“Is it a Sin Against God to be Poor?”

Professor McCoy concluded yesterday’s class by pointing out that for the past twelve years she has been teaching Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower the book has gradually taken upon a frightening truth within our own reality. Students years ago may have thought this book was rather outlandish and inconceivable within our society, but as time has progressed the resemblance between Butler’s civilization and our own have seemed to merge. Although I have only just begun the novel, the complexity and originality of the work is already grappling and the growing likeness between our reality and Butler’s fiction has me reading for more.

One of the overarching themes in this book so far is based around the complexities of religion. The protagonist of the novel, Lauren, seems to be struggling with her own inner faith as she is pressured by his minister father to assume her rightful duties as a practicing Baptist, which most currently means receiving a proper baptism regardless of the dangerous circumstances. Lauren, in an effort to appease her father, follows through with the baptism although it is quite obvious that the profound and deep spirituality behind the sacrament is absent within her. However, she does explain that the idea of God has been on her mind and the varying kinds of God people believe in perplexes her. Following a hurricane that killed seven hundred people off the Gulf, Lauren contemplates her own skepticism of a higher being. She explains, “Most of the dead are the street poor who have nowhere to go and who don’t hear the warnings until it’s too late for their feet to take them to safety. Where’s safety for them anyway? Is it a sin against God to be poor?” (Butler 15). Immediately after reading this part, the horrors of Hurricane Katrina came straight to mind. Looking back at The Old Man and the Storm, the documentary greatly resembles the hardships of the hurricane that hit New Orleans and its particular effects on the people of the Ninth Ward, a predominantly poor, African American neighborhood. The devastation of the Gulf in Butler’s novel proves to be eerily similar to the devastation Hurricane Katrina caused, and seeing that the poor were the most affected group in both situations, Lauren’s question of God’s disregard, or rather hostility towards the poor seems rather legitimate in reality.  

Additionally, following Professor McCoy’s exercise in class yesterday the concept of impoverishment and homelessness came to mind again. We were assigned to scope around campus for shelter with all academic buildings being locked. One of the most apparent, and rather alarming, realizations was the almost inherent notion to use violence for safety and shelter. My group and I collectively conceded that when faced with danger this innate sense of violence was overtaking. One person in my group explained that he saw a window that would be easy to break into in this situation, something that he did not notice prior to the exercise. Keeping this in mind, the violent overtone in the Parable of the Sower, as exemplified within the walls of the community and even greater outside the walls, calls into play human nature altogether. Returning to Lauren’s questioning of God and His animosity towards the impoverished also is important to consider within the exercise. Assumed in this scenario, or at least I did, was that one was homeless and destitute. It was quickly realized that my previous perception of the campus as open and accessible was replaced with notions of restriction and isolation. Lauren’s question, “Is it a sin against good to be poor?” (Butler 15) once again came to mind. Poverty is closely associated with hardship, danger and misery, and that is just to name a few. Although this exercise was clearly fictitious, these concepts of adversity became actuality when trying to find a sufficient place for shelter. Violence became a means for safety as breaking into academic buildings was deemed acceptable and self guarding one’s own “territory” was a necessity. Similarly,  violence was at a high following Hurricane Katrina which left many homeless, having lost everything. These concepts of vandalism, intrusion, and the need to protect whatever space you have became rampant. However, one does not have to solely look at the victims of Hurricane Katrina to see the effects of human nature at a low point. Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower also manifests violence as a necessary evil in her dystopian society within the novel. In her society, violence is everywhere, so much so that being armed is paramount for example. In my opinion, Lauren’s wariness of God and His almighty protection of His people is quite warranted within the novel so far and more relevantly calls upon the reader to invoke their own opinion of Lauren’s internal dilemma to the troubles of modern reality.


Here comes the Atlantic (again)

Subtitled “Along parts of the East Coast, the entire system of insuring coastal property is beginning to break down,” this new New York Times article examines how rising sea levels are creating another kind of housing crisis, another kind of liquidity trap. You’ll note how the ghosts we’ve examined in the course (e.g., the Zong massacre) haunt the article’s invocation of insurance and risk. The whole thing is worth a read for many reasons, and not least the emergence of metaphor in the quote below:

This is the hardest reality to discuss, Stiles said, and a reason flood insurance is serving as a kind of advance scout into a more difficult future. “When you go out to the end of the century, some of these neighborhoods don’t exist, so it’s hard to get community engagement,” he said. “Nobody wants to talk beyond where the dragons are on the map, into uncharted territory.”

Keeping Philosophy Human

As we begin reading The Parable of the Sower and thinking about the nature of things like safety, or necessity, or violence, or homes, or adequate, some fo the philosophical tools I mentioned in class on Friday might allow us to pursue a more fine-grained analysis of the things that are to come. I also wanted to reflect onFrancesco’s post on the problem with words—and especially words like “necessary.”

The major question Francesco’s post raised for me is, What are words for? These bear on metaphysical issues insofar as we usually want the words we use to track something that is true and real about the world, but words and how we use them also shape and filter our experience of the world. When it comes to thinking about the identity of certain words, there are surely meta-linguistic issues that are salient that I do not have the knowledge to articulate, and thus begins the rabbit hole. And I could go down it, as I have on other posts, but I won’t go down this one today. I want to reiterate the different kinds of conceptual analysis I discussed on Friday while also convincing you that these philosophical tools are useful for what we are doing in this class.

Continue reading “Keeping Philosophy Human”

Generational Memory and Property (a story about my grandmother)

I’m never sure how appropriate it is to share personal stories in English classes, but over Easter weekend, something happened that I felt related too deeply to our class not to document in a blog post.

Important context to the story: my grandmother is an 88-year old widow with 8 children and 20 grandchildren (a true generational matriarch). Her role as the leader of the family, however, is complicated by the fact that she lost her husband of 65 (yes!! 65!!) years last summer, and currently suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, which is degenerative in nature. She has, as a result, grown more confused and distanced from reality since her husband’s passing, a trajectory that has been difficult for us to watch.

Over the past weekend, my grandmother told my mother that she was sad her family didn’t come to visit her anymore, and that she wanted to give her children money at her Mother’s Day party. In a state of confusion, she said that she wanted to give each of her 8 children two million dollars so that each of them could buy a house. My mother had to gently explain to my grandmother that she doesn’t have 16 million dollars, and that even if she did, giving her children money wouldn’t make them visit her.

Although this anecdote is personal and sad in nature, it revealed a lot to me about the way the dreams my grandmother had for her children are inextricably linked to home and property. The story reflects a profound nature on my grandmother’s part to occupy the role of a provider as a matriarch in that she wanted to give to her children the finances to create a home for their own immediate families.  It also expressed volumes about the way not only memory, but desires, become distorted through degenerative memory loss, as my grandmother thought she had the money to provide homes for each of her children.

The story reminded me (quite helpfully, l think) of the Turner house as well as Melissa’s family tree. Like the Turner house, my grandparent’s family home in Queens (which was also the home my grandmother grew up in) was once bustling with more family members than I can count on two hands, but is now only inhabited by my grandmother and her caretaker. The house, as a result, feels haunting in the sense that each room (even each object, really) harkens back to a deep history of a family that is no longer present in the home.

Further, my mother’s gentle reminder that money won’t incentivize her siblings to visit their mother circles me back to King Lear, when Lear makes the fatal flaw of allocating his property to his daughters based on how convincingly they can express their love for him. Like Lear, my grandmother made a moving error in judgment by thinking that she could receive love and affection from her children if she offered them money (even though I hesitate to compare my grandmother to Lear any further). Here, the affective desire of a parent trying to provide for their offspring (or kingdom) becomes powerfully complicated by property and money.

I don’t have any clear solutions after hearing this story (other than it inspired me to immediately call my grandmother), but I do feel that the connection between my grandmother’s desire to provide homes for each of her children and the readings/discussions we’ve had in class prompt me to think more carefully about the link between generational memory and affection.


You “Need” To Read This

While I would like this blog post to be able to clarify some of my ramblings from yesterday’s class, I can tell you right now that it is not going to. However, instead of using this space to fall into linguistic/philosophical problems which I do not have the tools to eloquently handle, I’m going to focus on one small—and violent—word; “need.” Continue reading “You “Need” To Read This”

Response to the article in Pam’s “Housing Loss: The Grief and Other Losses”

Original post here.

The article shared by Pam really got me thinking about the blame and lack of control felt when one is involuntarily pushed into homelessness. In Pagliarini’s attempt to explain how “learned helplessness” is an eventual learned symptom of being poor in America, he undermines the real issues at hand and continues the endless cycle of blaming the poor for being poor. In effect, he’s labeling the victims of systematic violence as the actual origin of this violence because they haven’t taken a hold of their own “control” yet.

The thing is, people who have fallen victim to foreclosure and homelessness really don’t have a lot of room to exercise their own control and agency. The mindset that these people have merely “given up” as a result of endless financial strains is problematic.

Despite Pagliarini’s attempt to set his article outside of the “Get Rich Quick” mentality, it ends up being exactly that. His article is riddled with a white privilege perspective with some classist ideals sprinkled in here and there. If we were to shove this article into Lelah Turner’s hands and say “Alright, here’s the answer to your problems. Get going!” she would laugh our face. It almost reminds me of the pee scene in The Turner House when Cha-Cha realizes the kind of life he is “destined” to live. From Cha-Cha’s perspective, as a black boy growing up in Detroit it’s as if his agency had been inherently taken away from him from day one.  Ideas like “Get Perspective!” and “Achieve Success” are unrealistic and problematic to advise to people like Cha-Cha or Lelah (Cha-Cha being a black man and Lelah being homeless, both under their own kind of systematic pressure) because they haven’t had the same set of opportunities laid out for them.

Two paths to dehumanizing human beings

I was just reading this interview with Matthew Desmond, whose book Evicted just won a Pulitzer. I haven’t read the book yet and am hoping it’s not in the tradition of Alice Goffman’s On the Run.

But given Dominion‘s deep and complicated human characters, this line really jumped out at me:

“There are two ways to dehumanize: the first is to strip people of all virtue, the second is to clear them of all sin.”

Sometimes when I can’t find something, something equally useful pops to the surface

I was trying to find  Mother Jones article from about 10 years ago because it made a claim that when a house (or apartment, or any dwelling) approaches about 2800 square feet (I think), it becomes impossible to clean that place on one’s own. Someone else must be hired to do the cleaning.

But I can’t find the article, but in the meantime, Google yielded this article from a 1908 Ladies’ Home Journal. It’s titled ‘“I Want to Build a House’: An Architect’s Frank Talk with the Man or Woman Who is About to Build.”

Maybe it’s worth a read!