Kurt Cobain, was born in 1967, and died 23 years ago today. He flitted between narcissism, empathy, love and pain, trying to enjoy his life and simply be himself, but not feeling it, instead feeling everything else instead. He’d have been 50 now, just a month older than me. 5 years ago, I also attempted suicide, after a lifelong struggle with identity and feeling too much.
Whilst Cobain is in nirvana now, where are we 20+ years on? Still struggling for identity, as individuals, and a generation? Cobain struggled with being seen as the voice of a generation. His band, Nirvana, was labelled “the flagship band” of Generation X, and Cobain himself proclaimed as “the spokesman of a generation”, something that did not sit well with him.
Faking it, Being Someone Else
“Wanting to be someone else is a waste of who you are.” – Kurt Cobain
Cobain was trying to work out how to be himself amidst the pressures of fame, parental divorce, love and loss, and mental health conditions including bipolar mood swings between depression and mania, as described by his cousin, a nurse, who noted his childhood diagnosis of ADHD and as an adult Bipolar (unconfirmed?). Several relatives had also committed suicide in the same way.
He struggled to feel what he thought he was meant to feel or enjoy. He couldn’t fake the enjoyment of fame, or life itself.
“I’ve tried everything within my power to appreciate it” – Kurt Cobain, suicide note
“The worst crime is faking it.” – Kurt Cobain
Empathy and Fame
He mentioned empathy four times in his suicide note, and the struggle between feeling too much and yet not feeling anything – or what he thought was the right thing, at all.
“I think I simply love people too much, so much that it makes me feel too fucking sad. The sad little, sensitive, unappreciative, Pisces, Jesus, man, ‘Why don’t you just enjoy it?’ I don’t know!” – Kurt Cobain, suicide note
Nirvana sold over 25 million albums in the US, and over 75 million worldwide, but fame and success do not fill the void. He hated the fame, and was envious of Freddie Mercury and how he seemed to relish it.
“We’re so trendy we can’t even escape ourselves…I really miss being able to blend in with people.” – Kurt Cobain
Reading, Writing & Lyrics
Cobain “occasionally took refuge in the counter-cultural writings of authors such as William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Samuel Beckett and Charles Bukowski”. Yet, described himself as having the “tongue of an experienced simpleton”, and hating the Freudian analysis that people subjected his lyrics to. Another reason, to explore him in his own words, not the interpretation of others.
“I’m not well-read, but when I read, I read well.” – Kurt Cobain
“I like to have strong opinions with nothing to back them up with besides my primal sincerity. I like sincerity. I lack sincerity.” – Kurt Cobain
Kurt Cobain was seemingly bisexual, though gave mixed interviews on that side of his personal life, calling himself “gay for a while” yet “more sexually attracted to women”. As a teen he was arrested and fined $180 for graffitiing “Homosex Rules” on a wall. He once said, “I started being really proud of the fact that I was gay even though I wasn’t.” It is not clear if he ever consummated this part of his persona, despite saying:
“If I wouldn’t have found Courtney, I probably would have carried on with a bisexual lifestyle.” – Kurt Cobain
Whilst Generation Y, born early 80s to 2000, followed Cobain’s Generation X, we are now on the Gen Z cohort, born since the Millennium. A group happy to be neither gay nor straight, to question gender and express it fluidly.
Cobain wrote about women’s rights in his songs, including concerning the rape of a 14yo girl after a concert (not one of his).
“I definitely feel closer to the feminine side of the human being than I do the male – or the American idea of what a male is supposed to be.” – Kurt Cobain
“He was himself”
Canadian musician and writer, Dave Bidini, in an article for the National Post entitled “Kurt Cobain, who died 20 years ago today, wasn’t a hero, martyr or vampire. He was himself” ended with this comment:
“He looked like he didn’t care (because he didn’t) … His arms hang down and he turns sideways from the crowd, as if he’s trying not to be seen, even though 20 million people have their eyes trained on him. In a society where ‘bringing it’ and ‘all or nothing’ and ‘going for it’ are sicknesses pumped by fools who aspire to drive people apart rather than draw them together, Cobain’s sense of oblivion was, in a way, brave and confrontational, and that’s why he cracked even the hardest edifice and ate through misplaced pop culture like a creeping disease. In the end, he made an enormous impression for someone who wasn’t even there.” – Dave Bidini, National Post
Cobain did escape, “Rather be dead than cool”, others need not take that route if they can follow his other wisdom, to be yourself and find someone you can be yourself with and talk to.
Remember him alive though, here’s an awesome unplugged hour-long Kurt Cobain MTV concert in NYC November 1993 just months before his suicide, my favourite line of which was “like this is my third cup of tea already” – how Rock’n’Roll!
I will remember him, as much for the angst music of a tortured soul, as the desire to find and be himself, a journey I am also on, aren’t we all to a degree?
“I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not.” – Kurt Cobain
Every 29 hours a trans person is murdered in the world, 295 were reported up to this year’s annual 20 November Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). Most, some 85%, were in the Americas, but even in Europe, 5 were killed in each of Italy and Turkey. In Asia at least 11 across India and Pakistan. North America had 23 reported murders of transgender people, but Brazil had 123, ten times as many per capita. Honduras is, in fact, the most dangerous place per head of population, twice as bad as Brazil, with 89 people killed over 8 years of reporting. Over the last 8 years, some 52 trans people have been stoned to death – and not by ISIS, one just 3 weeks ago in Brazil; 630 were killed in the street, many as sex workers, but it begs the question about bystanders and communities not noticing or standing up as allies; one victim in Pakistan was refused medical treatment because she was trans, speeding her death.
These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg as statistics are based upon scouring news reports and some people may only be listed as a sex worker and/or their trans status not mentioned. Some may not have been killed because they were trans, but many were. Also, the numbers do not include the 33-50% of trans people who also try to take their own lives through suicide.
2264 Trans Lives lost Violently
Over 2008-2016 since the Trans Murder Monitoring (TMM) TvT Project has been running, 2264 have been killed. By far the largest, 541 were sex workers, but 99 hairdressers and beauticians, 34 artists, and 25 activists were counted among the dead as well as 9 religious leaders.
Trans Awareness Week/Month
As an antidote, it has been a pleasure and a privilege to be involved in several talks and discussions during Trans Awareness Week, or even a full month being celebrated by some. UEA, my local university, was particularly busy with events on each day, in conjunction with other societies such as FemSoc and Pride. Events covered non-binary questions, trans student politics, Ava Rollason sharing her colourful life and journey, and the growth of diversity and even dissent within and towards trans* identities.
Trans Visibility without the Violence
Trans people have indeed reached a “tipping point” and yet that has not diminished their risk of harm – self, and assailant-based. With shockingly high suicide risks, 80% consider it, and 33-50% act on it, trans people are especially vulnerable, and now, especially visible.
With around 0.75 to 2.5% or more people identifying as transgender and/or non-binary, one interesting visualisation is that there could be on average around 250-1000 trans* people at each UK premiership football match.
Visibility without risk of violence is what trans people are seeking, although many would no doubt prefer a form of passing invisibility as opposed to a discriminatory erasure or prejudicial ignorance.
Many have called 2015 the year of transgender visibility, after 2014’s “transgender tipping point” but what does that make 2016? One hopes that whilst deaths and murders are on the rise, that also, acceptance, diversity, and rights, are also increasing, and the killings are a temporary peak and will subside as countries make healthcare and transition access easier and more affordable, reducing the risks of sex work as a means of paying for surgeries. It should be noted that the primary victims of trans violence are trans people of colour, and that Trans Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter should be trending side by side, particularly as they were at the forefront of the emergence of trans rights in the USA. This month we remember the dead, celebrate the living, and offer hope to transgender people all over the world, and stand against the hate that takes so many of our lives.
It’s a generation since the death of author, feminist, and existentialist, Simone de Beauvoir on 14 April 1986. A lover of Sartre – in both senses of the word, she was a sexually liberated bisexual whose disregard for sexual convention – including age of consent laws, caused her to lose her right to teach in France. Her 1949 defining work on the oppression of women, Le Deuxième Sexe – “The Second Sex“, is widely considered a groundbreaking treatise on sex and gender for 20th-century feminism.
As to her sexual liberation, her “erotic liberty“, and open relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, she saw any sexual categorisation as restrictive:
“In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation.” – Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir Quotes
I recently quoted, knowingly totally out of context, this from de Beauvoir:
“One is not born a woman, but becomes one.”
I was quite promptly, and perhaps rightly, accused of ‘quote mining’. Contextomy or the unjustified use of an uprooted, and in this case anachronous, quote, to prove a point it was never intended to address, is a fair criticism.
My use of the quote was because it resonated with the idea that people can be born female, raised a girl, but become a woman. A woman is as much experience, as nature. I’m not jumping in and suggesting, for example, that post-operative trans women are thus women, the same as those who were born with a uterus and raised as girls. Indeed, is anyone any less of a woman after uterine cancer (affecting 8,500 women in the UK a year) and removal of the womb via hysterectomy? Similarly, women can have various difficulties in reproduction due to infertility, or any number of intersex medical differences that may cause an XX or indeed other chromosomal combination such as XXY etc to present a body that defies the defined binary female stereotype. Women should not be defined by their ability to procreate and bear children – that much I am sure de Beauvoir would agree with.
My question is, though, whether de Beauvoir would have condemned or supported the rights of some to pursue a gender trajectory that more matches their inner feelings and psyche than their binary-born bodies. In other words, transgender, non-binary and other forms of gender fluidity or transition.
Simone de Beauvoir on Woman, Femininity, the Other, and maybe a Third Sex
So to add insult to injury, to compound my contextomy crime, here are some further Beauvoirisms that might shed light on what might have been her attitude to “The Third Sex”. A phrase which I use, advisedly, for the main purpose of echoing her “Second Sex”, rather than for the purpose of defining all trans and/or gender non-conforming people as a “Third Sex” even though that is a way which some, especially in Asian and Indian cultures, do define.
Does ‘Woman’ even exist?
Beauvoir existentially questioned whether woman would always exist, suggesting that ‘she’ is an ephemeral concept ,driven by culture and construct as much as conception:
“Are there women, really? Most assuredly the theory of the eternal feminine still has its adherents who will whisper in your ear: ‘Even in Russia women still are women’; and other erudite persons – sometimes the very same – say with a sigh: ‘Woman is losing her way, woman is lost.’ One wonders if women still exist, if they will always exist, whether or not it is desirable that they should…” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)
One can be female but not a woman
As to femininity, she saw it as something esoteric, and that female ≠ woman ≠ femininity:
“It would appear, then, that every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity. Is this attribute something secreted by the ovaries? Or is it a Platonic essence, a product of the philosophic imagination?” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)
If female equals the “female of the species” reproductively, and feminine a cultural construct if not oppression, then woman need not be feminine and feminism a path to throwing off that oppression. But does ‘woman’ need to be female? If one can be female but not a woman, can one be woman but not a female?
What is woman?
If much previous philosophical, and biblical-theological enquiry, stemmed around “What is man?” and the nature of man, then de Beauvoir helpfully examines, what is woman:
If her functioning as a female is not enough to define woman, if we decline also to explain her through ‘the eternal feminine’, and if nevertheless we admit, provisionally, that women do exist, then we must face the question “what is a woman”?
Yet would it not be more helpful to discuss what it means to be human, or are we still stuck seeing woman as something less than a man, and hence neither equal nor fully human since, as in the Bible, Adam stands for man and humankind as the first point of reference?
“Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)
On BBC Woman’s Hour today, British Army Captain Rosie Hamilton was interviewed about how female recruits are trained, but it was then made all about how many of them made the ‘male’ standard.
Woman as the ‘Other’
Beauvoir rebelled against the patriarchal concept that man is human and woman is defined only in relation to being man’s so-called opposite pole, that she is ‘othered’ in reference to him. Not that we have achieved gender parity yet, but I wonder how she would see trans, non-binary, intersex people now, as perhaps the new (however ancient a group of people they are) ‘other’?
“No subject will readily volunteer to become the object, the inessential; it is not the Other who, in defining himself as the Other, establishes the One. The Other is posed as such by the One in defining himself as the One.” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)
Trans, Non-Binary and Intersex people are ‘othered’ by the default biologically and socially essentialist binary. In the same way, de Beauvoir saw woman as othered by man. Thus, gender non-conforming people, whether assigned male or female at birth, should have some solidarity with the feminist struggle to assert the equality of women with men, and their common core identity as human beings absolutely, not relatively. Sadly, that is not always the case and some folk do not see a common struggle between feminism and gender identity. As de Beauvoir said:
“Enough ink has been spilled in quarrelling over feminism” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)
Some radical feminists, such as Julie Bindel, Germaine Greer, Sheila Jeffries and others, are well known for exclusionary attitudes to trans people. Indeed, de Beauvoir others intersex people, formerly termed ‘hermaphrodite’, in her seeking to find an independent voice on ‘what is woman?’:
“What we need is an angel – neither man nor woman – but where shall we find one? Still, the angel would be poorly qualified to speak, for an angel is ignorant of all the basic facts involved in the problem. With a hermaphrodite we should be no better off, for here the situation is most peculiar; the hermaphrodite is not really the combination of a whole man and a whole woman, but consists of parts of each and thus is neither.” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)
In a 1976 interview, when asked about excluding men from some aspects of the feminist struggle and female gatherings, she opined that sometimes it was necessary. So she may have argued against the full and unfettered access of some transwomen (e.g., pre-operative) to women-only safe spaces. She did also say, however:
“The battle of the sexes is not implicit in the anatomy of man and woman.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)
Similarly, she spoke of some lesbian women, in particular, being male-exclusionary:
“There are other women who have become lesbian out of a sort of political commitment: that is, they feel that it is a political act to be lesbian, the equivalent somewhat within the sex struggle of the black power advocates within the racial struggle. And, true, these women tend to be more dogmatic about the exclusion of men from their struggle.” – interview (1976)
Anyone, who is oppressed has the right to gather in safe spaces – whether other oppressed minorities should have rights of access to the safe spaces of other groups who have been ‘othered’ is another matter. That siad, shared oppression is sometimes more important than shared hormones.
“Woman is determined not by her hormones or by mysterious instincts, but by the manner in which her body and her relation to the world are modified through the action of others than herself.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)
It was Audre Lorde that said, whilst “any woman is not free”, then “no woman is”. Being the one oppressed is sadly part of a common humanity, and a common responsibility:
“Each of us is responsible – to every human being.” – Simone de Beauvoir
In some matters, if not most – except the most basic biological differences, “men and women” and anyone that is defined or identified outside that binary need to” unequivocally affirm their brotherhood”, as de Beauvoir concluded in The Second Sex.
So, could every Human be a Woman?
“I wish that every human life might be pure transparent freedom.”
Beauvoir speaks of every human being, every human life, less of the categorisation that in a class-distinctive way oppresses all of us, even the men. For, in defining men and not women, as not soft or empathic, or similar stereotypes, we trap them in conventional masculinity, we oppress gay men, drag queens and transvestites who may still identify as male.
“…man, like woman, is flesh, therefore passive, the plaything of his hormones and of the species, the restless prey of his desires.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)
We no longer accept feminism as the sole regard of women. True women’s liberation also liberates men from roles and rules of sex and gender.
“…the woman of today is [not] a creation of nature; it must be repeated once more that in human society nothing is natural and that woman, like much else, is a product elaborated by civilisation.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)
If a feminist need not be a woman, and a female need not be a ‘woman’, and the ‘feminine’ just as possessable by males, then, perhaps too, a ‘woman’ need not be female, at least not assigned one at birth. In other words, is the very term ‘woman’ as much a social construct as gender itself, and the so-called masculine and feminine ideals?
“No single educator could fashion a female human being today who would be the exact homologue of the male human being; if she is brought up like a boy, the young girl feels she is an oddity and thereby she is given a new kind of sex specification.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)
Only in an androgynous (but not uniform) utopia, where all human beings were raised without class or gender specificity, could true equality perhaps be found.
On April 6, 120 years ago, the Olympic Games, its spirit, and modern ideals, were reborn in Athens, Greece. They were not the first attempt, nor born overnight, and came some 1600 years after the last ancient Greek games which had run for nearly 1200 years every 4th year or olympiad. In 394 AD the Roman Christian emperor Theodosius banned all pagan festivals including the Olympics, despite New Testament metaphors drawing inspiration from athletics. It took a Frenchman, inspired by the traditions of several English towns and cities, in combination with the philanthropy of two Greek brothers – who rebuilt an all-marble sports facility on the site of an ancient Athenian stadium, to restore the Olympic Games that we know today.
History of pre-Modern Olympics Games
Several attempts to bring back the Olympic Games were made during the nineteenth century and earlier. Some were local and just used the Olympic name. These included theCotswold Olimpick Games, near Chipping Campden in England, first organised by Robert Dover between 1612 and 1642.
220 years ago, revolutionary France launched L’Olympiade de la République, between 1796 and 1798 in front of 300,000 spectators in Paris. These games included a chariot race and were dedicated to la paix et à la fécondité – “peace and fertility”. The 1798 Games introduced metric distances and measurements for the first time.
In 1850 Dr William Penny Brookes founded an Olympic event at Much Wenlock, Shropshire, which, in 1859, became known as the Wenlock Olympian Games. Still continuing to this day, its aim was:
“to promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock, and especially of the working classes, by the encouragement of outdoor recreation and by the award of a prize…”
Not to be left out, Liverpool held an annual Grand Olympic Festival between 1862 and 1867, including events in Llandudno 1965-1966. They were founded by John Hulley and Charles Melly, and were open to all local and international ‘gentlemen amateurs’, although the first truly national Olympic Games were held at Crystal Palace Park Cricket Ground and on the River Thames at Teddington, 31 July 1866. In 1869, Hulley also organised Britain’s first velocipede and bicycle races, at which the UK now excels.
Leicester, in 1866, also held a Grand Olympic Festival, on the site of the current University of Leicester, Fielding Johnson Building, but which was formerly the Leicestershire and Rutland Lunatic Asylum.
The forerunner to the British Olympic Association was the Liverpool-founded National Olympian Association, in 1865, which went on to inspire the International Olympic Charter. The OC outlines the “fundamental principles of Olympism” and rules of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Olympic Games, Athens
The 1820s and 30s had seen interest in a revival of the Olympic Games gathering momentum. In 1856 the sponsorship of Evangelos and Konstantinos Zappas was accepted by the Greek king to fund the restoration of the Panathenaiko Stadio, or “Panathenaic Stadium“, in Athens. This was not, in fact, the original ancient Games location, since the older panhellenic Games were held at Olympia, but instead, part of the Athenian Games tradition. 1859, 1870 and 1875, then saw the first modern Greek Olympics held.
In 1890, Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was inspired to found the International Olympic Committee after visiting the Wenlock Olympian Games. This led to the first international Games, of 1896, also at Athens. The top prize was actually a Silver Medal, rather than Gold.
There were just 9 sports and 43 events over 10 days, but, significantly, the marathon, actually run from Marathon, was won by Greek athlete Spyridon “Spyro” Louis in front of 100,000 spectators.
Women’s Olympic Games
Although Athens, was not dissimilar to the Games of Liverpool and Wenlock, it was still unlike our truly modern Games, in that women were excluded from their late-nineteenth century revivals.
De Coubertin was opposed to women competing, although in 1900 they were allowed to enter tennis and gold, and London in 1908 added the Figure Skating event for women, gradually women became involved. This was not fast enough for another French national, and rower, Alice Milliat, who founded the independent Women’s Olympics in Paris in 1922, continuing through to 1934, owing to the refusal of the IOC to allow women to enter track and field events. The IOC forced a name change in 1928 to the Women’s World Games, in exchange for grudgingly admitting more events for women at the Olympics.
Even in ancient Olympics, although separate, there were some female Games, such as those of Hera at Olympia which included a separate racing competition for women. Spartan women used to take part in sports and exercises, semi-clothed – with one breast exposed, like Amazon archers, leading to a “remarkable conjunction of homosexuality, feminism, and athletics” at Sparta. Plutarch suggests that younger Spartan girls and boys would compete and exercise in the nude alongside each other.
Ancient Olympic Traditions
Most of the ancient Olympics were competed in, naked – and only by Greek-speaking freemen. For a while, women were able to enter chariot horse teams, but not enter themselves. Furthermore, they could not spectate if they were married women. Stories tell of one chariot team owner being caught crossdressing as a man to enter the trainers area and watch her team which led to even trainers having to be in the nude. Even the word ‘gymnasium’, comes from the Greek gymnos, “naked”.
“The modern Olympic ideal is completely alien to the spirit of the Greek original, which despised women, slaves and foreigners and celebrated sectarian religion, nudity, pain and winning at any cost.” – Christopher Howse,Daily Telegraph, Athens 2004
Early-on, loincloths were outlawed among the competitors and the only thing allowed was a kunodesme, “putting the dog on the lead”, penis-strap, to stop it getting in the way. Many events involved the athletes covering themselves in olive oil – the mind boggles at the wrestling events!
“The attempt to link modern athletes and ancient athletes inevitably runs up against major cultural differences…we must never lose sight of the popular savagery of the pankration. Even in more conventional events, antiquity showed a tolerance, or perhaps a taste, that is utterly alien to the modern world.” – New Republic, 2004
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2016
The ancient Games included sacrifices to the gods, the effective wearing of knuckle-dusters in the boxing, and opportunities for music and the arts alongside the body-worship and savagery. The next Games in Rio, this summer, may omit the sacrifices and savagery, and the nudity, but will still put athletic bodies centre-stage. The modern Olympic ideal of the taking part being more important than the winning, is long gone. Instead, we have doping and bribery scandals, not to mention long-running issues over the place of intersex athletes and how to include and ‘define’ them, given that the Games now includes women in most of its events rather than the original’s men-only events. The IOC can’t make up its mind on the definition of male and female athletes (like Caster Semenya and Dutee Chand), leaving many intersex athletes out in the cold, censured, or even facing compulsory surgeries to conform to standardised sex ideals.
“build a peaceful and better world in the Olympic Spirit which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play – Olympic Spirit strives to inspire and motivate the youth of the world to be the best they can be through educational and entertaining interactive challenges. Olympic Spirit seeks to instill and develop the values and ideals of Olympism in those who visit and to promote tolerance and understanding in these increasingly troubled times in which we live, to make our world a more peaceful place.”
A day of beauty and soul, World Poetry Day, falls on the same day as the South Africa’s Human Rights Day, which remembers the fight against Apartheid and particularly the 1960 Sharpeville massacre of 69 black South African demonstrators and further killing of another 21 on the 25th anniversary of that day in 1985. It also became the UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 1966 and today still says, “We need to fight racism everywhere, every day”. It is fitting that we celebrate human writes and rights together. Whether it’s the campaigning of organisations like the United Nations and Amnesty International, or the placards of activists, or poems of voices of discontent and history, we cannot be silent to ongoing racism, its history, and its continued scourge.
Yes we need action more than just words, but 15 years ago, at a World Conference Against Racism in South Africa, the Durban Declaration sought to combine words with action:
“People of African descent have for centuries been victims of racism, racial discrimination and enslavement and of the denial by history of many of their rights… they should be treated with fairness and respect for their dignity and should not suffer discrimination of any kind.” – Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, 2001
“Fifteen years after the Durban Conference very little progress has been made in tackling racism, afrophobia, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”
Maya Angelou – be part of “the possible”
Maya Angelou died in 2014 but 45 years before that, in a decade of American civil rights activism, she wrote the first of her autobiographical books, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). The book describes her early years including racism, and a rape which led to a traumatised silence for 6 years, it goes on to document her rise from child victim to young woman, mother and adult voice.
“The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
Of things unknown but longed for still
And his tune is heard on the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom”
She has become renowned as a woman full of inspiration, and love not hate, reminding us how to be better humans through her best-loved poems which she would write from a motel with, nearby, “a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry in the room”.
Watch Maya Angelou read her poem “A Brave and Startling Truth“ which she wrote for the United Nations 50th anniversary in 1995, here is a section of it:
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe
We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness …
… We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
It would be great if we, “the possible, the miraculous, the true wonder of this world”, would stop hating and discriminating.
Maya Angelou – Still I Rise
In Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise”, are the words: “Out of the huts of history’s shame”. She’s said before, the truth is that:
“A person who does not have a clue to his or her history stands a very poor chance of mapping out a future.” – Maya Angelou interview (1m40s)
She was not one to be cowed or subjugated, instead, she found her voice and gave hope to others.
The full text of her poem, “Still I Rise”:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Be amazing, A rainbow in someone else’s cloud
Maya Angelou also said, echoing a similar sentiment of Albert Camus:
“If you are always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be.”
Perhaps, we could also paraphrase that, if you are always following the crowd, buying into cheap national and racial stereotypes you will never discover not only how amazing you could be but also how amazing others are, irrespective of the colour of their skin or some other characteristic of difference. “Human beings are more alike than unalike”, she has said.
“The thing to do, it seems to me, is to
prepare yourself so you can be a
rainbow in somebody else’s cloud.
Somebody who may not look like you.
May not call God the same name you
call God – if they call God at all. I may
not dance your dances or speak your
language. But be a blessing to somebody.” – Maya Angelou
She wasn’t all “turn the other cheek” love, she also saw humour as a defence, and since “life’s a bitch”, the need to “go out and kick ass”.
Dr. Seuss would be 112 today, and certainly the non-conforming characters in his books never felt like acting their age, or following conventional wisdom, instead they offered sage advice for breaking out of the box, and being yourself, without limits.
Theodor Seuss Geisel wrote some 60 books, selling over 600 million copies, whose challenging quotes still resonate today. His birthday, March 2, has become the annual date for National Read Across America Day and comes the day before World Book Day.
“The more that you read, The more things you will know.
The more that you learn, The more places you’ll go.” I Can Read With My Eyes Shut! (1978)
Theodor Seuss Geisel, author, illustrator, cartoonist
Geisel said he was saving the name ‘Geisel’ for the Great American Novel, instead he began to use his pen name ‘Dr. Seuss’ during his time studying at Dartmouth College and continued whilst studying for a PhD in English Literature at the University of Oxford (which he did not finish, though in 1956 Dartmouth awarded him an honorary doctorate). It was at Dartmouth, as editor of a humour magazine, that he was caught drinking gin with friends in his room, during the time of Prohibition, and so with encouragement from his Professor of Rhetoric he continued clandestinely under his nom de plume. He once described himself as “subversive as hell”.
From 1927 he worked as an illustrator and cartoonist for Vanity Fair, Life, and other publications, including as chief political cartoonist for the New York newspaper, 1941-43. At the latter newspaper, he produced some 400 political cartoons such as this one:
America First, “and the wolf chewed up the children and spit out their bones but those were foreign children and it really didn’t matter”.
Perhaps, as relevant now under Donald Trump’s presidency as during the 1940s.
During World War II, he joined the Army in 1943 as a Captain and was made commander of the Animation Department of the First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Forces.
His first children’s book And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street did not appear until 1937 and his most famous, The Cat in the Hat, only came out in 1957.
Top 12 Best Dr Seuss Life Lessons Quotes
Or perhaps just 8, given that some are of uncertain attribution, even though they are Seuss-ian in nature and intent.
“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” – Happy Birthday to You! (1959)
“Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, And that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.”
“Live with intention. Walk to the edge. Listen Hard. Practice wellness. Play with abandon. Laugh. Choose with no regrets. Appreciate your friends. Continue to learn. Do what you love. Live as if this is all there is.”
“You have brains in your head and feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose.” – Oh, The Places You’ll Go!(1990)
“And will you succeed? Yes indeed, yes indeed! Ninety-eight and three-quarters percent guaranteed!” – Oh, The Places You’ll Go!(1990)
“Don’t give up! I believe in you all
A person’s a person, no matter how small!
And you very small persons will not have to die
If you make yourselves heard! So come on, now, and TRY!” – Horton Hears a Who!(1954)
“It’s not about what it is, it’s about what it can become.” – The Lorax (1971)
“Only you can control your future.”
“We are all a little weird and life’s a little weird, and when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we join up with them and fall in mutual weirdness and call it love.” – actually Robert Fulghum,True Love (1997)
“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” – of doubtful attribution
Dr Seuss (originally pronounced Soice) wrote and illustrated subversively to open minds, encourage liberal reading and adventurous lives. Horton hears a Who! was allegedly an allegory of the Hiroshima bombing. Thomas Fensch describes its ideas as “universal, multinational, multi-ethnic. In a word: Equality.” – Fensch, Thomas, The Man Who Was Dr. Seuss, (2001).
He even wrote under a female pen name, Rosetta Stone, Because a Little Bug Went Ka-Choo!! (1975). He remains loved and controversial to this day, but with some books still achieving half-million-a year book sales, he can definitely rest assured that he encouraged millions to read.
Today is Martin Luther King Day, celebrated on the third Monday in January since 1986 (Reagan agreed it in 1983), his birthday was on the 15th. Born in 1929 to a pastor and a schoolteacher, he himself became a Baptist minister and advocate for African American equality and social justice from the 1950s through to his 1968 assassination. He was instrumental in the bringing in of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
Mahatma Gandhi & Non-Violence
King was inspired by the Hindu lawyer and campaigner for rights in South Africa and India, Mahatma Gandhi, and his principles of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience over and against armed uprising. Gandhi was also an advocate of religious tolerance but was in the end also assassinated, in 1948, by a Hindu nationalist. King managed to visit India in 1959.
Gandhi had succeeded in the 1920s in uniting Muslims and Hindus against the common enemy of the British empire. Yet by the 1940s an independent Muslim nationalism led to the eventual division of India and creation of a separate Pakistan.
Some of Gandhi’s more extreme pacifist views included recommending that Britain openly yield to Hitler rather than defend itself, and that the Jews should have willingly surrendered to the Holocaust as an act of collective suicide. He did not support the idea of the state of Israel gained through violence or Zionism, but only as something within the gift of the Arabs to bring about peacefully.
Gandhi’s principles meshed with King’s own Christian principles, as he said, “Christ gave us the goals and Mahatma Gandhi the tactics.”
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Another early source that energized King was the Christian anarchist and novelist Leo Tolstoy, who was also an influence on Gandhi.
Bayard Rustin, Gay Communist
Bayard Rustin was a sometime adviser to Martin Luther King and had also visited India, in 1948, not long after Gandhi’s assassination. He shared both Gandhi and King’s principles of non-violence. King’s involvement with him was discouraged by others due to Rustin’s former membership of the Communist Party and his homosexuality, which King had little problem with.
Rustin later became a gay rights activist, in addition to his earlier civil rights campaigning. In 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rustin.
Montgomery Bus Boycott
The journey towards civil rights was more of a bus route, with lots of stops and delays. Rustin had been beaten and arrested back in 1942 for sitting in the second row of a segregated bus.
Thirteen years later, in March 1955, 15 year-old school girl, Claudette Colvin refused to give up her bus seat to a white man on a in Montgomery bus. Due to Colvin’s unmarried and pregnant status the civil rights activists waited for a better test case and were rewarded with the defiance of the now famous Rosa Parks who was arrested later that year, in December, for also refusing to give up her seat.
The 13-month Montgomery Bus Boycott ensued, which whilst planned by others was publicly led by King, and resulted in his house being firebombed.
“All men are created equal”
The path to equality culminated in the quarter-million strong 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, predominantly organised by Rustin. Despite its being unprecedented in size and diversity, it was boycotted itself by Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam for being too soft and sanitised, promoting peaceful harmony and integration rather than strength and independent identity.
The iconic “I have a dream” speech, much of which may have been improvised on the spot, includes the famous and inspirational line:
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'”
Whilst King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and indeed the Nation of Islam, fought for black equal rights, the case for full civil equal rights for “all men” continues. LGBTI equality, for example, has been the focus of the last decade of legal progress in the USA, something that Rustin fought for until his death in 1987.
King’s Assassination and Death
King was ever the optimist, preaching love over hate, peace over war, forgiveness over resentment.
“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
It was a belief that may have cost him his life, and not a little opposition from other members of the civil rights movement. After President John F Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, King said to his wife, Coretta: “This is what is going to happen to me also. I keep telling you, this is a sick society.” Five years later, he did indeed suffer the same fate.
Black Lives Matter
Despite all the progress, the reality on the ground, is that black lives are still not considered equal. The last year or two has seen so many cases of unarmed black men being shot dead by American police officers that it is clear that stereotypes persist in the minds of many. 980 US citizens were shot dead in 2015 by police, 91 were unarmed and a disproportionate 37 of them were black.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
The laws may have changed half a century ago, but it is hearts and minds that still need to be won, in this generation and in every one that succeeds it. King may have been a pacifist, but he was not passive about change, and how it was to be accomplished:
“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals…Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom.”
It is a year since the Charlie Hebdo shootings, already dwarfed as a massacre by the Paris attacks last month – two in a year of terror for France. Some countries witness those levels of extremist terrorist attack on an almost daily basis – Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Libya to name but a few. But these two atrocities brought it home to Europe. The result? More fear and less freedom. Today saw another shooting in Paris, this time of a man wearing a fake suicide vest, possibly expecting “suicide by cop” as a fast-track route to fanatical fantasy heaven.
“Perhaps the most far-reaching threats to freedom of expression in 2015 came from governments ostensibly motivated by security concerns. Following the attack on Charlie Hebdo, 11 interior ministers from European Union countries including France, Britain and Germany issued a statement in which they called on Internet service providers to identify and remove online content ‘that aims to incite hatred and terror.’” – PEN International
Repression and Restriction
Some national responses have been to monitor more communication, restrict creative output and freedom of expression, shut down borders, target migrants. Some newspapers have fomented xenophobia by encouraging that fear of attack by certain minorities – namely all Muslims.
Other communities have risen up to support migrant peoples and minority sections of society, to engage with Islam and unite with the peaceful majorities within them. Vigils and campaigns calling for an end to retaliatory air strikes on Islamic State targets embedded in civilian populations have been held, so as to prevent escalation.
Last year pen and brush, stand-up and essay, fought back against the terrorists and the censors. My fear is that we will see more censorship and not less in 2016. The whereabouts of five missing booksellers and publishers in Hong Kong is unknown. Cartoonists, bloggers, and journalists, around the world remain in prison or disappeared.
Whilst everyone is criticising Saudi Arabia over its executions and inflaming conflict with Iran, remember that it is Iran which imprisoned a female political cartoonist – Atena Farghadan. That is not to say that the cartoons and comment themselves should not also come up for criticism – but it is the very freedom to criticise that we need to preserve, it is the sign of a safe society that we can.
All religions. All philosophies, ideologies, political views need challenging. Humour is a necessary part of the debate to prevent people taking themselves overly seriously and as an essential barometer of freedom itself. Laws that say you cannot ridicule the leader, party or religion, are by their very existence signs of repression.
In Islamophilia (“the disproportionate adoration of Islam”), Douglas Murray draws attention to the fact that if we can make fun of Islam with impunity then there is less need to do so, but “until then, we have a moral duty to do so.”
“If somebody threatens to kill people who draw a cartoon because it offends them, the only proper response is not to agree to alter everything you draw in future or avoid certain subject matters: it is to keep drawing that cartoon until such a time as the people who do the complaining stop. And then you stop doing it because it’s no longer necessary – just rude.” – Douglas Murray, Islamophilia
David Low was a New Zealand cartoonist who published cartoons depicting Hitler and Stalin in the UK during the Second World War infuriated the Nazis. Humour can humiliate and ridicule dogmatic ideologies – it is why historically it has been employed as a strategic counter measure. Nobody, within government at least, would dare do that currently, fearing that it would inflame the situation.
Low is but one in a long line of satirical and sarcastic commentators on society’s tyrants stretching back to biblical times, ancient Greece and Rome, eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain and France, to name but a few. It’s a tradition to be valued as much as any religious tradition. If we value freedom of expression at all, we must allow the freedom to criticise to co-exist alongside the freedom to practice any faith.
“On the anniversary of the brutal attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo we, the undersigned, reaffirm our commitment to the defence of the right to freedom of expression, even when that right is being used to express views that some may consider offensive…Under international law, the right to freedom of expression also protects speech that some may find shocking, offensive or disturbing. Importantly, the right to freedom of expression means that those who feel offended also have the right to challenge others through free debate and open discussion, or through peaceful protest.” – PEN International