What I Mean by White Supremacy

“The bondage of the Negro brought captive from Africa is one of the greatest dramas in history, and the writer who merely sees in that ordeal something to approve or condemn fails to understand the evolution of the human race.” (Carter G. Woodson, The Miseducation of the Negro)

Back at that anti-racism workshop in Hyde Park I wrote about yesterday, as I was drawing the crude stick figure KKK member, the teacher in me sensed where this was going: my image of white supremacy — my pre-conscious, un-thought-out vision of what it meant — needed work.  The presenter debriefed with us, and of course, I was not the only person who had produced something like that Klansman.  Many of us had very simplistic ideas of what white supremacy was.  The next thing the presenters did was show us this chart:

There’s a lot of compressed information here, but the short version is, white power and supremacy exist because a set of six narratives that support it also exist.  These narratives might look like “stereotypes,” but they are not only that.  They are also material structures, histories, stories, images, policies, philosophies, and more.  What I take from the Woodson quote above is that to understand history is not only to know the facts, but much more importantly, how we assess the significance of those facts.  I have always known (at least starting in 3rd grade or so) that slavery happened, and over the coming years, I also learned about the Trail of Tears, Japanese internment, The Chinese Exclusion Act, the Mexican War, the Gadsden and Louisiana Purchases, the annexation of Hawaii and much more.  I also lived through Iran-Contra, both Gulf wars, 9/11 and the construction of Guantanamo Bay.

I was always encouraged to all those events as “dark moments in our history,”  as mainstream historians and journalists so often describe them — as unfortunate detours in the grand march towards freedom I was always told America was.  What I have come to see now, though, is that these are not detours: they are the route itself.  Our country would not exist in any recognizable form if these acts of violent, aggressive seizure (and many more not named) hadn’t happened.

I grew up in an upper-class, nearly all white community, but our school teachers did not hide these facts from us.  What was kept from us, though, was their significance.  Consider Woodson’s words: “the writer who merely sees in that ordeal something to approve or condemn fails to understand the evolution of the human race” (my emphasis).  What I learned about slavery was that it was something that had happened in the past, and that it was morally wrong (“something to… condemn”).  According to Woodson, then, at that point, I failed “to understand the evolution of the human race.”

I think many white Americans’ understanding of slavery is like mine used to be.  We know it happened; we have done relatively little reflection on its significance, legacy, or present-day manifestations.  We are all sure it’s wrong – because it was and is – but we have no knowledge or awareness of the dynamics that drove it.  This is what was so terrible about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln: it was a movie that saw slavery as a random, stupid institution that was wrong, and whose savior, played of course by Daniel Day-Lewis, was clear-headed enough to oppose.  It failed to place it into any kind of meaningful context, or give the audience any sense of the ways the North and the South were deeply dependent on it.  It made it look like ending slavery was just a matter of buying off a few votes of a few venial politicians.

But what I have come to understand about slavery in the United States is that it etched its mark on (1) our national psyche, (2) our economic realities, and (3) our political institutions.

First – our psyche – there is a chicken-and-egg sort of problem here.  Did slavery create the notion of “African Americans a social and intellectual inferiors”, or was it created out of that notion?  I don’t know, but what I do know is, since it began, the material institution of slavery and the intellectual racist discourse of African-American inferiority became co-productive.  The one strengthened the other and vice versa.  And when slavery ended, though a material structure crumbled, the intellectual one persisted.  And so long as that intellectual structure remained, new material manifestations of it could be re-spawned: convict-leasing, sharecropping, Jim Crow, redlining, white flight, urban renewal, mass incarceration, and more, on down to the present. Each of these new material structures re-affirmed the intellectual narrative of African-American inferiority, and each time one of them has been destroyed, the underlying narrative has remained.  It’s like a continually twisting double-helix.  This last point is not my own: it’s one Michelle Alexander makes very powerfully in the final chapter of The New Jim Crow called “The Fire This Time”.

So if we just see “slavery” as something that “ended” in 1865, we fail to understand the persistent narrative impact it has had upon America.  If we just see slavery as something to “condemn” we “fail to understand the evolution of the human race.”  We fail to understand the way that its material reality created intellectual ones, which in turn created other material ones, on down to now.

Second, economically, we also fail to understand the economic impact that it had and has.  We know that the day slavery ended, African Americans had very little amassed wealth, whether we mean real estate, other owned property, liquid assets, stocks or bonds.  So long as the anti-black intellectual discourse remained,  each successive material manifestation worked deftly to prevent the accumulation of black wealth, and also (easy to forget) created more and more wealth for white people, a group of people who were already economically ahead because of the enormous amount of capital generated directly by slave labor prior to 1865.  Each successive material manifestation of anti-blackness has meant more extraction of capital from black bodies into white people’s bank accounts.  The surface-level material form changes, but the extraction is constant.  Again, this not my own point – this one I took from this talk by Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Third, our political institutions.  Slavery was such an economic boon to both the north and the south that at the time of the founding of our country, there was no way it was going to be abolished, as obvious as the contradiction was between slavery and the ideals the founders allegedly believed in.  The three-fifths compromise, the promise not to end the slave trade for twenty more years, the electoral college, the senate, the fight over westward expansion, compromising one state at a time– all of these things happened because the north was unwilling to surrender the profits its manufacturers could make based on the steady supply of free labor in the form of slavery it had come to expect from the south.  And even when the civil war ended, and the 14th amendment seemed to pave the way towards a new form of equality and social contract, it didn’t take long (DuBois makes this point really well in the chapter of The Souls of Black Folk called “Of the Dawn of Freedom”) for the old ideology to re-establish its grip, and the institutions to revert to form.

We must understand how slavery “evolved,” to return to Woodson’s words, to truly understand our social reality – our country’s thinking, its economic and its political structures.  It’s not enough to say “it’s bad and it was in the past.”  We totally miss its impact if that’s how we see it.

And though what I’m saying here is all in the context of the enslavement of African-Americans, and the discourse of intellectual inferiority that grew up around them and the economic and political implications of that discourse, similar stories can be told about each of the other “wedges” of that pie chart I included above.

  • (material) Native American genocide coupled with the (intellectual) vision of the Native American as a savage
  • (material) anti-Latinx colonial expansion coupled with the (intellectual) perception of Latinx as “tainted mestizos”
  • East Asian labor exploitation and political repression coupled with the vision of East Asians as perpetually foreign
  • South Asian/Middle Eastern Americans indefinitely imprisoned and unfairly searched in airports coupled with the vision of them as “marauding infidels”
  • perhaps most significantly, White people’s exploitative wealth accumulation worked hand in hand with the intellectual vision of White people as intellectually and socially superior.

I talked about slavery at greater length because I know more about it, but the outlines of each of these bullet points should be clear enough that you can see where I’m coming from.

And that is what I mean when I say that life in the United States is characterized by a system of white supremacy: there is a mutually reinforcing network of historically rooted material and intellectual structures that make it so that, all other things equal, it is easier to be white in America – if you are born white in this country, chances are, you will live longer and healthier, hold more wealth, have better access to almost everything than if you are born a person of color.  PLEASE NOTE: I am not saying every white person’s life is easier than every person of color’s life.  I am only saying that, if we keep other factors (like income, or place of residence) equal, white people will have it easier.  Because we have developed a long-term economic, social and intellectual commitment to their superiority.

To bring it back to the idea of the earth and the sun: people who believed in geocentrism knew the facts about Mercury and Venus’s orbits looking different than Mars’ and Jupiter’s, but they didn’t understand the significance of them.  A closer examination of their orbital paths, along with a set of other insights, led some scientists later to realize that the earth goes around the sun.  My argument is that a whole set of historical events, narratives and structures, rather than being anomalous and unusual in the history of the United States, are actually the core experience – that’s something that I think a lot of people of color just realize, because it happened to them and their ancestors, but it’s something a lot of white people, like me, need to come to see.

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What is White Supremacy? Does it Exist? One try at explaining these questions

 Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations. (James Baldwin, “A Letter to My Nephew,” 1962)

Short answers:

What is white supremacy?  It’s a system (or set of systems) that systemically advantages white people at the expense of people of color.

Does it exist?  Yes it does.

Before a longer answer, a couple of disclaimers:

1) I have thought a lot about these questions and am pretty clear on the answers in my head. And yet when I’m asked by someone who does not see it like I do, I’m almost at a loss for words.  Not in a bad way, it’s just humbling.  It’s a weird feeling.  It feels a little like being asked whether earth revolves around the sun.  I don’t mean that in a dismissive or trivializing way.  I mean it’s the kind of thing that once you see, you can’t un-see, but before you have, it’s easy to miss.  And once you see it even for a moment, it can be terrifying (hence Baldwin’s language).

2) I think the question of the existence of white supremacy will likely sound insane to many, many people of color.  Like, how could you even ask?  And so it’s really tempting for me, a white guy who thinks he gets it, to be smug and sarcastic when confronted with someone who thinks that white supremacy is not a force in our world.  And I have been smug about this, especially when discussing it semi-anonymously on the internet.  Like I said, this will seem insane to many people of color that it could be a question.  But I have also spoken with many people of color who have said things like (paraphrasing) “it’s crazy there are people out there who don’t believe it exists, but it your job [i.e. white people’s who do think it does] to find the other white people who think it doesn’t, and it’s your job not to give up on them until you’ve gotten them to see things as they are.”  I take this charge seriously, and many people I have known and cared about, as well as many public intellectuals whose work I have read, watched and listened to, have laid it upon me and all the other, as Baldwin calls them elsewhere “well-meaning white people.”

3)  This is such a complex question that the best way I can think to handle it is to try to answer it in a lot of different ways.  Since my first recourse in life is often intellectual/abstract, I’m trying an abstract way here.  It’s probably too abstract and doesn’t prove too much.  I’ll try others later.

Okay, disclaimers done.  Now for the much harder part.

What is white supremacy?

I was at an anti-racism workshop a few years ago.  It met at a Catholic Seminary.  It was expertly facilitated by a black woman and a white woman.  The black woman asked us to turn to a blank paper in our packet, and said “what is white supremacy?  Draw the first thing that comes to mind.”  I am bad at drawing.  It’s actually the thing I’m the worst at in this world.  My 3 year old is only a little bit worse at drawing than I am.  But I thought for a second, and drew a stick-figure KKK member.  He had a triangular head, a trapezoidal body, and four single-line ball-point-penned limbs.

When I was younger, and I heard people talk about “white supremacist organizations,” I figured I knew what they meant.  And a lot of times, when people use the phrase, “white supremacy,” they in fact do use it to describe the KKK, Neo-Nazis, etc.  And so if that is what White Supremacy means, well then, sure, it exists, but it is hardly a prevailing force in the world.  By this I don’t mean that those groups and the violence and harm they have inflicted is trivial–it’s not–I only mean that they do not rule the world and (though this is less true than it was even 18 months ago) they are nowhere close to ruling the world.  The governing norms of our society are not the KKK’s or the Neo-Nazis’.

But that’s not what I mean by white supremacy when I say, self-assuredly, that white supremacy exists.  But what do I mean?  And why am I so sure it’s real?

Like I said, it’s really hard to know where to start.  In fact, in the anti-racism protocol we use at my school, the question I’m writing about right now is the last one I’m supposed to tackle, the hardest one, the final of six “conditions” which need to apply to make a space (a individual’s head-space, a classroom, a curriculum school, a neighborhood, a city, a state, a nation, a world) anti-racist – to be able to recognize the role of “whiteness” within that space.

So maybe “what is white supremacy” is not the best place to start.  Maybe instead I should try to explain the previous 5 “conditions” first, and the 4 “agreements” that are supposed to precede them.  But that all gets so theoretical and abstract so quickly, and so jargon-filled, it will sound circular and question-begging to someone who doesn’t see it that way.

And also, maybe a written monologue isn’t the best way to do this either.  Because these things change in people’s minds in dialogue, in lived experience, in conversation, workshop, argumentation, not just from sitting and reading.

But I honestly believe part of what let me, as a white person, to come to understand this, WAS reading, and abstract, intellectual explanations (part, but not all).  So I don’t want to set that aside entirely.

So here: this isn’t proof, nor is it meant to be, but one thing I can do right now is provide an alternative definition.  What is white supremacy?  It’s not a group of men in white sheets in The Birth of a Nation.  It’s not a cadre pseudo-military dimwits haplessly chasing Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi across the screen in The Blues Brothers.  

It’s something much more complicated (in some ways) but also, much more visceral and simple (in others).  I started off by comparing this to the question of whether the earth goes around the sun.  Here’s what I meant: there were (and still are – in obscure corners of the internet) geocentric astronomers.

[Okay, what follows is not real intellectual history – I’ve read accounts that were much more precise and responsible to the facts – I’m haphazardly summarizing to make an analogy]

Prior to the 16th century, the Catholic church’s official position was that geocentrism was true: that the earth was at the center of the universe.  Now, if you try to do astronomy while maintaining that the earth is at the center of the universe, you have trouble doing basic calculations.  You can account for some planets’ motions, but not others.  The moon makes a whole bunch of sense; the sun less so.  But as long as you believe the earth is at the center of things, you can work and work and work to do science on that premise.  People did (at least some people did) for hundreds of years.  And they didn’t totally fail.  Every theory has problems, and the role of science normally is to try to solve those problems.  If you accept relativity and quantum physics (neither theory is now seen as simplistic of obviously wrong) you have problems too.  There is no airtight theory of everything now either.

So when people urging the heliocentric model came along, they weren’t just ushered in as truth-tellers.  The geocentric tradition thought it might be rash to just go changing everything.  They thought they could explain planetary motion if they kept working at it.  This is where the idea of “epicycles” comes in.  The idea is that you can explain phenomena in less-than-intuitive ways as long as you’re willing to invent more and more exceptions (theories of epicycles) and write them into your theory.  From a heliocentric perspective, we have a very clear way of explaining why Venus and Mars appear to behave differently – one is closer to the sun than Earth, the other is farther.  But if you’re a geocentrist, you don’t have that.  So you start to say “some heavenly bodies work like X” (i.e., Mercury, Venus), “others work like Y” (the other planets) and still others work like Z” (the sun) “and others like W” (the stars).  In retrospect, the reason we see those categories as all needing to exist is because of their relationship to the sun, but if you don’t think the sun is in the middle, there is more work you need to do to explain them.  It becomes your work to explain why W, X, Y, and Z make sense as separate categories.

One more point about all that: geocentrism didn’t just die because all of the sudden everyone saw it was wrong.  It took generations to die, and still isn’t entirely gone (though it is gone from respectable science).  When we’re talking at the level of such major premises for theories, it’s not just all based on “the facts.”  Replacing a major premise with a different major premise requires lots of other things to change.

So asking whether or not white supremacy exists is a lot more like asking whether the sun is at the center of the universe, than whether the sky is blue.  That latter question can be answered by simply pointing and explaining “see, that’s blue.”  We could quibble about the meaning of “blue” but that’s not the point.  It’s a short leap from the fact of the appearance of the sky towards “the sky is blue.”  If you didn’t know any science, have a telescope, or otherwise have ever investigated too deeply, and pointed to the sun and said “are we going around that, or is that going around us?” you’d be asking a real question, one that couldn’t be easily answered.

It is easy, as a white person in the United States, not to know that white supremacy exists.  It’s so all-pervasive, so omnipresent, and it gives us so many advantages, advantages that we would rather not give us, that we don’t know to look for it, and we don’t really want to.  But to get to the point of being able to see it requires a ton of work.

To which it’s fair to ask, “well why should I do that work?  Why contort myself into all these weird ways of thinking if the world works perfectly well for me now?”  Which a non-astronomer could also fairly say to the person insisting that even though it looks like the sun goes around the earth, it doesn’t.  You could go on being an ordinary person and never really know the truth about the sun and the earth.  But think about how much more the human race has been able to do once it recognized the complexity of the astronomical situation. Think about how much other science, technology, math, philosophy, etc, flowed out once geocentrism was seen as overly simplistic and out of line with the data.

I am saying that being able to see and respond to white supremacy is a similarly productive change, just in society, rather than science.  I know I haven’t proven that here, but I’m asking you to take it on faith that this is a journey I have tried to take, and if I’m doing a bad job of explaining how I got there, all I’m asking you to believe right now is that it feels as important.  Which is, I believe, why James Baldwin (a much more gifted writer than I) chose the analogy with which I began.

Like I said, I am going to try to get at this question from a bunch of angles.  This is just the first one that occurred to me.  It’s probably not the best one.

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George Pelecanos’s DC Quartet

I started reading George Pelecanos novels because he was one of the writers on HBO’s The Wire.  Specifically, he gets the writing credit on the episode that has what still feels to me, 15 years later, like the saddest moment I have ever watched on television, and perhaps the truest evocation of the catharsis of tragedy I have ever encountered: the second-to-last episode of the first season, on which an until-then not-really-central character is murdered by his friends.  Pelecanos also wrote the second-to-last episode of the 3rd season, where something very similar happens, arguably with even greater heft.   In my mind, Pelecanos’s name came to hold such power that when I was watching season 4, and the opening credits finished, and it said “Written by George Pelecanos” I became scared  and sad , because I suspected something profoundly tragic was going to go down (it did).

I figured that anyone who could have written those moments for television, it was worth reading what they could write in a novel.  Continue reading

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The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics – George Lipsitz

Created by politics, culture, and consciousness, our possessive investment in whiteness can be altered by those same processes, but only if we face the hard facts openly and honestly and admit that whiteness is a matter of interests as well as attitudes, that it has more to with property than with pigment.

It’s often said that white people talking to white people is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for dismantling racism in the United States.  The Possessive Investment in Whiteness is an entry into this discussion.  George Lipsitz identifies his own social location, making connections to his upbringing as white, Jewish, and middle class, while he delivers a critical understanding of how racism works through the exploration of the idea of whiteness.  The principal move he makes in this book is to posit whiteness not only, or even primarily, as a set of attitudes, but instead also as a set of possessions: first, there is the literal possession of real estate (and other attendant) forms of material wealth that are distributed racially unequally in the United States.  Continue reading

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We Were Eight Years in Power: American Tragedy – Ta-Nehisi Coates

I have read 40 books this year.  This one was the best.  You should read it.

If you are a White liberal and you think you know what “identity politics” means and are very clear about why you think it’s a “distraction” from “more pressing economic concerns,” I implore you, as one who used to be among your number, to read this book and let it change your mind.

I say that as someone who had read some the essays collected in this volume.  At the outset,  I was wondering whether it would be worth my time.  Continue reading

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

I believe this is the first book labelled as “Young Adult” I have ever read – when I was a kid, when I was a young adult, now.  It’s not that when I was younger I read lots of “grownup” books – it’s more that I didn’t read.  It’s also not that I have anything against them now, it just hadn’t happened yet.  40 seems like as a good year as any to break that streak.

I read this because two of my classes wanted to read it.  Actually, two of my classes wanted to re-read it.  A good number of them read it when they were freshmen.  Which is interesting in itself – when given a choice among books to read in this unit (since it’s a unit about Native American literature, our Book Distribution Center owns three titles, two by Serman Alexie, so not really much of a choice), they picked this.  Some teachers react with cynicism – like the kids are just trying to get out of work.  I see it differently: this is a text they are comfortable with, one they are willing to learn more from.  And since the kid I spend the most time with right now is 3, I know that “re-reading” is sort of the point.  I have literally read Green Eggs and Ham nearly one hundred times.  Sam doesn’t like it any less time #47 that #1 – in fact, he probably likes it much more now.  And to be more “grownup” again, when I go to church, it’s not like I tune out during the Bible readings because they come back every few years.  Again, in a different way, that’s sort of the point.

Usually when I read books because someone else wants me to, I experience it as a huge burden.  That didn’t happen here.  For the first few pages, I felt that tug, Continue reading

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The Intuitionist

Sometime last year I read The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s speculative historical fictional piece which asks what if that railroad were a railroad, and underground?  That premise opened up into a very present-regarding look at how people and social structures work (or don’t) under oppressive conditions.  It also had a sense of the uncanny about it – that though the premise was absurd its descriptions felt visceral and real.

So I thought I’d read something else by Whitehead, and found The Intuitionist.  If you tore the cover off of this book, and I read it in some kind of blind taste-test situation, I am quite sure I would have insisted that the first 50 pages had been written by David Foster Wallace.   Continue reading

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The Handmaid’s Tale

This was one of those books I ended up reading because is has recently been made into a movie (actually TV show).  But I’ve done this before – decided to read something because other people were watching it (then I usually don’t see the movie/show) .  I remember reading Sense and Sensibility for the first time when the Emma Thompson movie came out.  I also read this because a friend of mine and I have this book group (a book group of two, but a book group nonetheless).  This is also definitely one of those “should have read” kind of books, considering how often it comes up, and that it’s more than 30 years old.

The first thing I want to say was my friend’s idea, not mine, but he’s absolutely right: this is a book in which the actual events are fictional, but in which almost  everything included, save for a couple of awkward physical details, has happened in some place or time, just not all together.   Continue reading

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Autumn – Karl Ove Knausgaard

For some reason, Volume 6 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle has been delayed until next year.  Having read and enjoyed the first five (I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed with them – they’re good, I like reading them, I look forward to the final volume), I turned to Autumn not knowing what to expect.  It’s still in the first-person, and that person is still apparently Karl Ove himself, still talking about the family and friends he’s written about in My Struggle.  

The biggest difference is that rather than the extended, digressive and time-hopping Proustian personal saga of those volumes, we have here their seeming opposite: 2-3 page prose poems about various mundane subjects like “bottles” and “cans,” or more affecting ones, like “eyes” or “death.”

Now the “prose poem” is a suspect genre itself, a slippery middle stance memorably satirized by David Foster Wallace.  And there is some that is worthy of that satire here – the pattern itself does wear thin sometimes as we move from totally quotidian, exacting description of, say, a stick of gum, and then moving onward to a final, overreaching generalization about life and finitude.  There is actually a moment where anyone who lived through the late 90’s will wonder if American Beauty is actually being quoted directly when Knausgaard writes these words:

One of the most beautiful things I have ever seen was a plastic bag adrift in the water beyond a jetty on an island far out at sea (18).

In American Beauty this moment was clever because it allowed us to chuckle just a little at the naive teenage idealism of its speaker, but what can we do with it here?   Continue reading

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Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Though more than 1.3 billion people live in China, I am embarrassed to say that Do Not Say We Have Nothing is one of three books I’ve read that have any sustained connection to that country.  The other two are The Joy Luck Club and The Hundred Secret Senses, both by Amy Tan.  And I’m not 100% I read those all the way through.

All of which is to say that when I started to read Do Not Say We Have Nothing, I had some trouble acquainting myself with simple things, like naming conventions and geography.  The book does present itself as a puzzle, at least initially, so I don’t think my confusion was all attributable to my ignorance about China.  The book is coiled up, its time sequence spiraling rather than progressing linearly, and so initially, characters are presented in a confusing jumble that over time comes into focus.  Though I usually pride myself on not needing help, I did spend some time flipping to the family tree in the front.

If you stretched out that coil and rearranged the events (which would, of course, vitiate the effect of reading the book) what you’d see before you would be, in some ways, a conventional family-cultural saga like War and Peace, stretching from the 1948 civil war, through the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and Tienanmen Square massacre.  It is narrated by the daughter of one of the principal characters, whose family has since immigrated to Canada.  The title is an ironic invocation of a line from a Communist Party song, and hovers ambiguously over the book’s pages, playing with meaning in suggestive but unresolved layers. Continue reading

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