Friday, July 3, 2020

Independence Day, Freedom, and Koshari

I am a cisgender white woman who had a brown father with a Hispanic (and I use that word intentionally, because he was not from Latin America) last name, which became my last name. I grew up in a largely white suburban neighborhood in a house on a corner property where my window was the closest to the street for drive-by egg-throwing, teenagers—students of my mother’s—running away, laughing, shouting “Spic.” One of my most vivid memories from childhood is waking up hours after going to bed to a loud crackling sound, and realizing the bushes in front of our house had been set on fire, the flames leaping up towards my window. I am a cisgender white woman who grew up understanding that difference could be dangerous, and knowing I would enjoy the privilege of being white.

Maybe partly because of those formative years, I have spent the past 20 years of my career, getting on close to half my life, in higher education work, where I have tried to listen to and amplify the voices of less-heard people. I am not a constitutional law scholar, and I didn't take many politics classes, so perhaps my education is not as broad as it could be. I am a humanist, a reader and teller of stories. I studied with giants in the world of literary criticism like Cheryl Wall and Val Smith, Black women who cracked open the literary canon. My heroes of educational philosophy are people like bell hooks and Paulo Freire and Maxine Greene and John Dewey. I learned, through my undergraduate and graduate study, how the stories that we all grew up memorizing, the lenses we were given to look at the world, often did not represent the stories of people who had less power.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen a resurgence of the outcry to defend free speech at our university. As some of our leaders have decided to break from the shibboleths of the past, unfortunately giving little credit to the protests of students from a few years ago, these students are clamoring for more due process, for the University to reconsider and do something different than other institutions who are rethinking and discarding their own historical giants.

Some students took to our student-owned listservs (intended for advertising student events and locating lost items or sharing rides) to express their opinions, to publish what amounted to political treatises. Others took up the mantle and offered counterarguments, trying to educate their peers about systemic racism as they feel they’ve been called to do time and again, without any official backing by the university, who typically stands neutral. A few responded to the messages in defeat, saying how much they hate it here. After much consideration, we finally decided to intervene, emailing our community to remind people of their responsibility to make our community a place where everyone feels welcome; without that element, the most vulnerable and marginalized people will leave the dialogue, and we’ll find ourselves right back where we started.

We were lambasted for our email, and informed that we’d created a “chilling effect” on speech.

I don't ever claim to have everything right, and I've been thinking about our decision to write what we did over and over again, second-guessing myself and then finding reasons to justify what we did. It seems fitting to reflect on on all of this going into the weekend when much of our nation will celebrate, in whatever limited way we can during a global pandemic that demands our attention to public health, our Independence Day.

I believe that with power comes responsibility. And because of that, I believe that free speech should be couched in humility. I believe that free speech should be accompanied by a generous helping of empathy. And I believe that our free speech should come with the attendant curiosity about the human experience that makes for rich and fruitful dialogue that is the hallmark of a healthy liberal arts institution and a healthy democracy. I don't know; maybe what I believe is flat-out wrong, and maybe that makes free speech less "free."

I believe that we should appeal to our right to free speech with appreciation for the fact that there are some who enter that arena with much less power, carrying hundreds of years of generational trauma. No matter what we might think, no matter how it might look, the table is not yet round, and not everyone gets to sit up close. Witness, for example, the differential treatment of largely white protestors with weapons in front of statehouses, arguing about their rights to open bars and salons, and diverse but largely Black and non-white unarmed protestors who have been physically abused and tear-gassed at Black Lives Matter protests.

I believe that our free speech comes with responsibility for deep listening. Otherwise, it’s just grandstanding. And I happen to think that kind of speech is best served chilled.

My education is probably biased in a different way. But if free speech comes without the other stuff—without humility, empathy, and curiosity (and in our national case, without appreciation of intergenerational trauma) and without all of the things that make us such a unique community—I'm less sure it's worth celebrating after all.

This morning, I happened across Frederick Douglass's speech, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" Written nearly 200 years ago, it's a poignant reminder of who has the rights we so cherish, and how far we still have to go. May it not be too late to make sure that other folks are free.

I was originally going to post this dish right around the time the protests started in the wake of George Floyd's murder, but then decided that as a white woman, I didn't need to take up more space and talk about my experience of protests. This dish is a dish of colonization, a dish that the British brought to Egypt, since neither rice nor pasta is native to those places, but that Egyptians made their own (and is now the national dish). My daughter learned about it during remote schooling this year, when she learned about a few non-Western cultures, and asked that we make it. As we ate it, she talked about Islamic traditions of charity, and recounted a story about children who took up a collection for their bus driver. I love all of its layers, and the colors, and the ways that the flavors blend together, just as I love the empathy, the curiosity, and humility my daughter brings to her education.


Spice mix:
1 T. cumin
1 t. paprika
1/2 t. nutmeg
1/2 T. coriander
1 t. lal mirch (or a sprinkle of cayenne)
1 t. black pepper

Tomato sauce:
14.5 oz can fire roasted diced tomatoes or 4-5 blanched tomatoes
2 T. olive oil
1 med onion, chopped
1 t. garlic, crushed
1/2 t. salt
1 cinnamon stick
2 bay leaves
1 T. vinegar
1 t. lal mirch (or a sprinkle of crushed red pepper)
3-4 T. water

3 T. olive oil
1/2 c. basmati rice
2 c. water
1 t. salt

1 1/2 c. black beluga lentils, soaked and boiled until done
1 c. boiled elbow macaroni
15 oz. can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1/2 onion, sliced thinly and fried in a bit of oil (see below)

In a small bowl, mix cumin, paprika, nutmeg, coriander, red chili powder, black pepper; blend well and set aside.

Add tomatoes to a cuisinart or blender; puree and set aside.

In a medium saucepan, heat oil over medium heat; add onion and sauté until translucent. Add garlic and mix well. Now add 2 T. of prepared spice mix, salt, cinnamon stick, and bay leaves and mix well. Add tomato puree; mix well and cook for 4-5 minutes. Add vinegar and crushed red chili; mix well. Add water and mix, cover and cook on low flame for 10-15 minutes and set aside.

In a medium-large pot, heat oil over medium heat; add rice, mix well and cook for 5 minutes. Add remaining spice mix and mix well. Add water and salt, mix well, and bring it to boil over medium heat. Cook until water is reduced, about 10 minutes. Reduce heat to low, cover and steam cook for 5-6 minutes. Set aside.

In yet another small saucepan, add the oil and heat over medium high heat. Add the sliced onion, stir and fry until crispy.

In a serving plate, layer the cooked rice, then boiled black lentils, macaroni, chickpeas, prepared tomato sauce, fried onion and serve.
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  1. Beautiful, Justine. You've really made me think. Thanks for sharing your dilemma about free (and respectful) speech at your school.

    This. "I believe that our free speech comes with responsibility for deep listening. Otherwise, it’s just grandstanding."

    Bookmarking this recipe.

    1. <3 Thank you, Lori ... for coming back, for reading (this was a looooong) one, and for thinking with me. I'm continuing to try to make sense of where I am and where I stand and what my path here should be.

  2. Wow. Your story about the fire is chilling. I am so sorry that happened.

    Our country is currently in a major upheaval for "its very soul" as Lin-Manuel Miranda would say. I believe democracy is the best form of government. I agree with you that "free speech comes with the responsibility for deep listening." I do think that also applies to all sides of the table. Recently I've seem some intolerance from quarters frankly I am surprised by (and very disappointed in). A few days ago, I watched Don Lemon thoughtfully engage an activist who was expressing very scary anti-semitism. Don was pleading for empathy from him, and it was disturbing to see this met with a curt dismissal. We're all so angry right now, but the truth is Americans have more in common than less. Watching "Hamilton" recently was such a needed reminder of this. ("Immigrants - we get the job done"). I wish we had a figure, like President Obama, who could LEAD us during this terrible time.

    Sending all my best to you and your family during this crappy time. Stay safe and well.

    1. Thanks for reading, Jjiraffe ... this was a looong one. <3 To your point, just a few days after I wrote this, I was surprised by the anti-Semitic remarks from DeSean Jackson, and wondered where the outrage was for that (especially given the ways that erased non-white Jewish folks). I've seen my Jewish friends affected by what can only be called "terrorism," acts meant to create fear. And I continue to try to make sense of the role of non-Black folks can (should?) play in movements like BLM, because I think that what white bodies have done to Black bodies in this country deserves a particular kind of attention that isn't the same as what we need to do to amplify other marginalized voices ... it's something I haven't figured out yet. How can we do this without erasing other people who need to be heard? Where do Asians figure, for example, especially given the recent xenophobia that has been amplified by COVID? Maybe it's what we keep saying, that until all of us are free, none of us are free ... though I worry about white folks who talk about the ways that the rights of marginalized folks impinge on their "freedom."

      What a mess.

      Hope you and yours are staying healthy and safe.

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