Arundhati Roy, Angela Davis, roses, and Black Wall Street

Thank you for showing up to my inconsistent writing experiment.

This is my latest interview for The Creative Independent with friend and theater maker/disruptor Modesto Flako Jimenez. Some of him:

“I think about audience all the time. What am I giving you and what are you gonna give me at the end of this, because there’s a trade-off. I usually create places where I could document your voice after. Tell us your story connected to what you just saw, to make sure that we are both giving each other something. My stories are just the Dominican in America trying to tell that story of the immigrant and you don’t know this, you should know this. The Immigrant has always been here and you are part of that. The only thing is that you are white, and forgetfulness is real. Constantly pushing all those boundaries of reminding the Latino that they’re worthy.

Reminding the white person that we’re here together. The bullshit you selling yourself is not real. Wake up. I need you to accept that and then we can have a conversation. If you don’t accept that we can’t. I like making them uncomfortable but also to the point of wanting to have the conversation and not shut down, so that’s my audience.”

Art as a trade-off, a conversation. Not just consumption as we are prone to do. Consume the art and consume the artist, until they are no more. I’m very glad I played a part in putting this conversation out into the world.

I read the Paris Review interview of Arundhati Roy by Hasan Altaf in the latest issue. It filled me today. The photos of a younger Roy in Delhi in her architecture school days or soon after with tanktops and cigarette held in her lips while lost in work over drawings, Roy in 2020 with short hair in Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi holding the gaze of one man in a group of men looking at her and attempting to make sense of this decidedly un-womanly woman, Roy embracing her mother from behind in 2014, Roy reading from The God of Small Things at the tip of a small boat in the Meenachil River in Kerala in 1997, Roy in 2020 in her Delhi home with her hand stroking a medium sized beautiful mutt of a dog that is laid out on a table next to a some coffee and papers she is reading.

With Roy, I keep coming back to the entire person, her nonfiction essays, the consistency of her voice and questioning of unchecked power, the life of a woman enjoying her life in India, as free as any woman I’ve seen there. A publicly free Indian woman who challenges the most powerful institutions there are through her words, through her life. But she seems to prioritize her joy, there is humor there.

How do I describe this scene. There are roses blooming in Brooklyn, despite it all. The roses bloom always despite everything. They have been in bloom now for maybe a week and some petals have begun decorating the ground. The roses themselves on this particular plant were heavy, laden with moisture from the rain tonite. Everything grey except for you. You stopped me in the rain.

God bless all the souls who are doing the labor of explaining to you why you should care about Palestinians being ethnically cleansed and removed from their homes with all the power of the Israeli state, because all the facts reasonable anti-apartheid folks need are at our fingertips. Easier to find than ever. So there’s no need to list any here. If you follow me anywhere I post and connect people to resources where you can read and learn. But if you are in the uneviable position of still both-sidesing, still parroting your parents or community without question, reacting the same way you always have reacted to the words Palestinian, Palestine without considering that you could be the oppressor, that you could be supporting apartheid, supporting children dying, well as I see it you have two options:

  1. Awake in this moment, under cover and/or with the support of many of your peers. Learn and be a part of a movement to stop the murder and theft. Be a part of something just. Stand up for something. Show your childhood self you can in fact still grow and learn.
  2. This option is not really viable for you or our collective survival (also see my last Substack), but sure I guess?

This article in T magazine about our current Western obsession with botanical oils and the real cost and responsibility.

“BEFORE THE 20TH century, there was no global beauty industry, no direct path between the forager in the Horn of Africa, mounting a tree with bandaged feet to scrape off precious resin, and the customer in a penthouse in New York City preparing to moisturize a parched face, rubbing palms together to warm the drops of a facial oil that costs more per ounce than a vintage Krug. “The origins of beauty products lie primarily in local knowledge of the scents and healing properties of plants, flowers and herbs, whose uses were bound by age-old religious and cultural beliefs,” the Harvard business historian Geoffrey Jones writes in “Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry” (2010). Cosmetics were the realm of alchemists and folk healers, apothecarists and home cooks, who gathered herbs and flowers, bruised and boiled them, then strained out the oils through linen — until colonialism opened up supply chains around the world.”

But as Barcan, the cultural theorist, points out, skyrocketing demand for “the natural” exacts environmental and human costs that are often ignored in the romantic narratives of returning to the wellspring of nature and reviving ancient traditions. To produce rosewood oil, for example, which purportedly calms inflammation and helps erase scars, whole trunks of Brazilian pau rosa (Aniba rosaeodora) are reduced to a rubble of chips, then steamed, yielding sometimes less than a hundredth of oil per each tree’s weight; since 2010, pau rosa has been classified as endangered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna. In India, where the government has attempted to control the harvesting and sale of sandalwood (Santalum album) to save the plant from extinction, a 50-year-old tree might be toppled for less than a liter of oil by poachers who regularly raid forests.”

This article which features quotes by the founder of my own guilty pleasure facial oil brand, Vintner’s Daughter, makes me think of how we would not have much of the knowledge around these botanicals/plants without the enduring legacies of indigenous peoples from around the world and as the article mentions, “alchemists and folk healers, apothecarists and home cooks.” Companies, especially white-owned beauty companies that profit off of the wisdom and labor of folks from Global South countries, would do well to highlight the people and knowledge involved in the ingredients they take. Would do well to learn about the economies and government regimes of the countries they take from. Are their business opportunities funding oppressive regimes? Are they able to remain in business because locals are dramatically underpaid? Global capitalism allows you to believe that we simply have more products to choose from in a worldwide market and buying cheap from Global South countries and selling high in Global North countries has no actual cost.

None of it can be sustainable, despite the label ‘sustainable’ on everything. I don’t trust white Westerners to know what that word means mostly, because in order to know how to sustain regions in Brown and Black countries where your products are coming from you have to unpack lifetimes/generations of white supremacy, which mostly is only recently even being identified as necessary work. So we see that white business owners of products stemming from the knowledge/livelihood of Black and Brown peoples in Global South countries must only be approached from a colonial lens, only then can we as creators of and consumers of products understand the true cost of our obsessions.

Arundhati Roy 2011 nonfiction book Walking with the Comrades is described like this by Penguin Random House:

“… Arundhati Roy draws on her unprecedented access to a little-known rebel movement in India to pen a work full of earth-shattering revelations. Deep in the forests, under the pretense of battling Maoist guerillas, the Indian government is waging a vicious total war against its own citizens-a war undocumented by a weak domestic press and fostered by corporations eager to exploit the rare minerals buried in tribal lands.”

This is a quote from Roy in the book:

“If there is any hope for the world at all, it does not live in climate-change conference rooms or in cities with tall buildings. It lives low down on the ground, with its arms around the people who go to battle every day to protect their forests, their mountains and their rivers because they know that the forests, the mountains and the rivers protect them.”

I certainly didn’t know about the struggles of Indigenous or tribal peoples in India and have ordered the book and will report back. In the meanwhile this Paris Review interview with Roy around the time of the book’s publishing is a short concise summary of how brilliant she is at getting us all straight to the core of things.

You make a point to contrast the guerrillas’ situation with that of Gandhi, for example. You even jokingly consider writing a play for their cultural wing called Gandhi Get Your Gun.

[Roy Laughs] Well, I got into trouble for saying that, too! But it’s true that when intellectuals and academics debate the different kind of resistance movements, they don’t take into account the landscapes of these struggles. When I went into the forest, one of the things that struck me was that Gandhian nonviolence can be a very effective form of political theater but it can’t succeed without an audience. So whether it’s the occupation of Wall Street or somewhere in India, it has to have an audience. Deep inside these forests there was no one to bear witness.

And Roy reminds us all:

I always find it interesting that when you’re with people who are really at the receiving end of oppression, you find a lot less despair than you do in middle-class drawing rooms. In these situations, despair is not an option. I wonder if the amount of information that is hammered into our heads day and night leads people to think that the world’s problems are so huge they’re insurmountable. Whereas people who are fighting against something in a more or less localized way are far clearer about what they have to do and how they have to do it.

My first choice for NYC Mayoral candidate from the bunch we were given was Dianne Morales. In the last few days on Twitter we have witnessed a weird implosion of her campaign. It’s hard to know what’s really happening but it involves staff members, at least 3 Black and Asian women, publicly quitting, an effort to unionize the campaign staff that went awry, reports of bad actors within the campaign that were not removed or handled well, I don’t know. More people have quit. Also I refuse to read (or cite here) any of the NYT, Post, or any media coverage of this matter because for the most part Morales has been incredibly underreported and when she has been reported it has been like this from the start. I know how excited these same media outlets will be to report on her campaign struggles and how little they will research into the problematic aspects of the top male candidates campaigns. I know how the NYT treats female candidates for office, especially those of color, because i’m over 40 and read the paper occasionally. I’ve seen what they do time and time again.

Similar to what Roy has said, electoral politics and climate change conferences are one way to effectuate change, but it’s always important to remind ourselves that the people we need to listen to are not the ones running for political office. The support we have to give can go directly to the people who need it. No middlepeople required. It’s fine to be disappointed in things like humans making mistakes running campaigns. But also imperative that all of us who are in this fight not lose sight of what our work is, regardless of who is in office.

Angela Davis in Freedom is a Constant Struggle said this:

Since the rise of global capitalism and related ideologies associated with neoliberalism, it has become especially important to identify the dangers of individualism. Progressive struggles — whether they are focused on racism, repression, poverty, or other issues — are doomed to fail if they do not also attempt to develop a consciousness of the insidious promotion of capitalist individualism. Even Nelson Mandela always insisted that his acommplishments were collective, always also achieved by the men and women who were his comrades, the media attempted to sanctify him as a heroic individual. A similar process has attempted to disassociate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from the vast numbers of women and men who constituted the very heart of the mid-twentieth-century US freedom movement. It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals in order for people today to recognize their potential agency as part of an ever-expanding community of struggle.

Finally, do you know this date? May 31, 1921.

“That’s when a white mob began a rampage through some 35 square blocks, decimating the community known proudly as “Black Wall Street.” Armed rioters, many deputized by local police, looted and burned down businesses, homes, schools, churches, a hospital, hotel, public library, newspaper offices and more. While the official death toll of the Tulsa race massacre was 36, historians estimate it may have been as high as 300. As many as 10,000 people were left homeless.”

At the time of the massacre, Greenwood was considered by many to be the wealthiest Black enclave in the nation. This describes some of the Black entrepreneurs and visionaries who helped create Black Wall Street. It’s always important to remember not only the violence but the efforts and many individuals (including Native Americans and Black Americans together) who created the conditions for Black people to thrive in this place. Do not just look at the horror.

Do you know there are still survivors alive? Please watch the video in the link. There have never been attempts to compensate survivors despite the Tulsa Race (massacre not riot) Commission report in 2001 recommending that survivors be paid reparations, calling it “a moral obligation.”

Enjoy this video of the recent exhibition “Earthseed,” at Frankfurt’s Museum für Moderne Kunst’s Zollamt gallery by artist Precious Okoyomon.

Writer. I care about justice for black and brown bodies, public education, good vintage clothes, how societies and technology work, and immigrant recipes.