Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University, was born in Boston in 1951 and holds a BA from Wellesley College and a JD from Harvard Law School.
She was a fellow in the School of Criticism and Theory at Dartmouth College and has been an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin School Law School and its department of women's studies. Williams also worked as a consumer advocate in the office of the City Attorney in Los Angeles.
A member of the State Bar of California and the Federal Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Williams has served on the advisory council for the Medgar Evers Center for Law and Social Justice of the City University of New York and on the board of governors for the Society of American Law Teachers, among others.
Her publications include Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave, On Being the Object of Property, The Electronic Transformation of Law and And We Are Not Married: A Journal of Musings on Legal Language and the Ideology of Style. In 1993, Harvard University Press published Williams's The Alchemy of Race & Rights to widespread critical acclaim. She is also author of The Rooster's Egg (Harvard, 1995), Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race (Reith Lectures, 1997) (Noonday Press, 1998) and, most recently, Open House: On Family Food, Friends, Piano Lessons and The Search for a Room of My Own (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2004.)
At 5 o'clock in the
morning, the radio alarm begins to blare the news. The United States
is threatening to pull out of the World Conference Against Racism if
the conversation includes tensions between Israel and the
Palestinians. What a nightmare, I think as I sit up in bed. How can
the most powerful and diverse country on earth refuse to go to the
first global discussion of race? No one expected easy accord about
what's racial and what's not, but to refuse to attend the discussion
Perhaps I am unduly depressed because I am in a
small motel somewhere in...South Dakota, is it? Or maybe San Diego? I
made the terrible mistake of watching Planet of the Apes the
night before, in this dim room whose walls are flocked in orange fuzz
with silver trim. It is the end of a long week of speaking to
organizations that have called me in because someone has done
something like hang a big noose over a black person's work space, and
they would like me--me!--to get everyone speaking
The last five days have involved flying into
Pittsburgh or Salt Lake City or Tampa in order to take a shuttle to
terminal Z, where militia members in camouflage or square dance teams
in pouffy skirts or troupes of young missionaries take flights to and
from small towns all over America in very small planes. I have been
lining up behind them, boarding ancient Cessna prop planes seating
ten--give or take carry-on weapons caches, guitars, extra Bibles and
box of diversity pamphlets--and bounce low to the ground all the way
to Saginaw or Elko or Huntsville or Dayton.
I get out of
bed and look for coffee on the room service menu. There is no room
service menu. There is no room service.
The gentleman who
comes to greet me on behalf of the Better Business Through
Multicultural Harmony Committee is from Bahrain and hails me like a
long-lost sister. I can assure you from personal experience how
dramatically America's demographics are changing; the smaller and
more off the beaten track the American town, the more likely the
confused little minority community will include representatives
recently arrived from Bangladesh or Sudan or Cambodia or
The gentleman from Bahrain settles me into a
large, all-American car and whisks me off into the cornfields and
more cornfields. An hour later we hit a strip mall, turn left, a mile
and a half of soybeans--et voilà! East-West Central
Southern Industries (name changed to protect the innocent). The
conference room at whose door he deposits me has coffee! muffins! and
is really pretty pleasant, even given my yuppie
The problem I have been asked to tackle is a
new but essentially old-fashioned one. Someone with too much free
time has created a list of all the employees, put it online and
created the kind of cyberspatial graffiti that one hoped one never
had to think about after tenth grade, when notebooks were passed
around with a name on each page, and cruel anonymous comments were
scrawled beneath. This particular list ranks everyone by sexiness,
intelligence, dress and, perhaps most destructively, smell. The
comments are racialized, sexually crude, almost pathologically
immature but as hard to dismiss as a punch in the stomach. It is a
bully's shopping list of strategies to humiliate, and it has created
the intended havoc, spilling into the small town beyond. "Affirmative
action bitch. Wears Payless shoes," is a typically bitter little
It takes me all morning just to sort out who has
injured whom. Virtually everyone in the company has hurled enough
epithets to make everyone else on the planet hate them forever. I
decide to speak to just a few people, those in the best position to
try to make some systemic improvements.
The gentleman from
Bahrain volunteers to organize a dinner. He makes a few phone calls
on my behalf, and soon we are off to a Vietnamese restaurant in the
mall, where we meet with an odd assortment of community organizers
and spokesmen. The cast of characters includes a local black minister
who (like a weird inverted image of George W. Bush's saying that the
Nation of Islam was one of the world's great religions) is worried
that his new Islamic Moroccan neighbors are followers of Louis
Farrakhan. There's a white police officer who is sincerely trying to
smooth the waters while dropping phrases like "outside agitators" and
"stingy as a Jew." There's a Nigerian man with five sons who is
worried about his children being called "gang members" every time
they walk to school together. There's a Native-American man who shows
up to protest that no one remembered to invite him.
the head of a local evangelical group trying to raise money to buy
Sudanese slaves in order to set them free. There's a representative
of a human rights agency who says that buying slaves is not a
political solution but rather encourages traders to raise the price.
"It's part of a larger global sex market," he says. "And it operates
right here in America--you don't have to travel to Eastern Europe or
Africa. Would you consider going to some big-time pimps, buying a few
sex slaves, setting them free on a street corner and really think
you'd accomplished much of anything in the way of eliminating the
There is a genial Republican Party leader who
wants me to meet a Mozambican woman who has been studying at the
local university and who is miserably homesick. "We haven't done our
job if she wants to go back to a country like that," he says, and
introduces me as "an example of what can be achieved in the US." She
is a charming person, with a degree from the Sorbonne. "Mozambique is
my home," she sighs wearily. "Americans know nothing of
And there's a recently arrived Palestinian
refugee and a Jewish teacher whose family migrated to this town
seventy years ago. They are neighbors, and express overlapping
concerns about events in the Middle East. "We might not get along at
all if we were there. But here we are friends. Here," they add, "it
is everybody else." As we gaze around the room, it does seem as if
these two are the only ones on fully cordial terms.
they conclude after a moment's reflection, "at least they all showed
There was a short note in the New York Times a few months ago reporting that Governor Jeb Bush wept while speaking to the Southern Regional Conference of the National Baptist Congress of Christian Education. He was crying, it turns out, for a press aide of his, a black woman who he said had been scorned by other blacks because she worked for him. "I'm not crying for me, I'm crying for you, Leslie, and others who have to make the ultimate sacrifice." The woman in question then mounted the podium and handed him "a tissue for his eyes." It was an affecting little story in its narrative elements, the strong but kindhearted white statesman who cries for the lost society of his black aide, while she, the brave moral soldier, risks all--race, face, culture, friends--for her beliefs.
I'd like to succumb to the feel-good sentimentality of it all, but when Republicans say they are going to reach out to the black community, as they have made such fuss about doing of late--well, frankly, I cringe. I remember George Bush the elder getting all choked up about Clarence Thomas's "ultimate sacrifice." I have awful recollections of the Republican Party courting Sammy Davis Jr. so that he could weep, or was it laugh, with Richard Nixon. Oh, the highs, the lows.
In any event, despite the Bush team's race to pose with black church ladies and black mayors and black children enrolled at failing inner-city schools, a recent Gallup poll shows African-American optimism about race relations is lower than it was thirty-five years ago. While seven out of ten whites say that blacks and whites are treated the same, a similar number of blacks say that blacks and whites are treated very differently. The poll also shows that since Bush's election, blacks have grown substantially more pessimistic about their political future, even as 70 percent felt positive about their personal lives. While some commentators found this contradictory, it was a statistic that struck home with me. I am a black person who feels personally content; I am grateful for what I have and work hard to protect my little status quo. But at the same time, I am just plain scared of what the future holds for dark-skinned people in the political arena.
Perhaps the Bush team will read of my dejection, perhaps they will read this much and weep. Then again, perhaps not: As David Bositis, of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, has said, reaching out to African-Americans most likely wouldn't win many black votes but could help Bush expand his base. "I think the strategy has less to do with getting black support than with making Bush appear more moderate to swing voters, particularly white women in the suburbs, who have a sense that the GOP is an antiblack party."
It is interesting to compare how well the Gallup poll's documentation of divided racial perceptions corresponds to actual conditions. After all, a recent Harvard study shows that US schools grew more segregated during the 1990s for both blacks and Latinos. A study conducted by the Washington Post shows that blacks experience more discrimination than any other ethnic group by far. (The "ethnicities" specified in the study were black, white, Asian and Latino. Native Americans weren't mentioned, and the complicating factor that Latinos are sometimes categorized as either black or white was not addressed. Nevertheless, if one accepts that these labels reveal more about our society as a pigmentocracy rather than about ethnicity in the strict sense, then such data are still extremely interesting.)
This deep division is not a matter of whether we see the glass half-full or half-empty--a cliché that minimizes the irrationality of what is going on as just a matter of conflicting opinions. In the face of nationwide statistics that establish that dark-skinned people of whatever ethnicity are stopped, searched and arrested more frequently and sentenced more harshly; in the face of statistics showing that blacks across the socioeconomic spectrum get much less comprehensive medical treatment for illnesses ranging from asthma to AIDS to cancer to heart attacks; in the face of figures revealing that banks, employers, restaurants and real estate agents still routinely engage in redlining and other discriminatory lending and business practices; given the realities of environmental racism; given the gutting of civil rights laws to the point where Congress is now debating handing money to religious groups that "believe" in discrimination; given marginalization in the voting process and given fears of a recession... well, it's no wonder blacks are a little less positive. The only wonder is how deeply race rather than citizenship affects the ability to hear this bad news.
On a recent radio program, I heard a woman describing a reunion of family and friends that had been planned for a resort in South Carolina during a time when the NAACP had called for a tourism boycott until the Confederate flag was removed from state property. She said that the extended family had "never" discussed race before, and so they consulted with one another about what to do and whether to go. They did go, but passed the hat and contributed the money to the NAACP. I didn't hear the woman reveal her race, but it's a safe bet that group was white. How else do you go through life "never" thinking about race?
I thought about race when I found myself at Boston's South Station last week, at midnight, vainly trying to get a cab to the airport. The fact that black cabbies pass blacks by as often as white cabbies is no more comforting than, say, having Clarence Thomas joy ride the freedom train right on past black precincts with the same blithe blindness as Antonin Scalia.
But, hey. If it's any comfort to Jeb Bush, my sense is that black people don't revile his black press aide any more than they revile old Jeb himself. And if there's weeping to be done about lost black regard, common decency demands that big brother George should lead the doing of it.
As for Jeb's press aide, the one with Kleenex to spare, I do believe she was last heard trilling, to the tune of "Oh, Susannah": "Oh, young Jeb Bush/Oh, don't you weep for me/For I'm going to make some big bucks/As a black con-ser-va-teeeev!"
The United States has one of the highest rates of intrafamilial violence of any nation in the world. As a statistical composite, we Americans are a nation of grieving adults and idealized infants, grim cynics and lost innocents. Given our daily headlines, this should not come as a complete surprise, I suppose. But it is interesting nonetheless, our erstwhile obsession with the perfect child in the perfect family, yet our collective unwillingness to provide the kind of social safety net that other industrialized nations enjoy. From the Menendez brothers to Susan Smith, the media-projected national family dynamic sometimes makes one think of the Greek god Kronos devouring his children whole, ultimately forced to vomit them, kicking and vengeful, back out again.
For anyone seeking what's left of the stereotypical, honest-to-God-sanctified-by-marriage American household, the past few weeks have been particularly good for grim cynics, particularly bad for lost innocents. In Massachusetts, for example, Leo Felton, the Aryan supremacist son of a white mother and black father, was arrested for trying to ignite a race war. His wife, who took a sledgehammer to his computer so as to destroy evidence, claims to have been motivated only by a deep sense of wifely duty and a divinely mandated commitment to her marriage vows. The couple are converts to Greek Orthodoxy. Felton's girlfriend, on the other hand, who helped him stockpile a goodly amount of ammonium nitrate, appears to have been somewhat less devoutly faith-based in her initiative. (The race war was to have been waged against blacks or Jews, in case you're wondering. Freud would have been busy in contemporary America.)
In Idaho, meanwhile, where crazed Easterners seem to flock in order to pass as fierce mountain men and have standoffs with mustachioed local lawmen, there is the odd, sad tale of Michael McGuckin. McGuckin, a graduate of the exclusive Groton preparatory school and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was the less-than-perfect son (he didn't go to Harvard, he married beneath his station) of a Boston Brahmin family whose ancestors founded, among other institutions, the venerable firm of Shreve, Crump & Low. Over the years, McGuckin and his wife found religion, home-schooled their children and retreated further into the literal wilderness of Idaho's backwoods, as well as into the figurative thicket of their own fears. After he died of multiple sclerosis in May, the family's strange, impoverished living conditions came to the attention of outsiders, and McGuckin's wife was arrested for felony child neglect. When social service workers came to the house, six of his eight children held off local authorities at gunpoint for five days.
But the case generating most attention of late is undoubtedly that of Andrea Yates, the Houston housewife who drowned her five children in the bathtub. "Both of us really went into our marriage, you know, saying we'll just have as many kids as came along," said her husband, a computer programmer with deeply held evangelical Christian convictions, of her postpartum illness that had increased with the birth of each child.
In a mothers' Internet chat room I once logged onto, the site with the most hits belonged to a woman who had nine boys including two sets of twins, all of them under the age of 9. Any advice? she pleaded. Birth control! read the first reply. So how many girls do you have? read the second. Prozac, read the third.
Andrea Yates had been prescribed antipsychotic drugs much stronger than Prozac, and she clearly had longer-term mental health problems than just a lot of children. But the Yates case revealed a deep gender divide about the isolation and stress of family and motherhood in a society that extols self-sufficiency as its premiere human value. From Anna Quindlen to Marie Osmond, a remarkable range of women publicly confessed a kind of empathy for Yates--for what Quindlen called the forbidden understanding: "There is the unimaginable idea of the killings. And then there is the entirely imaginable idea of going quietly bonkers in the house with five kids under the age of 7."
On the other side of the gender divide were voices like those of Howie Carr, a shock jock with the harshly complex voice of a smashmouthed Puritan elder. "Whaddaya think?" railed Carr, challenging his viewers to call in. "Should she fry?" Seventy percent of Carr's viewers thought that yes, Andrea Yates should be fried at once. And indeed, Texas prosecutors--scrupulously avoiding the vulgarity of such words as "fry"--charged Mrs. Yates with capital murder, for which execution is a likely penalty.
In 1892 Charlotte Perkins Gilman published The Yellow Wallpaper, her fictional critique of the marital exemplars of the time: controlling martinet husband who nevertheless embodied civic virtue; genteel obedient wife, confined by the so-called cult of true womanhood to her duties in the nursery, slowly and surely going mad. If Gilman were writing today, I think her novella would not be so very different but for a few updates. It would feature a wife as the promise-kept prisoner of a divinely driven, hovering husband, as still home alone in the nursery but taking all kinds of prescription drugs to help keep things moving serenely. Perhaps she may even have attended (with her husband, of course) the fifth annual Smart Marriages, Happy Families convention in Orlando, Florida--"a grand bazaar for the growing relationship-building, marriage-promotion business," according to the Boston Globe. She would stay in her marriage with no thought of divorce, for fear of becoming one of those welfare recipients whose antithesis she supposedly represented, those women with no husbands whose street-schooled children are hooked on all those terrible, numbing nonprescription drugs.
Andrea Yates purportedly told police that she killed her children because she was a bad mother who had permanently damaged them. And so perfection chases intolerance chases cruelty, collapsing in a heap of tragic paradox. We are a nation of individualists, with little sense that, just beyond the back fence of our fear, we could be building the villages that might help us, if just a little bit.
Now that Timothy McVeigh has been executed, I suppose we're all supposed to stop talking about it--to "enjoy closure," a bit like the election.
But McVeigh's execution was troubling on so many levels, it's hard to know where to begin. It was alarming to watch the procedural impatience, the official "just get it over with" mentality, despite defense lawyers' not having had a chance to go through more than 4,000 pages of FBI documents that no one disputes ought to have been turned over before McVeigh's trial.
It was distressing to hear the semantic shiftiness of our President as he described the event. To us individualists at home, he said that it was McVeigh who "chose" this method of reckoning; to a European audience it was "the will of the people in the United States." Like some libertarian Pontius Pilate, Bush washed his hands of any responsibility, skillfully uncoupling the role of the executive from execution. It's bad enough to have a death penalty; it is positively chilling when the chief poohbah shrugs it off as though helpless, assigning federally engineered death to forces beyond him.
It was incredible to see anti-death penalty commentators apologizing constantly, always having to blither "of course no one condones his actions"--as though arguing for life imprisonment made one the squishiest, most bleeding-heart of moral equivocators. As a New York Times commentary observed, "Experts said it was the wrong case to debate--many people who do not approve of the death penalty wanted Mr. McVeigh to die."
Yet if one really wants to test the commitment of a civilization to its expressed principles of justice, the McVeigh case is exactly the right case to debate. There was little question as to his guilt (even if the question of conspiracy remains an open one in some quarters), his crime was inexpressibly reprehensible and he maintained a demeanor of controlled, remorseless calculation to the end. In other words, it is precisely the dimension of his evil that presses us to consider most seriously the limits of state force. The question is whether we want to license our government to kill, rather than just restrain by imprisoning, the very worst among us.
Much recent debate about capital punishment has focused on probabilities: the repeated demonstration that "beyond a reasonable doubt" is a matter of considerable uncertainty and outright error. I have recommended before Actual Innocence by Jim Dwyer, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, and I do so here again. These lawyers' work with the Innocence Project has led to dozens of releases from death row and to calls for moratoriums in states where pro-death penalty sentiment once ran high.
There is also the question of disparate impact, particularly upon minorities and the poor. "There are no racial overtones in [McVeigh's] conviction," wrote the New York Times in an editorial. Perhaps that's true if considered in a vacuum, but certainly not with regard to its procedural legacy. If the FBI couldn't get right the most important and supposedly most careful investigation in its history--and still no stay was granted--then there is no hope in any other case. McVeigh's "nonracial" fate, moreover, will surely be invoked highhandedly in all those more routine, less highly scrutinized cases. The fact that of the remaining federal death row inmates only two are white is, according to John Ashcroft, merely "normal." For more on this aspect of the debate, I recommend reading Legal Lynching: The Death Penalty and America's Future, by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. and The Nation's own Bruce Shapiro. Forthcoming from The New Press, it is an eloquent argument against the inequity of the death penalty's administration and makes a compelling case against its violent irreversibility, its unredeemable finality as pursued by prosecutors, judges and juries who are, after all, far from all-knowing or divine.
One of the saddest parts of the McVeigh saga was listening to the endlessly amplified testimonials of those survivors and family members whose sentiments were premised on vengeance being "mine" rather than the Lord's. One woman wished the electric chair had been used, because it would have been more painful. Another said, "I think bombs should be strapped on him, and then he can walk around the room forever until they went off and he wouldn't know when it would happen."
Such traumatized expectations led to predictable disappointment. "I really wanted him to say something," said one witness. "I wanted him to see me," said another. "I thought I would feel something more satisfying, but I don't," said a victim's son. "For him just to have gone asleep seems unfair." This sort of desire for "more" leaves us poised on the edge of an appetite for re-enacted violence and voyeurism. Given the horrific losses McVeigh's crime incurred, this primal hunger can be almost seductive--a howl of mourning very hard to resist, never mind debate. But it is dangerous if it allows us to lose sight of the fact that the debate we must have is, again, about the limits of state force, not about devising the perfect mirror of each victim's suffering.
But the bottomlessness of that individual trauma is not something we can afford to ignore either. For a wise and extremely moving reflection on this dimension, I recommend Susan Brison's Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self, forthcoming from Princeton. Brison, a Dartmouth College philosophy professor who was raped, strangled and left for dead, analyzes the post-traumatic stress syndrome that still colors her life and reflects on the resilience needed to carry on. "Trauma," she writes, "destroys the illusion of control over one's life. It fractures the chronology of a life's narrative--not in the way a stopped watch makes time look like it's standing still, but like the thirteenth chime of a crazy clock that throws everything that came before into question."
"9:03" reads an inscription on the Oklahoma City National Memorial. Would that we could undo that awful moment in Oklahoma City by sacrificing McVeigh's one life for all the others, but the difficult paradox of healing is having to live on and through that wilderness of grief with no illusion of control.
Bosco, a black labrador retriever owned by Tim Stillman of Sunol, a small community near San Francisco, has been Mayor there for over eight years--after getting more votes than two humans!
--Ripley's Believe It or Not!
Moms, Dads, Kids of All Ages! If you are bored with life down on the farm, step right this way. If you are hankering for a taste of the out-of-the-ordinary with a dollop of the just-plain-weird--well, have we got the head-spinning, and spine-tingling, and stomach-churning show of a lifetime for you!
Amazing feats of courage! Watch as... Democrats vote to confirm archconservative Theodore Olson as Solicitor General. Contemplating their imminent majority status, they "decided they did not want to defeat the nomination as the first exercise of their new power."
Balancing acts with no safety net! Did you know... that the Solicitor General's function includes presenting all Justice Department cases, including civil rights cases, to the Supreme Court on behalf of the American people? (Since the Supreme Court ruled recently that there is no individual right but only a government interest in pursuing disparate impact discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, it will be Attorney General John Ashcroft's job to decide whether to prosecute such discrimination at all!)
Divine revelation! Have you heard... that Attorney General Ashcroft has publicly assured the National Rifle Association that his Justice Department will interpret the Second Amendment of the Constitution as guaranteeing a right to individuals--not just a collective right--to possess firearms? Believe it or not, this view has absolutely no grounding in federal or Supreme Court jurisprudence of the past 119 years! Incredibly, this would put owning a gun on the same unregulated constitutional basis as freedom of speech or religion!
Watch as Holy Men make the wall between church and state disappear before your very eyes! Your heart will race when you witness... a United States Senate hearing exploring the merits of George W. Bush's plan to provide federal funding to religious groups providing social services! Assemblies of God minister John Castellani, while testifying about his drug treatment program, Teen Challenge International, has already disclosed that some Jewish clients who had gone through the program had joined his church, thus becoming what he called "completed Jews." Coming soon to political theaters near you: Experienced, inside-the-Beltway guides will take you to the exotic habitats of the "finished Negro," the "terminated homosexual" and the "well-done wife."
Fasten those seatbelts!... Now that the Supreme Court has said it's OK to formally arrest citizens for minor offenses including traffic violations, let's see what happens as Justice Souter's "common sense" standard guides police officers in making such arrests!
Just plain common sense!... In West Orange, New Jersey, a group of ten black high school boys and girls were stopped, handcuffed and pat-searched as they were shopping for prom dresses and tuxedos. Civil rights groups protested. Authorities promised to investigate but continue to maintain that suspect profiling is not in and of itself intentional discrimination, though it may indeed have a disparate impact on minorities.
Wow!... In Washington, DC, nine middle-school students were taken on a "preventative" field trip to jail where they were strip-searched and shown how prisoners are shackled and handcuffed to "show them what would happen if they were arrested."
Gasp!... In Afghanistan, the Taliban's Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Suppression of Vice began requiring Hindus to wear yellow patches on their clothing supposedly as a way of "protecting" them from harassment by Islamic religious police.
Truth is stranger than fiction!... New York City's Mayor Rudolph Giuliani tried to appoint his divorce lawyer to a Decency Commission whose function will be to purge New York's publicly funded museums of vulgar, obscene, feces-smeared displays!
Kids! Can you connect the dots to help Bosco find his way back to the beginning?
Point E. "Give me one example that proves evolution. One example! You can't." --Tom DeLay, Republican from Texas and majority whip, who advocates a more "God-centered" America devoted to "the Constitution and to Absolute Truth that has been manipulated and destroyed by a liberal worldview."
Point D. The Louisiana legislature refused to pass a resolution that would have called for rejection of Darwin as racist, arguing that his theories "advocated the notion of superior and inferior races." Opponents argued that it was an "indirect way to support creationism."
Point C. The Louisiana legislature instead approved a resolution condemning racism and the idea of superior races with no mention of Darwin or evolution.
Point B. According to a leaked report from the German government, Qaddafi has declared he's given up terrorism because he's worried about the growth of fundamentalist extremism in the world.
Point A. Senator James Jeffords of Vermont leaves the Republican Party to become an independent.
Disclaimer: We at Bosco's Big! Best! Believe It or Not! make no representation or guarantee as to the higher powers that have brought such a miraculous paradox to pass. As we maintained during last month's magical manifestation of the Mona Lisa as she materialized upon sixty-five pieces of ordinary whole wheat toast, sometimes the "how" of the world remains a mystery wrapped in faith and coincidence, beyond the realm of science.
I was driving my son to soccer practice not long ago, listening to a National Public Radio wrap-up of President Bush's first hundred days in office. My son, who was just a baby when Bill Clinton was elected, observed idly: "If Bush stays in office as long as Clinton did, I'll be almost 17 years old before we have someone new."
It was lucky I had both hands on the steering wheel. My heart began to pound, a foggy sense of doom misted my eyes, and random bits of Milton began to echo in my ears. "Help us to save free conscious from the paw/Of hireling wolves, whose Gospel is their maw," I muttered.
My son, oblivious, sat in the back seat playing with his calculator. "Only two thousand, eight hundred and twenty days to go, Mom."
No one on National Public Radio had been grim enough to look that far into the future; I guess they had their hands full trying to sort out the mess of the first three and a half months. But the thought that struck me hardest was: Strom Thurmond will be 106! (For unlike certain foolish prognosticators who would have him with one foot in the grave, I know Faustian fanoodling when I see it. That man is going to live forever.)
I was also thinking about all that Bush has undone in his first hundred days, then trying to multiply it by a factor of twenty-nine and two-tenths. I was envisioning a missile defense shield protecting Texas from attack by Northern liberals. I was seeing corporate lobbyists clinking flutes of champagne in the newly renamed ExxonMobil Bedroom of the White House. And I was imagining oil derricks pumping away on the front lawn of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, brought to you by Beautiful and Profitable America, the First Family's attempt to one-up Lady Bird Johnson. ("National treasures and effective resource management can coexist," Laura Bush would say with Jacqueline Kennedyesque breathlessness.)
Within the first hundred days and while media pundits were absorbed with wondering whether Chelsea Clinton had political aspirations, Colin Powell's son became head of the FCC. William Rehnquist's daughter was nominated for Inspector General with Health and Human Services. Antonin Scalia's son was made Solicitor of Labor. Clarence Thomas's wife was nominated for a top position in the Office of Management and Budget. And Strom Thurmond's son, only three years out of law school, was handpicked by Strom himself to be South Carolina's US Attorney.
At this rate, eight years from now Rudolph Giuliani's son will be our new Decency Czar, Newt Gingrich's fourth wife will head up the Compassionately Conservative Commission on the Alarming Breakdown of Family in the Inner City and Linda Chavez's favorite charitable donees will be directing the Spanish-for-the-House-and-Garden Literacy Campaign.
"That's sixty-seven thousand, six hundred and eighty hours more, Mom..."
In the first hundred days, the United States military had unfortunate accidents involving a Japanese fishing boat, a Chinese jet and, in Peru, a planeload of American missionaries. Salvadoran officials have alleged that USAID-funded relief organizations were dispensing help only to those traumatized earthquake victims who renounced Catholicism and took an evangelical Protestant Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. The White House offices on women and on race were abolished in favor of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. And the Supreme Court ruled that individuals do not have the right to sue under Title VI for de facto discrimination in the administration of federally funded programs.
Over the next few years, I fear whole "accidental" wars. I foresee Latin America having the most devout bread lines in the world. And I predict that the notion of equal opportunity will be used to prohibit race-, gender-, age- or disability-conscious contemplation of disparity in any public place at any time (unless you're a frat boy or professional athlete, in which case it will fall into the category of God-given free speech).
If Bush is elected (or whatever) for a second term, it will be the year 2009 before he's turned out to pasture. During the first hundred days, the United States was voted off the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. The Supreme Court upheld the right of police officers to arrest people for minor traffic violations. The American Bar Association--denounced by this Administration as too left-wing--has effectively been fired from its role in determining the fitness of nominees to the bench, while the ultraconservative Federalist Society has all but changed its name to the Federal Judiciary. Orrin Hatch has been suggested as an odds-on favorite for the Supreme Court. (I am trying hard not to think about what he will look like in a Justice's billowing black robes, waving that copy of The Exorcist to which he referred with such crazed eloquence during the Clarence Thomas hearings.)
In years to come, it is not hard to imagine Attila the Hun being denounced as too left-wing. We already have serious scholarly discussions about how to make public executions this nation's most civic-minded reality TV. Not a Survivor, I guess they'd have to call it. Taking the lead from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (who suggested that Timothy McVeigh make his last meal a vegan one so as to advertise their cause--McVeigh declined politely, saying time was too short to debate the matter further), I can see Kentucky Fried and Burger King having infinitely more luck with a catchy script like "In thinking about that all-important last meal when off to meet your maker..." Which I suppose is something we should all be thinking about inasmuch as the hole in the ozone seems to be growing in inverse proportion to the Bush Administration's commitment to clean air.
"Only four million, sixty thousand, eight hundred minutes left, Mom..." He'll be driving, I think. He'll be almost old enough to vote. And then, in his persistent, still-a-little-boy voice, I hear a gravitas he cannot fully grasp: "What comes after that?"
A parody of Gone With the Wind has run into legal trouble: too revealing of the real nature of slavery?
It was one of those odd little paragraphs that leap out at you, so filled with unexpected images it was. "What would Al Sharpton do if Bush calls him?" inquired Peter Noel in a recent issue of the Village Voice. Sharpton's reply was pure deadpan: "I would not meet with Bush alone.... There has to be an agenda that the black collective agrees with. Clearly, I'm not looking to be part of the Bush administration."
It was inspiring to know that Al Sharpton had seriously thought about what to do if Bush should call him. It was inspiring because I figure there's at least as much chance of Bush calling me as Sharpton. So if the press is interviewing him about such prospects, then I should be prepared.
First of all, the Bush team needs me. I don't know how to say this gently, because I know how hard they tried, but most of us in the black community agree that Sister Condoleezza and Brother Colin do not a rainbow coalition make. And since John Ashcroft is backed by the Christian Coalition and Bob Jones University, I know that Bush knows that the fair and unifying thing to do now would be to make a radical lefty critical race theorist like me the head of the civil rights division. Yes, me--the frizzy-haired feminist alternative to Al Sharpton. I offer myself up as Bush's own personal Lani Guinier.
Since we're looking ahead here, I must confess that, like Sharpton, I wouldn't meet with Bush alone. Not that I worry about becoming the next Monica Lewinsky or anything, but all in all, I'd want witnesses. The kind of witnesses I'll bet Donald Rumsfeld wishes he had to explain those tapes in the National Archives. The ones in which he agrees with Nixon that African blacks are "just out of the trees." Rumsfeld, who's heard saying, "That's right," "I know" and "That's for sure," now has no better excuse to fall back upon except that he was "acknowledging," not agreeing with, Nixon.
But with me, a Bush White House would never have to worry about such embarrassing moments, because on each and every tape for posterity you'd hear me, loud and clear, exclaiming, "Say what?" and "You've got to be kidding!" You'd hear me reciting the Emancipation Proclamation, telling people about the Reconstruction Amendments, chanting passages from international conventions against the death penalty and pointing out Greece on the map.
What of my broader political agenda, you may well ask. Unlike Al Sharpton, I'm not ambitious enough to come up with something with which a presumed "black collective" might entirely agree. Nevertheless, since I was among the 92 percent of blacks who collectively voted Democratic, I'm confident that I'll be a lot closer to that goal than Republican "civil rights activists" like Abigail Thernstrom.
Like Laura Bush, I'm also a great believer in literacy. So when Lynne Cheney rises up to decry the decadent state of the arts in America, I'll help out by making sure the National Archives has plenty of copies of that lusty lesbian love story she published before Dick gave her what must have been a really, really good spanking. When librarians ban Harry Potter for promoting witchcraft, I'll be sure to suggest that they try replacing it with the 1853 edition of The Very Hungry Caterpillar--that children's book Bush says he so enjoyed reading as a child, but that some bitter liberals insist wasn't published until the year he graduated from college.
When John Ashcroft waxes nostalgic about the good old days of the Confederacy when "the races" lived together in honeyed harmony, I'll help set up the Sally Hemings Memorial Genealogical Resource Center so that all of us black folk who were so much happier then can find our way back to our beloved masters. I sincerely look forward to homesteading my own little cabin-in-the-garage, listening to the chilluns tell the neighbors how like family we all are. If the Missus wants to give me a little pocket money, and if I freely choose to do a few small chores like plowing the back forty, then isn't that precisely the utopian arrangement that former Labor Secretary-designate Linda Chavez, referring to the hospitality she bestowed upon a former slave of her own, described as "an act of charity and compassion"? Indeed, I foresee a mass migration of freedom-weary blacks streaming back to Tara to live with our good white cousins who have been waiting all these years for us to see that home is where the DNA says it is.
Moreover, when failed nominee Chavez continues to attack labor unions for interfering with such good intentions from her post at the Center for Equal Opportunity, I will see to it that she becomes a global role model of free enterprise, and on prime time. I'm pretty sure I could interest Fox in a program called Survivor Too. I see Ms. Chavez and the entire cast of characters of her think tank being transported to a remote tenement building in South Central Los Angeles. There they would have to learn to catch and broil rats, thatch their own roofs, find an open gas station when the toilets overflow and commute to their jobs in Washington, DC, by public transportation. To make it interesting, I suppose we could jack up the stakes with a Wolof-only language requirement. Each week, we the American public would be allowed to call in our votes and kick one resident out onto the street, where, dressed only in skimpy rat-skin jerkins, they would be consigned to begging for food on the mean streets of the financial district. If Chavez gets to Washington within one year of Inauguration Day, she gets that Cabinet post after all.
Finally, when Tommy Thompson succeeds in getting a federal ban on abortion and does away with welfare as we know it, I pledge to resurrect Jonathan Swift's modest proposal that the nation's Truly Deserving Rich round out their diets by dining on the plump babies of the Truly Undeserving Poor.
A baby in every pot, a contented ex-slave in every garage. I sit by the phone, waiting to serve.
I write from shipboard, on the Nation cruise. The boat has just pulled away from port and chugs toward the horizon, leaving land behind. We are fourth in a line of cruise ships departing the harbor at sunset, all glittering in a blaze of orange and pink and turquoise. I look back at the shore and think: America. What a beautiful, rich, blessed land we live in. What more than the land itself could Coronado and Ponce de León have been seeking? Why gold? Why youth? Why even piña coladas? The pure pleasure of this place ought to have been enough.
And yet... it is a mixed sensation, for I am also relieved to see the land receding just now, suspended as we are in the tense limbo of this, the first week of December 2000. It is good to leave behind Rush Limbaugh's meanspirited radio transmissions, the foaming attacks on Jesse Jackson, the use of insulting stereotypes of black people to attack Al Gore and Bill Clinton. It is a relief to take a break from the contemptuous public disrespect for the function of courts, the role of lawyers, the intentions of voters, the requirements of process. As Florida slips beneath the horizon, and CNN's signal crackles and grows fuzzy, I feel like a black-single-mother version of Henry David Thoreau, only standing at the brink of a much bigger and much deeper pond: "To me, away there in my bean-field at the other end of the town, the big guns sounded as if a puffball had burst; and when there was a military turnout...I have sometimes had a vague sense all the day of some sort of itching and disease in the horizon."
What a time we live in. On November 7, I stayed up late like everyone else, listening to National Public Radio on my Walkman. I fell asleep with the headphones on sometime in the wee hours of November 8, exhausted by the flummoxed newscasters' frantic flips and flops. Gore was winning when I lost consciousness. When I awoke hours later, the tinny sound in my ears had changed: A sneering, gleeful voice was making fun of Florida's elderly and "NEEE-gro" voters. I lay frozen. What I didn't know was that NPR is only a hair's bandwidth away from The Howard Stern Show and that in my sleep I had apparently flipped and flopped as much as the results, enough to move the dial a fraction. So it was that my first waking thought was: "Dear God, George Bush won, and they've taken over NPR. The revolution has begun."
It's been all downhill from there. Over the days and weeks since, we have witnessed an eerily exact re-enactment of the tie that led up to the Hayes-Tilden compromise of 1876, as a result of which the federal government pulled troops out of the post-Civil War South. This in turn led directly to the collapse of Reconstruction and the vengeful reassertion of that brand of separatist white supremacy so vividly depicted in D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation.
In the weeks since, we have heard George Bush say that it's the executive's job to interpret the law, an idea that Augusto Pinochet surely would endorse. We have watched another Ryder truck (remember Timothy McVeigh?) make its way into the annals of American history. We have shared yet one more "O.J. moment," as Floridians lined the streets to watch the truck speed by, cheering, hooting and taking photos. And given that America's most precious natural resource turns out not to have been gold but rather the entertainment industry, we have been graced with enough material from which to spin conspiracy plots for years and years to come. I see blockbusters like Elián's Revenge, Jeb Jimmies the Lockbox, and of course, The South Shall Rise Again.
In the weeks since November 8, my cruel British friends have had a field day. So soon after the last fiasco, so soon after the spectacle of the Inquisition-style moralists who tried to impeach Bill Clinton, I find myself explaining American peculiarities yet again to the exceedingly upbeat English. They twitter on in the most condescending way about former colonies that simply aren't ready to govern themselves. I try to be serious and explain the Electoral College. They say they are quite informed about American history, thank you very much, and could I please explain why only three-fifths of Florida's electorate was counted while at the same time three-fifths of the people who have declared George Bush a winner are related to him? Is it fuzzy math or fuzzy brain that keeps Americans from noticing that Bush's margin of victory is about the same as the number of people he has executed in Texas?
"You lot got your knickers in quite a knot this time, eh?" gloat the Cruel British Friends.
"A real atomic wedgie," I concede.
In the postelection weeks, my sleep has been troubled by strange visions. I dream that Al Gore and George Bush are standing in the ring at Madison Square Garden, Gore bouncing up and down in his Harvard boxing shorts and nice new leather gloves, Bush trying to look presidential while wearing a Hell's Angels vest, swinging a chain and hiding a switchblade.
Another night I dream that Bush is President, and, first thing, the neural pathways for Croatians and Koreans get crossed in his brain. He ends up thinking they're all "Corians" and while his advisers are out finding floor samples, he drops bombs on the nearest thing he can find on a map--which would be those poor doomed Grecians. World War III breaks out, world markets plunge and the sublimina-limina-lominable hordes sweep down from the north, south, east and west.
Other times I dream I am arguing before the Supreme Court, and Bush appointee Kenneth Starr is our new Chief Justice. The United States Constitution is a jewel, I say, whose multifaceted brilliance takes time, polishing and the infinite honing of years of courtroom argumentation by the finest minds dressed in Brooks Brothers suits, blah, blah, blah. The dream always ends with just that: blah, blah, blah.
Anyway, back onboard the Nation cruise, I turn my attention to preparing my remarks for the first morning's panel, titled--I restrain myself from comment--"The Nation At Sea: Where Are We Headed?" I furrow my brow and chew my pencil. I stare at the blank white paper. "Paris," I write at last.