Friday, July 13, 2012

I Wish I Had Said Something

As I was getting ready for work yesterday afternoon, I opened a drawer and pulled out a light gray shirt with a big blue and white Nittany Lion logo on it. Anyone who has followed the Penn State scandal for the last several months most likely heard about the Freeh Report that was released yesterday morning, the product of a months-long investigation into how PSU's administration handled and enabled Jerry Sandusky's sexual abuse of several children. So I knew that, as it did for me, the sight of this shirt would instantly evoke some type of emotion in anyone who saw it yesterday. I decided to wear it anyway, not because I wanted to annoy anyone or demonstrate some type of cliché solidarity with my alma mater; I wore it because this is no ordinary Penn State shirt.

Work was busy last night, so I spent no time thinking about the shirt I was wearing... until one customer said, "You picked a hell of a day to wear that shirt." I looked down at my shirt to be reminded of what he was talking about, then I just smiled and went about my business. He probably meant no harm with his comment, so of course I kept it civil; but I don't believe strongly enough in customer service to come up with some kind of fake, agreeable response. I quit Starbucks a long time ago.

But I wish I had taken a couple of minutes to tell this kid that what I was wearing was no ordinary Penn State shirt.

This shirt was made by Alta Gracia, self-described on their website as "the only apparel company in the world that pays a living wage to the people who make its clothing, respects their rights, provides a safe workplace, and welcomes unrestricted monitoring of its factory by an independent watchdog." It was given to me as a gift from a professor and group of students at Penn State Brandywine (the nearby campus from which I graduated in Spring 2011) as a token of their appreciation for my assistance in helping the campus to attain Fair Trade University status this year. You can read more about the ongoing efforts of the Fair Trade TrailBlazers at Penn State Brandywine here on their blog.

I wish I had shared the Fair Trade gospel with this customer last night. It wouldn't have been too hard to say, "Hey, bash Penn State if you must, but this shirt helped someone earn a living wage in a facility where women and children don't get raped, underfed, and underpaid. What are you wearing?" See, buying and wearing Fair Trade products is one thing; but we often miss out on unique opportunities to make a deeper impact by teaching others why their choices as consumers are crucially crucial. Maybe this individual would have walked away and ignored the message, but someone will eventually pay attention. That's why it's important to get in the habit of educating whenever appropriate and possible.

While I have seen many recent posts online branding Joe Paterno and Penn State as "evil" or worse, I have also seen and heard quite a few more broadly finger-pointing comments about how "the culture" of PSU permitted Sandusky's detestable crimes to go on for so long. "Culture," in this sense, refers to an institutional ethos, a group's set of shared priorities and beliefs that inform how members respond to authority figures, traditions, and unforeseen circumstances. In this case, the alleged cultural crime is a shared prioritization of football and "the glory of old State" at the expense of several young boys who were sexually assaulted on campus by a respected leader. Such blaming of "the culture," while ignoring the many positive contributions made by Penn State students and alumni around the world, are not without a certain validity. Institutions cannot survive without a great deal of accountability and perpetual, internal evaluation of priorities and practices.

But this indictment of university culture should not take the spotlight away from individuals who failed at their responsibilities to protect children in their care, even if they were not technically mandated reporters under Pennsylvania law. Likewise, each individual has a certain degree of consumer power and responsibility to support businesses who treat their workers fairly, regardless of how much our "culture" or "society" inundates us with so many cheap, unethically made options. It's not always easy to discern the right choices, and I am far from an expert or a disciplined shopper. But to sit around waiting for the culture to change is to ignore our potential as actors within the culture. Our beliefs, our choices, and our habits might be the minority positions right now; but if we continue to spend our money responsibly, educate our neighbors, and demand action from our legislators, maybe one day "the culture" will no longer be an excuse for injustice.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Whose Marley?

Marley, the new documentary by Kevin MacDonald, has finally been released today. I have been waiting for this day for quite some time, and I know I am not the only one: millions of Bob Marley fans all over the world are hailing the arrival of this film among rave reviews and high expectations for its accuracy and unique perspectives. According to the official website, MacDonald worked closely with Marley's friends and family to ensure that the late superstar's "definitive life story" is told through this work.

Of course, the release date is not without appropriate significance. 420 (April 20th) is a number often used by those who use cannabis (in particular, users who self-identity as smokers of the herb for any number of spiritual or political reasons) to signify a sort of... well, nobody knows, exactly. In fact, of the hundreds of habitual pot smokers I have known over the years, from all over the US, nobody seems to know exactly where this number came from. Yet it has taken on a great deal of significance for many cannabis users, for celebration, protest, and fellowship, articulating a perceived satival subculture every April 20th, and even twice a day when the clock says 4:20. Whether or not the number has a known origin, however, it has become a positive symbol for many people, and tonight they most likely will be enjoying the music of Bob Marley while partaking in the Legend's favorite herb.

My initial reaction upon reading of Marley's release date was an annoyed, cynical groan: of course these producers (or "reducers," to borrow a term from the Honorable Priest Kassa) would capitalize on juvenile trivializations of Bob, his Rastafari faith, and their sacramental herb. Marley was certainly known for smoking massive amounts of cannabis, but his was not an escapist use of the mind-altering plant: like many Rastafari, he believed that ganja is an aid for meditation. I have seen many herb-loving Marley fans posting excerpts of an interview in which the singer states, "The more you accept herb is the more you accept Rastafari." He goes on to condone smoking herb as an inspiration for rebellion against authority. In many other public statements and song lyrics, Marley praises ganja in no uncertain terms. In the interview clip below, however, he qualifies his endorsement of cannabis with some words of wisdom: "Too much of anything good for nothing, ya know? ... So, you have too much herb, it might hurt ya."

I can't help but wonder what Bob would think of millions of his fans setting a day aside to smoke a lot of herb and stare at black-light posters while listening to Rebelution, or to celebrate rebellion for rebellion's sake. Even more so, I wonder what he would think about a documentary on his life being released on this day in which "too much of one thing" is rationalized. Granted, the spirit of Rastafari is one of rebellion - in particular, a struggle against evil and oppressive institutions. But Marley's life was so much more than a promotion of an illegal substance, and I hope that this new film shows many of his admirers that Bob's struggle was about much more than getting stoned.

If you've seen the same internet I've seen today, the Marley quote you've seen the most is this one: "Herb is the healing of a nation; alcohol is the destruction." I'd like to close with a few of my personal-favorite Marley quotes, lyrics and statements that say more about his spiritual worldview. Some of these are, in fact, paraphrases of Bible verses; however, I have included them because, in my opinion, Bob had a special way with words, and he gave these proverbs new life for a new context.

"Don't forget your history, nor your destiny. In the abundance of water, the fool is thirsty." (from "Rat Race")

"If you get down and you quarrel every day, you're saying prayers to the devil, I say. Why not help one another on the way? Make it much easier." (from "Positive Vibration")

"Don't gain the world and lose your soul; wisdom is better than silver and gold." (from "Zion Train")

"Life is one big road with lots of signs, so when you're ridin' through the ruts, don't ya complicate your mind. Flee from hate, mischief, and jealousy. Don't bury your thoughts: put your vision to reality." (from "Wake Up and Live")

"Only a fool lean upon his own misunderstanding. And then what has been hidden from the wise and the prudent, been revealed to the babe and the suckling." (from "Forever Loving Jah")

"I don't stand for the black man's side. I don't stand for the white man's side. I stand for God's side." (from an interview)

"The man live uptown, you can go to bed early because you have a bed, you know, and your place around you might clean, which is good for you, but that don't stop your spiritual awareness from knowing sufferation. If the spirit don't right, the flesh suffer regardless of where you live. I mean you couldn't tell me the Prime Ministers or the Presidents is living that good. You might have all everything and go live in a big [white] house; but take up any sufferer and put him there, see if him no suffer the same. There's no big life anywhere, man - everybody suffering today. True, cho. Tension, tension come you know. Toothpaste make people fight - toothpaste." (from an interview, 9/18/1980)

Bob Marley reading a Bible, wearing an Ethiopian Coptic cross,
and sporting a mane of dreadlocks - all symbolic of his deep Rasta faith
Please share your favorite Bob Marley quotes, lyrics, facts, or opinions! I realize that we all appreciate Bob's life and music for different reasons, and your ganja-centric version of the man may be just as valid as my perception of him as a more spiritually disciplined visionary. No disrespect to any of you 420 observers was intended in my comments above - this has been all in good fun!

And let me know your thoughts on the movie. I hope to watch it tonight!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Bongo Trevor (part 2)

I forgot that I had promised a follow-up post to the previous post about Bongo Trevor Campbell (aka Ras Gabre Selassie). In the following clip, he sings "Ethiopia, Thou Land of Our Fathers," considered by many Rastafari to be their "I-ficial" anthem. In fact, the original version of the song was considered "the anthem of the Negro race" according to Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in their "Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World" in 1920. The lyrics of a Rastafarian adaptation, similar to what Bongo Trevor sings in the video below, can be found here: Also included on this link is the the Royal Ethiopian Creed, most of which is recited starting around 10:10 in the video. At the end of the binghi gatherings and other Rasta events I have attended, this anthem and creed have been sung and recited, but I have yet to see another individual chant and beat the fundeh with nearly as much passion as Bongo Trevor displays in the final moments of this clip.

This song and creed effectively characterize a struggle for balance between pan-African nationalism and universal human Inity (unity) that I have analyzed in the statements of several Rasta bredren and sistren. Prayerful appeals to the Emperor, biblical references linking the African diaspora to the ancient Israelites and imagining Ethiopia as Mount Zion reveal a sense of African identity, and it might be inferred that the "tyrants" and "enemies" mentioned are characterizations of the diaspora's non-African oppressors of recent history: namely, European and American slaveowners and politicians, black and white alike. But these oft-recited lines also command righteousness, forgiveness, and love. While Bongo Trevor's statements in the following interview excerpt are not representative of every Rastafarian, they demonstrate how Rasta teachings might lead one toward a unique sort of nationalism in which externally imposed racial categories, formerly perceived according to subjectivities of geography and religious history, are re-imagined in broader, more inclusive terms.

Trevor: have to think big like His Majesty.  The world is the home of humanity.  And the world is divided into various sections and nations and people.  And what the people must do is learn to live with respect for each other according to his philosophy and his culture.  Because the twelve tribes of Israel and the three nations coming from one nation, which was founded on the bank of the River Nile, and the Nile Valley, which is Ethiopian.  And Ethiopia is the land of the blacks.  But through climatical conditions… inhabitants of different areas and cultures must develop a change in complexion and so on and so forth.  But they’re human beings.  It’s not easy to come to that after being taught about the hatred and discrimination and segregation over the years.  It’s hard fi say that me and you are the same human together.  And it mostly causin’ from people of your side that is lookin’ on the blacker people on my side and say that we are inferior, and they are a super race.
I appreciated his roundabout way of distinguishing between resentment of a particular race, and resentment of an ideology propagated by certain members of that race.  Here, I felt I could benefit from a definition of Babylon in his own words.
Trevor: Babylon.  Mystery Babylon.  There are certain people who feel like dem control the world… that dem should hold [others] in slavery.  As I said, a super race, super nation…. The white man always want expand and expand and expand and have dominion over earth.  I don’t know where him get that concept from, but that is the way with him anywhere him go…. That is the way I see Babylon: want to take other people’s belongings, by any means necessary, you use to get what you want.
Me: So this Babylon… that wants power and control over other man… why do you think it’s normally instigated by European, American, typically white cultures?
Trevor: Because they are the instruments of the Babylon system.  They are the ones that keep the Babylon system going.  All nation like your nation… are set up to keep the system superior.  We know that.  But what can we do?  What can we do?  We have to make you know seh we know what you’re up to!  Ya understand?  We know what you’re up to.  But that can’t stop what is to be.  What is to be must be!  The truth haffi flow like oil.  Ya understand, Ben?
Me: So you’re not returning hate for hate?
Trevor: No!  That don’t put you nowhere!  That don’t put you nowhere!  It belikkle your dignity.  No patriot, no man of divinity, spirituality, ever employ the slightest thought of hate within him, ya understand?  Because [hate] is the enemy of righteousness.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Bongo Trevor Campbell

Bongo Trevor, aka Ras Gabre Selassie, is a Rastaman in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Kingston. As President-in-Command of the Rastafari Orthodox Patriotic Unity (ROPU), he longs to see the Rasta movement "organise and centralise" in order to bring the African diaspora closer to its goal of repatriation to its home continent. In my reasoning with Bongo Trevor and Bongo Shephan Fraser, I heard some emotionally conveyed stories about Haile Selassie's 1966 visit to Jamaica. What Trevor neglected to tell me, perhaps out of humility, is that he was one of thirty-two Rastafari brethren to receive a medal of goodwill from Selassie at a private reception during the emperor's visit. I have heard this from a most reliable source, and I believe Bongo Trevor can be seen at 8:58 in this video about the 1966 event: HIM Haile Selassie I Visit To Jamaica April 21 1966

Ras Gabre Selassie also makes binghi drums in his workshop. The following video is of him and Bongo Shephan chanting in Trevor's yard. I will post part 2 in a few days, in which they chant "Ethiopia, Land of our Fathers," considered by many to be the Rastafari anthem. Fulljoy.