

I guess it could make us more compassionate with regards to the haters when we realize what a tiring and terrible life-of-fear they must lead; when we realize that behind all of that hate and intolerance, they are just really sad and scared people.

The racist, shooting racial slurs like lasers out of his eyes at “the other”; behind his hate, you’ll find fear.

The religious zealot, shouting fire-breathing messages of condemnation at “the other”; behind his hate, you’ll find fear.

The homophobe, waving a hate-filled sign, foaming at the mouth, chanting meanness about “the other”; behind his hate, you’ll find fear.

The member of a higher class, snootily making rude and incredulous remarks about “the other”; behind his hate, you’ll find fear.

The member of a lower class, snootily making rude and incredulous remarks about “the other”; behind his hate, you’ll find fear.

All of them, just fearful for no good reason, using that fear to widen the gap between them and “the other”. Meanwhile, no matter how convinced they are that they are right and “the other” is wrong, individuals from “the other” are just as convinced to the contrary, only making the gap even more overwhelmingly unbridgeable. How do you think we can combat such fear? Do people even realize how driven and controlled we are by fear? I’m interested to know your thoughts.

As usual, I have prattled on and on. Please send all my love and greetings to the wife and kids. I thoroughly enjoyed your letter to whom it may concern, and look forward to future letters of yours. I always enjoy your words and heart behind them.

Peace and no fear,

Ryan

An Inescapable Network of Mutuality

by jwdalton

Dear Ryan,

I hope this letter finds you well and that you are enjoying a peaceful and relaxing spring break in Brooklyn.  You certainly deserve one.  Things are good here in Montgomery.  It’s unseasonably cold down here, but the flowers are beginning to bloom and small green buds are beginning to appear on trees.  Darcy is doing great and Callie is growing every day.  You wouldn’t believe all the new words and phrases that she says daily.  She is very excited about becoming a big sister.  I look forward to Callie and Tessa getting to spend some quality time with their Uncle Brown sometime in the near future.

Work is going good as well.  I still love my job with the Equal Justice Initiative.  I couldn’t imagine doing a job that brings me greater satisfaction than my current one.  Though I have to say, as I deal with the criminal justice system more and more, I try to determine what the root of the problem is.  Why does this country have such a love affair with mass incarceration?  Why are we among the world’s leaders in putting people to death? Why are we the only country that throws our children who commit crimes into prison for the rest of their lives with no chance of life outside of prison?  As I have thought about these issues, I often come back to the lack of community in our society.

I have found that it is much easier to treat strangers a way that you would never treat a loved one. If you have a loved one who is struggling with drug addiction, you try to help them through the problem and, in some instances, even stage an intervention to help get them into rehab and on the road to recovery.  Or when you are raising your children, you teach them that everyone makes mistakes – in fact, I remember Big Bird driving home this point on Sesame Street when I was younger.  I even remember Grandmom telling me (over and over) “no matter who you are when you grow up, or what you do with your life, even if you were to do something like commit a murder, I will always love you.”  That love is such a powerful thing.  Typing that memory brings tears to my eyes; just knowing that someone loved me through and through.

But we don’t treat strangers with nearly the same compassion as we treat our loved ones. In this country, if you have a drug addition, we don’t provide treatment for you.  Instead, we throw you in prison – the “War on Drugs” has vastly increased our prison population to never before seen numbers.  And if you are a child in this country and you succumb to peer pressure or do something impulsive and irresponsible (as fourteen year olds often do), then we can throw you in prison for the rest your life without giving you any opportunity to show that you are reformed, or that you deserve a second chance.  And in this country, we have no problem with the State ending the life of a human being – a permanent, devastating punishment that is unique in its finality and cruelty – despite the fact that one in nine individuals who are sentenced to this ultimate punishment are later exonerated.

I think the universal thread that runs through all of these issues is that people are comfortable with the actions being taken by our society as a whole, because they are being taken against nameless, faceless individuals.  Our society is self-centered – people often take the approach that if it doesn’t affect me and my friends and family, then why do anything. They don’t seem to see that the actions being taken against these individuals directly affect them.  Sometimes I feel that if we could foster a greater sense of Ubuntu in our society, maybe people would realize how these policies affect them:  How mass incarceration is damaging to the society, breaks up families, and causes destruction.  How throwing children away to die in prison illustrates our lack of humanity.  How allowing the state to end the life of another human being is a cruel and medieval practice that provides us with nothing but hate and vengeance in our hearts.

As I write this, I am reminded of the words of Dr. King:

[A]ll mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be – this is the interrelated structure of reality.

But how can we get this individualistic society that we live in to realize this truth?  How can we foster Ubuntu in a society so based in individual identity?  How can we make people realize that what is best for them is what is best for all, rather than what is best for one?  Sometimes it feels hopeless, but I know that we must maintain hope and I will wait for the words of encouragement that I hope and trust you will be able to provide.

Please write and let me know how things are in Brooklyn.  Give Dayde and Kyle high fives from me.  I hope they are doing well and I know they are lucky to have you in their lives.

All my best,

John