Fifty Years Later….

This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Detroit Riots. In an earlier blogpost, I had touched on this tragic event and its overall impact on the city. I talked about how those few days scarred Detroit, reducing the once-bustling metropolis into the “no tax-base, white-flight, murder-capital of the Coleman Young administration”.

For this blogspot, I think it would be apt to delve into race relations, pertaining to  the 1967 riots. Today, Detroit boasts a population of seven hundred thousand residents, 82.7% of whom are Black. One hundred years ago, the Black population in Detroit comprised of a mere 3% of the city’s demographics. The 20th century witnessed a great migration of Blacks relocating to the northern cities to escape the cruelty and injustice of Jim Crow in the American South, where their ancestors had been enslaved decades previous. Detroit was a particularly attractive destination, as it was home to the newly-emerging automobile industry.

The prospects of job opportunities iat Henry Ford’s factories had also appealed to newly-arrived immigrants, who were undergoing intense inspections by customs officials on Ellis Island. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire had prompted pogroms against ethnic minorities in the Middle-East. Armenians, Assyrians (Chaldeans), Syrian/Lebanese Christians, the Druze, and Asia Minor Greeks all suffered from persecutions at the hands of their Turkish Muslim neighbors. They looked to America as a oasis of hope and to Detroit as a vehicle of economic mobility. From the 1910’s, these newly-arrived immigrants made Detroit their home. Some were employed in the automobile factories. Others established their own businesses such as grocery stores and delis. They quickly learned the English language, adopted American habits and assimilated into the White population while retaining their respective cultures.

Compared to their Mediterranean counterparts, Black migrants in Detroit faced more dire challenges despite being native English speakers. They quickly learned that, like many northern cities, Detroit was not the promised land envisioned by their cherished spirituals. As dark-skinned newcomers to a White-dominated city, Black Americans faced redlining and housing discrimination. They were deprived of equal pay. And they had to put up with police harassment. In fact, before the carnage during the summer of 1967, tensions between the Black and White populations had escalated into riots. The Belle Isle riot in 1943 is one of several of such events.

Black residents were relegated to a district in Detroit’s near east side, which coincidentally was known as “Black Bottom”, named for its rich bottomland soil. Although the Black residents of this district painfully endured the economic stagnation of the Great Depression, by the 1940’s, Black Bottom became a hub for Black-owned businesses and night clubs. In fact, Black Bottom produced singers like Della Reese, and athletes like Joe Lewis and Smokey Robinson.

Unfortunately, by the late 1950’s, those Black-owned businesses were forced to close, thanks to the Federal Highway Act of 1956. By the early 1960’s, most of Black Bottom was demolished by the city’s urban renewal project. The district was gentrified as a upscale residential development known as Lafayette Park. Meanwhile, most of Black Bottom’s residents were relocated to dilapidated housing projects.

The Detroit Police Department was dominated by White officers. It’s fair to say that they did not harbor progressive attitudes pertaining to racial equality. Numerous elderly Black residents have recalled how it was common for police officers to grab Black male teenagers and beat them in broad daylight. Some were even killed and their families were deprived of justice. Black parties and social gatherings were unjustifiably raided by the police. These circumstances led to the exacerbation of the hostility which Black residents harbored towards their city’s police department.

Suspicion towards law enforcement is practically a staple of the American Black experience. Police officers are trained to enforce the law or, in other words, maintained the status quo. For the majority of this nation’s history, the status quo had always been unsympathetic towards Black Americans. In the antebellum South, the police brought runaway Black slaves back to their masters. During the Jim Crow era, the police enforced racial segregation and other discriminatory acts. The police were pawns for the White establishment, infringing on the rights and dignities of Black citizens. 

Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Middlesex, vividly covers the 1967 riots through the eyes of the young protagonist, Calliope. In the midst of the riots, Calliope’s father, Milton, is found in his bar, barricaded behind the cash register and holding a revolver as violence continues to brew through the window. The front door of the bar opens and his Black neighbor, Morrison, walks in.

Surprised that Milton has remained in the area in the midst of the carnage, Morrison exclaims “You crazy! Ain’t safe for no White people down here!”. Milton counters that he is protecting his property. Morrison figures that since Milton is present, he could buy some cigarettes from the bar owner.

Flabbergasted that Morrison was willing to dodge sniper fires for a pack of cigerettes, Milton nevertheless concedes to the business transaction. As Morrison leaves the bar, Milton, irritated and petrified by the ongoing violence, shouts through the door, “What’s the matter with you people!”

Morrison sharply replies, “The matter with us is you!”

“The matter with us is you”. That single sentence summarizes the pent-up frustration American Blacks hold against the White establishment, represented by law enforcement. 

“The matter with us is you”. When those group of Black men on 12th street were celebrating the return of two local soldiers from Vietnam, they probably weren’t keen on seeing a score of White police officers interrupting their revelry. 

“The matter with us is you”. The presence of those police officers was perceived as just another example of the White establishment flexing its muscles to strike fear in the Black community. 

“The matter with us is you”. Fiery young Black men couldn’t take it anymore. They came of age listening to the impassioned speeches of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. They were emboldened by Black Power and Black Pride. They weren’t going to be passive and subservient in the shadows of the White man.

No, they were going to fight back. 

It shouldn’t be any surprise that the first brick was thrown by a 19-year-old. In fact, that teenager was the son of the party’s organizer. 

It took one brick to trigger an explosive war.

Since that fateful week, the city was never the same. The White residents no longer saw Detroit as their beloved home. The wealthy WASPs escaped to the Grosse Pointes, overlooking the Detroit River. The Greeks relocated to St. Clair Shores and Lincoln Park. Many Levantine Christians settled in Livonia. While a few Chaldeans remained in their beloved “Chaldeantown” on the northwest side of the city, most opted for Stealing Heights and Bloomfield Hills. The majority of the Irish, Italians, Poles and other former White residents poured themselves into the every town in the outskirts of the Motor City, depriving Detroit of its ethnic diversity. Southeast Michigan has since become appallingly segregated. 

In the last fifty years, tremendous strides have been made in the quest for racial equality. The Fair Housing Act has legally prevented Blacks from redlining and other forms of housing discrimination. Legislative measures have passed to ensure equal pay for all races. In additions, local governments have progressed in holding police officers accountable. Not to mention we managed to elect a Black president, despite all the racist propaganda!

However, in post-Obama America, suspicion of the police within the Black community remains as high as ever. Driving-while-Black is still an inconvenient reality. Stop-and-frisk is also a common occurrence that disproportionately affects Black Americans. In the courtroom, Black offenders are sentenced to harsh punishment compared to their White counterparts while offending police officer often get a mere slap-on-the-wrist. The American Black population  has come a long way since the brutality of transatlantic slave trade. However, implicit biases within law enforcement agencies and the judicial system continue to put them at a disadvantage in the eyes of the law. Therefore, the Black American’s fear and suspicion of the police isn’t going away anytime soon.





TV Episode Analysis: The Simpsons S7E16 “Lisa the Iconoclast”

It goes without saying that The Simpsons is a staple of American culture. The TV program has resonated with its American audience for over twenty-five years, and it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

The Simpsons was a major part of my childhood. Everyday, after school, I made it a ritual to indulge myself with a Simpsons episode before begrudgingly starting on my homework assignments. I still nostalgically look to those memories with fondness.

Of all the countless episodes that aired within the span of over a quarter of a century, there is one that captures my eyes, like a sapphire among diamonds (I prefer sapphires). If I had to choose a favorite episode, I’d undoubtedly pick “Lisa the Iconoclast”.

“Lisa the Iconoclast” is the sixteenth episode of The Simpson’s seventh season. The episode opened with the residents of Springfield preparing for its bicentennial celebration. The town was named after Jebediah Springfield, a brave pioneer who earned the admiration of every Springfield resident.

Simpsons_07_15_P2Being the history buff that she is, Lisa decided to write a research paper on the venerated founder. However, when she visited the local history museum, the precocious young researcher becomes blindsided by some disturbing revelations. Lisa discovered a parchment revealing that Jebediah Springfield’s real name was Hans Sprungfeld and he was a murderous pirate who shot a buffalo, rather than taking it as the local legends claim, and was involved in a fistfight.

With the aid of Homer, her imbecilic yet loyal father, Lisa had set out to debunk the myth that ingrained itself in Springfield history. However, she, expectedly, was dealt with harsh backlash. Her report detailing her new findings was graded with an “F”. She was banned from the local history museum. She was shunned by her fellow classmates. Even her mother, Marge, rebuked her for suggesting that Jebediah was anything less than a saint.

In addition, Homer’s luck had also taken a turn for the worst. His drinking buddies ostracized him, with Moe kicking him out of the bar. He and Lisa were barred from attending the bicentennial parade, tarnishing Homer’s aspiration to become the town crier in the parade.

Nevertheless, Homer was determined to stay by his daughter’s side. The father-daughter duo continued their quest to prove their case to the townspeople.

I’ll spare you the copious details. In the end, Hollis Holbert, a local history scholar and curator of the museum regretfully conceded to Lisa’s findings. He concluded, with the new revelations, that the bicentennial celebrations were nothing but a sham and that the truth about Jebediah Springfield must be exposed.

Holbert managed to halt the parade. However, after handing a microphone to Lisa, encouraging her to reveal the truth, Lisa looks to her fellow townspeople. Sensing their optimism and pride, Lisa retreats from her original mission and merely says that “Jebediah Springfield was just great”. When inquired by Holbert about her choice, Lisa affirms that the legend of Jebediah Springfield has “brought out the best in people”. In a way, the myth carried more value than the truth.

As children, we’ve been inundated with half-truths and exaggerated stories. These tall tales were meant to inspire us to become honorable and productive. We were taught to use the lives of respected historical figures like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King as examples to lead by.

I remember when I was in third grade, my class and I were taught the rhyme “Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492”. According to our teacher, Christopher Columbus courageously sailed through the tumultuous waves of the Atlantic ocean, undeterred in his quest before he became the first to stumble upon a new continent. According to our teacher, Columbus’ feat was so groundbreaking that he deserved to be credited for ‘discovering America’, complemented with his own holiday.

I later learned that the only reason we celebrated Columbus Day was due to the tireless lobbying of the Knight of Columbus, led by New York Italian businessman and community leader, Generoso Pope. I later learned that five hundred years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, the Vikings had landed off the coast of present-day Newfoundland. I later learned that Columbus was not the noble hero portrayed in our elementary school textbooks. In fact, he was a religious fanatic who had no qualms capturing the indigenous people of the ‘new continent’ and selling them off as slaves. In fact, one could rightfully accuse him of spearheading the transatlantic slave trade. What a saint!

But at least we get a day off 🙂

George Washington is hailed as the father of the United States. He was also a slave-owner and despite his promise, never got around to freeing his human livestock. Abraham Lincoln is credited for freeing the slaves. However, from suspending habeas corpus to approving of what could be rightfully called “the Gauntanamo Bay of the 1800’s”, he wasn’t the exemplary advocate of human rights we perceive him to be. Mohandas Gandhi was the fasting pacifist activist who relentlessly fought to break the shackles of colonialism. But in his own household, he was an abusive tyrant who beat his wife. Martin Luther King was inspired by the gospel to call for justice and equality. Yet, when it came to his own sexual urges and marital vows, he was more than willing to disregard the Good Book.

Our historical idols weren’t always very heroic. Despite their noteworthy accomplishments, some were downright terrible people.

For the people of Springfield, the unblemished image of Jebediah Springfield promoted a sense of citizenship and solidarity. Lisa came to this revelation in the last few minutes of the episode. She knew that the social cohesion of the town would disintegrate if she’d revealed the ugly truth. Therefore, she went against her own instincts.

The details of Martin Luther King’s extramarital affairs were kept concealed until Ralph Abernathy published his tell-all memoir in 1989. The alleged tapes of MLK’s affairs have been sealed until 2027 by a court order.

It would be distressing to even imagine how this country would have turned out had King’s infidelity come to light during the heyday of the activism. The progression of the Civil rights movement would have been suspended. We probably would not have elected a Black president in 2008.

I’m not necessarily supporting the promotion of falsehoods. There is,of course, value in truth. However the world is complicated and sometimes our heroes fall short of our expectations. I suppose we have to remember that a person’s moral failings does not negate his/her historical feats

How Sex Unleashed a Cultural Revolution

Kerala is renowned for being the most progressive state in the Republic of India. Despite its rather lackluster economic performance and chaotic political culture, Kerala has accomplished extraordinary feats which include achieving 100% literacy along with the highest HDI, life expectancy and sex ratio in the country. Thousands of unskilled laborers from the northern states of Bihar, Bengal and Assam flock to Kerala to take advantages of higher wages. And unlike most parts of India, communal violence is relatively rare in Kerala, where it’s not uncommon to see a Hindu temple host an Iftar! 

However, Kerala has not always been the liberal utopia we know today. In fact, before the eve of Indian independence, the region that now constitutes present-day Kerala comprised of two kingdoms in the south, Travancore and Cochin, while the northern region, known as the Malabar district, was directly governed by the British Raj through the Madras Presidency.

Within Travancore, Cochin and Malabar, a smorgasbord of ethnic and religious communities interacted, though not always peacefully. The caste system was in full effect and if you knew what was good for you, you’d remember to be mindful of your place.

In the small, coastal kingdom of Cochin, sandwiched between Travancore and the Malabar district and overlooking the Arabian Sea, there was a mesmerizingly beautiful young woman named Savitri.

Savitri, also known as Thathri, was from a village called Ezhumangadu. She was born into the Kalpakasseri Illam, a prominent Namboothiri Brahmin clan. In the Malayali caste system, the Namboothiris were considered the most pure and elite of all Brahmins. In the early 1900s, the Namboothiris commanded respect and reverence with an iron fist. The Kalpakasseri Illam was no exception.

When Savitri was born, her father was informed by an astrologer in the village that because Savitri was born in an inauspicious time, she would be destined to “bring calamity, destroying the family honor”.

Now, I don’t believe in astrology or any supernatural superstitions. However, in hindsight, the astrologer did foreshadow the dramatic events that would transpire in Savitri’s life, affecting not only her and her family, but her entire community.

Despite being barred from enrolling in school, as was the custom for Namboothiri girls during that period, Savitri was said to be incredibly intelligent, exhibiting a keen interest in literature, music and the performing arts. She was also said to be tactical and mischievous, as later events would demonstrate.

In colonial India, girls were married off at outrageously young ages. In those days, the age of consent was ten years of age (and Indians weren’t too pleased when the British authorities attempted to raise the age of consent to twelve years of age).

Savitri, in accordance with the prevailing custom, was married off, at the age of eleven, to Chemmanthatta Kuriyedathu Raman Namboothiri, a well-to-do Brahmin who was old enough to be her grandfather!

In a Namboothiri clan, only the oldest brother was afford the right to marry a Namboothiri girl. The younger brothers were supposed to invest their life in ritualistic worship and scriptural study, however, to no consequence, they often engaged in sexual relationships with Nair (warrior/royal caste) girls. Meanwhile, the oldest brother could have as many wives as he desires, to quench his sexual appetite. The wives were known as the Antharjanam, or women of the house. They were confined within the walls of their own homes, rarely going out unless accompanied.

Chemmanthatta Kuriyedathu Raman Namboothiri had a unusually unquenchable libido. Despite having multiple wives at the age of sixty, Raman unapologetically visited numerous prostitutes to get his dick wet!

One day, in the year 1905, Raman felt satisfied after one particular session with a young girl, whose face was concealed with a veil. Upon lifting the veil, Raman was shocked to find that the girl was none other than his teenage wife, Savithri!

This unforeseenable episode brewed a scandal in the entire locality. Raman accused his wife of adultery, ushering in a Smarthavichanam trial.

According to Namboothiri tradition, Smarthavichanam trial was called as a woman was accused of adultery. The trial would unofficially began with the interrogation of the accused woman’s maidservant. If the maidservant incriminates her mistress, the local community would inform the Maharajah (in this case, the Maharajah of Cochin). The Maharajah would dispatch a group of judges (or smarthans), officially beginning the trial.

The accused woman would be subjected to intense interrogation, which usually involved physical and mental torture. The woman would be isolated in a cell where she’d be forced to befriend snakes and rats. Sometimes, the smarthans would place the woman in a mat, roll it up, and throw it from a housetop!

If, after all the physical trauma, the woman maintained her innocence, the smarthans and the elders of the community would find her “not guilty” and, out of the goodness of their hearts, invite her to join them in a celebratory meal.

However, if the woman is found guilty, she would be disowned by her family and ostracized from her village. Furthermore, she would be stripped of her Brahmin privileges.

Savithri stood bravely as the defendant of the Smarthavichanam. However, she requested that if she is found guilty, her lovers should also bare the consequences that are destined for her. Savithri admitted her guilt. When she was requested to name each of her male lovers, Savithri named each of them, one by one, identifying them by certain physical “markers”.

After six months, the number of lovers had amounted to sixty-four men, including thirty Namboothiri Brahmins, ten Tamil Iyer Brahmins, eleven Ambalavasis (assistants to the Brahmin priests), and thirteen Nairs. Many of these men were prominent writers, artists, scholars and religious leaders. Even more surprisingly, two of Savithri’s lovers were brothers of the head Smarthan of the trial! These men were considered the pillars of the local community. However, thanks to this trial, their moral shortcomings and sexual deviance were exposed, and they lost all credibility with the community.

Savithri had implied that there was a sixty-fifth man. Before she named this elusive figure, Rama Varma XV, the Maharajah of Cochin, abruptly called off the trial. This unpredictable action triggered a widespread rumor that the maharajah himself was the sixty-fifth lover. One could only imagine that chaos that would have erupted following that revelation!

As expected, Savithri and her innumerable lovers were outcasted. Savithri’s father commited suicide following the conclusion of the trial. The other members of the Kalpakasseri Illam feld their village in effort to flee their family shame.

No one knows exactly what happened to Savithri after leaving her village. Some claimed she married an Eurasian railway worker and eventually settled within the interior of present-day Tamil Nadu. Others claim she assumed a totally new identity and married into a Nasrani Catholic family. Proponents of this rumor claim that the famed veteran Malayalam actress, Sheela, is the granddaughter of Savitri (which she denies). Some even claim she moved to Ponnani, converted to Islam, and assumed the name Sainu Beevi.

Although her identity and whereabouts remain elusive (although I think by now, it’s safe to assume she has passed away), Savitri’s action had a lasting impact not only on the Namboothiri community but Malayali society as a whole.

Savitri had single-handedly exposed the moral hypocrisy of her community. The men who were hailed as revered role models were revealed to be libidinous perverts masquerading the image of purity and chastity. It’s a classic “preacher-in-a-brothel” situation.

After the trial, more and more people started questioning the castist values that insisted on purity. In the 1920s, a group of young, western-educated men formed the Namboothiri Yuvajana Sangam, which aimed as promoting societal reform within the Namboothiri community. The Sangam was successful in eradicating the practice of Smarthavicharam. Eventually, other social reform movements formed, urging people to question the regressive values to which they were bound. By the 1950s, caste norms were relaxed and the feudal system was eradicated. Women in Namboothiri clans were free to venture out in the world and pursue a career of their own.

Today, women in Kerala are considered to be the most liberated in India. Intercaste relations in Kerala are seen as a model for the rest of the country, as even intercaste marriages are common. Religious superstitions are not taken seriously. Despite all its political grief, Kerala is a beacon of human progress.

It’s bizarre to believe that a teenage nymphomaniac from the 1900s could have had such a profound influence.

Then again, sex can be a potently effective weapon 🙂