Years ago, I tried some yoga classes with my friend Liza Graves. I remember the very particular fragrance of incense and sweat that just about knocked me out at the top of the stairs of the old Sanctuary studio. Yoga eventually defeated me.
Prior to that, Liza and I saw our friend Kate Ezell and her daughter Lauren one day in class. It was clear that they were quite a bit further along in their practice of yoga, each of them peaceful and graceful, smooth and assured. Even now, that word ‘practice‘ resonates deeply with Kate:
“Practice is one of my favorite words these days. It became part of the lexicon when Lauren trained to become a yoga instructor to support herself while in graduate school and was ‘working on her practice.’ That awareness brought my attention to the use of the word relative to law, medical, and accounting practices. Then, as I became increasingly involved in the public education space, I heard teachers referring to their practice. I’ve come to embrace the notion that each goal we set for each day involves practicing to improve how well we do that work or that play. I like embracing ‘practice’ in what I do well (am practiced) and what I don’t do well yet (am practicing).”
If you know Kate at all, you know her passion for public education. She reads a great deal about education and innovation these days, including works by Clayton Christenson, Paul Tough, Tom Vander Ark, Frederick Hess, and Michael Petrelli. Other books she’s loved lately include Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, “so beautiful that you hate it when the book ends,” and Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land.
If you know Kate, you also know she’s on the road some these days. All three children have landed in New York, so she finds herself there quite frequently. Her 95-year-old father remains in New Orleans, where Kate grew up. “Each time I exit the airport, that thick air and muggy smell let me know I’m home,” she says. She clarifies that Nashville is home too, as is New York (when her children invite her to visit!) – “Home is really about the people even more than the sense of place.”
Kate will happily introduce you to the pleasures of a dark chocolate-covered ginger or Sweetwater Valley Farm cheese from the Produce Place here in Nashville. She’ll happily share a good cup of coffee with you – anytime, anyplace; that love is “definitely part of the New Orleans-is-home thing, where Café du Monde café au lait is hard to beat.” Today, she shares her thoughts on finding an end of summer read and the unexpected place that search took her.
My husband and I were invited to go on holiday in late summer with the youngest of our three children, whose boss had given her a surprise week of vacation following an intense couple of months relocating the office in New York City. She wanted some down time to visit, and we were thrilled. Her destination of choice was “a gorgeous Florida beach easily accessible from LaGuardia”; Rosemary Beach it was. Before leaving, I went to Parnassus, one of the few remaining bookstores in Nashville and certainly one of the best-curated in the Southeast, in search of a recommendation. I wanted to find a non-fiction book that was not part of my recent reading regimen, one that was not about disruption or models or leadership in the education space; I was looking for more of a “beach read” but still someone’s story.
Somehow I left the bookstore with a book titled The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. It is a New York Times bestseller with a cover description as follows – ‘Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness‘ – not exactly your typical beach read but terrifically thought-provoking, impactful, and one that opened an entire new book world to me by highlighting my definite reading deficit on the subject. One evening I mentioned the book to my good friend (and Bacon contributor) Betsy Wills, who told me that Alexander is a Vanderbilt graduate and Betsy’s sorority sister. Since then, I’ve learned that Alexander has spoken multiple times on Vanderbilt’s campus since publishing her book. An academic first, the author is also a good storyteller who is able to recount, relate, and put into perspective the relationships between slavery, the Jim Crow laws and the current impact on black Americans of the criminal justice system.
The author develops the argument well, beginning with the history of U.S. slavery and the Jim Crow laws of the 19th and 20th century. Alexander then looks hard at the War On Drugs, the criminal justice system that has evolved since the ‘60’s, and its impact on African Americans, particularly African American men. In the author’s view, the criminal justice system has created another caste system, one that replaces slavery and Jim Crow laws, with equally devastating impact on this group of Americans. Her argument about the political and economic “establishment’s” intentionality in replacing the prior systems with current versions that are just as controlling and degrading was sobering to read. I was naïve to the argument that the War On Drugs and incarceration of its offenders were designed as systems of control.
Conversations about race are, needless to say, complicated, as are the history of race and slavery in America. Even the current debate about the relevance of Gone with the Wind which I happened onto one day on NPR as part of the celebration of the film’s 75th anniversary reflects the complexity. Some current college students consider the film irrelevant to current attitudes, offensive, and almost campy to study. On the other hand, some film critics consider the film a period piece that reflects a time and place in our history which first, cannot and should not be forgotten and second, totally relates to current issues (hunger, homelessness, the horror of war) covered daily in the media. That said, I found it interesting that much commentary on the film is about “myth” and “gender”; racial issues can be forgotten in some of even the best reviews found by googling the film title.
Getting back to Alexander’s book, it struck a chord with me, not only because I grew up in New Orleans but also because, as a little girl, I spent summers with my mother’s family in north Louisiana on a cotton plantation. As young as I was, I remember the changes in the farming business in the mid-60’s when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, when Jim Crow supposedly ended. Alexander is realistic in her expectations about this complex subject. To quote her: “…racial differences will always exist among us. Even if the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration were completely overcome, we would remain a nation of immigrants (an indigenous people) in a larger world divided by race and ethnicity…that reality is not cause for despair….What is concerning is the real possibility that we, as a society, will not choose to care.” The book ends, after all the sober analysis, on a forward-looking note by challenging the current generation of young Americans, of all races, to unite in the work to change the system, “united by the fierce urgency of now” and the urgency to care.
I’ve read about slavery, lived during some of the time in our history governed by the Jim Crow laws, and now, thanks to Michelle Alexander, have this new lens through which to view and confront race. The lens helps me move forward with awareness, the will to see, and to care. If you’ve shared similar experiences, or read about them, you might value your time with Alexander’s book as much as I did.