The Urgency of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Review of “The Souls of Black Folk”

Reading W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (Amazon | Indie Bound) in these times is not only necessary, but also critical. Apart from this list of resistance literature I compiled earlier this year, this classic originally published in 1903 bears a resounding message of hope and of liberation. At the same time, it also outlines what has been done, what has worked and what hasn’t as he explored the state of black Americans’ road to liberation.

As a non-black immigrant from the Third World, understanding the struggles of black folks is rooted and grounded in the collective struggle for justice, liberation and self-determination. My survival is bound with those of others — those who have suffered from European imperialism down to its newer, more toxic form, U.S. imperialism.

I admit: the book was a challenging read for me because I wasn’t used to his diction and style of writing. But form aside, all fourteen chapters are explicit in illustrating what emancipation looks like — from raising self-consciousness, the formation of the Freedman’s Bureau, the importance of education, the role of religion and the church and a pointed, materialist analysis of black leadership.

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Source: Amistad Murals by Hale Arpacio Woodruff

He started with an examination of identity, of being black in the U.S.:

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,–this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.

When I read this, I immediately thought of what’s happening today with the recent Muslim ban. Many folks are leaving their home countries because of war and economic hardships, eager to start a new life in the U.S. These are parallels, as over and over again, we see how history repeats itself. Ravaged in your home country, you flee to places with opportunities only to be spurned and rejected. Continue reading

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Economics as if People Mattered, Economics in a Spiritual Sense (with E.F. Schumacher)

“An attitude to life which seeks fulfillment in the single-minded pursuit of wealth — in short, materialism — does not fit into this world, because it contains within itself no limiting principle, while the environment in which it is placed is strictly limited.”
–E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered

I’m not one to jump for the joy at the sound of economics, nor do I find the subject of economic progress appealing. I can, on the other hand, understand the necessity of work, of having a job in order to sustain one self. It is only from this perspective, this incredibly minute perspective that I was brought up in: life is about finding the right job and living comfortably until you die peacefully.

Until it’s not.

This perspective changed as soon as I became an activist. When you come face to face with the dire working conditions of your people, you want nothing but change. You know what the ideal world you dream up with others look like, but you don’t exactly know the specifics of what it takes to get to that world.

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“What becomes of man in the process of production?”

This, by no means, is really your fault. There are numerous institutions and systems at work.

When I read Alain de Botton’s The News: A User’s Manual last year, he wrote about how news cables were first laid on the ocean floor — in the service of economics.

Historically, the evolution of the modern news media has been closely linked to the need for market information on the part of capitalism’s banks, brokerages and trading houses.

The transoceanic cables laid between the United Kingdom and the United States in the mid-nineteenth century were jointly funded by financiers and news companies (Reuters, for one).

Most of the economic news we also receive for the most part fly over our heads: there is no section of the New York Times dedicated to economics as a whole, but there is a Business section. It isn’t too hard to guess which portion of the population it aims to serve — either the rich, or for those of us who see trade and job-making a way of life.

I haven’t heard of Schumacher before, but I came across a Brain Pickings post once called “Buddhist Economics.” Those two words together caught my attention. That same day, a friend pulled it out of her shelf and told me that I should read it. I took that as a beautiful happenstance. This book and I were fated.

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“The cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of wisdom.”

This book was first published in 1975, about twelve years before I was born. Schumacher’s book was dismissed as wanky, crazy even to quote Gandhi and Buddha in a field ruled by statistics. His premise was simple: in a world where capitalism is god, we needed to face hard facts about the way we lived our lives.

We is the operative term; most of the major economic decisions made back then (and to this day) were beyond what the average citizen had a control of. In understanding the scope and essence of our economic lives, he referenced other concepts: peace, permanence, Buddhism, consumerism, nature as capital, materialism.

I started to get even more interested. As I get older, I find myself drawn to things that evoke a sense of spirituality. I found this in Small is Beautiful as he pointed out man’s irreverence and arrogance, reminding us — mere human beings — of our own impermanence. It was humbling.

He [Schumacher] reminds us that economics has only become scientific by becoming statistical. But at the bottom of its statistics, sunk well out of sight, are so many sweeping assumptions about people like you and me — about our needs and motivations and the purpose we have given our lives.

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“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not for every man’s greed.”

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The Metaphysics of Reading the News, with Alain de Botton

“Whatever happens in our classrooms, the more potent and ongoing kind of education takes place on the airwaves and on our screens. Cocooned in classrooms for only our first eighteen years or so, we effectively spend the rest of our lives under the tutelage of news entities which wield infinitely greater influence over us than any academic institution can. Once our formal education has finished, the news is the teacher.
–Alain de Botton, The News: A User’s Manual

The proliferation of fake news lately, especially heightened during the U.S. presidential election, had me scratching my head in confusion: so people actually fell for it?

In a podcast by Planet Money, they tracked down the “Fake-News King” Jestin Coler who makes profit off of the ads he ran on fake news articles and website. Once you see it from that perspective, it isn’t impossible then that this would exist. What’s the golden piece of nugget in this story? Coler said it himself:

Like, there is a demand for this product. People want conspiracy. Like, people want fake news that confirms what they already believe.

If you think that fake news is problematic, it may be the real news that actually falls short. This I learned after reading Alain de Botton’s The News: A User Manual, an exploration and analysis of the news we consume (and are given) on the daily: political, world, economic, celebrity, disaster, consumer.

When I was still a high-schooler back in the Philippines, I remember participating in news writing workshops and contests where the bare bones of news writing were taught. I even won a contest at some point and considered pursuing journalism in college for a minute.

But I knew journalism wasn’t for me, because what I saw published in the news lacked the kind of creativity I wanted to infuse in my work. Turns out, I’m not alone in this thought.

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We consume news in various methods and from different platforms — news alerts straight to your inbox, articles on your Facebook timeline, 140-character tweets on your feed — that it’s impossible not to drown in all that information (or misinformation). The question that de Botton asks is: is the news we are given presented in a way that warrants our attention? Does it elicit something more than passive indignation, a quick (nasty at times) comment or a mere glance enough to compel us to action?

Central to the book is the way news is presented to us and the way we contextualize the information we receive. Take political news for example: we are given the facts, the political actors, the ramifications. If today’s headline underscores a politician’s incompetence, it is not hard for an ordinary citizen to be enraged. It is easy for us to point fingers, to dismiss the politician and/or the system as stupid or not working when in reality, there’s actually much that we don’t see.

What is the role of mainstream media then, when it presents us political news?

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He also delves into foreign or world news, of which we all have become accustomed to in the form of war, disaster or tragedies which need more than #Prayfor_____ posted on our social media accounts.

An understanding of human nature is what’s needed, de Botton explains: “Foreign news should find ways to make us all more human in another’s eyes, so that the apparently insuperable barriers of geography, culture, race and class could be transcended and fellow-feeling might develop across chasms.”

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A Guide for Living Our Best Lives, with Kahlil Gibran

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Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet is one of those rare books that proves to be timeless and brimming with wisdom, one that instantly gives you clarity upon reading it. Call me late to The Prophet-party, but I’m glad that I read it at the most opportune time possible. As I sift through the mess of 2016, reading Gibran’s classic work gave me so much perspective beyond our current times, propelling a leap inwards towards the self’s center.

The book is the story of Almustafa who was set to sail out back to his birthplace, after living in Orphalese for more than a decade. But before he leaves, he engages in a discussion of life and the human condition with a group of people. This becomes the essence of The Prophet, a compilation of 26 prose fables on love, marriage, pain, work and other matters of life we hold dear.

We’re living in a time where our lives are complicated by economic, political, psychological and social factors, not in the way that strengthens our resolve as human beings but geared towards a profit-seeking, environmentally-destructible and individualist paradigm. It is no wonder that even with the rise of social media, we feel disconnected more than ever — misunderstood, disillusioned, isolated.

How do we then make sense of our need to flourish in the short time that we have in this world, given the unforgiving frailty of our human faculties? Gibran seemed to have the answers.

On love & marriage — the message is this: a delicate dance of just enough is enough for love. More than bell hooks’s book All About Love which I touted at one point as my bible, I think Gibran’s message resonates because it acknowledges our humanity while respecting our beloved’s.

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This inquiry is central to so many of our lives — the desire to love and be loved. And when we do find our beloved, the path to healthy relationships at times can be thorny. Although we spend the majority of our early years in school, we are never taught how to relate in intimate relationships healthily. Our education comes in the form of prominent figures in our personal lives and what we see in the media. In this matter, Gibran also has some words. Continue reading

#ElectionDay2016: No Such Thing As The Right Hands

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Source: MiCDaily

White supremacy, or white feminism? I left my local polling place thinking about this, even after turning my ballot in.

In an interview with the Boston Review, Junot Díaz spoke about global and critical dystopias and the future of literature. The past few months have been riddled with political discourse so disheartening that for the first time in recent years, 81% of Americans wished for this election to be over.

Still, I can’t tear myself away from it all, in spite of the hypocrisy, the deception, the bigotry, for reasons that Díaz points out in the interview.

“This is of extraordinary importance, because what we bring—our critique of the present, our understanding of the present—is absolutely essential to produce a future. Our lack of presence in these areas, or our small numbers in these areas, problematically guarantee that in the future the toxic present may continue itself. We have got to chase these regimes everywhere they go, whether they imagine and re-imagine and re-create themselves in a past, whether they imagine, re-imagine, or re-create themselves in a fantastic other-space, or whether they are attempting to colonize the future. We need to go there and defend humanity, defend our humanity.”

Defending our humanity comes in the form of different things, whether it’s showing up to the Republican National Convention wearing a “Make America Read Again” hat the same way this librarian did, writing letters to the future president, or by standing with other writers to unequivocally oppose, as a matter of conscience, the presidency of one candidate.

The soul can become weary, and I have a stack of books at my disposal, with other worlds to explore. There are also lists like this, recommendations of books to read after the election.

In the end, we’re still stuck with the same system, no matter who wins. Teju Cole got it right, in this interview with poet Adam Fitzgerald:

“Not talking about Trump now…I thought the Snowden revelations were very deeply consequential, and people were like ‘Eh… you know. It’s Obama. He’s not gonna do anything bad with it.’ This fundamental undermining of what it’s fair to call a sacred principle: it would be easy to say that in the wrong hands, the effect could be devastating. But what I actually want to say is that there’s no such thing as the right hands.”

No such thing as the right hands because no matter who wins, we’re still caught in the same system where we have to continuously defend our humanity.

Still here, still breathing, still struggling.

The Sagacity of Susan Sontag: On Love, Queerness & Writing

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Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts–like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself.

Nothing is the same after reading Susan Sontag. Her diaries and journals to be exact, as I have yet to read any of her books or essays. It all makes sense now — Teju Cole’s ephemeral praise of the writer, Maria Popova’s (of Brain Pickings) inspiring tributes.

There are a number of affinities that I feel like I share with Sontag — desolation around marriage/relationships (well, mine is evolving, but you get the point), living in simultaneous awe and bewilderment in the Bay Area, embarking on a slightly self-effacing trip to Puerto Rico. In two distant entries, I felt a trickle of bemusement as she wrote about meeting Filipino poet José Garcia Villa (known then as the “Pope of Greenwich”), a fondness as she wrote about reading Bataan and Corregidor.

I have profound devotion to a few writers (Baldwin, Moraga) and poets (Finney, Finney) and this may be premature, but Sontag is getting to that list. She affirms what I love most about writers: the multiple ways their work transcend time and space and reach readers like me.

I got a used copy of  Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 at Green Apple Books and the rest is history.

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I don’t give a damn for anyone’s aggregation of facts, except in that it be a reflection [of] basic sensitivity which I do demand…I intend to do everything…to have one way of evaluating experience–does it cause me pleasure or pain, and I shall be very cautious about rejecting the painful–I shall anticipate pleasure everywhere and find it, too, for it is everywhere! I shall involve myself wholly…everything matters! The only thing I resign is the power to resign, to retreat: the acceptance of sameness and the intellect. I am alive…I am beautiful…what else is there?

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Looking with the Eyes of Teju Cole

It all started on Twitter — I was scrolling through my feed and noticed the most ingenious tweets retweeted by folks I followed, which called out to me immediately. They were by a certain Teju Cole, whose work nor name I haven’t heard before. Not long after clicking the “Follow” button, I became privy to the thoughts, words and photos of one of the most prolific human beings of our time.

What drew me even closer to Teju was his ability to make connections with literature, culture, art, politics, photography — and literally every facet of human existence — to give his readers (or fans) a perspective on life like no other.

I’ve been an avid fan since then, as I read his books Open City and Everyday is for the Thief. I was lucky enough to catch him at a reading in San Francisco too, as he talked about the trans-Atlantic slave trade while white people in the audience told their own stories of being in Africa. In his new book Known and Strange Things, he wrote an essay called The White Savior Industrial Complex. 

I usually try to finish a book in a week or two but I stayed with Teju’s new book for about a month, as I processed each essay and its significance differently, in the context of a queer Filipino immigrant experience in the United States.

It was in these thought processes that I discovered how and why I kept close to his work — because of our shared histories as immigrants.

In his essay Home Strange Home, it felt like I was reading my own migration story at 17 years old. He was coming from Nigeria, and I, from the Philippines, at the rough and tender age where identities are questioned, challenged and formed:

The journey to Kalamazoo seemed like a journey of return, the opposite of exile. A direct flight from Lagos to JFK, followed by a daylong train journey across the Midwest, had brought me to the town where my parents were married, the town where I was born and baptized. I had no anxiety about legal documents. Picking up my Social Security card was an afternoon’s errand. I got a job at McDonald’s, and banks gladly loaned me money for college. But, my first evening on campus, as I wandered around in what seemed like intolerable cold, it suddenly struck me that everyone I loved on this earth was almost six thousand miles away. I was flooded with panic, like a young boy in a helicopter being pulled away from all he’d ever known. Seventeen years of invented memories abandoned me. A sob ascended my spinal cord.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve had the feeling of kinship with Nigerians, especially after reading Everyday is for the Thief and also Chimamanda Ngzozi Adichie’s Americanah. Maybe it is the fate of third world immigrants like myself to feel kinship towards other immigrants fleeing post-colonial societies, in search of better lives elsewhere. Continue reading

What We Really Talk About When We Talk About Love, with Alain de Botton (Part 2)

This is a two-part book review of Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love.
The first part can be found here

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After listening to Michael Krasny’s interview of Alain de Botton on KQED’s Forum, I headed out to see him speak in Corte Madera that evening. The bookstore north of San Francisco was already filled thirty minutes before the event; I was pleased to see that there were other people of color there who were eager to hear about what he had to say about love.

But it all begins and ends with romance. As soon as de Botton took the stage, he started talking about romanticism right away.

All sorts of other notions run through romanticism: for all of us, there is a soul mate out there. Maybe we’ve met them, maybe we haven’t met them so we keep swiping left, right, left, right. When we find them, it will be delightful — we will never be lonely again. All of our questions, all of our doubts about our purpose, meaning and significance in life will be answered by someone who understands us totally and reconciles us in every way we exist.

Peals of laughter grew as he pointed out other notions of Romanticism that we’ve come to normalized, things we’ve never questioned before. Just like in the book, he launched into a clear-eyed examination of our feelings about love and the way we’ve related to potential partners or lovers on all aspects.

In the first part of my book review for The Course of Love, I wrote about five things that I learned:

  1. Love is a skill, not an enthusiasm.
  2. What we look for in love unconsciously are patterns of childhood familiarity.
  3. One of love’s oddities: sulking.
  4. The opposite of nagging is negotiating and understanding patiently.
  5. Teaching our partners may be one of love’s greatest gifts.

Just as I was talking about the book’s main characters Rabih and Kirsten in that post and ways of looking at love, I want to probe even deeper. I’m interested in  extending the conversation beyond what we already know and have come to accept. My goal is to understand the process that de Botton writes about:

It will take Rabih many years and frequent essays in love to reach a few different conclusions, to recognize that the very things he once considered romantic — wordless intuitions, instantaneous longings, a trust in soul mates — are what stand in the way of learning how to be with someone. He will surmise that love can endure only when one is unfaithful to its beguiling opening ambitions, and that, for his relationships to work, he will need to give up on the feelings that got him into them in the first place.

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What We Really Talk About When We Talk About Love, with Alain de Botton

…is a lot of romanticism.

It’s in the movies we watch, the books we read, the music we listen to. From Disney “Princess” films to books and movies inspired by Nicholas Sparks, the irresistible charm of romance permeates our culture. It’s the nostalgia of the fairy tale, it is its allure that keeps us affirming star-crossed lovers (Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet to Meyer’s Edward & Bella).

We talk of love in its highest regard in romantic relationships — the chocolates and the flowers, the grand gestures, the undying affection that has taken over and shaped how our society at large sees relationships. We are enchanted by that initial “spark” and eventually find ourselves looking how to recapture it (as in, Rekindling the Romance: 9 Secrets to Keeping the Spark…).

The love stories we see and hear about are really only the beginning of those relationships, Alain de Botton argues, in his new book The Course of Love. What happens after the proposal, followed by the wedding, are the lives of two people bound not by romance alone but by the humbling reality of living with another person.

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The Wonders of Philosophy on our Lives, with Alain de Botton

Philosophy as a tool for practicality, as a means for living our lives more fruitfully. This is what Alain de Botton’s book The Consolations of Philosophy aims to achieve, by exploring the lives of Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

In spite of the vast differences between the many thinkers described as philosophers across time, it seemed possible to discern a small group of men, separated by centuries, sharing a loose allegiance to a vision of philosophy suggested by the Greek etymology of the word — philo, love; sophia, wisdom — a group bound by a common interest in saying a few consoling and practical things about the causes of our greatest griefs.

It is easy to dismiss philosophy as useless, only fit for intellectuals, a bourgeosie occupation. But de Botton proves it isn’t so.

After all, weren’t Karl Marx, Hegel, Hippocrates, Socrates, Vladimir Lenin all philosophers who have created uncharted pathways in revolutions, industries and institutions?

While political philosophers like Marx tackled the evils of capitalism, philosophers featured in de Botton’s book all point to things in our lives that do need some balming, quiet, internal revolutions of their own: unpopularity, not having enough money, broken-heartedness, inadequacy, anxiety and the fear of failure.

Relevant and accessible, The Consolations of Philosophy points out similarities between the philosophers’ live and our own, problems that wo/man has encountered since the earliest time. It is funny, poignant and honest, things we all need to face what afflicts us.

On unpopularity

At one point in our lives we’ve all encountered who Socrates was; you might’ve learned about him in school or you’ve probably seen his infamous quote:

De Botton details Socrates’s life and challenges popular beliefs. Instead, he asks us to investigate ideas with little to no following. He believed that this is vital specially when the pressure to conform abounds. Socrates also provided a way of challenging beliefs that we may not agree with, and to do so with intentions of arriving at the truth.

For a man who was sentenced to die precisely for wanting to seek and arrive with others at the fundamental truth of any matter, we’re at an opportune time when independent thinking garners a lot less danger.

Socrates’s method of thinking promised us a way to develop opinions in which we could, even if confronted with a storm, feel veritable confidence.

It would be a shame to deprive ourselves, loved ones and our communities of this chance at truth; his death did not occur for us to receive what we don’t understand with blind acceptance.

True respectability stems not from the will of the majority but from proper reasoning.

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