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Dessa

She writes, raps and has a weakness for amaretto.

Dessa: The morning after Philando Castile

Last night, like millions of people, I watched Lavish Reynolds live stream her boyfriend’s death after he was shot by a police officer.

I’ve been slow to get involved in the protests against police violence. I wasn’t sure how, or with whom, to engage.

When the fight was for marriage equality, there was a clear understanding of the problem, the solution, and the required course of action. We needed a particular number of votes, plain and simple. It was easy to lend my voice to the campaign.

But of course this wave of shootings is not a neat, political campaign; it is a crisis.

The immediate ask is simple: hold cops accountable. Hold them to the same standards of justice that governs the rest of the citizenry. But the long-term question, How do we stop this from happening?, does not seem so clear or simple.

Why is it that so many cops continue to perceive black men as intrinsically threatening? And how on earth does this perceived threat escalate to deadly force so quickly—no matter how minor the infraction?

Minneapolis, the city I live in, is very segregated. That’s true of a lot of American cities, although it’s particularly dramatic here. So is that segregation part of the explanation for police violence? Is it that we can’t see ourselves in one another, because we live our lives apart? Is it that we’re exposed only to our already-familiar fashion and food and slang and books and music—the essential trappings of culture—so that when we encounter someone different we’re afraid? 

Because this isn’t just a problem of crooked cops, right? It’s bigger, and worse, than that. The police shootings are evidence of an old racism that’s baked in to our culture. Which means baked in to us.

My longest romantic relationship was with a person of color. Several rap members of my rap group are people of color. My mother is a person of color. And none of that gives me a pass. None of that means that I can consider myself on the righteous side, without taking a critical look at my own ideas and behavior.

When was the last time I played or attended a show in North Minneapolis? I’ll tell you. It’s been years.  

We live in a culture that’s full of regressive ideas about black people, gay people, and many other historically oppressed groups. Those regressive ideas are on TV, in ads, and on the news—in almost all forms media that informs our worldview. If there’s lead in the water, there’s lead in your blood.

I’ve been slow to get involved because I didn’t know what to do. And sometimes when protesters were interviewed on the radio, they said things that didn’t seem well informed or particularly helpful. I wanted to find one person or movement that I could support without reservation—someone who was fearless in their rebuke of the abuse of power, who had a clear idea of the needed correction, and who still found room for love. In a crisis, that is a very high standard.

And you know who isn’t meeting a very high standard at the moment? The police. And I’m paying them.

Jesse Williams said it better than I could. “If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression.”

There are some strong leaders in this town, Toki Wright, Nikema Levi-Pounds, and Congressman Keith Ellison, to name a few. And this morning I’m one of many eager for leadership—eager to move, even if I’m unsure about exactly how we’ll get where we’re going.  

Books That Exploded Me

The Uptown bookstore Magers & Quinn asked me to make a list of books that I'd recommend. The list didn't have to be guided by any topic or style, so I just decided to assemble the ten titles that are the loudest in my head--each of the books below has a scene or passage that regularly rises up into my brain while I'm busy driving, talking on the phone, or burning something on the stove. 

1. Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard

“The mind wants to live forever, or to learn a very good reason why not. The mind wants the world to return its love, or its awareness... The mind's sidekick, however, will settle for two eggs over easy. The dear, stupid body is easily satisfied as a spaniel. And, incredibly, the simple spaniel can lure the brawling mind to its dish. It is everlastingly funny that the proud, metaphysically ambitious mind will hush if you give it an egg.”

2. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by David Eggers

Includes a residential floorplan, rendered in autoCAD or something similar, that mapped the ideal vector of a running approach for a slide in stocking feet, a la Risky Business

3. On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

“You will find no one willing to share out his money; but to how many does each of us divide up his life!...No one will bring the years back; no one will restore you to yourself.”

4. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

The section on corn and carbon explains how isotopes in human body tissue can be tested to reveal how much corn we’ve eaten in our lifetime.

5. Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

“In this country, SWE [Standard Written English] is perceived as the dialect of education and intelligence and power and prestige, and anybody of any race, ethnicity, religion, or gender who wants to succeed in American culture has got to be able to use SWE… You can be glad about it or sad about it or deeply pissed off. You can believe it's racist and unjust and decide right here and now to spend every waking minute of your adult life arguing against it, and maybe you should, but I'll tell you something: If you ever want those arguments to get listened to and taken seriously, you're going to have to communicate them SWE, because SWE is the dialect our country uses to talk to itself.”

6. Willful Creatures by Aimee Bender

“He gets bored with his expensive (but worth it) pet and puts a few drops of cleaning agent into his water bottle, so he can watch the little man hallucinate.”

7. New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver

“Nevermind that he is only a memo from the offices of fear,” from the “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard”

8. Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Includes a scene in which a circumcised girl boasts that the space between her legs is as flat and featureless as her palm.

9. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Describes the confines of a rocking boat in which two people who should definitely not be having sex, are having loads of sex. 

10. All Trivia by Logan Pearsall Smith

“Aphorisms.” I learned that word from this book. To my surprise, I also learned that a professional author was allowed to make a whole book of them: plot and character are—like everything in art—electives only.