Category Archives: History

Why Race Matters in Catching Fire

I got back from the theater late yesterday afternoon from a viewing of Catching Fire, the second adaptation in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. There are many, many things one could say about this particular film, but I’d particularly like to focus on the race-related aspects that, definitely emergent in The Hunger Games, particularly come to the fore in the Catching Fire adaptation. Note: SPOILERS ABOUND. If you haven’t read or seen it, you are welcome to keeping reading my post, but then you will be SPOILED. Do you hear that? That’s the sound of SPOILERS.

Okay, is that a decent warning? Moving on.

I didn’t think of race as being a huge issue in The Hunger Games trilogy, but when I saw the first film and then read responses, I wondered if maybe the films were on to something. Back when the first film was released, there was a strange outcry that Rue was black. I didn’t understand the response; I still don’t, actually. I thought the book made very clear that she was; in fact, I argue that it matters that Rue and Thresh are black. In the book, Katniss discusses how much Rue reminds her of her sister Prim, the girl whose place she has taken in the Hunger Games. Such a statement reminds us that we are all connected intimately as human beings, that we don’t need to be the same gender, sexuality, or race as someone to see ourselves in each other (which is a major premise of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which honestly could have been a much better book, but that’s not for this post, and no, I haven’t seen the film). In the first film, Katniss covers Rue’s body with flowers and makes her body seem like a viewing at a burial. This visual move reminds me astonishingly of James VanDerZee’s Harlem Book of the Dead, in which individuals are laid out for burial and then depicted in elaborate coffin scenes.

Rue   Book of the Dead

I knew we weren’t done with Rue, because the Victory Tour the Capitol forces Katniss and Peeta to revisit all the Districts and relive the Games. The first on their tour is District 11, home to both Rue and Thresh. The film smartly sets up a view of the district as Peeta and Katniss arrive in a militaristic vehicle to take the stage. In the tank, we glimpse workers picking cotton, surrounded by Capitol Peacekeepers.


The workers are all black, dressed plainly in dark clothing. The Peacekeepers are, you guessed it, white. It’s a chilling visual throwback to the slavery/sharecropping history in the South (which, according to a theoretical map of Panem, is where District 11 is located). Once we get to the “celebration,” which is anything but, Peeta and Katniss take the stage to see pictures of Rue and Thresh on either side. Their families have been forced to stand below these portraits, forming a triangulation with Katniss and Peeta on the stage. This setup makes the horrific scene even more heartbreaking, because you can see Thresh’s parents–alone–under the picture of their dead son. Rue’s mother (no father depicted) stands next to her remaining children, between 3-4, all younger than Rue.

Peeta puts away the carefully constructed speech and stammers out his gratitude and debt to Thresh. Katniss speaks of her relationship with Rue and how Rue saved her life and became her friend in the Arena. Peeta vows to donate a month of each of their winnings to the families for the rest of their lives–a gesture they have no way of meeting, but one they feel they can offer. It’s an interesting and honest depiction of survivors’ guilt (and, I’d argue, white guilt too). And then, instead of applause, an old man offers District 12’s three-finger salute. This gesture is interesting, because it echoes District 11’s response to Katniss’s own salute in The Hunger Games (I’d argue the most moving scene in the first film). In it, the entire district had saluted Katniss, and then a man started a riot (now that I think of it, maybe Rue’s father?). Here, though, violence is not caused by riot. The old man sings Rue’s mockingjay notes, and then, the Peacekeepers sift through the crowd, dragging him up to the stage as Peeta and Katniss are pushed into the building. Just as the doors close, we hear a gun go off in the vicinity of the man, who has been forced to kneel on the stage.


This staging is done very intentionally, I’d argue. Watching someone being (essentially) lynched in the public square is one example of the race crimes taking place in the United States throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. By porting into that discourse, the film has found a way to make our shameful history even more relevant, though the books themselves are works of dystopic fiction.

This sort of violence is also enacted on Cinna, Katniss’s secretly rebellious stylist.


Cinna turns Katniss’s fake wedding dress into the costume of a mockingjay, which is to become the symbol of the nascent revolution. In so doing, Cinna flouts President Snow’s orders, and quite publicly at that. As Katniss is ushered up to the Arena, enclosed in glass, Cinna is surrounded and brutally beaten by the Peacekeepers. She is forced to watch her friend and ally bludgeoned before her eyes. It’s horrific. And yes, Cinna is also black. I was reminded of the unprovoked attacks on black men by white law enforcement throughout our nation’s history. And we wonder why young black men fall into petty crime and a system of incarceration so young and so often…when we consider the history of violence in this country, the inequity with which crime is treated based on which color you are, it should give us pause.

What about Enobaria, the District 2 Career tribute, who had her teeth sharpened? Initially, I was very concerned that the film would depict her as the stereotypical black savage.


Thankfully, the film downplayed any violence associated with her (and in the books, I don’t recall much anyway), AND they depicted the perfect, blonde creepy siblings, Cashmere and Gloss (this franchise’s response to the Lannister twins) as much more cruel and violent. Plus, as My Sister pointed out, Beetee, whose ethnic origins was never made clear in the series, was depicted by the awesome Jeffrey Wright, a black man. As she rightfully noted, we cannot fall into the trap of making every African American character a saint, simply for their ethnic origins. Balance is good. So there’s that.

Is Catching Fire a film solely about racial oppression? No, there are other means of oppression, of torture that occur (and we need look no further than the ways in which Finnick has been exploited for Capitol gain, or how bitter winning has made Johanna, for instance). But I believe that the films saw an opportunity to make a statement about our sordid past and conflicted present and did so incisively. And the response to the first film has indeed shown that we are not, in fact, a post-race America.


Leave a comment

Filed under History, Movies, Outlook


It was a clear, cool September morning, like any other. I ate an early breakfast, had prayer at the flagpole, and went to my first class of the morning: U.S. history. That morning, my teacher had CNN on, and we left at 8:20 to go to Bible class. About ten minutes later, my classmate, Z, came running in, screaming, “A plane hit the World Trade Center.” We laughed, not believing him. Our laughter was silenced in another few minutes when our Bible teacher’s wife came in and said, “I just heard it on the radio. A second plane hit the World Trade Center.” Clearly, none of us was paying attention to school anymore.

When I got to Chemistry, my teacher soberly informed us that we would be watching CNN in the chapel that morning. And so, glued to the news, shocked, silenced, stunned, that we watched the second tower collapse.

It’s a traumatic moment in the history of a nation. Can a sixteen-year-old really capture the nuances of such a tragedy? I was numb with vicarious grief. Girls in my dorm ran out to fill their tanks out with gas, calling their families, sobbing that the world was going to end.

My own near-death experience would come about five weeks later (that’s another post, which I will likely address next month). I never understood, appreciated, or valued the measure of a human life until I was forced to face my own mortality. Why was my own life spared when thousands were allowed to suffer and die?

It’s a question I’ve since revisted as an adult, and it’s changed the way I view 9.11 forever. It’s a privilege to be here in this nation, full of freedom and [possible] prosperity, but it’s come at a heavy price. And not everyone gets to experience that dream. Acts of terrorism occur every day. They occur when we let good people die alone, uninsured. They occur when we allow bullying of a child–ANY child–to happen without intervening or teaching our children to behave in a loving manner. They occur when we take to the polls and seize privilege for ourselves without asking “What’s the cost for my fellow American?” They occur when we force men and women to give over the freedom to protect their own bodies, whether through a forced draft or loss of reproductive rights. They occur when we discriminate another person based on the color of their skin, religious preference, age, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status.

This privileged state is best summed up by one of my favorite authors:

“He, Henry Perowne, possesses so much—the work, money, status, the home, above all, the family—the handsome healthy son with the strong guitarist’s hands come to rescue him, the beautiful poet for a daughter, unattainable even in her nakedness, the famous father-in-law, the gifted, loving wife; and he has done nothing, given nothing to Baxter who has so little that is not wrecked by his defective gene, and who is soon to have even less.” ~Ian McEwan, Saturday, p. 236.

Though 9.11 was/is a horrific moment, we’ve seized our blessings and privileges. We’ve been inspired by the heroic stories, the patriotic rhetoric, and gifts that have come from being an American. And now it’s time to give back. To stand for “liberty and justice for ALL” (for isn’t that the pledge we declare in schools, sporting events, and solemn occasions?). To help others less privileged stand with us. To protect the rights of all our citizens. To honor the men and women who sacrificed everything for their country, and who now need our help to stay alive.

This September 11, I urge you, gentle reader, while commemorating this moment in history, to reflect on what you have, and what you do. How can you help others? How can you serve this nation that has provided for you? And how can you and I grow as individuals? How can we move forward, and bring others with us?


*I humbly dedicate this post to the men and women who have served my country. And to the women and men in my ENGL 6450 course, Literature and Terrorism for their insights, willingness to share of themselves, and desire to better understand ourselves and our world, with special thanks to Dr. T.K. for his guidance over our learning and instruction.

Leave a comment

Filed under Faith, History, Life and Living, Outlook

What about The Help?

I’ve long avoided reading and watching The Help. I shrugged it off as white feel-gooder fare and sneered at the seemingly well-intentioned, earnest white character who wants to make a difference.

After watching it tonight, I realize that I’m right and I’m wrong all at once. While The Help is certainly not a groundbreaking, incisive look at race relations in the South, it’s an interesting mainstream-friendly depiction of one aspect of life that has often been overlooked. Certainly some stereotypes creep in. Several characters are one-note, especially women. And it is very sentimental. But I can’t hate it like I wish I could. Why is that?

First, the things that trouble me. Let’s start with the depiction of racism. While the film alludes to the killing of Medgar Evers, there’s no real sense of danger that pervades the lifes of the many African-Americans forced to live and work in subpar conditions, all while under the ever-present threat of lynching at the hands of the KKK. In fact, the KKK never even gets a mention. Why is the biggest racist manifestation in the movie the wealthy women’s insistence that a separate bathroom be built for their help (with flushing toilets and a roll of toilet paper to boot? Wouldn’t they realistically have insisted on an outhouse in the backyard? But I digress).

And then, there’s the many wishful-thinking anachronisms present. To be honest, The Help is neither the first nor last offender in this case. But it’s present. I can’t help but think that the homes depicted on the “wrong side of the tracks” were probably on par with, if not better than, several middle-class white homes. Did the ramshackle homes African-Americans were forced to live in have telephones, electric stoves, electricity, or several rooms? I’m not so sure. I’m not sure that all homes have all those conveniences now, come to think of it.

But the subtle, nuanced performance Viola Davis gives saves many of the melodramatic, Disneyish elements of the film. As someone who fights bitterness and pain, she keeps journals of her thoughts, hoping someday to write. She loves her young charge, but admits the conflicted feelings towards her employer. She is neither sassy nor platitudinal nor Mammy-esque. This portrayal does add some interesting complexity to what could have been a Lifetime movie role.

And it’s just so hard to hate something that’s so earnest. As a former history major, I may roll my eyes at the optimistic, oversimplification of history. But it’s given me something to think about. And if it gives the legions of so-called soccer moms reading and watching it something to think about too, then perhaps it’s not such a bad thing altogether.

*For an excellent, balanced review, I highly recommend film/culture website Pajiba’s take.


Filed under History, Movies

Love amidst the ruins

It seems strange to think of a riot on Valentine’s Day (although, considering its mythical origins, maybe not). But amidst an afternoon of research for my students, I stumbled on an insight that is strangely appropriate for a holiday otherwise dedicated to commercial expressions of love.

As you know, I married the Chancellor on June 12, 2011, and he whisked me away to Vancouver for our honeymoon. On June 15, 2011, we toured the delights of the city and spent our evening in the hotel room, glued to the TV that reported a riot unfolding after the Vancouver Canucks lost the Stanley Cup to the Boston Bruins. What’s to say about the riot itself? A bunch of angry, stupid people punched Vancouver in the face and demanded a fight. It was ugly and scary, especially watching plumes of smoke emerge only a few blocks away from our hotel window.

The next day as we ventured forth into the city again, it had been transformed into a wasteland of trash, broken glass, and stains. Yet, it was in this day that we witnessed a mini-miracle. People actually volunteered in shifts, whether an hour or two before work, or during lunch break, to help clean up the city that others had tried to destroy. Brooms came out, coffee was passed to volunteers, and boards covered the shattered windowpanes.

By the end of the afternoon, people began writing love-notes to a city they couldn’t bear to see defaced. The plain boards were littered with sorrow, adoration, and determination to carry on and show the world that a fierce and undying love for the real Vancouver could never be eclipsed by a moment of hatred.

It’s that simple sentiment–“We Love Van”–that resonates with me to this day. What would our world look like if our love was greater than our hate? If we could bring love up from the ruins of our corrupted world and transform hideous ugliness into a strange and delicate beauty?

There will always be despair, fear, corruption, and anger. But deeper and more beautiful sentiments and ideas never die, so long as we remember to show them in our lives.

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Outlook


Some people feel a distinct division in their lives: there’s a defining moment that bifurcates the segments of their lives that will never be wholly unified again. I am definitely one of those individuals, as today marks the 12th anniversary of the day my family’s universe was disturbed forever.

I should backtrack to provide a bit of context. In 1998, my six-year-old brother was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, and about the same time, my mom’s lingering health problems finally reached a definitive diagnosis of lupus. Let me tell you, it was an interesting year. By itself, lupus is a terrifying disease, simply because it’s so amorphous and unpredictable. There was a woman at church who faced down death a few times with her lupus and had to walk with a cane, while my dear friend RRC’s mother languished for many years while eventually dying to renal failure after years on dialysis. We had no idea how it would play out in my mom’s body, especially since she had suspected that something was wrong shortly after she gave birth to my sister in 1987. Imagine going eleven years and giving birth to two more children with undiagnosed lupus! In short: my mom was very fortunate to not be much sicker than she already was. She spent the next year tweaking lifestyle habits and working with a rheumatologist for medicines and exercises to keep her body strong.

Fast-forward to 1999. Everything seemed to be going okay, at least on the health front. I was in the throes of adolescence with zero motivation to do anything. As with all mother-daughter relationships at this time, my mom and I just did not get along. And since I am the oldest, I was the experiment. There was a lot of complaining, while my sister, the quintessential middle child, tried to reason with me and help me get along with my parents. My brother and baby sister (ages 7 and 3) were…you know, kids. I thought life was soooo difficult at 14. But an aside comment from my mom took my mind off petty things. When I overheard her talking about a biopsy, I looked at her and she said with forced calm, “I found a lump in my breast.” It was a few days before Thanksgiving.

We had about two weeks to wait for the diagnosis. In that time, I spent hours at night on my knees, crying out in agony to a God that I had tacitly believed in because my parents did. I prayed at first for her to be healed miraculously, then I asked Him to do His will. On a sidenote, it was, in the words of the song “Amazing Grace,” “the hour I first believed.”

The phone call came on December 7, 1999. My brother was playing, while I tried to watch both him and my mom talking tensely to her surgeon on the phone. But I knew as soon as she started to respond. Tears filled my eyes, as I knew that nothing in this life would ever be the same again.

What do you do, three weeks shy of your 15th birthday, when your mom tells you she has breast cancer and has to have surgery immediately, before the insurance coverage changes (for the worse)? How do you tell your siblings, 12, 7, and 3, that it’s going to be okay, when you don’t even know if that’s the truth? All I can remember about that day is going to the kitchen and washing a sinkful of dishes by hand. We had a dishwasher, but for some reason, my hands needed to be moving, because my brain was completely numb. For the first time, I had to face the possibility that my mom could die.

Two weeks later, she had a mastectomy, because her lupus would not allow her to undergo radiation for a lump. So, at 42, my mom had to undergo reconstructive surgery on top of that, because she did not want to lose her breast. We would find out in the next week if her lymph nodes were clean. I don’t need to tell you that my 15th  birthday was a subdued affair.

And then, that long-awaited call came on December 23, the day after my birthday. The nodes were clean. The cancer was gone. That moment marked the rest of my life, in which I determined never to take my mom (really, my whole family) for granted, and which I would always be grateful for the life we got to live.

Only a few times I have wondered what our lives would have looked like had my mom never had cancer. All I know is that we were all changed by it, in ways that have made me the woman that I am today. I am not glad she suffered, but I am glad we are all stronger, better, kinder people because of it.

Every December 7, I commemorate the day that has defined us, shaped us, and redefined us as a family, and this year, I am reminded of the closing lines of Tennyson’s “Ulysses”:

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


Filed under Beginnings, Faith, Family, History, Outlook, State of mind


Today marks the ten year anniversary of my near-death experience. It’s not a very exciting story, I’m afraid (there were no killer sharks, quarantines, thrilling car accidents, or facing down ax murderers or grizzly bears), but it still left an indelible mark that has permanently impacted me. It’s amazing how eight hours of unmitigated terror will lead you to rethink your life purpose.

To help you understand the context, I need to backtrack about 6-7 years. I was diagnosed as a chronic mouth-breather with cough-variant asthma in grade school. A myriad of sinus infections led to several visits from an ENT specialist (I am sure there’s a much fancier title, but in my medically driven home, the acronym was ENT, for Ears-Nose-Throat), which then led to an adenoidectomy when I was about 11-12. It wasn’t a terrible procedure, but the biggest think I learned from that venture is that general anesthesia makes me crazy sick. After I tried some ice and a popsicle in recovery, the nurse helped me get out to my parents’ car, where I promptly threw up, and then later threw up a few more times at home. So…my parents and I made a mental note that some anti-emetics might be in order if I should ever require surgery again.

The summer of 2001 had me visiting another ENT who said that I would require yet another surgery to help with my continual sinus infections, snoring, and asthma. I had a deviated septum in my nose, which he would fix, and he would also remove my tonsils, to try and create more room. Since I also got countless strep throat diagnoses, this would probably alleviate those illnesses. My surgery was scheduled for Monday, October 22, which would occur just two days before my boarding school’s homeleave. It seemed ideal.

My surgery went like clockwork. After about an hour and a half, I was in recovery with a terrible sore throat (note: there’s a very good reason why they typically remove tonsils on children), but I had received Zofran, an IV drug that helped with nausea. I left recovery able to walk, and I thought it would be a mere matter of just taking it easy and keeping to liquids and soft, bland foods.

The next day proved me wrong. Since the surgery inside my nose left me congested, I had to use a syringe with warm saltwater to help the healing process. I believe that, coupled with the wearing off of the anti-emetic, left me defenseless. Starting around 2 pm, I began throwing up. I’d try and wait and try a drink of sprite or water. It didn’t matter. By around 7 pm, I was retching nothing, but helpless to avoid the horrendous nausea. My parents, concerned I’d rip out my tonsil stitches, decided that I was headed straight for dehydration. They took me to our small town’s tiny hospital to the emergency room, where the doctor explained that he was going to give me a different drug, Droperidol. It would make me drowsy, but would stop the vomiting and let me rest a little. They put the drug in around 8:20, and within a minute or so, I began to feel sleepy.

Ten minutes later, however, I shot up from the hospital bed. I couldn’t breathe. I felt like I was suffocating. I could open my mouth, but I could only let air out. Nothing came in. I couldn’t even speak to tell my parents I had stopped breathing. My mom asked me several questions, but I could only nod or shake my head. My dad ran to get the doctor and started screaming, “You have to come in here NOW.” The nurse stuck me with an epinepherine pin to stop the drug reaction. We were all visibly shaken, and my dad (the doctor on call for the practice) and the ER doctor began trying to figure out why I had stopped breathing. Droperidol had an unusual side effect: bottoming out one’s blood pressure, but closing up the throat was unheard-of. The doctor in the larger hospital 45 minutes away couldn’t figure it out either. I would have to stay in the emergency room for observation.

The next four hours were a misery. I had to tear away the dressing covering my nose, but I was so badly congested, I couldn’t breathe. I had a dehumidifier mask for my face, but even that didn’t sufficiently give me as much oxygen as I felt I needed. Every breath felt like a struggle. I remember looking at the clock and thinking,  I shouldn’t even be here. I should just be getting out of Driver’s Ed.  How badly I wanted to be invested in the prosaic aspects of my life that I had so taken for granted. I begged my mom to let me go home, but of course she couldn’t. I had reasoned that home=safety, right? but knew deep down that it didn’t matter. Finally, around 12:30 am, my dad decided that it would be best to admit me to the hospital for observation, especially since we weren’t sure how long it would take for the drug to wear off.

In the hospital bed, I dozed on and off, too afraid to fall asleep, but exhausted from having to fight for each breath. Finally, I dozed off again, and didn’t wake up till about 4:30 am, when I realized that I felt “normal” again. It’s weird how those ordinary acts of living, like breathing and speaking, feel so radical when you are silenced. I remember looking out the window with two thoughts: (1) why do I get to survive when 2-3 thousand have died a month ago? and (2) there is a plan for me, I just know it.

I’ll never be able to answer that first question. I still don’t know why I get to live, and so many deserving others do not. It is a question I can pose to God, and never be able to receive an answer now. Pure, childlike trust is what is required of me.

That second question has proved itself over and over again. I wanted to be a journalist in high school. I thought that writing and fame were my life goals, but that next year, I decided to become the best high school teacher in the world. I entered college, thinking that was my life plan, but God nudged me to something much better suited to me. I am entering my third year of college instruction, knowing that this is my life calling. I endure some of the less desirable academic baggage, because I know that jumping through a certain number of hoops will let me teach in the end. I don’t always enjoy every single moment of every single day, but I am glad to be where I am now. I happily and humbly serve at my post, because I believe I was put there for a purpose.

You don’t have to experience a drug-induced nightmare to know what you’re supposed to do in life, but it certainly adds a forced introspection to one’s choices. Every 10.23, I pause, taking a moment to be grateful for my purpose and place in this life.*


*This year has brought a bit of somberness, too. A dean at my alma mater was killed in a car accident last Friday. Please send prayers and kind thoughts to her family and friends.


Filed under Faith, History, Life and Living, Outlook


Today marks the sixth anniversary of my grandma’s death (it would also be my beloved dog Max’s 16th birthday, if he was still with us, but that’s another post). August always makes me a little introspective, as well as a little sad. It strikes me as no mere coincidence that my grandpa is facing end-of-life issues in this month and week (no update on that, by the way), nor that her death coincides with the beginning of the school year. Every year, on 8.18., the Elton John circle of life becomes a little less jazzy and glib and a bit more real. The end and the beginning clash and harmonize in ways I never thought would happen.

The end really started back in March of 2003. Grandma had a stroke, which paralyzed the left side of her body. I flew down to visit her, as I was one week away from making my senior class mission trip to Zambia. I was glad I got to see her then, because it was the last time I truly saw her will to live at work within her. The next two and a half years were filled with agony and disappointment. She’d get better, then have another stroke. She’d make progress in her physical therapy, then be set back by a stroke or a broken hip. It was heartbreaking to talk to her on the phone, because I knew she had something to say, but she couldn’t get the words out. Finally, two weeks before she officially died, she had one last stroke that prevented her from swallowing. She went to a nursing home and never returned. Her body finally, slowly went to rest, and I realized that I had prayed all those years for the wrong thing. I prayed for my grandma to live, to get better, to be whole. I wish that I had instead prayed for peace and comfort and rest for her. What a bitter realization to make so late.

We all cried at her funeral. Not because she had died. No, we had all known for awhile that she was not going to make it. Rather, we cried, because all the good memories came back. Grandma was a faithful wife, mother, grandma, friend, and neighbor. She read to her grandkids, sang hymns with her family, and brought us all together with her gentle graces and her unconditional love. She was there when my family’s puppy was killed in an accident. She came up to stay when my mom had surgery, and then later, when my sister and I had to live with my mom’s best friend for awhile (more on that in another post). She played games with gusto, but would often make a wrong move, simply because she was too busy socializing to pay attention. These memories all came back in a flood, and I had to remember again all that we had lost.

I still miss her. I cried at my high school graduation, because she could not be there to cheer me on. I cried at my MA graduation, because I wished she was there. I burst into tears the morning of my wedding, because she wasn’t there. Actually, she died before the first of the cousins got married, so she didn’t get to watch the joy of any of her grandkids getting married. She would have enjoyed being there, and I know she would have loved The Chancellor.

Six years later, I have moved within my grief. I know now that it will never “go away.” The intensity of it does not consume me every day, though it comes back in small, unexpected moments. Sometimes, it feels painful, other days sad, and some days gentle. I know that she rests in peace. I know that I am like her in small ways. I will never forget her. I will always remember. I will always love.

1 Comment

Filed under Faith, Family, History