Tuesday, January 16, 2018

January 16: Queequeg, Immigrants, Old Story

Even as it was, I thought something of slipping out of the window, but it was the second floor back. I am no coward, but what to make of this headpeddling purple rascal altogether passed my comprehension. Ignorance is the parent of fear, and being completely nonplussed and confounded about the stranger, I confess I was now as much afraid of him as if it was the devil himself who had thus broken into my room at the dead of night. In fact, I was so afraid of him that I was not game enough just then to address him, and demand a satisfactory answer concerning what seemed inexplicable in him.

Meanwhile, he continued the business of undressing, and at last showed his chest and arms. As I live, these covered parts of him were checkered with the same squares as his face, his back, too, was all over the same dark squares; he seemed to have been in a Thirty Years' War, and just escaped from it with a sticking-plaster shirt. Still more, his very legs were marked, as a parcel of dark green frogs were running up the trunks of young palms. It was now quite plain that he must be some abominable savage or other shipped aboard of a whaleman in the South Seas, and so landed in this Christian country. I quaked to think of it. A peddler of heads too- perhaps the heads of his own brothers. He might take a fancy to mine- heavens! look at that tomahawk!

But there was no time for shuddering, for now the savage went about something that completely fascinated my attention, and convinced me that he must indeed be a heathen. Going to his heavy grego, or wrapall, or dreadnaught, which he had previously hung on a chair, he fumbled in the pockets, and produced at length a curious little deformed image with a hunch on its back, and exactly the color of a three days' old Congo baby. Remembering the embalmed head, at first I almost thought that this black manikin was a real baby preserved some similar manner. But seeing that it was not at all limber, and that it glistened a good deal like polished ebony, I concluded that it must be nothing but a wooden idol, which indeed it proved to be. For now the savage goes up to the empty fire-place, and removing the papered fire-board, sets up this little hunch-backed image, like a tenpin, between the andirons. The chimney jambs and all the bricks inside were very sooty, so that I thought this fire-place made a very appropriate little shrine or chapel for his Congo idol.

I now screwed my eyes hard towards the half hidden image, feeling but ill at ease meantime- to see what was next to follow. First he takes about a double handful of shavings out of his grego pocket, and places them carefully before the idol; then laying a bit of ship biscuit on top and applying the flame from the lamp, he kindled the shavings into a sacrificial blaze. Presently, after many hasty snatches into the fire, and still hastier withdrawals of his fingers (whereby he seemed to be scorching them badly), he at last succeeded in drawing out the biscuit; then blowing off the heat and ashes a little, he made a polite offer of it to the little negro. But the little devil did not seem to fancy such dry sort of fare at all; he never moved his lips. All these strange antics were accompanied by still stranger guttural noises from the devotee, who seemed to be praying in a sing-song or else singing some pagan psalmody or other, during which his face twitched about in the most unnatural manner. At last extinguishing the fire, he took the idol up very unceremoniously, and bagged it again in his grego pocket as carelessly as if he were a sportsman bagging a dead woodcock.

All these queer proceedings increased my uncomfortableness, and seeing him now exhibiting strong symptoms of concluding his business operations, and jumping into bed with me, I thought it was high time, now or never, before the light was put out, to break the spell in which I had so long been bound.
But the interval I spent in deliberating what to say, was a fatal one. Taking up his tomahawk from the table, he examined the head of it for an instant, and then holding it to the light, with his mouth at the handle, he puffed out great clouds of tobacco smoke. The next moment the light was extinguished, and this wild cannibal, tomahawk between his teeth, sprang into bed with me. I sang out, I could not help it now; and giving a sudden grunt of astonishment he began feeling me.

Stammering out something, I knew not what, I rolled away from him against the wall, and then conjured him, whoever or whatever he might be, to keep quiet, and let me get up and light the lamp again. But his guttural responses satisfied me at once that he but ill comprehended my meaning.

"Who-e debel you?"- he at last said- "you no speak-e, dam-me, I kill-e." And so saying the lighted tomahawk began flourishing about me in the dark.

Ishmael succumbs to his ignorance.  He has no idea what to make of the strange harpooneer, who is tattooed from head-to-foot and certainly not a Christian.  Ishmael's reaction is very human.  Queequeg--as we will soon learn is the harpooneer's name--fills him with fear.  Certainly, there are all kinds of stereotypes floating around in Ishmael's head.  Queequeg is a "savage."  A cannibal or headhunter.  Less than human.

This evening, I read a column in my local newspaper.  (Yes, an actual newspaper, words on newsprint and delivered to the front door.)  The column, by Mark Shields, basically talked about the fact that every citizen of the United States (excluding those of Native American heritage) is descended from immigrants.  Shields goes on to say, "We Americans, all of us, are indeed either immigrants or the sons and daughters of immigrants, a truth that we can never forget--even if the man who sits in the Oval Office today has never learned it."

Yes, we all come from Queequegs.  Even Donald Trump.  At one time or another, our ancestors were probably feared and hated.  Maybe people even wanted to build a wall to keep us out.  Put us on boats to ship us back from whence we came.  We entered the United States under quotas.  Perhaps we sneaked across some border.  Stowed away on ocean liners.  We lied in order to gain entry.  We changed our names.

Donald Trump's mother immigrated to the United States from Scotland.  She was an illegal immigrant.  Donald Trump's father grew up in a house where German was the main language spoken.  Had her son been President when she was a girl, Mrs. Trump would probably have been deported.  Had his son been President when he was a young man, Trump's father, in the wake of World War II, would have been accused of being a Nazi spy and terrorist.  He would have been detained and jailed.

My point is simple:  what's going on in the United States right now is nothing new.  Each wave of immigrants faced bigotry, hatred, and suspicion.  Donald Trump is just capitalizing on old fears and prejudices.  He wants to send all of the Queequegs home because they are rapists and drug dealers and terrorists. It's an old story.

The problem is that we haven't learned any lessons from this old story.  It just keeps repeating.  Over and over and over.

Saint Marty is thankful tonight for all immigrants, past and present, who've made the United States what it is today. 

January 16: Storytelling, Haki R. Madhubuti, "Rwanda: Where Tears Have No Power"

It is a dark night, and I am pretty weary.  When I got home this afternoon, I spent an hour-and-a-half shoveling.  By the time I was done, it was almost dark. 

Because I am so tired, I'm having some difficulty stringing together my thoughts into something coherent.  The poem I have chosen for today is an interesting hybrid of free verse and prose poem.  It's about race and violence and genocide and refugees.  In short, it's perfect for tonight in Trump America. 

It makes me think about how important it is to tell our stories, no matter how ugly or brutal they may be. Stories are a way to instruct and warn and heal.  And listening is an act of revolution.

Saint Marty is always ready to listen.

Rwanda:  Where Tears Have No Power

by:  Haki R. Madhubuti

Who has the moral high ground?

Fifteen blocks from the whitehouse
on small corners in northwest, d.c.
boys disguised as me rip each other’s hearts out
with weapons made in china. they fight for territory.

across the planet in a land where civilization was born
the boys of d.c. know nothing about their distant relatives
in Rwanda. they have never heard of the hutu or tutsi people.
their eyes draw blanks at the mention of kigali, byumba
or butare. all they know are the streets of d.c., and do not
cry at funerals anymore. numbers and frequency have a way
of making murder commonplace and not news
unless it spreads outside of our house, block, territory.

modern massacres are intraethnic. bosnia, sri lanka, burundi,
nagorno-karabakh, iraq, laos, angola, liberia, and rwanda are
small foreign names on a map made in europe. when bodies
by the tens of thousands float down a river turning the water
the color of blood, as a quarter of a million people flee barefoot
into tanzania and zaire, somehow we notice. we do not smile,
we have no more tears. we hold our thoughts. In deeply
muted silence looking south and thinking that today
nelson mandela seems much larger
than he is.

Monday, January 15, 2018

January 15: Only His Outside, Martin Luther King Day, the Dream

I considered the matter a moment, and then up stairs we went, and I was ushered into a small room, cold as a clam, and furnished, sure enough, with a prodigious bed, almost big enough indeed for any four harpooneers to sleep abreast.

"There," said the landlord, placing the candle on a crazy old sea chest that did double duty as a wash-stand and centre table; "there, make yourself comfortable now; and good night to ye." I turned round from eyeing the bed, but he had disappeared.

Folding back the counterpane, I stooped over the bed. Though none of the most elegant, it yet stood the scrutiny tolerably well. I then glanced round the room; and besides the bedstead and centre table, could see no other furniture belonging to the place, but a rude shelf, the four walls, and a papered fireboard representing a man striking a whale. Of things not properly belonging to the room, there was a hammock lashed up, and thrown upon the floor in one corner; also a large seaman's bag, containing the harpooneer's wardrobe, no doubt in lieu of a land trunk. Likewise, there was a parcel of outlandish bone fish hooks on the shelf over the fire-place, and a tall harpoon standing at the head of the bed.

But what is this on the chest? I took it up, and held it close to the light, and felt it, and smelt it, and tried every way possible to arrive at some satisfactory conclusion concerning it. I can compare it to nothing but a large door mat, ornamented at the edges with little tinkling tags something like the stained porcupine quills round an Indian moccasin. There was a hole or slit in the middle of this mat, as you see the same in South American ponchos. But could it be possible that any sober harpooneer would get into a door mat, and parade the streets of any Christian town in that sort of guise? I put it on, to try it, and it weighed me down like a hamper, being uncommonly shaggy and thick, and I thought a little damp, as though this mysterious harpooneer had been wearing it of a rainy day. I went up in it to a bit of glass stuck against the wall, and I never saw such a sight in my life. I tore myself out of it in such a hurry that I gave myself a kink in the neck.

I sat down on the side of the bed, and commenced thinking about this head-peddling harpooneer, and his door mat. After thinking some time on the bed-side, I got up and took off my monkey jacket, and then stood in the middle of the room thinking. I then took off my coat, and thought a little more in my shirt sleeves. But beginning to feel very cold now, half undressed as I was, and remembering what the landlord said about the harpooneer's not coming home at all that night, it being so very late, I made no more ado, but jumped out of my pantaloons and boots, and then blowing out the light tumbled into bed, and commended myself to the care of heaven.

Whether that mattress was stuffed with corncobs or broken crockery, there is no telling, but I rolled about a good deal, and could not sleep for a long time. At last I slid off into a light doze, and had pretty nearly made a good offing towards the land of Nod, when I heard a heavy footfall in the passage, and saw a glimmer of light come into the room from under the door.

Lord save me, thinks I, that must be the harpooneer, the infernal head-peddler. But I lay perfectly still, and resolved not to say a word till spoken to. Holding a light in one hand, and that identical New Zealand head in the other, the stranger entered the room, and without looking towards the bed, placed his candle a good way off from me on the floor in one corner, and then began working away at the knotted cords of the large bag I before spoke of as being in the room. I was all eagerness to see his face, but he kept it averted for some time while employed in unlacing the bag's mouth. This accomplished, however, he turned round- when, good heavens; what a sight! Such a face! It was of a dark, purplish, yellow color, here and there stuck over with large blackish looking squares. Yes, it's just as I thought, he's a terrible bedfellow; he's been in a fight, got dreadfully cut, and here he is, just from the surgeon. But at that moment he chanced to turn his face so towards the light, that I plainly saw they could not be sticking-plasters at all, those black squares on his cheeks. They were stains of some sort or other. At first I knew not what to make of this; but soon an inkling of the truth occurred to me. I remembered a story of a white man- a whaleman too- who, falling among the cannibals, had been tattooed by them. I concluded that this harpooneer, in the course of his distant voyages, must have met with a similar adventure. And what is it, thought I, after all! It's only his outside; a man can be honest in any sort of skin. But then, what to make of his unearthly complexion, that part of it, I mean, lying round about, and completely independent of the squares of tattooing. To be sure, it might be nothing but a good coat of tropical tanning; but I never heard of a hot sun's tanning a white man into a purplish yellow one. However, I had never been in the South Seas; and perhaps the sun there produced these extraordinary effects upon the skin. Now, while all these ideas were passing through me like lightning, this harpooneer never noticed me at all. But, after some difficulty having opened his bag, he commenced fumbling in it, and presently pulled out a sort of tomahawk, and a seal-skin wallet with the hair on. Placing these on the old chest in the middle of a room, he then took the New Zealand head- a ghastly thing enough- and crammed it down into the bag. He now took off his hat- a new beaver hat- when I came nigh singing out with fresh surprise. There was no hair on his head- none to speak of at least- nothing but a small scalp-knot twisted up on his forehead. His bald purplish head now looked for all the world like a mildewed skull. Had not the stranger stood between me and the door, I would have bolted out of it quicker than ever I bolted a dinner.

Ishmael is trying not to cast pre-judgements on the harpooneer.  He says as much when he proclaims, "It's only his outside; a man can be honest in any sort of skin . . ."  However, he's terrified by the man's appearance, and the stories he's heard about the harpooneer have not helped, either.  Ishmael's been told that the man was out on the dark streets, trying to sell shrunken human heads to strangers.  Now, Ishmael is confronted by a man whose face looks, to him, like a "mildewed skull."

I think it's fairly appropriate that this is the passage from Moby-Dick tonight, because it is all about preconceptions and fear based on skin color and difference.  Think of Ishmael tonight as the prototypical white person in the United States (in Washington, D. C., and the Oval Office) today, still judging people by their pigments as opposed to their characters.

Today is Martin Luther King Day in this country.  A day where we are supposed to celebrate diversity and acceptance.  Thinking back over the last year, these two qualities have been in fairly short supply in the United States.  Of course, I have to remind myself that things really haven't changed in the past 365 days.  It's just that the election of Donald Trump has given the worst elements of American society the feeble courage to crawl out from under their rocks into the sun.

I am trying not to be angry in this post.  Martin Luther King didn't march in anger.  He marched in peace, told his followers not to fight the police when they turned firehoses on them.  No, his movement was all about passive resistance.  I have to remind myself of that whenever I become so dispirited with the leaders in the United States.  Dr. King never gave up the hope for social equality for everybody, regardless of race or gender or religion or sexuality.

I don't think that people like Donald Trump and Mike Pence and Paul Ryan speak for the majority of Americans.  I have to think that.  Ishmael's fears in the passage above are based on ignorance.  He has no idea who the harpooneer is.  Ignorance is the one quality that is in great supply right now in American politics.  Paul Ryan has never had to worry about how to pay for the medical care of his children.  Donald Trump has never struggled to pay his mortgage (he simply declares bankruptcy).  Mike Pence has never been pulled over by the police simply because of the color of his skin.

Martin Luther King's dream isn't dead, despite the best efforts of all the rich white men in Congress.  I firmly believe this.  Hopefully, you do, too.

Saint Marty is thankful tonight for love and compassion and tolerance.

January 15: John Lewis, June Jordan, "In Memoriam: Martin Luther King, Jr."

This morning, while I was waiting to be wheeled into my procedure at the hospital, I was watching The View on television.  It was a Martin Luther King Day special.  One of the guests on the show was Congressman John Lewis, who was a friend of Dr. King.  Marched with him.  Got arrested over 40 times during the Civil Right Movement.  He is a hero in every sense of the word.

During his time on The View, he said that, if Martin Luther King had lived, Donald Trump would not be President of the United States.  He said that the United States is still recovering from the assassination of Dr. King, fifty years later.  Yet, despite having white supremacists marching in the streets of contemporary America, despite the "shithole" in the Oval Office, Representative Lewis said that he still has hope.  He said that we can't lose hope, or else we have already lost.

So, in honor of this day, I give you a poem by June Jordan,  It's a howl of a poem, full of anger and righteousness.  I imagine Jordan standing in the middle of a church, fists raised, yelling these words at the top of her lungs.  There's no real form to it.  It's all pain.  Fury.

Saint Marty is not losing hope, Mr. Lewis.

In Memoriam:  Martin Luther King, Jr.

by:  June Jordan


honey people murder mercy U.S.A.   
the milkland turn to monsters teach   
to kill to violate pull down destroy   
the weakly freedom growing fruit   
from being born


tomorrow yesterday rip rape   
exacerbate despoil disfigure   
crazy running threat the   
deadly thrall
appall belief dispel
the wildlife burn the breast   
the onward tongue
the outward hand
deform the normal rainy   
riot sunshine shelter wreck
of darkness derogate
delimit blank
explode deprive
assassinate and batten up
like bullets fatten up
the raving greed
reactivate a springtime

death by men by more
than you or I can



They sleep who know a regulated place
or pulse or tide or changing sky
according to some universal   
stage direction obvious   
like shorewashed shells

we share an afternoon of mourning   
in between no next predictable
except for wild reversal hearse rehearsal   
bleach the blacklong lunging
ritual of fright insanity and more
deplorable abortion
more and