Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween, Offensive Costumes & Honoring our Ancestors

As the end of October draws near and we move into November and the colder, darker months of the year (for those of us in the Northern hemisphere), death is all around us.  Where I live the leaves turn fiery shades of red, orange, and yellow and fall to the ground. The killing frost turns our gardens from vibrant green to shades of brown and black. Kitchens are (hopefully) abundant with apples and winter squash. Canadian geese depart, flying south for the winter. Even if our cupboards are full with food to last us through the snowstorms and other uncertainties of winter, in our bones we remember a sense of scarcity, the threat of not making it through the barren months of the year. It's the season of grief and of letting go. And in this time of death, two cultures separated by an ocean and a sea celebrate the ancestors.

In Mexico, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated only a day or two after Ireland's Samhain (pronounced sow-en), the pagan roots of the modern day Halloween. Personally I was not raised with these traditions. I dressed up as monsters and genies for Halloween, carved pumpkins, and went to my old babysitter's for popcorn balls and my neighbor's for candied apples. I was unaware that these festivities, though they changed over time, were derived from traditions from my own ancestry.

Beginning to attend Samhain gatherings and seeing the connections between the autumn season of loss and letting go, honoring my ancestors at this time just felt right. Once my grandmother and then my grandfather, and most recently my herbal teacher, passed through to the other side, honoring my ancestors became much more tangible for me. Rather than lighting candles for those whom I had never met, I now created altars with their photos, surrounded by objects of theirs that were left to me or that I knew that they would like. Since both Grammy and Pop-pop had a sweet tooth, I leave them chocolates and candies. During Samhain, it's said that the veil between the living and the dead is the thinnest than all other times of the year and it's common for our ancestors to visit us in dreams. This is a time of remembrance, grief, and celebration. In a culture that fears death and most often avoids it altogether, creating space to honor our beloved dead feels healing, grounding, and timeless to me. Though Dia de los Muertos celebrations are new to me, it seems that there are strong similarities between these celebrations and Samhain. From what I've been told and shown, people in Mexico (and other countries as well, but most of my friends who celebrate Dia de los Muertos are from Mexico) create gorgeous altars filled with cempasúchil (Tagetes marigolds, also known as 'Flor de Muerto' or Flower of Death) and other flowers, sugar skulls, photos, candles, and other objects to remember and honor loved ones who have died. Like Samhain, this is a time of both reverence and celebration.

Dia de los Muertos altars.

Now, these practices are in stark contrast to mainstream U.S. Halloween culture. At a time where many people honor those who have gone before us and shaped who we are today - both those directly in our lives and those who lived many generations ago long before we arrived - common sights that directly disrespect the cultures and peoples that many of us descend from can cut particularly deep. Ridiculous Halloween decorations such as this:

Decoration of a witch who's
flown into a telephone pole.

may provide entertainment for some, for me it reminds me of witch burnings. It reminds me that there is much of my heritage that I did not receive - that's been lost forever - as it was burned up with those who were systematically targeted, tortured, and executed by the many-thousands or millions, depending on the source. (See Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, 1973. Text here. This is just one time period in one place on the planet, witch-hunts have happened in many times and places.)  Though witches historically have been, and continue to be, healers/herbalists in their communities, in stories, films, and Halloween costumes, they are portrayed as ugly, mean and sometimes green-faced old women.  Problematic representation for many reasons - ie anti-woman, ageist, anti-pagan.

Last year during Halloween-Samhain-Dia de los Muertos-time I saw Colorlines' "Seven Racist Costumes to Avoid This Halloween" post, which validating my gut-reactions to costumes such as "Afro" wigs, dressing as "a Mexican" or "Redneck," not to mention Blackface.  These are a few examples of the costumes that perpetuate racist and classist ideas - "exoticizing" entire groups of people, reinforcing and perpetuating stereotypes, and making light of the very real and ugly realities of racism and classism in this country. Just glancing briefly over those seven examples fills my mind with stories and images - Eurocentric ideals of beauty, Black women forced to straighten their hair to keep a job and/or be taken seriously while non-Black folks try on Afro wigs just for fun, "White trash" parties at my college where rich white kids would act out what they thought poor white folks did/ate/talked like, Life-threatening border crossing through lands that used to all be part of Mexico and indigenous long before that, Indigenous groups denied sovereignty and the right to practice their spiritual traditions (check out Native Appropriations: But Why Can't I Wear a Hipster Headdress?), The history of blackface and lynching in the U.S., I could go on and on...

That this season is a time for honoring the lives of our ancestors and their struggles, makes these costumes even more offensive. That this country has done little to remedy in any way the legacy of colonization, slavery, stolen land, and genocide that it was founded upon, how can anyone possibly dismiss these concerns, telling others to "lighten up" and "stop making a big deal out of nothing." These costumes are just one visual manifestation of the poison of racism (and classism, xenophobia, sexism, etc.), and the discussions around them can veer off into a debate on so-called free speech that lacks any sense of history and accountability, or they can help to raise difficult, painful, and potentially liberating conversations around power, privilege, representation, culture, history, and ancestry. (To read some dialogue, see Can Your Halloween Costume Be Racist, Even If You Aren’t?)

In response to Blackface, Geisha, Indian/Native American, Middle Easterners-as-terrorists, and other offensive costumes that perpetuate stereotypes and misinformation, a student group at Ohio University, Students Teaching About Racism in Society (S.T.A.R.S.) launched a We are a Culture, Not a Costume campaign:

When exploring difficult topics, it's often easy to get lost in words, where personal stories get drowned out or twisted by media misrepresentation and misinformation, and statistics and studies are used to justify and uphold unexamined and racist perspectives. These images from the campaign get straight to the heart of what is so offensive about racist costumes and the entitlement/defensiveness that is often part of the reaction to these issues being raised. In a culture where a disproportionate number of people of color are targeted by law enforcement/the school-to-prison pipeline/the prison industrial complex, where the mainstream media usually tokenizes people of color (the foreign Asian student, the Arab terrorist, the dangerous Black man, the submissive Asian woman, etc.) or excludes them altogether, and where white people/corporations profit off of the culture of communities of colors, racism is an explosive topic.

As a white person, I can only speak to other white folks on this matter. There's no right thing to say about all this and there's no way to fix it all overnight. What I've found the most helpful is to, first, listen. When someone's upset about something that you've said or done, especially if that person is part of an oppressed group (someone who is a person of color, has a disability, or is working-class, queer, transgender, etc.) and you're part of a privileged group (white, straight, cis-gender (non-transgender), (temporarily) able-bodied, middle/upper-class, etc.), just start by listening. It's common to become reactive and want to explain what you did. There's this cultural belief that if you didn't intend to cause harm that you're somehow automatically absolved from taking responsibility for the harm your words or actions may cause. This is not the case. Freedom of speech does not mean being able to do or say what you want without any kind of accountability. It's easy to get defensive and write someone off as being over-sensitive or angry.  However, in a culture that encourages and values the voices of certain people (the privileged groups listed above) while excluding and silencing others (the oppressed groups above), we've got some serious self-reflection and re-education to do.  And sometimes it can feel endless and overwhelming.  However, though we may not be commonly taught about it and it may sometimes be difficult to remember, there's a long legacy of resistance of people from all ethnicities/ancestries. For me, part of honoring my ancestors includes actively joining the many who are working for racial justice, a movement that stretches back through time and forward into the future.


For those who are interested in listening, learning, and digging deeper, I suggest these two books that I've learned a lot from and am re-reading:  "Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity by Beverly Daniel Tatum and  Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice by Paul Kivel.

Unsure if your Halloween costume idea might be offensive?  Check out this poster from Hampshire (College) Halloween:

Have you been called-out for wearing an offensive/racist costume?!  Here' s a great video by Chescaleigh on how to apologize. 

Day of The Dead Pilgrimage/Peregrinación del Día de Los Muertos ~Remembering the Dead, a project of Coalición de Derechos Humanos.  "Each year on the Day of the Dead we host a pilgrimage to commemorate the migrant lives lost in the desert. We want to ensure we honor the unidentified, to say the names of those who have been named, and, to not forget. We will walk with crosses, each of which represents the number of remains found in the Arizona desert and recorded by the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office."   2017 event info here.

Photo by Brenda Norrell

"Is Your Halloween Costume Racist?" Flowchart by College Humor. 
Click on this link to see a larger version.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Challenging Columbus Day

I probably shouldn't be surprised that Columbus Day is still celebrated. I think it's important that he be remembered. What completely shocks and appalls me is that he is still celebrated as a hero, that internet searches turn up biographies that are straight out of 3rd grade book reports that are regurgitated from history books written solely from the colonizer's perspective, describing this "explorer" as the forward-thinking man who proved that the world was not flat (while people had known the earth was round for centuries). The cycle of misinformation continues and continues, warping our perceptions of the foundations of the United States. If any of the very words of Columbus and his crew are even included in textbooks and history classes, they're cherry picked for condescending, dominating, assumptive descriptions of the land and people that he supposedly "discovered." The tales of rape and enslavement of the indigenous people of the lands he invaded are not mentioned. The mass genocide and torture don't make it into the book reports.

Being in grade school in 1992, bombarded by "500 years of Discovery!" in class and the "500 years of Catholicism" Boy/Girl scout retreat, there was no acknowledgment of the of what these five centuries have meant for the many indigenous nations that were in the Americas and Caribbean long before European invasions. I happened to be in eighth grade that year, the year when an entire quarter of the school year was devoted to Christopher Columbus. My classmates studied and presented on the music and fashion of that time. My friend (who has indigenous ancestry on her mother's side) and I (who's Pilgrim ancestors enslaved indigenous peoples) collaborated to paint another perspective. We created a mural and painted it at the front of our history class, where all the students could see. Rather than the common Eurocentric view - from the boat's vantage point, perceiving the exoticized lands and peoples that they encountered, we showed an indigenous person with the boats arriving behind them, and lined either side of the mural with bloody handprints. Somehow, despite what we were learning in school, we knew that what we were being taught was not the truth. Somehow, we not only designed the mural, we were allowed to paint it and I believed it stayed up for a few years, too.

This mural's image (and its message - that there are other perspectives, more stories than what we're commonly taught) that my friend and I created should not be a tiny current against the glossed- over miseducation we receive in our culture and its schools. While I'm glad that we offered another, more accurate perspective to what we were surrounded by, this pro-conquistador misinformation is unfortunately what is still being taught and celebrated twenty years later. While it's important that the teachers, parents, mentors, and other adults in childrens' lives who are concerned with truthful history and challenging racism speak up about the truth about Columbus, it's not only youth that need to be schooled.

The mainstream history taught in schools and the media glorifies and justifies (both through its lessons and its omissions) racism, imperialism, genocide, rape culture, misogyny, homophobia, and other forms of oppression. Unless we consciously and collectively re-educate ourselves, listen to our elders and learn history from those who lived it, seek out the voices of those who are systematically silenced, and share truthful, inclusive information with each other, we will continue to hold, and be held-down by, misinformation that seeks to divide us.

Below I've included some of my favorite truth-about-Columbus resoures - an article, video, and many images. Please share these resources with teachers, students, neighbors, classmates, parents/guardians, children, youth, co-workers, and others in your life. Please also leave comments with other resources that you've drawn upon and would like others to know about and share.

Columbus Day Celebration? Think Again article 

Reconsider Columbus Day!

In these time of racist anti-immigrant laws running rampant through our country and creating inSecure Communities, asking questions about who "belongs" here, whose land this is, the history that we're taught about the past and the present, becomes more and more important. Where are your ancestors from? If they are not indigenous to this land then how did they get here? Why did they come? How were they received? What laws discriminated against them or benefited them? What laws discriminate against you and your family and friends or benefit you and your loved ones? How many generations have you been on this land? How does the history of colonization in the US affect you? How do militarized borders affect you? What peoples in your communities are silenced due to racism, colonization, and militarized borders?

Please see previous Dandelioness Herbals blog post:
*(Im)migration and Lip Balms for Social Justice?!

Invaders Weekend/ Day of Indigenous Resistance additions:

Transform Columbus Day Alliance site.
Unitarian Universalist Associations' Indigenous Peoples Day site.
A Guide to Celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day by Taylor Payer

Mural by: MEChA, University of Wyoming, from Frank's wall, depicting the effects of the invasion of Mexico by Spaniard Hernan Cortes. Effects which continue today across not only Mexico, but all of the Americas.

Venezuelans in Caracas tear down the statue of Christopher Columbus on Columbus Day and rename it the Day of Indigenous Resistance.


English-Only what?! Check out this map of the major linguistic groups in what is now known as North America (Canada, US, and Mexico) and the Caribbean.  (See 'So You Want to Learn Spanish?! Hooray! English-only, No Way!' post)

Additional Images and links posted Oct 2012 and 2015

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Sweet Truth About Bitters

Angostrura bitters (originally from Venezuela, now made in Trinidad & Tobago), and Advertisement from 1883 defines bitter as:

adjective, -er, -est, noun, verb, adverb

1. having a harsh, disagreeably acrid taste, like that of aspirin, quinine, wormwood, or aloes.

2. producing one of the four basic taste sensations; not sour, sweet, or salt.

3. hard to bear; grievous; distressful: a bitter sorrow.

4. causing pain; piercing; stinging: a bitter chill.

5. characterized by intense antagonism or hostility: bitter hatred.

Common expressions, like the above definitions, carry negative connotations:

to the bitter end

bitter sweet
the bitter truth
bitter pill to swallow
bitter enemy

Some cultures have maintained the practice of imbibing bitter drinks or eating bitter greens before, or sometimes after, meals. Taking bitters before eating sends signals to the body that food will soon be on its way. Our mouth salivates and our gastric juices start flowing. Our digestion slows down so that we're able to absorb more nutrients from our fuel, the food that we eat. Even the mere act of having a ritual before eating helps promote good digestion, because we take pause to be present and acknowledge that we're preparing to nourish our bodies with food.  Or at least send food down the hatch.

This is a far cry from the mainstream US model of eating - on the run, in the car, barely chewing, or skipping meals altogether. One of the most important lessons I've learned about digestion is: Our stomachs do not have teeth! We are not meant to inhale food like a Hoover and send it to our stomachs barely chewed. Rather, we're meant to sit still (not in front of the computer!), chew, breath, and masticate - break down our food mechanically with our teeth and then later further breaking the food down chemically, with our body's digestive juices. Eating fast and not chewing properly gets us off to a bad start. And we could be eating the most gorgeous, homegrown/farmers' market-fresh, local, etc. foods, but if we don't digest it properly, much of that nourishment is going straight through us and out the other end.

The simple act of taking a few dropperfuls of bitters before each meal can remedy much of the digestional mayhem that many of us experience. And even if you don't experience digestional distress, some of us experience secondary effects of not absorbing our foods' nutrients, which bitters can help get to the root of.

Though the taste's importance is often forgotten or unknown, many are continuing or reviving the practice of taking bitters before meals.  L
ast week I attended an event hosted by Urban Moonshine, where clinical herbalist Guido Masé gave a presentation about the importance bitters. While I had previously learned about the value of bitters and how the mainstream US diet is generally lacking in it, I hadn't thought before about how this is connected with the US obsession with sweetness. When I think of sweetness, I think of honey from my friends' hives, sweet potatoes and winter squash, and maybe a bit of local maple syrup. In general, though, sweetness in the US means refined sugar, which historically has meant plantations, slavery, and exploitative global trade. With the advent of high fructose corn syrup, this domestic sweetness directly correlates with rises in diabetes and malnutrition that comes not through lack of food, but through lack of nutrients in the food we eat. Guido connected this rise in sugars in the US diet with the monocropping in the corn belt, where entire states grow this subsidized grain almost exclusively. Removing the bitterness from our diet leaves our collective sweet tooth unchecked. 

I don't eat much refined sugar, but I used to. When I stopped I was able to appreciate the natural sweetness of roasted root crops like beets and sweet potatoes. Now, once I start eating foods that contain refined sugar it's often hard to stop. Just one more, maybe another, and there you go, you're laying on the floor, surrounded by only crumbs and an empty cookie jar next to you.  Okay, it may not regularly get that dramatic (or it may...), but it's quite common to eat sweets far past the point of indulging in a little something special.  Sugar is addictive. Taking bitters can curb those sweet cravings and balance blood sugar. As Guido explained, when we don't take bitters, which challenge our bodies so that it can digest well, that challenge, that burden, is placed on the environment. Rows and rows of corn,* aisles and aisles of junk food. And it's not that we shouldn't enjoy some sweetness in our life, but that sweetness comes with great effort. Tasting a fresh piece of sugarcane reminds me of summer watermelons. It's quite different than refined white sugar. And sap straight from a maple tree only carries a hint of sweetness. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make just 1 gallon of maple syrup. (The real deal, not the artificially flavored Log Cabin stuff). And anyone who's watched blossoming Anise Hyssop and other pollinator-luring flowers knows that those honey bees work mighty hard gathering nectar that they transform into the thick amber honey that we humans gather for ourselves.

Thinking about the balance of bitter and sweet makes me think of my favorite Khalil Gibran quotation, from The Prophet, "The deeper that sorrow carves into your being the more joy you can contain." Whether it's the taste or the emotion, trying to have nothing but sweetness isn't real and can come at a great cost. We need the bitter to balance out the sweet, and we need the sweet to balance out the bitter.  

Dandelioness Herbals offers
Spring Tonic, a tincture that can be taken all year round, combining the bitter roots of Dandelion, Burdock, and Yellow Dock roots with juicy fresh Nettles and Maple sap!  And plain old (amazing!) whole Dandelion tincture on it own is a fabulous bitter.  Relaxing Bitters is made with Dandelion, Skullcap, and Lavender for those who need some calm when they eat.  Our nervous and digestive systems are entwined and calming the nerves can also help promote good digestion.   Bitters also support the liver, which plays an important role in processing our hormones.  Our livers work really hard by just existing in the world (ie exposure to pollution and chemicals, stress, not enough rest or nourishing foods) and greatly benefit from some bitter support.  For those who menstruate, supporting our livers with the regular use of bitters can help balance hormones throughout the menstrual cycle and ease or prevent PMS symptoms.  All Dandelioness Herbals bitter blends contain Dandelion flower essencewhich captures the radiance of this persistent and abundant blossom, and helps to release physical and emotional tension in the body and move stagnation.  

So, there's the sweet truth about bitters. They're good, we need them. So, go harvest some dandelion greens, go eat some arugula or lettuce, take a bitters blend. Feel what happens in your body - see if you salivate a bit, feel some rumbling in your stomach (it's saying "I'm ready, bring it on!), and over time see how it affects your cravings and your digestion. Happy feasting! ¡Buen provecho! Bon appetit! And as you pause before eating to take your bitters, feel free to give a moment of thanks for the many hands that labored to bring you your food - the farmer, the (migrant) farm worker, the trucker, the grocery store workers, the cook - as well as the sun and the water and the bees...

Freshly-harvested Dandelion roots and Burdock roots

Fresh juicy Nettles in Co. Sligo, Ireland and vibrant Dandelion blossoms 

For more info on Dandelions, see The Dandelions Are Here!

*=upon rereading this post, I've found that my relationship to corn is much different now than when I first wrote this.  I want to acknowledge corn as a nourishing food that is deeply intertwined with many cultures throughout the Americas.  Tamales and tortillas, atole and other nourishing foods and drinks, not to mention the ceremonial importance and use, is vastly different than the mainstream monocropping of corn and how it's most commonly ingested in mainstream US food - as high fructose corn syrup.  My intention is not to disrespect this plant or the cultures that value it deeply, but rather to note how in its processed form it has negative health effects.

(Some changes made, with photos and links added, Oct 2013, Nov 2014, & Nov 2015)