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A fresh perspective on the personal and political.

Troy Davis, Getting Lost, Staying Strong September 25, 2011

Filed under: Nature,Politics,Race — mandolyn10 @ 5:56 pm

I followed the news of Troy Davis’ impending execution on Wednesday, September 21 in near-horror. Set to be murdered by the State of Georgia at 7pm, this probably innocent man was making peace with his situation as I deleted emails and met with students. As 4pm ticked closer, the effort of tamping down the rising balloon of panic in me was exhausting. I checked the news feeds every chance I had, and seeing that no stay came, I prayed quick, ever more desperate pleas for someone to intervene and stop this injustice from happening. At every turn, I felt like screaming at the nearest person making demands on my time: A man is going to be murdered unjustly in a few hours! How can we just keep going about our day? 

And I’m not being self-righteous here, all I did in this case was sign a petition, call the state probation board and a judge, and ask others on facebook to do the same. But rallying against the death penalty is not my cause; it’s not something I’ve ever donated time or money to. I’ve never gone to protest an execution. The end of the death penalty is something I hope to see in my lifetime, but I haven’t given more than ten minutes of my life to making it happen. For whatever reason, Troy was real to me and no different than me, and so I cared this time.

Around 3:30, I headed into a meeting whose aftermath kept me working until 6:15pm. Walking home, watching the pale blue sky preparing for nightfall, it occurred to me that if things had gone as scheduled, Mr. Davis had been killed while I was consummed by work. I had missed my chance to pause and pray for him and his loved ones, as I had planned to do. Shame swept over me, and I paused at home only long enough to change into workout clothes and shoes for a run.

I headed to the woods across from campus. At the point I should have turned around given the time, I had to keep going. I don’t know why, but I turned off on a path I don’t take often, one that is quite steep in places and not well traveled. I lumbered on slowly, trying to let the rhythm of my footfalls on the trail drown out my sadness, my sense of impotence. Absorbed in allowing my body time to release some of the emotion of the day, I suddenly realized it was too dark for me to be in the woods, and a bit later I admitted I was lost, night biting at my heels. I wandered around in an oval, trying to find the trail that had run out on me so I could trace my way back, but it had disappeared. I eventually found a way out: I had to slide, tumble, and fall my way down a long, steep embankment to a creek bed I could just barely see, it’s white rocks glowing in the black environ. Bruised and cut in a few places, I followed the creek bed until the trail I’d come in on came into view.

When I look back on getting lost, I suppose I had options other than endangering myself by going down a brush-covered hillside in the dark. And though at the time I didn’t consciously connect my choice to go that route to the fate of Troy Davis,* now, I think there was a part of me that felt I had to prove something, if only to myself. I even suspect that I wanted to be punished, to suffer the consequences of my foolish choice to go into the woods so close to dusk, and then to go farther on a trail I don’t know by heart. Penance for my reluctance to devote my life to fighting for the things I believe in. I wanted to feel brave, feel like I could fix a mistake and come out ok.

In the end there wasn’t anything I, or anyone else could have done to prevent Troy Davis’ murder, but out there in the woods, alone with the dangers of the dark: unseen ledges and trip-causing rocks, mountain lions, wild boar, brown recluse spiders, I could save myself by not panicking, by thinking clearly, by putting one foot in front of the other.

That’s probably all it takes to stay strong in whatever cause we find ourselves overwhelmed by: don’t panic, think clearly, keep going.

*A careful reader pointed out some time discrepancies in this piece. Upon investigation, I’ve learned that the stay on Troy Davis’ execution last Wednesday lasted about four hours, and that in fact he had not been killed while I was at work, as I had thought, but around the time I made way back to the trail I’d lost. I cannot imagine being Troy Davis in those fours hours. Having prepared for a 7pm death, what must it have been like to hear, at 7:05pm, that the Supreme Court was considering a request to stay his execution? Did he dare hope he had a chance of surviving that day? Did he get to see his family one more time? Who was with him and were they a comfort? The death penalty is arguably a cruel and unusual punishment for every death row inmate, but this pause of the inexorable capital punishment machine, which rendered no justice, must have also been excruciating for Davis’ loved ones.

This entire case has brought the issue of the inequities in the judicial system into stark relief for millions of people worldwide. I hope when we look back at the history of capital punishment in the U.S. that the execution of Troy Davis is a turning point. If you want to find out more about how to join the effort to abolish the death penalty, please visit:


My Notebook May 16, 2011

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

“What’s kept you here at UCSC, in the CRE job so long?” the young, earnest candidate interviewing for an open Coordinator for Residential Education position asked me this morning.

If I had drank mimosas for breakfast instead of a green smoothie, I might have said , “I live in a kick-ass apartment with ocean views from every window that I don’t pay rent for. And after teaching middle school in the Oakland, having a job that I can mostly work 40 hours a week at and that I can leave at the office makes it feel like easy job.”

What I actually said: “I get to work with highly motivated, often activist-oriented students who make me proud to know them and as long as they keep me interested and challenged I’ll be here.” That’s only partially true. These students do indeed often blow me away with their creativity, dedication and drive to make change or educate or entertain. I am proud to be a part of their growth and development, even if it’s small. But I won’t be here too much longer because I’m not terribly fascinated or challenged by this work anymore.

Answering this question today, I had this rush of hope that my partner will land a great job in a city I like and that I can run off and move in with him, start my MFA program at Antioch University and work part time as a substitute teacher or in a bookstore. Shit, I thought, after a feminist college education and 11 years of supporting myself, I’m ready to throw it all in and rely, at least in part, on man? A man who, it should be said, knows nothing about his role in this future fantasy.

My longing also was curious to me because it seemed so unambitious. It’s not “I want to leave UCSC for a higher-paying dream job or a graduate school program that will lead to a higher paying dream job.” I’m not traveling the world or joining the peace corps or going back to teaching. Nope, no aiming too high here. I’d be happy to live in my partner’s pad, pick up substitute gigs to help with rent and food and immerse myself in creative writing, with only a vague hope of becoming a successful author or columnist.

Although, as I wrote that, it sounds like a dream life to me, even if it isn’t awesomely impressive. Perhaps the achievable life is more impressive to me than the ambitious one, at least for now.

Thursday, May 5

Sometimes I leave my Thursday writing class euphoric, as though we all just spent a few hours hearing works-in-progress from the some of the finest writers alive, and the fact that I got to read my work at this amazing event, must mean that my writing is as good as all these other gifted writers. Today was not that kind of day.

I wrote almost everyday this past week and the sentences failed to coalesce into pretty little things, like they often do, eventually anyway, with some tending. Perfectly good ideas got buried in convoluted paragraphs. My images leaned on trite metaphors and similes. By today at lunch, when I sat down to see what could be salvaged from my literary casting about over the last seven days, I gave up within five minutes.

I went to class with nothing to share, and though Ellen had really kind words for when we are “stuck,” I came away feeling frustrated and doubtful that I should pursue writing full time.

But here I am, typing away not so ugly sentences, and I feel like the writerly me again. How flaky my inner critic can be. I should really get around to just firing her altogether.

Friday, May 6, 2011

I learned today that sometime this morning, a student found this in a stall in a male bathroom at Cowell College: “Stop the invasion. Kill a Mexican.” This is the umpteenth instance of racist graffiti found around UCSC over the past couple years and the third that threatens or suggested violence this year. How sick and regressed we have let our white men become, I thought (I know, it might not have been a white guy, but chances are it was, so let’s just draw the most likely conclusion here, please).

As providence would have it, I ended up with a ticket to see a talk by the preeminent race scholar Dr. Cornel West tonight. I was thrilled to be in attendance before I heard about the graffiti, as I read his work in college and felt transformed by the power of his ideas and analysis. But now it was timely. He was funny and hard-hitting. He let no one off the hook but held us all in his belief that “love is what justice looks like in public.” At one point he said, “Graduating a bunch of smart people is not enough. If the kind of deep education I am talking about here fails to happen, the world ends up in the hands of very smart people well equipped to end justice.”

And that’s when I remembered that between resolving judicial cases, mentoring my NAs, and updating my financial budgets, I have a job in which I support the kind of education that graduates very smart people who are able to summon the courage it takes to combat indifference, passivity, and denial. What can I do to treat the mental illness that is this neo-racism we’ve seen develop since Obama’s election? I can talk whiteness with my white students, I can talk to any white people I know about white privilege and why it matters. Indeed, I must. I will. In part, our ability as a campus to transform the climate here depends on people who look like me being willing to talk about it. And I’m not so hopeless.

Dr. West said we must distinguish between hope and optimism. Evidence always looks overwhelmingly bad, so do not aim to be a cheery optimist. When you’re in the mess, keep your eyes open for movement. Know there will always be movement. That’s hope.

Monday, May 9, 2011

This morning, I read about students responses to the threatening, racist graffiti found at Cowell College last Thursday. Being privy to the administration’s constraints and limitations, I can see how it might be easy to dismiss some of their righteous indignation. One student sent a condescending and disrespectful letter to the Chancellor, which was painful for me to read. It was so clear the deep hurt this student was feeling and so clear that it would, most likely, not be paid the respect such anger and sadness deserves because of the delivery.

I thought about these last couple of years, and how it feels that there’s been a rapid increase of racist graffiti here at UCSC. It’s gotten more violent and more frequent and more disturbing. It’s as though the nation-level unease with having a black president is bubbling up here in bathroom stalls, and were all at the mercy of a country being forced to finally face it’s white male supremacist foundations. Of course it’s an opportunity, but it’s scary to not know what’s coming next, which group will be targeted next or how. It makes for a very unpredictable and inhospitable environment for students of color in particular, and any allies in the fight to deal with racism, more generally.

The image that keeps haunting me is of any of the hundreds of students of color sitting down in one their classes, perhaps next to or across from a fellow white student. “Is this the one who wrote ‘Kill a Mexican’ in the bathroom?” Or, “Are those two white guys laughing in the corner the ones who drew nooses in men’s bathrooms all over campus last year?” Or, “Can I trust this seemingly friendly, open minded white person, or would they dismiss the impact of the kind racism I have seen here?”

If you are white, and have never had such a thought, imagine what it must be like each and every day to have to evaluate whether classmates, co-workers, friends can be counted on to not harm you, physically or emotionally, to wonder if they would stand up in the face of bias, and then, what it must be like to being consistently disappointed by these people as they fail to listen and act. It’s distracting, exhausting, and deeply painful, and though every individual touched by these acts of intimidation reacts differently, from what I’ve heard from students these last few days, the picture I’ve painted here isn’t too far off.

I was reminded today that there’s no way to know if the people who are willing to be racist on bathroom walls are all white men. This is true, but even if none of the perpetrators are white, they are espousing white supremacist ideology on a campus that is ill-equipped to change campus culture, and there is no way to dissociate these acts from whiteness. So, all of us who are white hold responsibility for transforming the culture, and though it’d be nice to be lead from the top, it’s unlikely that our Chancellor will take on a deep, campus wide exploration of whiteness and racism, so it must come from us, whether it should or not.

I felt ready Friday after listening to Dr. Cornel West to find my place in the revolution, and once again, here it is…

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

My Mondays and Tuesdays are exhausting blurs. Meetings, entering IRs, squeezing in workouts, meals, leaving dishes undone, late nights. The one salvation is that the bookend to these long days is choir practice. Tonight we sang eight or nine songs, some of them several times, and I was worked. There’s one song in particular, I Had A Revelation, that without fail, every time we sing it, I am overwhelmed by it’s power.

Right about the time we’re heading into the verse, my fingers start to tingle, then I’m flooded by warmth. I can feel the sound of my voice, accompanied by the blended voice of the choir, like a current running up and down and back just under my skin, and then as we slide into the all-out praise line, I’m gone, I’m there but only barely aware I have bones held in place by muscles, wrapped up in skin that looks like “me.” I am lit from within, as though I could float away into the ethers.

It’s surreal, it makes me feel a bit crazy, but it is the best kind of singing, this being sung.


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