Just Us in 2021

I finished Claudia Rankine’s Just Us: An American Conversation yesterday (coincidentally on Martin Luther King Day). Just Us is once again a fascinating mix of poetry, art, criticism and (personal) essay on the current state of race and racism in the United States. The title is (probably) adapted from a Richard Pryor quote Rankine also uses as an epigraph: “You go down there looking for justice, that’s what you find, just us.”

Even more so than Citizen, Just Us is interested in conversations between Rankine and white people, and attempts to get closer to an understanding of whiteness (and its implications for BIPOC) in the USA in 2020. Rankine talks with white men in airports about white privilege, asks Black women and white women about the benefits of blonde hair, and investigates the liminal spaces these kinds of conversations create. 

These conversations are sometimes uncomfortable, mostly challenging and always crucial for white readers like me. The book, but particularly the last passage, will guide me through 2021, from the beginning of the Biden administration to the German federal elections: 

“The murkiness as we exist alongside each other calls us forward. I  don’t want to forget that I am here; at any given moment we are, each of us, next to any other capable of both the best and the worst our democracy has to offer.”

2020: Favorite Albums of the Year

Worriers – You or Someone You Know: The record that truly accompanied me through this year. Every song could be my song of the year – and I plan on playing Grand Closing at midnight. Happy fucking new year.

Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher: Probably the best album of the year (though I haven’t given Fiona Apple’s new album enough time yet) From lyrics to production to artwork, a nearly perfect record.

Dream Wife – So When You’re Gonna…: My new discovery of the year. Rock’n’roll! Dream Wife are the kind of band that makes you look forward to the future with more excitement. If I could choose a first show to go to after this pandemic, it would be either Dream Wife or ..

Touche Amore – Lament: A great, almost positive postcore album. Touche Amore is the best hardcore band atm and I’d drive far to see them live. And Reminders is oddly life-affirming (especially if you combine it with the video.) Don’t have the physical vinyl, yet.. 

NOFX/Frank Turner – West Coast vs. Wessex: The album my wife and I listened to the most together. I can’t believe Thatcher Fucked the Kids isn’t actually by NOFX, or Eat the Meek actually by Frank Turner. 

Also amazing:

Bright Eyes – Down in the weeds, where the world once was

Algiers – There Is No Year

Laura Jane Grace – Stay Alive

I’m Glad It’s You – Every Sun, Every Moon

Porridge Radio – Every Bad

Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You

Run the Jewels – RTJ4

What are your faves of the year?

Citizen: An American Lyric

“because white men can’t 

police their imagination

black men are dying”

I reread Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric recently. Published in 2014, this poetic, artistic snapshot of Black life in the US is stunning in its impact and intellectual heft. The book is decidedly not written for white men like me, and can, maybe should make white people uncomfortable. The combination of Rankine’s play with subject positions and the language’s poetic density makes me connect with the (narrative) voices. 

Citizen was The Stacks Podcast book of the month (part of the reason I reread it). I really recommend listening to the episode. Darnell Moore’s excellent critique of what is left invisible (queer, trans Black lives) and the strengths of indeterminacy really expanded my understanding of the book.

2020: Favorite Songs of the Year

Terrible, horrible, no good, very bad 2020 did have a lot of great songs as a soundtrack. Here are my top 10 favorite songs of the year: 

I Know the End by Phoebe Bridgers: In the year of Phoebe Bridgers, the closing track of her terrific album Punisher is also my favorite track of the year, and in my top 5 all-time closing album tracks. That crescendo at the end gets me every time, and I’ve caught myself wanting to primal-scream along often (including while at work.) 

Scram by Jeff Rosenstock: This year had a lot of frustrating moments, and the breakdown in Scram is a perfect antidote (unfortunately not a vaccine.) 

End of the World by Worriers: Basically every song on You or Someone You Know could be on this list, but End of the World is my favorite if you put a gun to my head. Or is it Big Feelings? Grand Closing? Definitely my favorite record of the year.

This Year by The Mountain Goats: “I will make it through this year if it kills me.”

Was Willst Du by Muff Potter: The surprising single by my all time favorite German band that was released while 2020 still seemed salvageable. A surprise album by Muff Potter would be a great start to 2021. Just saying. The singer Thorsten Nagelschmidt also wrote Arbeit, one of my favorite books of the year.

Ohh La La by Run the Jewels feat.Greg Nice & DJ Premier: Equal parts party and soundtrack-to-a-drug-dealer-getting-shot. Once the pandemic is over, I will open a case of champagne with all my friends to this. 

Normalization Blues by AJJ: The first song I’ve added to my running song of the year Spotify playlist. It’s the perfect acoustic punk song about the enraging normalization of facist discourse.

Thirteen by Bedouine, Waxahatchee, Hurray for the Riff Raff: This cover of the Big Star hit is the beautiful summer song of the year. Also melts the frustration away without being sugary-sweet.

Myths by I’m Glad It’s You: “And there’s a hallelujah/ And I’m learning how to sing/It’s a growing chorus/ bleeding into everything” I’ve lost count of how often I immediately hit repeat just to sing along with this chorus. 

Born Confused by Porridge Radio: I discovered Porridge Radio on Deutschlandfunk Kultur while driving home my mother-in-law’s car after our move ages ago last February. Is it confusing to happily sing “Thank you for leaving me/Thank you for making me happy” with your wife and “I’m bored to death/ Let’s argue” with a good friend? Yes. Guess I’m born confused.

Honorable mentions: 

Dream Wife – So When You Gonna…

John K. Samson – Fantasy Baseball At the End of the World

Laura Jane Grace – Old Friend (Stay Alive)

Tocotronic – Digital ist besser

Alanis Morrisette – Smiling

Fontaines D.C. – A Hero’s Death

Mavi Phoenix – Fck It Up

..and every other song on my “2020: Normalization Blues” Spotify Playlist.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

It’s not a hot take to say that 2020 was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year. Globally, nationally, regionally, for many personally. There are some slivers of hope – the vaccines, the US election – but also some signs that things won’t simply improve in 2021 – current transmissions rates in Europe, current discourse in Germany – but I pray that 2021 will be better.

I also hope that you’ll have yourself a merry little Christmas, if you celebrate it, and a couple of moments to recharge and gather strength in any case.

And the right soundtrack for the 2020 Christmas season comes from Phoebe Bridgers (who else could it be):

Lindau in November 2020

I need a break from the real world
I will live in social media now
Until I am a word of myself!
Away you fly from such a brow!

People are just as bad
They’ve known the world along that way
But rent is cheaper
Since your own life is a day.

A poem inspired byEmily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Sara Teasdale based on my most recent (English) tweet and composed with Google’s AI Verse by Verse.

(via twitter.)

Frank Turner and Jon Snodgrass: The Fleas

So here we are
finally on our knees
waiting for the world to shake us off
like a bad case of the fleas

With “The Fleas”, Frank Turner & Jon Snodgrass released a new song for the apocalypse. The song is from “Buddies II: Still Buddies”, a lovely, conversational record made by friends. It’s out now on Xtra Mile, and I think the vinyl is already sold out. Guess we’re all looking for friends who can soundtrack our apocalypse.

What White People Don’t Want to Hear (But Should Know) About Racism

“Doch die sogenannten Rassismuserfahrungen weißer Menschen sind nicht die gleichen, die ich mache. Wer zuvor gut aufgepasst hat, weiß, dass sich weiße Menschen selbst zu einer überlegenen Rasse erklärten. Diese Theorie trugen sie während der Kolonialisierung in fast jeden Winkel der Welt. Es stimmt also, dass weiße Menschen in diesen Momenten die Auswirkungen von Rassismus zu spüren kriegen, jedoch – anders als bei mir – nicht als Benachteiligte, sondern als priviligierte Person.”

[“But the so-called racism experiences of white people are not the same as the ones I experience. Anyone who has paid close attention before knows that white people declared themselves a superior race. They carried this theory to almost every corner of the world during the colonization. So it is true that white people feel the effects of racism in these moments, but – unlike me – not as a disadvantaged, but as a privileged person.”]

“Was weiße Menschen über Rassismus nicht hören wollen wollen aber wissen sollten” by German author Alice Hasters is an excellent, personal book on racism and an ideal introduction to the subject for white Germans. Anyone who has already dealt with the topic in the US American and British context will already be familiar with many of the elements and concepts presented, but the strength of the book is precisely the focus on German perspectives, e.g. the effects of German colonial history or the forms of everyday racism and microaggressions in Germany. It also goes into detail why prejudice against white people isn’t racism. I can really recommend the book to all German readers.

I read the book over the summer. The book has received a lot of attention in the last few days in Germany, after German comedian Dieter Nuhr spoke about it on his TV show. He claimed to have seen it in a book store at the airport and called the title racist against white people because it makes attributions based on skin colour. He also claimed the book hit was a big hit in the United States (so far it’s only been published in German) and that this kind of “pseudo-intellectual” discourse was one of the reasons Trumpism happened. In other words, he acted exactly like the kind of white person who should read this book, used his large ‘satirical’ plattform to punch down at a Black woman, and got offended by a slightly provocative title and piled onto an already existing, sub-complex critique of identity politics. Nuhr’s ignorance would be hilarious if it wasn’t so dangerous.

And while the quote I started with is the most topical this week (and the one I shared on instagram) the key quote for this book – and white people like Dieter Nuhr – is the closing paragraph:

“Sich mit der eigenen Identität und Rassismus auseinanderzusetzen, ist viel Arbeit, ist teilweise schmerzhaft und braucht Zeit. Soweit ich das bisher beurteilen kann, kann ich diesen Prozess aber nur empfehlen. So anstrengend und angsteinflößend er am Anfang auch scheinen mag – er macht glücklich. Und frei.”

“Dealing with your own identity and racism is a lot of work, is sometimes painful and takes time. As far as I can tell so far, I can only recommend this process. As exhausting and scary as it may seem at first, it makes you happy. And free.”

When Everything’s Made to Be Broken

Last week, on election day, Phoebe Bridgers promised to cover Iris by the Goo Goo Dolls if Trump lost. He lost (even if he doesn’t agree yet and Trumpists are busy smashing into the guardrails of democracy) and Phoebe Bridgers made good on her promise. She recorded the cover together with Maggie Rogers, and the song is available today only on bandcamp, and proceeds go to Stacy Abrams’ voting-rights and advocacy organization Fair Fight.

In other words, the songs ticks all the boxes of this blog’s wishlist.

Listen and pay-as-you-want on bandcamp.

The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

“So I just think about all the children who have been separated from their parents, and there’s a lot of us, past and present, and some under more traumatic circumstances than other – like those who are in internment camps right now – and I just imagine us as an army of mutants. We’ve been touched by this monster, and our brains are forever changed, and we all have trees without branches in there, and what will happen to us? Who will we become? Who will take care of us?”

The Undocumented Americans is a tremendous book, maybe the most important book of the year. The best part about the book is hat it’s not for white liberals like me, but for other members of her community.

Cornejo Villavicencio created a great, impactful blend of memoir and reporting, productively angry in a way that reminded me of Audre Lorde. This combination enables her to write so clearly about the systematic trauma and PTSD of the undocumented experience, the impact it has on kids and adults, on families. She makes it so obvious that the problem is so much bigger than Trump, more systemic. These issues depicted in this book will not magically disappear when Biden and Harris are elected, but their victory might set the country’s car back on its wheels, and writers and activists like Cornejo Villavicencio might be able to then influence the administration, and the US might inch forward instead of racing further back.

If you’re still reading this and are a US citizen, I sincerely hope you already cast your ballot. If not, what are you waiting for? It’s almost too late.