When an unarmed black man dies after a confrontation with police, there is a natural tendency to focus on racist police officers or racist police departments. We saw this after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and we saw it, too, after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Walter Scott in North Charleston. Without a doubt, there are plenty of bigoted bad apples to be found, as seen in the shockingly racist emails unearthed in the Department of Justice investigation into Ferguson’s police department. But we also need to consider that big picture, or what sociologists call social structure: institutions like the economy and political system and the roles that people take up within them. After all, the modern-day factors pushing down poor African American communities—and pulling them into hostile encounters with police—involve more than just racial discrimination (or at least discrimination of the plain-vanilla variety).
In The Fray magazine is looking for essays, reportage, and photo essays that have something to say about free speech—its importance and its limits, its necessity and its consequences. When does cultural sensitivity become excessive political correctness and censorship? To what extent does free speech make a democracy more vibrant, and to what extent does it make a culture more hateful?
When I was growing up in suburban Maryland, every fall would bring a familiar sound. Thud, thud, thud!—chestnuts falling in their hardy armor. My mom and I would gather them up and roast them. I loved peeling away the smooth veneer and eating the sweet, still-warm fruit nestled inside, like nature’s Ferrero Rocher.
I was not, however, so fond of the way in which we procured our chestnuts.
My mom hunted for them on suburban lawns. This was during the nineties—before foraging was a way of life, before it entered the lexicon of popular (now mainstream) “foodie” movements, before bearded chefs in Brooklyn were cooking local and seasonal. My mom and I wandered into people’s yards, into patches of wooded private land, and picked up chestnuts by the plastic shopping bagful.
“Mom, this is probably illegal,” I would tell her, hoping my protests would get me out of the chore. What if someone I knew from school saw us? Would they think we were poor, that we couldn't afford food from a store?
The following are the best pieces published in In The Fray this year, as chosen by the editors.
Each year I go through the motions of Christmas, rarely ever feeling fully present. I spend the days leading up to the holiday cooking for my family and baking for my neighbors. I send out Christmas cards. I purchase whatever gifts I can afford. I spend the nights sipping bourbon, wrapping presents, and wondering why the holiday doesn't fill me with the kind of joy and lightheartedness we see in movies. Then the day arrives and I remember why: my family can be intolerable.
I realize you’re not supposed to say that. To be clear, I don’t mean “intolerable” in a cute, bickering, loud kind of way. I mean that since my mom died, I’m the lone woman in a family populated by troubled white and brown men—white and brown men who seem to only be capable of bonding over one thing: antiblack racism.
I had no friend quite like Ed. We also hated each other.
He was with me all the time. He knew all my secrets. When I was in high school, all I wanted was to be perfect. At 5:30 a.m. I would run six miles. Then, after school, I would study until 10 p.m., breaking only for dinner. I always had to get an A. He understood why I would wrap my hips and abdomen in duct tape to keep it all in, so that my tight pants would fit perfectly and no amount of fat could bubble over the top.
When we had meals together, he would reassure me that it was okay to eat only fruits and vegetables. He would agree when I would say, “I'm fat, I need to lose weight.” He saw what I saw in the mirror.
Last week when my two young nieces were in town, we went to a local theater to watch Jorge R. Gutierrez’s The Book of Life, an animated children’s film that is part heavy-handed love story, part love letter to Día de de los Muertos, the holiday on which those who have died are celebrated, a ritual that goes back 3,000 years. On NPR, journalist Karen Castillo Farfán wrote that the practice was developed by the Aztecs, who believed one should not grieve the loss of a beloved ancestor who passed. Instead, “the Aztecs celebrated their lives and welcomed the return of their spirits to the land of the living once a year.”
The Book of Life is one big visual representation of everything we have come to associate with the holiday: “dark” Mexican folk art, sugar skulls, papel picado in every color, and altars adorned with seven-day candles, orange marigolds, and pan dulce. The movie is bright and visually stunning, despite being about death—and the same could be said about Día de los Muertos.
"Frenemies": friends with fewer benefits. It's often an apt term to describe our working lives, where polite interactions mask fierce competition. But it applies to other domains as well: from the love-hate relationships of siblings and lovers, to the tangled web of international relations (take, for example, longtime allies Germany and the US, recently in a bitter spat over American espionage). Yet having a frenemy is not necessarily a bad thing. Musical rivalries produce great songs (see the hit musical Beautiful). One-time political opponents sometimes become the most formidable of allies (see Bush v. Gore veterans/gay-marriage crusaders David Boies and Ted Olson).
Yesterday, the world lost one of its great talents. Robin Williams was found dead in his home Monday from an apparent suicide. The sadness of his loss is matched only by the joy he brought the world over his life.
While early obituaries I've read have lauded his acting triumphs (i.e., Good Will Hunting, Dead Poet's Society), equally important to my childhood were Robin Williams' less acclaimed works, from Jumanji (50 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) to Hook (31 percent) to Flubber (23 percent). Few actors have achieved such generational impact, making his death all the more painful.
Journalist Masha Gessen wrote a well-received biography of Russian president Vladimir Putin two years ago. In her new book Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot
, she profiles Pussy Riot, a Russian feminist punk activist group whose members have become the international faces of anti-Putin protest.
In recent years the group has won a global following—including the likes of Madonna and Paul McCartney—for their offbeat acts of civil disobedience against the Russian government. One of their best-known protests—a controversial “punk prayer” performance in a Moscow cathedral in 2012—eventually landed three of its members in jail. Gessen, a Russian American journalist and herself a critic of Putin, follows the personal histories of these three members: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (Nadya), Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Stanislavovna Samutsevich (Kat). Most of the book was culled from Gessen’s reporting from their trial and her correspondence with Nadya and Maria while they were in prison.
Diversity in literature is something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately. Last month I attended a workshop run by the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation
(VONA), which sponsors programs for writers of color working in a variety of genres. I sat at the orientation looking around in disbelief at more than 150 writers crammed into a room at UC Berkeley, thinking, “Holy fuck, I had no idea there were so many of us.”
Speaking at West Point on Wednesday, President Obama touted his administration’s response to Russia’s recent belligerence in Ukraine. “Our ability to shape world opinion helped isolate Russia right away,” he said. The public outcry and the pressure exerted by international institutions, he added, have served as an effective “counterweight” to “Russian propaganda and Russian troops on the border and armed militias in ski masks.” In spite of the crisis Ukraine has gone on to hold elections—“without us firing a shot.”
Unfortunately, Obama is mistaken. The momentum is still on Russia’s side. It has forcibly seized and annexed the strategically valuable peninsula of Crimea. It has succeeded in destabilizing eastern Ukraine through a proxy war—secretively supporting ethnic Russian rebellions against the Ukrainian government there. It is quite possible Ukraine will end up losing more of its territory.