Ezra Jack Keats And His Footsteps in the Snow

10 May

There is snow on the ground, it covers everything. And through the snow, crunch crunch crunch, goes a little boy in a bright red snow suit.


Sometimes he walks with his toes pointing out, sometimes he walks with his toes pointing in, making little footprints on the white, untouched snow. The little boy is Peter and he walks a lot on this Snowy Day— all the way from the book to your home and the homes of several thousand children in America and the rest of the world.


Peter’s adventures with his dog Willie, his little sister Suzie, his neighborhood friends are all told in vivid dream-like colors and words by Peter’s creator: Ezra Jack Keats (1916-1983).


Ezra Jack Keats was born Jacob Ezra Katz in a very poor working class Jewish family in the Brooklyn area of New York City. His parents were Benjamin Katz and Augusta “Gussie” Podgainy. They were Jewish immigrants who came to New York from Poland. His father waited tables at a coffee house.


The young Jacob could paint and draw wonderful pictures even before he entered school but his father didn’t really want his son to be an artist. This is because he had seen many artists struggle to make a living and he didn’t want his son to live in poverty like he himself was forced to.

But despite all his warning to Jacob about starving artists, Benjamin Katz would sometime bring home for his son tubes of paint and inexpensive paintbrushes. Many years later, as a grownup himself, Ezra Keats realized how difficult it must have been for his father to save pennies and buy these art supplies for him.

Throughout his childhood the young Keats struggled to be an artist. His family never had enough money for him to go to art school so he had to take different jobs to support himself and his family. These were the years of what is called the Great Depression in America, when a small handful of people made a lot of money but the vast majority of people struggled to pay bills and make ends meet.

One of Keats’ childhood friends, Martin Pope, wrote this about their shared childhood:

[During the Great Depression] …our families were poor. Securing food and shelter was the major focus of our lives. There was little or no money for anything else.

Our mothers had incredible skill in making something out of nothing: soup from bones, and clothing from fragments of cloth. Potato soup was delicious and went a long way; bread was home-baked and cheaper than at the store. Borrowing and lending of small kitchen necessities among neighbors was a way of life…

We never learned how to roller-skate, and it was well into later years that we learned how to ride a bike. Both of us, and most of the boys on the block, peddled candies, pretzels and ice cream, to supplement family income and to earn the five cents to pay for an occasional movie.


As a young man, Keats continued to draw even though he never really got paid as an artist. He would draw the streets of New York City sometimes from his tenement rooftop. He painted the flight of pigeons, the clamor of voices (can you paint speech? Ezra tried to!), and the busy, jostling, colors of the city against a vast sky.

He got minor jobs painting comic books, and working as an artist for the Federal Arts Project. He read constantly and came to love the work of artists such as the great Mexican muralists,  José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera.

There were two very important lessons that Keats learnt from his hard childhood. One was always to side with the oppressed. The second was to value and celebrate the lives of ordinary people.

Peter Whistle

If you have read any books by Ezra Jack Keats you will know that they are full of ordinary people and ordinary things.

Also, very importantly for the time that Keats was writing in, the hero of his book, Peter, is a Black child.

The Snowy Day, featuring Peter, was first published in 1962, before the March on Washington, before Martin Luther King gave his famous “I have a Dream” speech.

Why did Ezra Jack Keats, who was not Black himself, choose Peter to be Black in his book? Because, Keats said:

None of the manuscripts I’d been illustrating featured any black kids—except for token blacks in the background. My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along.

Peter’s family, Peter’s friends, the crowded streets where these children play, all reflect what was the reality of the author’s own childhood and neighborhood: a multiracial New York City, throbbing with children, green ice-cream cones, tenement blocks where the days washing hang on lines and little black cats that have no respect for people.


After you read Ezra Jack Keats you begin to wonder not why his protagonists are Black and Latino but why more characters in more books are not!

If our lives and streets are filled with multiracial children shouldn’t they fill our books too?

Next author-illustrator we will learn about: Abanindranath Tagore.

Why I stand with Gaza

10 Jul

photo (1)My child asked me before I came here why I was so angry: I wasn’t always enraged. In the beginning I too was perplexed– but then I was only 7 years old when I heard of my first Israeli bombing of the Arab people.

I am a child of Israel’s Operation Litani of 1978 when Israel’s bombing of Lebanon killed more than a thousand civilians and tens of thousands of war devastated families were left homeless. Since 1978, I have grown up alongside of countless other Operations by Israel on my Palestinian sisters and brothers: Operations Summer Rains, Autumn Clouds, Hot Winter, Cast Lead, Returning Echo, Pillar of Defence and now Protective Edge.

Why does Israel need so many different names for what is essentially one operation? Because the various acts of the Israeli state all really have the same name: Operation Genocide.

I am going to talk in *numbers* today, because I cannot bear to talk about *names*: the name of the streets in Gaza where my sister’s house lies in ruins, I cannot bear to take the names of my sister’s children who have been killed since the bombing began. Mohammed Ayman Ashour was 15 years old, he was killed in Khan Younis. What did he like to watch on YouTube? Did he text his friends? Or the 8 year old Siraj Ayad Abdelal? So no, I cannot think of names today, so I will talk in numbers.

First, 84 Palestinians have been killed already since this collective punishment of Palestine began.

Second, of those who lost their life half are women and children. Gaza is an open air prison where there are no bomb shelters.

Third, Children in Gaza who have made it to 7 years old are living through the third major Israeli bombing op in their lifetime.

Now for the my final number that explains why I stand here today 36 years after I first read about Israeli bombing:
And that number is: $3 billion dollars per year– which is the US government’s aid to Israel to carry on this ethnic cleansing.

Every bomb that drops on Gaza tonight, every bullet that takes a child’s life has a dollar sign on it.

Why is Israel bombing Gaza now? Their operation is based on a series of lies. The Israeli state knew days in advance about the unfortunate death of the three teenage boys. Netanyahu put out a media gag order to suppress news of their death because he was not going to let a tragedy go to waste. Some commentators say that they even knew the name of the individuals who committed the murders, but Israel was not interested in resolving the murder of the boys, they even lied to the boys’ families. Israel wanted to use this tragedy to deliver collective punishment on Gaza and Palestine. So what is the real reason?

I can think of a few: Israel’s inability to accept the Palestinian Unity government; the assumption that with a new dictator in Egypt, and loss of money from Iran, Hamas in Gaza was more vulnerable to attack; the new US alliance with Iran over ISIS in Iraq and yes the growing global awareness amongst ordinary people like you and me that the state that exists propped by imperialism and bloodshed is not the “real democracy in the middle east” it is an “Apartheid State”.

So this is why I am here today. I know that the period of Israel even pretending to create consent and legitimacy for its acts internationally is over. They now live on force alone.

But since that day when I was seven years old and watched Operation Litani, a whole generation of children have grown up in various parts of the world. Today they are a leading force for Palestinian justice on US college campuses, they are boycotting Israeli goods on European streets, they are leading militant demonstrations across the Middle East and Asia. It is this generation of international fighters for Palestinian freedom, from the River to the sea, who will lead the campaign to Boycott Divest and Sanction Israel to victory.

And I may see that Apartheid Wall finally come down in my life time—but till then, on our campuses, in our trade unions, on our streets: We stand with Gaza.


Child's drawing at Shatila Camp, Beirut.


Keeping “Safe” in Mexico City

18 Dec

You know you are in the global south when

— the old homeless man on the street wears a T-shirt proclaiming “Extreme Skater” with the image of a skateboard.  He does not know what a skate-board is, or what Extreme Sport is.  He does not speak English.  He picked up the shirt from the rubbish or bought it cheap at some point at the many second hand clothing heaps that exist on the roadside selling this stuff for very little, funneling yet more first world rejects into his city.

— the little shops that fill up the pavements sell single cigarettes.  Not cigarettes by the pack, but as singles.  You do not have the money to buy the whole pack.  Not often.

And thus we arrive in Mexico City.  So close to the borders of its giant North American neighbor, shaped by histories that are so different from that neighbor.  Mired in mythologies that attach themselves to poor countries: it is not safe to travel here.

Many Americans who heard that we would be spending Spring Break with a two year-old Shayari in Mexico City responded with an anxiety-laced “Is it safe?” question.   There are 12 million people who live in the city.  Do they step out of their front doors everyday wondering about the safety of their lives? As we watched them go about their jobs, boarding subway trains, walking the busy streets, occasionally (and rightly) trying to con a first world tourist with overpriced trinkets—we failed to detect signs of any such anxiety on their part.  Obviously people who ask such questions are concerned about AMERICAN SAFETY in a NON-AMERICAN country.   A modern rendition of the missionary-in-the-cauldron story.

Well, long live the cauldrons, we say.


Our Hotel and Other Stories

We stay in the Zona Rosa.  Originally a haunt of artists and bohemians and now a strange eclectic mix of incommensurables: high priced “respectable” tourist hotels, cutting edge night clubs, gay nightlife and the sex-trade.   This made certain things culturally very complex.  There were, for instance, several sex shops that openly lined the beautiful boulevards of Zona Rosa.  Should one take them as signs of empowerment from an assertive gay and lesbian subculture? Or should we see them as your normal sleek and low aids to flagging businessmen as they weave their way back to their hotels with a sexworker in tow? We are not sure.  One suspects it is a mix of both.  A contradiction of empowerment and enslavement that is perhaps normal of enacted sex life under capitalism.

The city is extraordinarily clean.  Far cleaner than New York or London.  We do not see rubbish anywhere.  No discarded plastic bags posing as edgy art installation from tree tops.  Everyone smokes in this city, but we see no cigarette butts on pavements.

Instead we see a plenitude of public art.  Every single city block has some kind of a sculpture or monument.   Some are beautiful bold testimonies to the modern: such as the over 100 foot tall brilliant yellow modernist cabalito.  Shayari loved it and claimed that it reminded her of the Alexander Calder flamingo in Chicago.  Others are statues of the Great Men variety.  The nation peers from behind numerous ossified leaders: Hidalgo, Morelos, Benito Juarez.  Normally one ought to cringe at such nation-flexing but when you see the Angel on the Independence Column overshadowed by HSBC, you are grateful for reminders of a rebel priest who had abolished slavery, tribute payment by Indians and had one evening in Guanajuato cut off some ruling class heads.


Mexico City is also still fascinated by the memory of its freedom.  In India, 1947 happened a long time ago.  The generation that brought it about is dead, and very soon the generation that watched it dawn as children will be gone.  Birds defecate generously on Bhagat Singh and Gandhi alike, while Nike store windows are polished everyday in Calcutta, Delhi and Madras.  In Mexico City every revolutionary’s statue stand erect, free from city grime.  And not just Mexcian revolutionaries.  The city is an amazing map of insurgent memory.  Everyone from Marx, Trotsky, Martin Luther King to Oscar Wilde is remembered in some way.  We navigate mutinies as we cross city squares, alleyways and murals.

Murals and Muchachos

(March 15) We arrive at Zacalo Square just past eight a.m.  The sun is bright, the air cool, the square nearly empty of people.  Political squatters have established a permanent tent city of opposition to the ruling parties and government.  The most frequently sited poster features portraits of three industrialists wanted by Mexican workers for the ‘assassination’ of miners.

Shayari takes off in crazy flight across the square in pursuit of pigeons.  Their lives are interrupted again at 8:30 when the bells of Metropolitan Cathedral intone over and over, a sonorous medley.

We enter the National Place.  Rivera’s murals leave us breathless.

We walk a good way through residential/commercial lower middle-class and working-class streets, stopping for lunch at Café Tacuba.  We have garlic soup, pancakes (guess who?), and chicken salad with rolled ham and cheese.  A Zurich man married to a Mexican woman visits our table with his three year old son Lou.  Lou is smaller than Shayari, but growls fiercely and attacks his Baba playfully as they leave.  Shayari will refer to this episode with great amusement over and over on the trip.

After afternoon nap we taxi to the Museo de Diego Rivera in Alameda Central.  Scores of men play chess on concrete benches out front.


Inside, the upstairs is closed off for renovation, but we are able to stand alone before the vast, spectacular “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda.”  The painting is a history of Mexico from bloody Cortez to independence.  A young boy picks the pocket of a bourgeois.  A gendarme shoots a demonstrator in the eye.  Diaz holds the Constitution aloft above the fray.  Shayari is smitten with Diego’s image of himself as a ‘muchacho,’ or small boy, wearing short pants with frog and snake tucked into front pockets.   We end the day with a carousel ride on a teetering, illuminated whirl in the park center.

Another Kind of Unsafe

(March 16) We arrive at the Museo de Leon Trotsky in Coyoacan early.  The museum cop won’t let us in.  We walk, and circle back for the 10 a.m. opening.  The museum has two front rooms with photographs and memorabilia: Trotsky disembarking in Mexico, photos of his murdered family members, his reading glasses and French-Russian dictionaries in display cases, the rifle used by guards at his villa.  The entire tableaux is one of momentous suspense and sadness and premonition, as if history that has already happened could repeat itself during our visit.

We walk back into the garden, which is also Trotsky’s failed fortress.  Gun turrets are cut into the upper reaches looking down over hundreds of square feet of perfect cacti, small flowers, and precisely cut foot stone footpaths.  The cages where Trotsky kept and tended rabbits sit empty in the garden.  The obelisk where he and Natalia’s ashes are buried is center of the courtyard.  It is a spartan memorial, unbelievably moving.


The house is even more so: history as small facts accumulated.  A tea kettle in the kitchen, walking stick  on the bed waiting for use, Trotsky’s shoes and jackets hung in the bedroom closet.  These things are animated by our coming but seem desolate unto themselves.  We move through briskly because staying long seems almost to perturb the lives and history intended to have been lived out there.

We walk next to the Blue House, or the Museo de Frida Kahlo.  This place stands in kinetic opposition to the Trotsky house though they seem connected still by his photos and the bedroom he once stayed in.  The blue walls irradiate.  Sunlight fills the gardens, the pre-Hispanic sculptures nestled therein.  The space is sauntering, open as sunlight itself.


Inside we see as if revisited the remains of another revolutionary life: Kahlo’s paintings first, not the best of them; the kitchen, a warm blue and gold workspace; the dining room where Trotsky, Breton, et al. talked, laughed, fought, ate.  The upstairs studio is window-studded and flooded with light.   Kahlo’s bed, an icon in her paintings, now rests her death mask centered within a rebozo fanned out like fire beneath her.  It reminds me of the apocryphal story that she sat up during her cremation.

We have a nice lunch in lovely Coyoacan.  Shayari is tired, but we press on, and walk the length of the city, stopping at a playground.  Our camera catches Shayari in her new purple Frida t-shirt (or skirt as she insists on calling it). The joy and hope in her face inscribes our day.

Footnote to the city: We are late to board our flight to Atlanta.  An airport employee named Nancy sees that Shayari is distressed by the wait and allows her to cross the ropes into an open area to calm her down.  Nancy and two other airport employees engage and talk and play with her for the fifteen minutes we have yet to wait.  Obviously Mexcian foreign policy in the middle east, unlike that of her neighbor’s, hadn’t caught up with airport paranoia.

We arrive home at 2 in the morning.  Our bodies still processing Mexico City.

The Children of Gaza Have Names.

20 Nov

I wake up in the middle of the night to go check on my child.  She breathes, she makes little sleep-noises.  I leave the room.  Again, half-an hour later I go back to check if she is alright.  If she still breathes.  I go back again and again through the night because instead of sleeping I have been watching the news coming in from Gaza.

This is the seventh day of bombing in Gaza, ten children are dead and 140 wounded.

I refuse to call them “children”.  They are not “children” to be compressed into a common noun by the western press: they have names, they had toys, they also once cried in their sleep while their parents went up to check on them.

Let us call out: Jumana and Tamer Eseifan.  Jumana and Tamer were killed by an Israeli missile in the town of Jabaliya.  They were not yet four.

Let us call out: Iyad Abu Khoussa.  Iyad was killed when another Israeli missile hit his home.  He was one.

10 members of the al Dalu family were killed in an Israeli airstrike while they were sleeping in their beds. Let’s call out some of their names: Sara was 7, Jamal was 6, Yusef was 4, and Ibrahim? he was 2.

The New York Times reporter, Jodi Rudoren, described the funeral for the al Dalu children as an exercise in “pageantry”.  According to Rudoren losing ten family members in one day was no excuse for forgetting your manners and weeping in public.

Jumana and Tamer.  Iyad and Sara and Jamal.  Yusef and Ibrahim.  Let’s remember they have names.  Let’s remember they also had toys.

When the bombs started to fall why didn’t their parents flee?

Mohammed Omer, a Palestinian journalist based in Gaza, tells us why.

Gaza does not have bomb shelters, and with the borders closed, the shoreline blockaded and many of the tunnels destroyed, no one can leave. The Palestinian education ministry and the United Nation Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) have shut all schools in this coastal enclave. Mosques and churches are not safe. The stadium is not safe. Media offices are not safe. Government buildings are not safe. Homes are not safe.
There is nowhere to go.

But when the bombs stop falling what will life be like for those who remain in this ‘open air prison’ that is Gaza? What does childhood in Gaza smell of when there are no airstrikes?

According to the UN, Gaza will be unlivable by 2020.  Israel’s blockade ensures that right now there is a shortage of food, housing, schools, hospitals and clean drinking water.  By 2020, however, according to the UN, the region will collapse under the weight of this crisis.

This is the future the children not killed by airstrikes have to look forward to.

And if this is their future, their present is marked by routine everyday violence from Zionist settlers.

Defence for Children International-Palestine Section (DCI-PS), an organization that works in Palestine, states in their 2008 report that almost all Israeli soldiers “kick or otherwise mistreat [Palestinian children] out of boredom, wanting to ‘have some fun’.”

In 2001, appearing on NPR’s Fresh Air, the New York Times reporter Chris Hedges described an average day for a Palestinian child:

 And I walked out towards the dunes and they were…[there] over the loudspeaker from an Israeli army Jeep on the other side of the electric fence they were taunting these kids. And these kids started to throw rocks. And most of these kids were 10, 11, 12 years old. And, first of all, the rocks were the size of a fist. They were being hurled towards a Jeep that was armor-plated. I doubt they could even hit the Jeep. And then I watched the soldiers open fire. And it was–I mean, I’ve seen kids shot in Sarajevo. I mean, snipers would shoot kids in Sarajevo. I’ve seen death squads kill families in Algeria or El Salvador. But I’d never seen soldiers bait or taunt kids like this and then shoot them for sport. It was–I just–even now, I find it almost inconceivable. And I went back every day, and every day it was the same.

Activists and human rights agencies working in Palestine report how settler children are systematically taught violence by their parents, reminiscent of similar practices from the era of Slavery and Jim Crow in America.  Reporting on a particular school district in Hebron one report from 2008 states:

Settler schoolchildren … routinely verbally harass, chase, hit and throw stones at Palestinian schoolchildren under the watchful eyes of Israeli soldiers. Their parents and other adults engage in similar behavior, blocking the school steps with their cars to make it difficult for students to pass or setting their dogs loose to chase and terrorize young children.

While routinely shooting Palestinian children for sport, Israel also ensures that any act of self-defense is either criminalized or smashed outright.

Since 2000, around 7,500 Palestinian children from the occupied Palestinian territories have been detained, interrogated and imprisoned by Israel.  According to nongovernmental organizations, as many as 94 percent of Palestinian children arrested in the West Bank are denied bail.  Once arrested this is the gridlock of their “rights” under Israeli law:

 Minimum Age to Receive a Custodial Sentence Right to Have a   Parent Present During Interrogation Average Time Till Brought Before a Judge Number of Days One Can be Legally Detained Without Charge
Palestinian Child 12 No right 8 days 188 days
Israeli Child 14 Parent can be present 24 hours 40 days

The report, which compiled these statistics, was funded and supported by the UK government.  In its conclusions, the report noted that Israel’s blatant refusal to obey international law with respect to Palestinian children stemmed “from a belief, which was advanced to us by [an Israeli] military prosecutor, that every Palestinian child is a ‘potential terrorist.’”

Palestinian children terrorize Israel while playing soccer, while sleeping in their beds, while trying to turn two years old.

When I ask my 4 year old to draw a picture, she pulls out her crayons and draws rainbows and cats, her two favorite subjects.  I visited the Palestinian refugee camps of Shabra and Shatila in Lebanon last winter and had the honor of meeting the children there who readily shared their works of art with me.  What do you say to a five year old who knows how to draw clouds raining blood? Can you comfort a seven year old who can draw a corpse?

But those of us who have them, and those of us who know them, know this: children are resilient.  They can stand up after they have fallen, they can ball their fingers in a fist.  Some of them can draw the contours of free country with crayons.  Others can pull down walls.

It is our duty to ensure that they live, in order to do so.  And maybe many years from now, they will also draw rainbows.

The World Belongs to Our Children, They Should Learn to Fight For It

24 Sep

The Chicago Teachers Union went on strike on Monday, September 10, 2012 to defend public education.  That sentence alone should be cause for celebration, since according to most reports strikes have been decreasing steadily for the last 30 years.

But wait, the CTU won! And they won against the most powerful and toxic brew of political forces.

Let me give you a taste of how much it mattered to them.  Rahm Emanuel the Democrat Mayor of Chicago, along with his Wall Street friends, allocated $25 million to break the strike.  This is not including the relentless public campaign against the teachers, where top Republican stars came out in support of Rahm.  Even after the teachers won, Rahm’s corporate funders spent $1 million simply to run television advertisements to spin the end of strike as a victory for the union-busting Mayor!

Besides the money, Rahm thought he had the best ideological weapon against the teachers: he, Rahm was for the children of Chicago.  The teachers were in the strike for themselves.  It was a simple case of needy kids versus greedy teachers.

I among several others have written before about how this ‘for the kids’ rhetoric is yet another case of sublime slime oozing out the Mayor’s office and an absolute lie.  Today, however, I would like to argue something else: why all children at all reasonable opportunities, should be taken to picket lines and demonstrations when a group of people stand up and fight for social justice.

Yes, taking kids to social justice rallies and pickets is very good for them.

I am hardly the first person to propose this.  Benjamin Spock, or Dr. Spock, whose Dr. Spock’s Baby & Child Care (1946) is the second best-selling book internationally, following only the Bible, is a great supporter of more politics in children’s lives.

At the very start of his blockbuster, Spock lays out for us the relationship between the real world and the world of parenting:

In an uncertain world, with more uncertainty to come, we do well to ask ourselves just what our goals are in raising our children. Is doing well in school our most important objective for them? Is the ability to sustain intimate human relationships more important? Do we want them to be individualistic with a competitive edge so they can succeed in a dog-eat-dog society? Or do we want them to learn to cooperate and sometimes to renounce their own desires for the good of others?

For Spock the answer is clear.  He advocates two “necessary paths” to “make our society more cooperative and happier”.  The first is to “raise our children with different ideals” and the second “to become much more politically active”.  (Baby and Child Care, 836).

Bam! There it is, out in the open.  We need to, says Dr. Spock of the near-Biblical bestseller, “get young people actively involved in serious social and political causes”. (A Better World for our Children, 189)

Of course Spock’s philosophy of mixing diapers with demonstrations did not go unnoticed.

After the brutal killing of unarmed anti-war students by the National Guard at Kent State University in 1970, the charming Vice President of the US, Spiro Agnew, blamed the parents of the slain students.  “We must look to how we are raising our children” said the second most uninspiring man in the nation, “[parents of these students]…learned their Dr. Spock and threw discipline out the window–when they should have done the opposite”.

What the Vice President was telling us:
if we taught our kids to be against the napalming of other kids we, as parents, were responsible for our children’s future death by the Vice President’s men.  Given that Agnew had to resign over bribery charges, one wonders what kind of parenting manual he was raised on: was it by Fagin or Al Capone?

So let us examine closely why (a) it is important to take kids to picket lines and (b) why our rulers are threatened by such parenting.

Political Parenting

All parenting is political parenting, it is a matter of acknowledging which particular set of politics we wish upon our children.  Every time we buy a Disney Princess for our daughters or a toy gun/matchbox Lamborghini for our sons, we are giving them a specific political perspective on our world.  This is the dominant political perspective, which through toys (Princess for girls/guns for boys) books (Little House in the Prairie pushing rugged individualism) and clothes (pink for girls, everything but pink for boys!) attempt to socialize our kids into the world around them.

Rich liberal moralists will wag their fingers at this point and say that there is an easy solution: to buy expensive gender neutral, progressive toys and books for the kids; to send them to (again, expensive) private schools where they have access to a wide spectrum of ideas.  In other words, give the kids an organic- munching, alternative-everything, life that the majority of parents cannot afford.

I am not opposed to searching for and buying good progressive books/toys for kids.  Indeed, there should be more of them.  What I am suggesting is that often this kind of buy-progressive rhetoric collapses itself into parenting being a lifestyle issue rather than a political issue.

Most of us cannot afford to raise our children in a progressive bubble fortified by private education and alternative lifestyles.  This is why barbies, guns and such assorted floatsam of capitalist propaganda do tend to find their way into most of our houses and playrooms.  The most pernicious aspect of these toys is the fact that they are naturalized by capitalism as “normal”, while any objection or opposition to them appear as “political”.

But if such toys and books are the samples of political parenting pushed upon us from the other side, our alternative to that is a self-conscious political parenting. By this I mean a parenting that allows us to discuss social issues with our children, and when possible to involve our children in movements or campaigns where people are collectively trying to right some wrong in our world.

Fighting the ‘bad guys’ is a children’s issue

Any movement for social justice is a children’s issue: be it the anti-war movement, the movement for better schools or a campaign against racism.  All such movements that try to fight the existing inequalities of our world are in essence fighting for the future: and children are the scaffolding that holds up all futures.

The history of the Civil Rights movement in America offers us insights into how a mass movement can shape a generation of fighters. Children and young people played an essential role in the freedom struggle. From Barbara Johns leading a strike of her fellow students at Moton High against Jim Crow education, to the children of Birmingham who were brutalized by the police and arrested en masse as they protested the city’s segregation policies, children were in the thick of the struggle and in turn often help to shape and lead it.

This is because black children were forced to learn about racism at their parent’s knees.  Young boys were castrated, and young girls sexually assaulted, for breaking “race rules” in Jim Crow South. Thus, black parents had no choice but to teach their children lessons in race relations as a means of protection against racist violence.  However, as a recent history of childhood in the South shows, the constant exposure to white racist violence also meant, that “by their early teen years, black children seemed more inclined than their white counterparts to translate their childhood experiences into action and calls for change”.

The same is true today.  The instability of our world created by the actions of our rulers means that we have a generation of children who are forced to live through the fall out of such actions.  The Palestinian mother must teach her child how to duck bullets.  The African-American father must teach his child that the neighborhood police car is a source of danger, not safety.

As parents we teach our children everyday about dangers, big and small.  But that defense is centered on the protection of the individual child, or family.  Mass struggle against injustice are acts of defense by a collective for the protection of a whole community or class.  Some times they are acts that are even greater than defending what we have: they blossom into demands for more: more schools, more hospitals, no more apartheid walls, nor more wars.

When Martin Luther King asked the children of Birmingham to get involved in the fight against Jim Crow racism, he said that by involving children he was trying to “subpoena the conscience of the nation to the judgment seat of morality”.

The recent CTU strike was a similar wakeup call for parents like us who think all children, not just the children of the rich, have the right to a decent school.

One grandmother wrote:

The strike taught my grandchild and so many more children like her that people should stand up for what they believe in; to thoroughly read any document you sign; to join with people who have the same causes because many things can’t be done alone and that democracy is messy and hard to achieve, but worth it in the end. Not one week, or even one semester of civics, social studies or so called critical thinking instruction could teach that.. We saw and marched with the teachers, we heard them asking for fairness and we felt and agreed with their pain. If anything, our children were helped to have a greater appreciation for their teachers because they believe that the teachers stood up for them. What a great way for a new start!

So next time there are people in your community fighting against a school closure, or against police violence, don’t forget to take your child to the meeting.  It could be the best lesson plan she or he learns from.

11 Sep

Originally posted on LBO News from Doug Henwood:

Washington Post blogger named Dylan Matthews posted an attempted heart-tugging piece yesterday arguing that teacher strikes do serious academic damage to young students. This is, of course, part of the elite strategy of discrediting the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike against that city’s public schools: it’s a war declared by callous union bosses against schoolkids and their parents to protect their (thoroughly unearned and undeserved) job security and fat paychecks.

Their paychecks are anything but fat, and the CTU is anything but a selfish, insular union. For proof of the latter, check out their excellent paper, “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve,” which is full of serious criticisms of standardized tests, profound racial and class segregation, and systematic underfunding of the city’s public schools. It does not mince words, and it is an inspiration. If Matthews really cared about Chicago’s public school students, he’d be investigating this instead…

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“For the Kids”: Rahm Emanuel’s Grim Fairy Tale

2 Sep

This is a blog about children and how we as parents, caregivers and general putter-uppers relate to them.  This is why we have to talk about the Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel, for Rahm is all about the kids.

Rahm has uttered the words “It’s for the kids” almost as many times as he has slashed budgets for social programs; and if you know Rahm that will be many times.

Here are some of his public statements in defense of our kids.  He has promised to “open up the doors of the future for our kids.” He has been ever ready to “find the resources to achieve what we need to provide for our children.” And when bad bad men were bringing gang violence into children’s lives, the Mayor used his steely glint and Captain America voice to frighten them away:  “Don’t touch the children of the city of Chicago”, said Mayor Rahm.

Sometimes I wonder if Rahm’s speechwriters actually wrote this stuff, or he is just going off from having watched too much Chris Nolan.

There are two things wrong with this picture.  One is the actual record of Mayor Rahm Emmanuel.  And the other is what this “for the kids” rhetoric signify in our culture.

Keeping Track of Rahm’s Love

Rahm “loves” our kids so much that:

–His school “reforms” have targeted and closed schools largely located in Latino and African American neighborhoods.

–He wants a 90 minute increase in the school day without increasing teacher’s pay.  Indeed, he has denied teachers a scheduled 4% annual raise.

–He thinks that the one group of people who should not decide how large class sizes ought to be are–teachers.

–He wants to cut art, music, physical education, library and world language teachers from schools, obviously kids hate this stuff.  Which kid would rather draw when she can take a yummy standardized test?

–He wants to reduce the number of counselors, social workers, nurses and school psychologists.

–He wants to close public libraries but use public taxes to open a Hyatt.  Presumably kids prefer hot stone massages at union busting hotel spas rather than go to the library for free books and movies.

He also loves us so much, as parents and caregivers, that he wants us to have time with our kids by:

–Raising our retirement age

–Raising our retirement contribution

–Freezing pension increases for those already retired.  I bet you didn’t know: it’s working class grandparents buying too many zhu zhu pets for kids that has been causing the budget deficit.

And Rahm has done all of the above in the name of our kids. “Without pension reform” Rahm said, “we’ll be forced to mortgage our children’s future”.  If teachers’ wages aren’t cut, he said, children will get “the shaft”.  And now that the Chicago Teachers Union is gearing up for strike action, Rahm is planning to hire scabs to run schools.  The scab program is named, you guessed right, “Children First”.

Why use this “for the kids” rhetoric?

The primary prop that holds up this “I am for the kids” discourse is the presumed innocence of the child.  The child needs a protector and politicians are ever ready to wear that cape.

Historically children were not always regarded as innocent or vulnerable, but roughly from the seventeenth century, they were differentiated from adults as a special social group requiring adult care and supervision. 

But it took more than two hundred years for capitalism to take this logic seriously enough to relinquish the profits it made off of child labor.

This is very significant because ideas that advocated for child labor co-existed with ideas that regarded children as precious and in need for care.

On the one hand capitalist society produced William Blake who celebrated the innocence of childhood and the philosopher John Locke who strongly criticized corporal punishment of children.  On the other hand, coming nearly hundred years after Locke, a time in which presumably society had had the opportunity to generalize ideas around children’s innocence and fragility, James Heywood, an English banker (1853-1872) had a very different vision for children.  In his 1836 speech to the House of Commons Heywood said:

…If the provisions of this [anti-child labor] bill is enforced, and if all persons under eighteen years of age were prevented from working more than ten hours per day, great distress among the working classes would be the inevitable consequences. I know the case of a single family – a father and eight children, all upwards of fourteen years of age – whose earnings were diminished by 13s. in the first week after the act of the last session came into operation…

My fear is, that, from mistaken notions of humanity, we may inflict upon the working classes a deeper wound than we propose to cure. We must remember that food and clothing are as essential to health as air and exercise; and take care that while we give the later we do not take away the former.

This is exactly what it sounds like.  James Heywood, respectable banker, was making a case in favor of child labor, for the sake of the children.  And he was neither unique nor an outlier.  Leading members of the rising industrial bourgeoisie of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe and North America were strong spokespeople for child labor.  Nearly all of them cited reasons of compassion for the children and their families as explanation for their position.

When ideas part ways with material practice, we can no longer simply call them ideas.  They then deserve the title of “ideology”.  If you are advocating for a 7 year old to work a 12 hour shift at your linen factory, but you write pamphlets about how this was for the good of the kid, then your ideas have acquired the muscular purposefulness of an ideology.  Those ideas now work not to reveal the truth about society but to hide it.

Similarly when you use the formulation “for the kids” to steal money from those very kids’ parents to give to multi billion dollar hotel chains while you close their schools, your words are not just lies, they are weapons that forcibly screen reality.

Besides trying to draw a veil over the truth, this rhetoric about protecting children while gutting their lives has one other significant feature.  The rhetoric always applies to the children of people other than the speaker’s.  And his country club friends.  And the campaign donors from his yachting club.  And his…you get the picture.  Any children but their own.  Just like the most strident voice for war in Washington would gladly pay for her/his child to skip military service.  Rahm Emanuel’s children do not go to the public schools that their dad is demolishing.  They go to a private school.

This is where the politicians’ rhetoric about kids comes a full circle.  Because it is fully divorced from material reality and actually works to screen it, it hovers over us as bloated bubbles of moralism.  Rahm’s claims about children, just like Heywood’s packaging of child labor, can only exist by a moralistic tautology: how are you for the kids? By being for the kids.  It is moralistic because it evokes the innocence and vulnerability of children not to champion them, but to stop us from querying that formulation.

The only way to burst this “for the kid” bubble is to be for the kids.  It’s as simple as that.  To talk about and ask where all the kids–not just their kids—are going to get quality housing from, affordable food from, quality education from.  We can only fight this false ideology with real ideas about who deserves public services and how to pay for them.

There exists a long history of real people fighting for real kids.  A popular song that came out of a bitter miner’s strike in 1933 in Tennessee had the right idea:

My children are seven in number,
We have to sleep four in a bed;
I’m striking with my fellow workers.
To get them more clothes and more bread
Shoes, shoes, we’re striking for pairs of shoes,
Shoes, shoes, we’re striking for pairs of shoes.

Pellagra is cramping my stomach,
My wife is sick with TB;
My babies are starving for sweet milk,
Oh, there as so much sickness for me.
Milk, milk, we’re striking for gallons of milk,
Milk, milk, we’re striking for gallons of milk.

And in Chicago this September the CTU might be striking to defend public education.

And yes, if they do, they will be proudly striking for our kids.                       



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