The Constitution of the United States of America

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One of my book clubs chose to read the U.S. Constitution a few months ago, inspired by Khizr Khan’s speech at the 2016 Democratic convention. This week seemed to be an appropriate time to look at it again. Regardless of your political leanings, if you are a U.S. citizen this is the foundational document and primary source for your country’s government.

I realise that one can spend years learning about all the interpretations and rulings that have added layer after layer to this short document. Some book club members read additional books to expand their understanding, but I wanted to start fresh here.

Some of us had read the Constitution back in our schooldays; others never had. I think we were all surprised by how much we’d forgotten or perhaps not noticed in the first place.

Of course, this week all eyes are on Article I, Section 9: the emoluments clause intended to ensure that our elected officials are not bribed by “any King, Prince, or foreign State.” We expect our elected officials to put the good of the country before their personal gain. You could argue that this possibility is already covered by the treason clause (Article III, Section 3), since accepting a bribe would also be putting another country’s interest before that of the U.S. and therefore giving them “Aid and Comfort.” Still, I’m glad it is spelled out.

The sentence just before that in Section 9 amused me: “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States.” A few years ago I visited Sulgrave Manor in Oxfordshire, England, home of George Washington’s ancestors. One of the guides told me that a few days earlier a contingent of Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) members had toured the house. These women had assured the guide that they were the aristocracy of the U.S. I said no, that was just their personal fantasy, and that I was sure they were not representative of the DAR as a whole. I added that my mother, who had been invited to join, had refused. Despite her interest and pride in her family history, she thought it was un-American to think yourself special because your family had been here since the revolution.

I was also surprised that there were only two casual mentions of Native Americans in the document. This was another headslap moment, though, because I certainly knew about tribal sovereignty. Tribal nations are considered “domestic dependent nations” whose relationship to the U.S. is different from that of a foreign nation. There are limitations on tribal nations’ sovereignty just as there are limitations on the sovereignty of states and the federal government.

Whatever else I’d forgotten, I remember the first ten amendments to the Constitution, also known as the Bill of Rights. I come back often to the first of them which assures freedom of religion, speech, and the press; and rights of assembly and petition. This one seems in most danger today.

Other amendments provide a curious glimpse into the country’s history, such as Amendment III against housing soldiers in people’s homes without their consent (except in case of war and then only according to law). This is not something most of us worry about today, but it was a big issue for the colonists.

And the U.S.’s shame is spelled out here as well. Why would amendments be needed to guarantee the right to vote regardless of race or color (Amendment XV) or gender (Amendment XIX)? Surely Amendment XIV should have been enough since it guarantees the civil rights of “All persons born or naturalized in the United States” and says that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” Thus we are reminded that there was a time not that long ago when people of color and women were not actually considered “persons”.

I’m glad my book club pushed me to reread the Constitution and reacquaint myself with this country’s first principles.

Have you read the Constitution recently?

Saving Our Sons: Raising Black Children in a Turbulent World, by Marita Golden

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Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me has been getting a lot of press since it came out last year. With good reason: Coates’s letter to his son is an essential reminder to all of us, in the U.S. at least, that a hope and a dream alone are not enough to undo centuries of racism built into the structure of this country. His fears for his son’s physical safety took on new resonance in the outrage over the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray and too many others.

Yet it was this slim book by Marita Golden that I first read twenty years ago that truly brought home to me the dangers faced by young men of color and the emotions endured by their parents.

Golden’s book has a different focus than Coates’s. It is not a letter written to her then-teen-aged son. Rather it is a combination of interviews, essays and journal entries that document her search to discover how on a practical level she can keep her son—and all our sons—safe.

How much should she worry about his taking on the walk and fashions of the street? Should she and her husband move out of Washington, D.C., to a suburb? Should she take Michael out of public school and send him to boarding school? What should she tell him so he can protect himself? How to couch it so as to scare him enough but not too much, this child she has worked so hard to make feel loved and safe and secure?

You can imagine how Golden’s thoughts and fears hit home with me, since I have two sons, at that time barely out of their teens. I worried about them, knowing how dangerous the streets are for young men, whether from other young men looking to assert themselves or from those who assume a teen-aged boy must be a troublemaker.

Walking in our neighborhood, they had been bullied by police who assumed they must be about to commit a crime. But they weren’t handcuffed or arrested. They weren’t shot. I knew already, before reading this book or any other, that insulting and infuriating as those incidents were, they were nothing—nothing—compared to what could, maybe would have happened if their skin had been a darker color. They and I are well aware that we walk with privilege, unearned and unwelcome.

I urge everyone to read this powerful book. Golden’s call to action is more vital than ever. She says:

There was a transcendent moment in our history when we faced bulldogs, water cannons, jail cells, firebombs, assassinations, sacrifice, so that our children could be full citizens. What will we do so that they can live?

They are my children too. And yours. They are the future.

What will you do?

The Edge of Heaven, by Marita Golden

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It’s been a few years since I read this novel by the incredible Marita Golden. In her work she consistently takes on issues so delicate that most are afraid to discuss them at all. Golden approaches them with intelligence and humanity, forcing us to envision and inhabit lives that may be different from our own. To me this is what make literature one of the highest callings: that it nurtures our empathy.

The story opens with twenty-year-old Teresa Singletary and her mother, Lena, facing a major turning point in their lives: Lena is being released from prison.

As Teresa’s grandmother (and Lena’s mother) Ma Adele says, “‘She’ll need you to love her, love her to the bone.’” But Lena isn’t at all sure she’s ready to do that. She bitterly resents the losses that her mother’s actions caused and misses the father who left them shortly before events spun out of control. Ryland has been too absorbed in his own grief to be much of a father to Teresa, leaving her to Ma Adele’s steadfast care.

All of these characters have a turn, as the story moves between Teresa’s first-person point of view and the third-person point of view of the others, particularly Lena. Their actions and memories balance Teresa’s and add context and depth.

Through this “chorus of voices” as Golden describes it in the Reader’s Guide, the story conveys the terrible damage not just to the person imprisoned, but also to her or his family. This theme is what brought me back to this book, now when it seems as though our society may finally be ready to confront the massive racial inequality in the U.S. prison system.

I’ve learned so much from Marita Golden’s workshops. Her skill is evident on every page. Look at how Ma Adele is introduced. About to leave for work, Teresa stops to see her grandmother, entering a bedroom full of plants and flowers. “Some days I heard her behind her door conversing with the plants. She had names the cactus Butch and the azaleas that hung from the ceiling Aretha.” From this we get a picture of Ma Adele as nurturing and having a sense of humor.

Further we find that she is still in bed reading the newspaper, signaling an active intellectual involvement in the world. “The TV remote control, a paperback mystery, an aged, tattered leather phone book, knitting needles, a ball of yarn, and a stack of bills littered my grandmother’s bed.” We are reminded that Ma Adele is perhaps tired, spending much of her time in bed, a woman asked in her old age to raise another child.

Among the litter on the bed is a stack of letters from Lena. Teresa says, “Each time I looked at my grandmother’s face I saw the shadow and the promise of my mother and myself.” By now we know how complicated her emotions are about this seemingly commonplace observation.

This is just one example. The story takes us deep into the history of these individuals and their experience as a family. While the journey is sometimes dark and the human cost is huge, it is in the end a story of love’s possibilities.

I hope with all my heart that we can learn to live inside the lives of others and, seeing the world as they do, make better choices. Stories such as these help us get there.

What novel have you read that illuminated a life different from your own?

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, by Kathryn J. Edin & H. Luke Shaefer

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Did you think that the days of extreme poverty in the U.S. were over? Did you think there was a safety net in place? Think again.

After over 20 years of poverty research, Kathryn Edin began to see an entirely new level of despair: families in the U.S. getting by with almost no cash income. Luke Shaefer, an expert on the Survey of Income and Program Participation administered by the U.S. Census Bureau, didn’t believe her. He decided to prove Edin was wrong, using the World Bank’s poverty threshold as his upper limit. After crunching the numbers, however, he found that in 2011, “1.5 million households with roughly 3 million children were surviving on cash incomes of no more than $2 per person, per day in any given month.”

How could this happen in a country so prosperous? We hear a lot about income inequality these days, but not about this kind of extreme poverty. Through stories of individual families backed by solid research, the authors detail the reasons why this kind of poverty has been increasing since 1996, “and at a distressingly fast pace. As of 2011, the number of families in $2-a-day poverty had more than doubled in just a decade and a half.”

1996: you remember. That was the year welfare reform destroyed the safety net. No longer was there any guarantee for those whose severe poverty qualified them for assistance. And what federal money remained was changed to go to the states as block grants with wide leeway on how they could spend it; it didn’t actually have to go to poor people. As documented in this book, people are so routinely denied—often being told there is no more money—that most poor people don’t bother applying. Many don’t even know there is a benefit for which they qualify. The authors call the commentators who in 1996 foresaw the coming catastrophe “remarkably prescient”, but those of us who’d been poor saw it all too clearly; we knew how fragile and under siege our benefits had always been.

The other factor, of course, is the ever-worsening lack of jobs. Even if they can get a job—as everyone interviewed has done in the past—the pay is so low, the hours unreliable, the benefits non-existent, that it is not enough to lift them out of poverty. And that’s not even considering the ways that bosses take advantage of their employees, since it’s a buyer’s market for them.

How is it even possible to manage without a cash income? You can only use food stamps for actual food, not soap or kids’ shoes or rent or light. We meet many families in this book, each with their own strategies. Their stories are told with the calm of a social scientist, tempered by compassion. You cannot help but be moved by the stories of people like Modonna Harris standing in line for hours to apply for benefits only to be turned away. “Everyone knows you have to get here by at least 7:30, a full hour before the office opens.” We learn about her background, her search for work, everything that led her to this point.

The authors see this work experience as a cause for hope: those they interview have worked in the past and are desperate to work again. I found the same thing when I was on welfare 40 years ago. In the final chapter Edin and Shaefer lay out a roadmap for getting people back to work and helping those who cannot work.

My only disagreement with them is their blithe statement that “reverting to the old welfare system is not the answer.” I agree that in addition to money, Aid to families with Dependent Children (AFDC) dispensed stigma and isolation. As a former AFDC recipient, I experienced both and the hopelessness that comes with them. However, I would take that stigma and isolation a thousand times over to spare my children what happened to the children we get to know in this book: chronic malnourishment, abuse by sexual predators in overcrowded households, the temptation for a tenth-grade girl when a teacher offers her food in exchange for sex. I would make the same decision I made all those years ago when I said to myself: the kids come first.

Of course, I know there’s no going back to AFDC, even though it would be better than what we have now. The voting public has been too blinded by politicians determined to demonize the poor—such a handy target! so powerless to fight back. They have also been blinded by their own comfortable lifestyle, not recognising the privilege that got them there, or, for those in a lower income bracket, their fear of falling into poverty themselves.

I do endorse the authors’ proposed solutions. However, it will take a huge groundswell of public opinion to overcome our society’s bias against helping the poor. It will take all of us speaking out.

I hope you are moved. I hope you read this book. I hope you act.