Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Beyond FICKLE: Much Ado about N----?

This Associated Press article “NYC urges people not to use n-word” discusses a “purely symbolic resolution” passed today. The resolution struck me as an odd, though not entirely surprising, way for a city council to mark the end of Black History Month. While the gesture may be grounded in good intentions, it seems a patronizing attempt to apologize for the poor manners of others. It also seems doomed; any parent who’s ordered an obstinate child NOT to do something—especially a very specific, irritating something—knows aiming such direct attention at a problematic behavior will only make it worse.

When I was in fourth grade at a small parish school outside Syracuse, New York, two elderly nuns took turns teaching our class. Sister John Anthony had the afternoon shift, and the day she admonished us—in a hissed whisper, no less—never to utter the “n-word,” she peaked more interest than if she’d suddenly started dancing on her desk. Her warning came out of the blue and just as quickly evaporated with no historical context or explanation of the impact such a word might have on a person of color. Since our class, school, and town were hardly diverse, most of us had never heard that word and never would have uttered it if she hadn’t brought it up. I guarantee, though, that soon after Sister lay down the law about the n-word, more than a few kids went home and gave it a try.

Current arguments regarding the n-word cover a wide range. While proponents of the New York City resolution argue the word is not only derogatory but keeps black people from reaching for a better future, critics argue that reclaiming the slur empowers black people and allows them to overcome its negative connotations. I just think such resolutions are a waste of time and money that would be much better spent on early childhood education, mental health, and job training programs, all of which have endured significant cuts in recent years in cities across the country. I doubt a young man of any color who’s graduating college this spring and is eager to line up job interviews will insist on hanging onto bad habits that might get in his way. Let’s concentrate on getting more kids to that point and forget about slapping the wrists of the celebrities, comedians, and hip-hop artists who get their kicks (and a lot of media play) out of irritating local politicians. Making a fuss about the n-word isn’t going to make it go away. If anything, this resolution has put the n-word into the center of a huge spotlight. I feel like I’m in fourth grade all over again.

Saturday, February 17, 2007


Many thanks to Matt at Empathy for his current post on Ishmael Beah’s book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. Beah served as a child soldier in Sierre Leone for almost three years. His story sounds fascinating as well as distressing. Since I’m up to my ears in laundry and house-cleaning today, I’m going to let Matt do the talking on this one. Consider this line: “Did you know that more than 250,000 children are currently serving as child soldiers?” I didn’t.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Beyond THE FUTURE: The Organization for the Support of Albania’s Abandoned Babies (OSAAB)

I recently read about Claudia Janiszewski in a local magazine. Her story captures so eloquently not only the power of one person to make a difference but the immense impact of love when it reaches out simply because we’re human and to help each other is the right thing to do.

Claudia founded the Denver-based non-profit Organization for the Support of Albania’s Abandoned Babies (OSAAB) in the late 1990s. Her story truly is phenomenal, as is she. Because of her refusal to turn away from others in desperate need and her determination to stick with a very difficult project through years of discouragement, babies are no longer neglected and left to deteriorate in the former Abandoned Babies Ward (now renamed The Angel’s Cradle) of a maternity hospital in Tirana, Albania. Instead, they are fed, cleaned, cared for, held, and nurtured as all babies should be.

During the 1999 Kosovo refugee crisis, then-tiny OSAAB was the sole humanitarian agency prepared to help the many women who arrived at the two maternity hospitals in Tirana about to give birth or with newborn babies in need of care. I can’t help but think that Janiszewski’s inspiration to establish OSAAB when she did was an instance of divine intervention. And from reading her very personal accounts of the humble beginnings of her organization, I have a feeling she sometimes feels the same way. How can one person make a difference in such a world as ours? Read the history of OSAAB and find out. Then go hug a baby (or the closest human being you can find who’s agreeable to a hug). We’re all in this together, and stories like this one serve as handy reminders of that fact.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Beyond FACTS: “Barack Obama and the Springfield Race Riot” on

Still in its official infancy, Senator Barack Obama’s campaign is already raising awareness of race relations in our country, past as well as present. Historian Jim Rasenberger offers a somber (yet, in the end, hopeful) look at a slice of American history in his recent column “Barack Obama and the Springfield Race Riot.” The symbolism of the location of Obama’s weekend announcement that he’s officially entered into presidential politics hasn’t been lost on the general media, but Rasenberger does more than draw obvious parallels. “Though now largely forgotten,” he writes, “the events and aftermath of the Springfield Race Riot, as it came to be known, are as relevant to the hopes of Obama as is the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.” This entire article is worth reading, regardless of your political leanings. My favorite line has to be Rasenberger’s last—but I’ll let you read that for yourself, and I hope you will.

Photo composite ©

Friday, February 09, 2007

Beyond FICTION: My Book Among 2006 “Noble” Winners!

I’m indebted to book marketing expert Carolyn Howard-Johnson for so much, from the wise advice found in the pages of her book The Frugal Book Promoter to the many, many promotional tips and leads she lists in her terrific newsletters. A prolific author and contributor to various sites and publications as well as an instructor and busy speaker in the UCLA area, Carolyn recently published her annual list of Nobel (Not Nobel!) prize winners for 2006, and my novel One Sister’s Song is one of the winners. “How hard it is to live with others different from ourselves!” Carolyn writes. “Carter examines what might be the most difficult racial problem in today’s society and does it sensitively, poetically.” I’m so pleased to have my book included among those Carolyn believes “exhibit exceptional writing skills and explore the human condition.” To see a complete list of winners (which includes intriguing works of fiction, poetry, biography, and memoir), visit To learn more about Carolyn, check out her website, her AuthorsDen page, or her new blog. I’m telling you, she’s a busy lady!

I’ve also been listed as one of Patry Francis’s “5000 Coaches” in an insightful post she ran on her blog, Simply Wait, and included in a January 29 column for M.J. Rose’s stellar book marketing blog, Buzz Balls & Hype. I’ve learned so much from both these writers as well. While M.J. is a veteran author and book promoter, Patry has just entered the fray with the publication of her first novel, The Liar’s Diary. I consider myself so fortunate to have discovered so many talented people in the book industry via the internet. While reading can be a life-altering hobby and writing can lead to all sorts of new discoveries, blogging and participating in the blogosphere (even on a limited basis) can connect you to a world of professionals in your chosen field to whom you never otherwise would have had access. How nifty is that?

Monday, February 05, 2007

Beyond FEBRUARY: Black History Month and a Bit of Wishful Thinking

Black History Month is upon us and I can’t help but feel discouraged, and not just because we celebrate famous African Americans during the shortest month of the year and pretend that’s enough. I’m discouraged because most people move into March each year with little, if any, new insights about race relations in our country. And I’m discouraged because I just read about a local boy who’s suffered…and will continue to suffer for a long time…because a local teacher remains uneducated about the realities of racism and the potential impact of discriminatory remarks.

The boy’s name is Xavier, and he’s an eighth-grader. He’s the same age as my son, but looks nothing like him. Xavier is black, and the photo in the local paper of him and his mom show his big dark eyes under a furrowed brow. He’s frowning as he stands outside his school, questioning the camera aimed at him, apparently irritated by the reason for the photograph.

Xavier was reprimanded in mid-January for talking in class. After class, his teacher pulled him aside and said, “I don’t need any African Americans messing around in my class.” You can almost hear the hiss of that statement and all the years of painful American history and hostility behind it. It truly is amazing what lies so near the surface sometimes.

Other students overheard this comment, adding to Xavier’s embarrassment. When Xavier was moved to another class, how was that supposed to make him feel less ostracized? And when the school district awarded him funds to attend a “surrogacy training program designed to help him deal with cultural adversity,” how exactly was that supposed to console him? I can’t imagine such a program would be viewed by my son…or any eighth-grader…as anything but a punishment, though I hope it helps Xavier understand the special challenges that lie ahead because of where he lives and what color skin he happens to inhabit. I wish his former teacher had been enrolled in a surrogacy training program designed to help her teach tolerance to everyone she knows (starting with the woman she faces each day in the mirror) but apparently that truly is wishful thinking.

The teacher was simply placed on administrative leave and reinstated after the incident was investigated and the boy’s family’s story deemed accurate—and she’s yet to apologize to Xavier for her damaging remark. Such a remark made by a teacher truly is damaging. If Xavier had been raised to believe in himself and his ability to achieve whatever he wants regardless of his skin color, that belief has now been damaged.

So my wish for Black History Month is this: that more people in this country consider the special challenges faced by those who differ from them, and that people who work with children stop to think before making any remarks about race or nationality that might be misconstrued—or are simply mean and meant to intimidate. I guess that’s two wishes, so let’s go for the magic third: I hope students like Xavier understand they have the right to voice concerns over any form of mistreatment, to go to their families for support, and to question the motives of anyone who makes derogatory remarks regarding their heritage. Black History Month is a good time to consider how to treat each other with utmost respect, but that kind of learning really ought to continue throughout the year and ought not be limited to school children. I think Xavier and his mom would agree with me on both counts.

Photo credit © The Philadelphia Education Fund