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From Lynchings to Police Brutality: The Words of W.C. Handy ResonateToday

I'm reading a book called Hear My Sad Story: The True Tales That Inspired "Stagolee", "John Henry" and Other Traditional American Folk Songs.

In the book, author Richard Polenberg describes the effect of a particularly brutal lynching on American composer W.C. Handy and his subsequent decision to leave the South.

Handy reported his reaction, a mixture of horror, anger and depression: "All the savor had gone out of life. For the moment only a sensation of ashes in the mouth remained." - Richard Polenberg, Hear My Sad Story: The True Tales That Inspired "Stagolee", "John Henry" and Other Traditional American Folk Songs

In a later incident, recounted by Polenberg in the book, Handy recalled appealing to a law enforcement authority for protection, whereby he was scoffed at and his attacker was assisted instead.

Handy moved to New York in 1918, almost a century ago, but I'm struck by the significance of these events today and the similarities to the Sandra Bland case. Black and brown people in America, the UK and around the world are still being subjected to racial violence; they continue to witness these attacks on fellow citizens (through the medium of film and social media, if not in person); and they continue to suffer a form of post-traumatic stress due to the relentless nature of these attacks.

Just as Handy described his devastation, so people today are overcome by the pervasive, racist and violent attacks in our society today.

Hear My Sad Story: The True Tales That Inspired "Stagolee", "John Henry" and Other Traditional American Folk Songs is published by Cornell University Press and will be released in November 2015.

Living the Lessons of Srebrenica (Event at Wiener Library)

Tonight we attended the "Living the Lessons of Srebrenica" event at the Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust & Genocide in London. It was one of hundreds of events taking place across the UK this week to commemorate the Srebrenica genocide in July 1995. 

Munira Subasic

We first heard from Munira Subasic, president of Mothers of Srebrenica. Ms Subasic spoke through a translator but I'd like to record some of what she said. 

On the continuing struggle to locate, identify and bury the remains of the victims of the Srebrenica genocide: 

If a human being doesn't have a place to show where they lived, it doesn't show that they existed. 

Ms Subasic talked about reaching out to other mothers' organisations but those who did it won't admit it, won't admit there was a genocide. Without admission, there can be no reconciliation. 

"Many women who were abused are not able to have their own children or have relationships with men. A whole generation is disappearing". 

Ms Subasic mentioned that the people who committed the crimes are still there, still abusing them. 

"People say things are moving forward but Mothers of Srebrenica wish they had two lives: one for waiting and one for enjoying our lives". 

When asked whether it would help if lower level perpetrators admitted their guilt, Ms Subasic explained that after the Holocaust, it was accepted that it happened. With Srebrenica, they are dealing with such total denial that no one is admitting it happened. 

"They found only two bones of my son. It is very difficult to move on not knowing how he died. They dragged him from my arms". 

"Those who committed genocide think they are national heroes. I am very happy with who I am today. I'd rather be a victim than a war criminal".  

The next speaker was Dr Gill Wigglesworth who spoke about the lessons from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. She gave a fascinating overview of the legal situation and the different levels of proof required by the ICTY and ICJ when hearing genocide cases. 

Dr Wigglesworth mentioned a different level of justice, restorative justice if you will, whereby Serbia or Croatia issues an apology for the crimes. Serbia has done so but that was only because they want EU membership whereas Republika Srpska have no such impetus and therefore there is very little chance of an acknowledgement or apology. 

Alex Buskie

Alex Buskie of the United Nations Association UK spoke next on the responsibility to protect.

She examined how the United Nations learned from their mistakes in the 90s and 00s and how the Responsibility to Protect doctrine came to be adopted in 2005. 

She mentioned that failures in the past stemmed from inattention, indifference and misjudgment or a perceived contradiction between the desire to protect a population vs the desire to protect a group of individuals. One concept that Ms Buskie reiterated several times was that the UN is a meeting of nation states, that they have no specific power as an organisation and they can only go so far as their members allow them. 

Ms Buskie then took us through the three pillars of responsibility to protect and what we are protecting against (ethnic cleaning, genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity)

Finally, Ms Buskie admitted that the UN is struggling and that the R2P has only recently been adopted. Having watched the UN reaction to Syria and the continued yet fruitless motions, I found this especially frustrating. Ms Buskie dis highlight how the security council should have briefings earlier on in future and how the organisation needs to adopt a company-wide commitment to upholding human rights but they have a long way to go. 

Finally, Jasvir Singh of City Sikhs UK spoke about his own visit to Sarajevo and Srebrenica and how moving the experience was for him. 

He spoke of the parallels to be drawn with the Sikh genocide and how friends and neighbours turned on each other. Mr Singh had an important message about how easily a situation can deteriorate and he hinted that such a situation is not impossible even in the UK. He highlighted the role of interfaith organisations in establishing commonality and ensuring that communities can maintain their faith while living in peace with those of other faiths. 

The event was then wound up with a very interesting discussion. I was most impressed with how we tackled some controversial topics with respect and consideration.

This event was organised by Remembering Srebrenica, City Sikhs and the Wiener Library. We received a copy of the excellent “Remembering Srebrenica” publication which I was very pleased about.

 

Remembering Srebrenica

A discussion with Stephanie Hepburn, author of Conversation With My Daughter About Human Trafficking

The reality of human trafficking is often so horrific that it remains one of the most difficult subjects to discuss with children.  How does one get into a conversation with children about how individuals are tricked, extorted and enslaved without exposing them to ideas that may be too mature for them, such as sexual exploitation, rape and the murder of their loved ones? How do we impress upon them that this is not just something that is happening in a far away country but something that is happening in our own city?

ConversationwithdaughterThese are questions that Stephanie Hepburn was confronted with. After a decade of working in the realm of human trafficking and releasing the book Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight, Stephanie had a conversation with her daughter about human trafficking and realised that other parents would no doubt have this conversation too.

In Conversation With My Daughter About Human Trafficking, beautifully illustrated by James Guthman, Stephanie takes us through some of the questions that her daughter asked and the answers that she gave. The book is an excellent starting point for discussions on this difficult topic and will be of great use in classrooms and homes to get children talking and thinking about human trafficking and how they can identify, understand and prevent this phenomenon in their own environments.

We caught up with Stephanie to discuss the book and her experience in the field of human trafficking.

How did you become interested in human trafficking?

The impetus was my move to New Orleans in February 2006, not long after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and Gulf Coast region. The infrastructure was destroyed and there was a sudden demand for low cost labor, which allowed opportunity for unscrupulous people to step in. This was compounded by the decrease in law enforcement in the city and also federal under-enforcement of temporary work visas. 

I saw red flags of exploitation and human trafficking all over the city and it made me realize that it can happen anywhere, not just somewhere far away. I began digging deeper and adding more nations as I went along. I ended up compiling my findings in Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight, which was published by Columbia University Press in 2013. 

How did the idea for your book Conversation With My Daughter About Human Trafficking evolve?

After pulling my head out of the research world and talking to people about my book, I was able to learn what everyday people think about the issue of human trafficking. Adults are often wary of looking uninformed so these conversations, while useful, often seemed indirect. Eventually, I would figure out the piece (or pieces) of the puzzle they were missing and I could address it, but it took a while to get there. 

Children are the opposite. They are unabashed in their curiosity and they say what they think and aren't overly concerned about seeming informed, so misunderstandings and areas of confusion are easier to identify. Kids are also awesome little people who are our future, so figuring out how to talk to them is essential for the future of humanity. Getting them to understand what to look out for and what red flags to identify in traffickers and victims creates an entire generation of eyes and ears that are way ahead of where we are now. 

In your experience, which aspect of human trafficking is the most difficult for children to comprehend?

I think for my daughter the challenge is understanding why someone wouldn't just run away. Physical chains are something she can understand but the concept of psychological chains is more difficult. 

How do you envisage that the book should be used?

I hope that parents read it and, when they think it's right, share the topic with their children. It's a difficult topic and my objective was to create an easy how-to guide on how to talk about it. The language is written in a way that parents can read it to their children. The graphics were created for that reason as well. That way parents can use it in multiple ways, whether as a tool for ideas on how to approach the topic or as a book to read with their children. 

What feedback have you received so far?

The feedback has been overwhelming and positive. I have come to a point where preaching to the choir (advocates and others involved in the anti-trafficking realm) just isn't enough. Real impact will happen when your average person has a greater understanding on the topic. That said, reaching your audience is always the challenge. In this case it has worked and people are reading it and passing it along. I feel extremely happy about that. 

The book is beautifully illustrated by James Guthman. Can you tell us a little bit more about his illustrations and how you came to work with James?

A colleague recommended him and sent a few pictures of his paintings and illustrations. He's very versatile and was able to capture the look I wanted for the book. It was important to me that the book contains a universal feel to it since human trafficking happens everywhere. So often this issue is unintentionally represented as happening to people in only a few parts of the world, based on the visuals used in tandem when the issue is reported. As a result, we chose a color pallet that does not indicate a specific race or region of the world, and to create vignettes when people are depicted in the story. The color pallet also had to mirror the tone of the book without being too visually depressing. It's a hard subject, so striking the tonal balance was important, and he did a really great job with it. You can check him out on Instagram at www.instagram.com/jamesguthmanart

Are there plans to release the book in paperback or hardcover or will it remain an ebook?

For now it will just be an ebook. I don't know what the future holds. Paperback would be fantastic!

Together with Rita J. Simon, you've written another book about human trafficking Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

I talked a bit about the impetus above. The book took exhaustive research and time. In many ways it was my education on how to get one-step closer to communicating with the mainstream population on this topic. It contains narratives, which I find essential because people relate to stories. It also contains meaty statistics, which help to create perspective on the prevalence of human trafficking. It really is a great book for those who have been introduced to the topic and want to know more. I would say it's step two in reading after Conversation With My Daughter About Human Trafficking

This was actually your second book with Rita, the first being Women's Roles and Statuses the World Over (Global Perspectives on Social Issues). That sounds really interesting. Can you tell us a bit about the issues you covered in that book?

This book was a turning point for me. I was in law school at the time and sick of my female peers having a negative knee-jerk reaction to the term feminism. Many of my friends would start off a conversation with "I'm not a feminist or anything but..." They worried they wouldn't be taken seriously if they were thought to be a feminist, which somehow has become synonymous with extremism. It isn't. It just means that the person believes women and men to be equal. That's it. Anyhow, I decided to write a paper, for one of my law school classes, that was just based on law and empirical data to illustrate where women actually stand in the U.S. My professor Rita J. Simon asked me if I wanted to turn it into a book. I did and I added on 25 other nations. It was eye-opening for me as I hope it was for readers. We have a long way to go. 

What are you up to next?

My objective to bring awareness on labor exploitation and human trafficking to the mainstream world triggered me to open Good Cloth, an online ethical clothing shop, this past October. During the media junket of Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight I quickly realized that people wanted to know how to purchase ethically and to ensure that no one was harmed in the process. They, in essence, wanted to vote with their dollars for ethical change and corporate responsibility. Fashion is an ideal arena for informing people about human exploitation and positive changes they can make. People don't like feeling helpless, which is easy to feel when you hear about the horrors of human trafficking. This is a way for people to make positive decisions in their day-to-day life that actually make an impact. It makes the customer feel great and does a great deal for starting the dialogue about corporate responsibility and spotlighting designers who are taking excellent measures to protect workers and the environment. 

Through the shop and my journalistic pursuits I will continue to try to reach the mainstream audience about this important topic. 

About Stephanie Hepburn

Stephanie HepburnStephanie Hepburn is an independent journalist whose work has been published in the Guardian, Huffington Post, Americas Quarterly and the journal Gender Issues. She is a weekly and monthly contributing writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. A graduate of the University of Michigan and the Washington College of Law at American University, she integrates her legal and journalism backgrounds to create pieces that are highly informative and have a human tone. Her book with Rita J. Simon, Women's Roles and Statuses the World Over, was named an Outstanding Academic Title by Choice. Her second book Human Trafficking Around The World: Hidden in Plain Sight was published by Columbia University Press in 2013.

Conversation With My Daughter About Human Trafficking is available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Book Review: Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation (edited by Vijay Prashad)

Letters to Palestine cover - Vijay Prashad - banner

Gaza, 2014. Following the kidnap and murder of three Israeli youths, the IDF embarked on a seven week campaign against Gaza. In that time, over 2,000 Gazans were killed, most of them civilians and most of them children, while tens of thousands were injured. Hospitals, schools and houses were demolished and half a million Gazans were displaced.

The Gazan conflict divided people like no other conflict. Across social media, timelines were filled with people trying to draw attention to the devastation and destruction in Gaza while pro-Zionists asked what else they could do in the face of continuing Hamas aggression. 

With access to Gaza notoriously controlled and restricted, there was limited reporting on the ground, scant consideration of everyday Palestinians who were living in a state of terror. 

Edited by Vijay Prashad and featuring a host of writers, poets, essayists and activists, Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation attempts to give a human face to that struggle. 

Reading this collection with a desire to learn more about the conflict from a Palestinian point of view, one might expect little more than anti-Israeli propaganda and rhetoric. Letters to Palestine is nothing of the sort. It is an earnest collection of essays, poems and diary excerpts that seeks to understand both the conflict and history of Palestine. 

In his essay 'Bad Laws', Teju Cole talks about how what he terms 'cold violence' is exacted through a series of laws, by-laws and regulations that are all perfectly legal under Israeli law. Based as they are in restrictions on freedom and movement, he notes that these laws are in contravention with international standards and conventions. He mentions Sheikh Jarrah where Palestinians are slowly losing their permanent residency in East Jerusalem, where the right of return applies to Jews in East Jerusalem but not Palestinians. 

"The historical suffering of Jewish people is real, but is no less real than, and does not in any way justify, the present oppression of Palestinians by Israeli Jews" – Teju Cole, ‘Bad Laws’, Letters to Palestine

In an excerpt from her 'Travel Diary' Noura Erakat begins by describing her anger and anti-Israeli sentiment but over the course of her journey to Palestine begins to develop a more nuanced position. She brings up the subject of privileged Palestinians, those who have done very well out of occupation and observes that not all Palestinians are good-hearted, not all Israelis 'evil'. While capturing the atmosphere in Palestine during her visit, Erakat mentions the work of Zochrot, an Israeli non-profit organisation whose aim is to raise awareness of the Palestinian Nakba and of New Profit who work towards the demilitarisation of Israel. Spanning over eleven days in May 2013, the diaries give a unique snapshot of a moment in Palestinian time.

"Israeli settler colonialism, apartheid and occupation should not cease because Palestinians are good and Israelis are bad"- Noura Erakat, ‘Travel Diary’, Letters to Palestine

Nalja Said shares her 'Diary of a Gaza War, 2014' as a Palestinian living in America during the conflict. Intimate and painfully honest, Said's entries show her worry and despair for her loved ones in Gaza. 

"If you think that Palestinians all hate Jews and are rejoicing in the deaths of those three boys (Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, Eyal Yifrah), then you are a racist. That's all I have to say. As my dad used to say, ‘No one has a monopoly on suffering’" – Nalja Said, 'Diary of a Gaza War, 2014', Letters to Palestine

"The boy who was killed was a cousin of my dear friends... You who are reading this are now two degrees from the murdered Palestinian - a child killed in revenge" – Nalja Said, 'Diary of a Gaza War, 2014', Letters to Palestine

In 'Below Zero: In Gaza Before the Latest War', Ben Ehrenreich reminds us of the appalling conditions of loss, devastation, poverty and wretchedness in Gaza even before the war. 

Interspersed throughout the collection is a series of heart-breaking, eye-opening poetry. Poems tell of Kafkaesque experiences of denied entry and the soul-destroying set up of the checkpoints. Notable entries include 'Until It Isn't' by Remi Kanazi, 'Afterwords' by Sinan Antoon and 'Running Orders' by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha. 

"Prove you're human/ prove you stand on two legs/ Run" - Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, 'Running Orders', Letters to Palestine

The last part of the collection is dedicated to an examination of the Palestinian liberation movement in America and its links to the civil rights movement. For the most part, this was too US-centric to be of specific interest to foreign readers but there were some interesting parallels to be drawn to the South African and worldwide anti-Apartheid movement. 

In 'Yes, I Said, "National Liberation"', Robin D G Kelly notes the intersection with Black rights and Ferguson, how the black civil rights movement moved from supporting Israel to recognising the injustices there. 

It would be impossible to capture the scope of this collection here.  Vijay Prashad has done an excellent job in curating a collection of short, powerful pieces that is each powerful in its own right. I would highly recommend this collection to anyone seeking to know more about the situation in Gaza both before and during the conflict last year.

Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation is published by Verso Books who currently have a sale of 40% off on paperbacks and 50% off on eBooks. The book is also available to purchase from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Film Review: Regarding Susan Sontag (2014)

Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag was iconic but she was an icon who warned against the entitlement of the observer and the assumption of a right to observe. She was renowned for being brilliant yet confoundingly difficult. One of the most influential writers of the 20th century, Sontag refused to be pigeon-holed as a female or feminist writer. 

Directed by Nancy Kates, Regarding Susan Sontag tells the story of Susan's life from her childhood to her last days and death from cancer. The film received the Special Jury Mention for Best Documentary Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2014 and was nominated for Documentary of the Year at the 2015 Dorian Awards. 

Regarding Susan Sontag posterRegarding Susan Sontag is first and foremost a biography. It is a film about Susan Sontag, not about her works. Director Kates remarks that it would be impossible to attempt a critique of Susan's writings through the medium of film but the truth is you can only gain an intense familiarity with a body of printed works by actually reading it. 

In a viewing at the Frontline Club in London, the question was asked of Kates why she chose to focus so closely on Sontag's sexuality to the detriment of her works. I think it is rather a question of why the Frontline Club chose to screen the documentary - in a meeting of journalists regarding a woman who commented so poignantly on the role of the media and photography, it was only to be expected that viewers would want a greater insight into Susan's thoughts. The film does not provide an in depth critique of Susan’s thoughts and opinions nor does it delve too deeply into her major works. 

Nevertheless, the film does not focus only on Sontag's sexuality and the film made use of an impressive series of montages and techniques to blend together archive photography, film footage and interviews with voice overs from Patricia Clarkson who narrated Susan's diaries. 

Nancy Kates remarks that Susan's own son David Rieff wanted nothing to do with the documentary and all footage of him in the documentary was archive footage. It is hardly surprising given that Susan chose not to inform her direct family of the terminal nature of her illness. Once he made his decision, Kates had to consider whether to carry on with the film at all. She decided to go ahead on the basis that there was no shortage of archive footage of Susan and her papers and diaries were released into the public domain after her death. 

When I went to see the film, I anticipated an insight into Sontag's works and the situations she wrote about but I didn't demand it. Regarding Susan Sontag made want to be a better me, a better activist but it also reminded me not to make the same mistakes that she did, to connect with people and to dive right in to human relationships. It demystified the icon for me and reminded me that while talented, Susan Sontag was fallible and human. The film certainly made me want to go out and read all her works in one sleepless, caffeine-fuelled sitting. 

Would I recommend Regarding Susan Sontag? Absolutely. From a film-making point of view, the documentary is superb in its use of archive footage and montage techniques. The narration of Susan’s diaries provides an insight into what she was thinking and feeling in a way that she never publicly revealed during her lifetime.  I would recommend the film for people interested in the human being behind the brilliant public facade but do feel that viewers seeking to connect to Susan on a critical, intellectual level might be left feeling a little disappointed.


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