Race Writings 4: Where’d You Go, Robert E. Lee?

This is a piece that I wrote in 2017. I’m a little amazed at how relevant it is now, three years later.

Front Royal Confederate Memorial

The CSA Memorial in Front Royal, Virginia

Where’d You Go, Robert E. Lee?

            Dona Maria, queen of Portugal from 1777-1815, had a collection of little people. Most were gifts given to her by slave traders or conquistadors. Most were African, though at least one was Brazilian. All were slaves. In 1788, the queen commissioned artist José Conrado Roza to paint a work commemorating the marriage of her two favorite dwarf slaves. Dona Maria dressed the slaves in traditional wedding clothes. She dressed another of her dwarf slaves as a bishop to perform the ceremony. Three African dwarf slaves wear formal clothing and hold musical instruments: a flute, a tambourine. The Brazilian dwarf wears a grass skirt and feather headdress. He points a tiny bow and arrow at the loving couple. Also in the picture is a young boy who is about as tall as the dwarves. He wears only a tiny pair of shorts, leaving most of his skin visible, allowing the viewer to gaze at the pigment condition that afforded him the opportunity later in life to make a living as the sideshow act “Leopard Boy.”

Whether or not the marriage of the queen’s two favorite little people was real is in question. The title of the painting, “La Mascarade Nuptiale,” and the fourteen-year-old bishop suggest that the queen was just playing a game, dressing her slaves like dolls and holding the wedding ceremony as a lark. Roza didn’t title the painting “La Mascarade Nuptiale.” He called it “Portrait des nains de la Reine Marie du Portugal” or “Portrait of the Dwarves of Queen Mary of Portugal.” All we know about the slaves we know because Roza painted their biographies in the hems of their clothing.

Roza’s painting hangs in the Musée du Nouveau Monde in La Rochelle, France. La Rochelle sits on the Atlantic coast, midway between Nantes and Bourdeaux. It’s a beautiful old town. Its harbor and its wealth can be traced back to the seventeenth and eighteenth century slave trade. The Musée du Nouveau Monde shows works that seek to remember the slave trade, to put it context, to examine it unflinchingly.

In May, I presented a paper at an academic conference held at the Musée du Nouveau Monde. Roza’s painting hung in the back of the room. The slaves stared at me, locked in poses seeking to reclaim their dignity, their humanity. They haunted me for the hour-long panel discussion. They set up a residence in my mind and have been living there since I walked out of the museum. They forced me to ask myself questions about global trade, the dehumanization of labor, the mythologies of race and the ways in which these myths justify centuries of oppression. These slaves—according to this mythology—are better off in the court of Dona Maria then they would’ve been in the wilds of Africa or Brazil. They’re lucky. They live in wealth and comfort. At least Dona Maria would’ve rationalized her collection this way, if she ever felt the need to rationalize it. Just as we, in contemporary culture, rationalize the conditions of Foxconn workers by saying that they’re better off than if Foxconn didn’t exist, if they were unemployed and struggling in rural China. As Apple pointed out, Foxconn workers don’t commit suicide at that much higher of a rate than the general population. The nets around the factory are just a precautionary measure.

But when I’m faced with the stares of Dona Maria’s collection of little people, all the rationalizations fall flat. I’m left wondering about my own place as an English professor who travels across a continent and an ocean to present a paper on masculinity in Thomas Pynchon novels. Is my ability to make my living reading books, writing about them, and teaching them predicated on slavery?

I don’t know. I’m not the Dona Maria in this situation. I don’t come at society from a seat of power. Though I have a great deal of empathy for them, I’m not the slaves in this scenario, either. If anything, I’m closest to the painter. It’s my job to document the scene, to try to make meaning of it.

I’ve been thinking about the Musée du Nouveau Monde all summer. In the US, the summer began with New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu removing a Robert E. Lee statue from the city center. It ended with Nazis causing a riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing one and wounding nineteen more anti-racist protestors. The president tacitly supported the Nazis for two days before issuing a disingenuous condemnation, followed by an explicit support of the Nazis. The firestorm was triggered by the proposal to remove another Robert E. Lee statue. The debate about the Civil War monuments is largely framed around the issue of history: are we erasing history by removing these monuments?

This is a naïve question. It treats history as if history is a single document upon which one person with an eraser can demolish something. It ignores that events are frequently lost and found in the retelling of the past. It ignores that history is not some monolithic or objective or definitive thing. History is always political. It is always written. Some aspects are always ignored, others are always privileged. History is always a negotiation about how we want to envision our present, how we represent what we think can be the best of our society, what narratives we want to guide our culture. In his landmark 1973 work Metahistory, Hayden White explained that history always uses the structures and tropes of narratives. White argued that history is primarily told as a romance, a tragedy, a comedy, or a satire. Historians choose the narrative structure to apply to a grouping of historical artifacts. The history itself is not the artifacts—or, if you prefer, facts—it is the narrative that gives meaning to those facts. These narratives are always negotiations of power.

I grew up in Florida in the seventies and eighties. When I learned about Robert E. Lee, the story was tragedy. He was a dashing hero, a brilliant man. As a general, he was far superior to Ulysses S. Grant. Grant was a drunk, a failed president. Lee was a tactical genius who lacked the support of his government, who lacked the war budget of the Union, who lacked the munitions needed to realize his plans. All of his failings could be blamed on someone else. He was also a misrepresented man. He wasn’t a racist. He believed in states and the rights of those states. He was more Virginian than American. He stood up for Virginia, his home and his neighbors.

At least that’s the story I was taught in school. If anyone raised her hand during the teaching of this tale and asked which specific rights the states were fighting for in the war, she’d be sent to the dean for disrupting class. If anyone suggested that the war was about slavery, he’d be corrected. No, we were told, Lincoln didn’t agree to free the slaves until a couple of years into the war. The Civil War wasn’t about slavery. It was a territorial occupation by a hostile government. The Confederates were fighting for their land, their homes. I even had one ninth grade teacher who insisted we refer to the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression.”

I left this history behind when I left my backwater hometown. I educated myself in more complex narratives of the Civil War. I forgot about the Robert E. Lee tragedy I was taught in ninth and tenth grade. But another historical monument brought it all back to me. I was in Front Royal, Virginia, looking for a place to eat lunch in downtown when I crossed under the shadow of a monument to the CSA. It took me a second to even figure out what the CSA was and who the armed man at the top of the monument was supposed to represent. Next to this monument was a historical placard that told the story of the Union invasion of Front Royal, the heroes who resisted the brutal Union soldiers, and the battle when Confederate soldiers forced Union soldiers out of the town. The placard claims that the Confederate soldiers were—using language borrowed from George W. Bush’s Iraq War public relations team—greeted as liberators.

As I read the placard and looked at the statue, I became hyperaware of my whiteness. I watched a woman with all the socioeconomic signs of someone who was poor and who had skin that I’ve been taught to see as black walk into the courthouse. I wondered if she was going inside for her own court case. The outfit that looked like her Sunday best and the battered manila folder in her hand seemed to suggest so. And I wondered what it would be like be a poor black woman who has to walk past this Confederate soldier monument and this placard that portrays the war as a War of Northern Aggression on her way to court. How must she feel about her chances once she gets inside?

Knowing nothing about this woman, whether she was an employee at the courthouse, an attorney, or a defendant, I wanted to add a statue of her to the courthouse lawn. Maybe, if I was feeling preachy, I’d add a simple inscription. “With no liberators to save her from the institutional racism of her town, she still got out of bed and faced the day.”

The racism of the Confederacy shouldn’t be something that is earnestly debated. Of course a government formed to enslave a group of people based upon their race is racist. Of course the people who fought for that government are racist. There is more to it. People did have to fight for their homes. United States soldiers did commit atrocities. Some citizens probably did celebrate the arrival of Confederate generals like Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. But on top of all that, the war was an attempt to enslave a giant group of Americans based on their perceived race.

Even if we take the supporters of the monuments for Lee and the Confederacy at their word—that we need to honor soldiers who fought against an invading force for their homeland, that we need to remember General Lee as a powerful general and a brilliant tactician—there’s something very troubling about the narratives these monuments tell. For the monuments to the soldiers, we’re defining heroism as a willingness to obey your superiors unquestioningly and a willingness to fight regardless of the morality of the battle your superiors are fighting. For the monument of Lee, we’re defining a strong, authoritarian leader who rose to power as part of a military coup as a hero. These are the values of a totalitarian regime, not a democratic state.

La Mascarade Nuptiale

“La Mascarade Nuptiale” by Jose Conrado Roza. (Sorry about the corona of light in the corner. It was unavoidable.)


I know that Civil War monuments aren’t the only troubling representations of history. The California town I live in has a statue of Junipero Sera in front of City Hall. For whatever good Sera may have done (the Pope just made him a saint), the defining act of his mission building along the coast has to be his enslavement and brutal treatment of Native Americans. Most California missions are surrounded by the mass graves of the slaves killed during the construction of the missions. Farther up the coast of California sits the Hearst Castle, a state park and monument to a man whose newspaper empire was the first step in the long deterioration of a free media in the United States, who fabricated an international incident to catalyze two unjust wars, who destroyed Orson Welles’ career just because Welles made fun of Hearst’s mistress, and who unequivocally supported McCarthyism. And what did he get for all his crimes? Why, this beautiful mansion in one of the most beautiful spots in the world.

The list of problematic monuments goes on and on. In one of his responses to the riots in Charlottesville, Trump pointed out that George Washington was a slaveholder, as was Thomas Jefferson. He asked if we should go after monuments to our founding fathers as well. Trump didn’t ask this question in earnest, but maybe we should. Maybe he’s tapped into the heart of the problem, which is that we know our history has been written to favor people whose actions are reprehensible, but we don’t know how to fix that. Maybe, to take one step in the right direction, we shouldn’t tell the story of Jefferson’s sexual relationship with a slave as a great romance. Instead maybe we should start the story by asking some very basic questions like, can a sexual relationship really be consensual when one participant sees the other as his property? And, if it can’t be consensual, isn’t that rape? And maybe she did love him, but wasn’t she essentially a kidnap victim (weren’t all slaves?), so wouldn’t any love she might have had been more akin to Stockholm Syndrome? Finally, if we asked these questions, would we have a fundamentally different relationship with people in power?

What impressed me most about the Musée du Nouveau Monde was its ability to raise difficult questions without pretending to know the answers. It raised questions in one particularly special way: the city of La Rochelle purchased the house of an old slave trader. That house is now the museum. As you walk through the spoils of slavery—the opulent home in the beautiful harbor city—you see art that forces you to reckon with the dehumanizing acts that comprised slavery. What if we did that here? What if Hearst Castle wasn’t full the wealth Hearst hoarded and instead was full of the art of the lives he destroyed? What if, instead of taking down statues to Robert E. Lee, we instead added statues of former slaves chipping away at Lee’s pedestal?

Or maybe not we could do something that’s more quietly radical. My favorite monument is just outside the San Luis Obispo train station. It’s a statue of two gandy dancers building the railroad tracks. Their hair, posture, the very wrinkles of their clothes show them working hard. One wears a hat. Both have long braids. They’re both recognizably Chinese, but nothing about their features is exaggerated or caricatured. They look like real people, like the sculptor used a real photograph (which would’ve been impossible) or real models. It sits in the middle of a traffic circle. Seen from one side, the workers are flanked by a train station and the tracks they built. Seen from the other side, the workers stand between buildings that are more than a century old, that were once the inns and restaurants and boarding houses of workers and travelers. There’s no indication about the working conditions of the gandy dancers, about whether or not they could stay at the inns or the boarding houses, about what happened to them once the railroads were built or during a twentieth century that was long and unfriendly for Asian Americans. All of that you have to learn on their own. That’s okay. At least the workers are here, visible again.

Race Writings 3: If You’re the Owner of the Washington Redskins, You’re No Longer a Cock

Here’s a column that I wrote for Razorcake in 2007 (issue #42). The second half of it is satire about Daniel Snyder changing the Washington football team’s nickname to the Crackers. Yesterday, thirteen years after I wrote this, he finally did agree to change the name. He hasn’t yet announced what the new name will be. I hope he doesn’t use the name I suggest in this column, but I had fun writing about it way back when. I’m glad he finally agreed to change the name. I hope the owners of the Cleveland and Atlanta professional baseball teams do the same.


illustration by Brad Beshaw

If You’re the Owner of the Washington Redskins, You’re No Longer a Cock

It’s been six or seven years now since I first heard the Atom and His Package song “If You Own the Washington Redskins, You’re a Cock,” and it still flows through my mind again and again when Fall rolls around and my thoughts turn to football. Echoing the first lines of the song, I, too, like sports, so there are some things I force myself to miss. The biggest of these things that I try to ignore is the nickname of my favorite team: the Seminoles. Now, when I watch pro football, I’ll get into the game. I’ll root like hell for certain teams. I have favorites who I root for year after year. I get swept away in the action. But when the game is over, all those emotions fade pretty quickly. If the team I’m rooting for loses, I just shrug my shoulders and think, what the hell? It’s just a game played by millionaires.

It’s different with the Seminoles, because they’re the team that represents the college I got my bachelor’s from: Florida State University. I have great memories of those times at FSU. Those years opened my mind to whole new ways of thinking. The stuff I learned at FSU taught me how to escape the construction sites of my youth and move on to a lifestyle that’s more in line with my personality. Plus, college is the place where you can indulge in booze, drugs, and sex with random people—all with impunity. Good times. And FSU football seemed to float around in the atmosphere of those good times. So now I watch the games and it ties me to an earlier, fun part of my life and I get swept away. When they win, I’m totally stoked. And when they lose, it ruins my day. Or, at least, a few hours of it. Either way, I love watching the games.

Still, it bugs me that they’re nicknamed “The Seminoles.”

Last year, the governing body of college sports insisted that schools drop their Native American team nicknames. Most of the universities complied. In the case of FSU, the actual Seminole tribe stepped forward and defended Florida State. The Seminoles’ (the tribe) argument being that they liked that FSU was nicknamed after them and didn’t want the name changed. One official statement from the Seminole tribe stated that the tribe should judge whether or not the nickname was offensive, and that stripping Florida State of the nickname would be one more example of white people deciding what’s best for the Native Americans.

Okay. Fair enough. I’ll be one white guy staying out of it. Mostly.

Because there is one other thing. In January, 2001, FSU played in the Orange Bowl for the national championship against the University of Oklahoma. Oklahoma whipped Florida State 13-2. It was a brutal, punishing game. Florida State couldn’t mount any offense. Oklahoma controlled the field. In the end, there was no doubt who the national champions were.

Later that month, I drove through Oklahoma, through the northern part of the state where the Seminole reservation still stands. As I rode along the interstate, I thought of the history of Oklahoma, how it was the territory that the United States gave to Native Americans during the nineteenth century. Then, president Benjamin Harrison decided that he wanted Oklahoma for white people and opened it up for US settlers. On March 2, 1889, any white American homesteader who wanted to could race into Native American lands and claim it for their own. By the time that the homesteaders raced in, though, more than half the land had already been claimed by tougher, meaner white Americans who had gone into Oklahoma early (and illegally) and claimed their land. These homesteaders who jumped the gun on taking all the Native American land and claiming it for themselves were called Sooners. Many years later, the University of Oklahoma nicknamed their football team the Sooners, after the very people who raced onto the Seminole reservation and claimed the land for themselves.

I thought of the battle between the Seminoles and Sooners again, in a new, historical context. It was a brutal, punishing affair. The Seminoles couldn’t mount any offense. The Sooners controlled the field. In the end, there was no doubt who the national champions were.

That’s kinda fucked up.


I notice these types of dual meanings around Native American nicknamed teams and athletic competitions all the time. This October in Major League Baseball, the Yankees and the Indians faced off in the playoffs. The Yankees have long dominated our national pastime. The Indians won this October. They didn’t end up making it to the World Series, though. So once again, the Indians won a battle but lost the war. In fact, the Indians haven’t won the championship since 1917. The Yankees have won it twenty-six times since then.


So I notice these things and get a little bothered when the Yankees and the Indians battle for supremacy in the national pastime, or when the Sooners wipe out the Seminoles in a ground-acquisition game and thereby are crowned national champions. I guess I’m not the only one who notices, though.

On October 28, 2007, the New England Patriots battled the Washington Redskins in professional football. Not only did the Redskins lose, but the Patriots slaughtered the Redskins. The game stirred up quite a bit of controversy in the sports media because the Patriots, once they had clearly won, decided to stay on the offensive and run up the score. They wiped the Redskins out. The Redskins hadn’t been treated this brutally, hadn’t been beaten this badly since 1961.

It was too much for the Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Redskins. The double entendres started to get to him. It was one thing to have a team nickname that is the racist term used by the aggressors in one of the largest genocides in human history. It was another thing to use that nickname in Washington, DC, the capitol city of the government that committed the genocide. But when a team named after the aggressors—the Patriots—and coming from the seat of European colonization in North America—New England—wipes out your ethnic-slur-nicknamed team, it’s too much. Snyder couldn’t take it.

I’m sure you’ve heard about what happened next. It’s been in the news for a couple of months, now. Anderson Cooper did a four-part special on it in November. For weeks, Bill O’Reilly has geared his talking points against the “PC Police” behind Snyder’s act. Apparently, Rush Limbaugh won’t shut up about it. Even President Bush got involved, but we’ll talk about that later. In case you missed all of this, though, I’ll tell you the two controversial things that Snyder did.

First, he decided to change the name of the Redskins.

This may not sound like such a big deal. The University of Hawaii changed their nickname from the Rainbows to the Warriors in the nineties. They never said why they made this change, only claiming that they’d always been “the Rainbow Warriors” and they were just focusing on the second part of the nickname more these days. It’s pretty clear, though, that they’ve shied away from the Rainbows because it was, well, too gay. The city of Washington, DC, has a history of changing their team nicknames, too. The Washington Bullets became the Wizards because a city that frequently had the highest per-capita murder rate was uncomfortable with a team nicknamed after the agent of death. Even the NFL is no stranger to name changes. In 1998, the Tennessee Oilers became the Tennessee Titans because fans wanted a new nickname. So if teams can ditch nicknames for being too gay, too violent, or just too unrepresentative of Tennessee, then surely it shouldn’t cause a stir to change a nickname for being too racist.

But it did stir a lot of controversy. Perhaps part of the reason had to do with the idea of Political Correctness. Bill O’Reilly, in his many rants, asked where the line would be drawn. Would the Vikings have to change their nickname, lest they offend the Norwegian population of Minneapolis? Would Catholics mount an offensive against the New Orleans Saints? Daniel Snyder defended his decision on Bill O’Reilly’s show. Snyder explained that the line should be drawn at a genocide. The Vikings and Saints were okay, according to Snyder, because our government didn’t try to wipe them off the face of the earth. Our government did try to do that to the “Redskins.” “So that’s where I draw the line,” Snyder said. O’Reilly called Snyder a “language nazi” and insisted that the producer turn off Snyder’s microphone.

Fans were upset about the change, too. Apparently, they were endeared to the mascot. So endeared, that before the name change, the Redskins were the second most profitable NFL franchise, second only to the Cowboys. That’s right. The Cowboys and Redskins were the two most profitable logos. The rivalry between the Cowboys and Redskins has long been one of the most bitter rivals in all of pro sports. So when Snyder announced that they would no longer be using the image of the chief (or, really, the image of a tan, Italian-looking guy with feathers on his head) as their mascot, fans were irate. “What about the long, rich tradition of Redskin football?” they asked. Snyder answered this question on the Rush Limbaugh show, saying, “Maybe we shouldn’t embrace this tradition of racism.” Limbaugh responded with a rant that he apparently is still reverting back to when he has a free moment between bashing Hillary Clinton and trying to blur the name Obama with the name Osama.

The second thing Snyder did was even more surprising: he renamed the Redskins the Washington Crackers.

You’ve probably heard about this, too. You probably heard all the jokes about the new mascot looking just like George W. Bush with a mesh-back ball cap on. You’ve probably heard about Bush embracing the new mascot because at least it turns attention away from the fiasco of a war he’s running. Maybe you’ve read the New York Times editorial where they pointed out that “cracker” was originally a derogatory term used by slaves to describe the guys cracking the whip, so it’s probably more hateful to African Americans than to whites. Maybe you’ve heard about Washington Crackers running back Clinton Portis demanding to be traded because, as he said, “I don’t want to be a cracker-ass cracker.” Surely, you’ve at least seen the T-shirts floating around with that phrase on them.

I, for one, embrace the name change. What the New York Times ignored was the fact that “cracker” is also a term used for a person born in Florida. In Florida, it’s actually possible to be African American and a cracker. I think it’s great, too, that Florida’s rich history of rigged elections, corrupt politicians, and cranky old people is now celebrated by the nation’s capitol’s football team. I think it’s great that Snyder has allocated one skybox for the nation’s truckers. I think it’s great that he’s increased RV parking at FedEx stadium, and that concession stands there are now required to sell boiled peanuts. I look forward to learning the new lyrics that have turned “Hail the Redskins” into “Hail the Crackers.” And though I’ve always been a fan of the Miami Dolphins, who knows? Maybe next season, you’ll see me rocking my mesh-back hat and rooting for the Crackers.

Race Writings 2: Stay Free

This is the second writing about race I’m posting in honor of our current civil rights movement. This is more recent. It’s a review of Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay that I published in The Rumpus in January, 2020. I’ve noticed lately that a lot of people are saying that we need to have a conversation about race, but then going no further. Cha’s book (and, to a lesser extent, my review of her book), shows how conversations about race can work.

The title is a reference to a song by The Clash, not to a maxipad. The full review is below.

Your House Will Pay cover

Stay Free

            When we first meet 44-year-old Shawn Matthews in Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay, he’s standing in a prison parking lot with what remains of his family, waiting to pick up his cousin Ray. The sun beats down on them, but they don’t retreat to the air-conditioned car out of respect for the gravity of the moment. Ray has been down for ten years. He’s free now. Everyone involved is filled with a mixture of optimism and dread. As a reader, you feel it, too.

It’s a tender scene. It’s also one I’m used to witnessing from afar in my real life. My wife is a prison psychologist. Occasionally, when I’ve dropped her off for work in the morning, I’ve seen some facsimile of this: a nervous, joyful family picking up their father/brother/son who suddenly has a new chance to rebuild his life. I feel optimistic for these guys as they leave the prison. At least they have a family that cares enough, that has resources enough, to come pick them up.

When I catch the train out of San Luis Obispo, I often see California Department of Corrections vans dropping off men who’ve just been released from prison. These are the guys who don’t have the family or resources. The men change, but they have a similar look. They’re usually discharged in black sweatpants, a plain white T-shirt, and a black hoodie. They always have a paper grocery bag full of whatever they’re taking out of prison with them. They’re almost always black.

These guys look so full of hope that I get a little hopeful for them, too. Maybe this time, they’ll stay free. I’m silently rooting for them. I’m also trying not to think about how steeply the odds are stacked against them. Imagine being that black man, boarding a train in clothes that most people wouldn’t wear outside of their house. All of your stuff is in a paper bag. You don’t have much cash. In a few hours, you’ll be in a town with lousy public transportation, a giant homeless population, and a police department that will forever see you as a suspect and an easy arrest. On top of that, you’re starting the journey in San Luis Obispo, a city that has 532 African-American residents, just over 150 African-Americans enrolled in the state university in town (a full 0.7% of the overall student body), and about 1,200 African-Americans living in the prison that’s next door to the university. And this is a city that’s often cited as the happiest one in America. And this is a state that’s supposed to be the most liberal, the most progressive, the least racist.

I see scenes like this play out often. Every time I do, I wonder if there are real ways to have a conversation about the racism inherent in a state (and nation) that disproportionately incarcerates black men. But also, more generally, I wonder how we might talk about race in a meaningful way.

Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay opens the door to this conversation. The story follows two protagonists, Shawn Matthews and Grace Park. Shawn is an ex-con, ex-Crip from South Central Los Angeles. After his own prison stint, he has his life on track. He works for a moving company. He lives with his long-term girlfriend and her three-year old daughter. They have a good relationship. While he no longer has an immediate family, he’s close with his aunt (who raised him), and his niece and nephew. As his cousin Ray is released from prison, Shawn hopes to help him assimilate to life in Palmdale. Shawn also carries the weight of a heavy memory: His sister Ava was murdered when she was a teenager. The Korean American shopkeeper who killed Ava was convicted of manslaughter but served no jail time. Because the case happened in the wake of the Rodney King beatings in 1991 and because Ava was black, her murder was a bit of a media sensation. In 2019, Shawn just wants to move on.

Grace Park, in the meantime, is living a sheltered life that revolves around her Korean-American community. She’s a pharmacist in her parents’ drug store. She lives with her parents in Granada Hills. Grace isn’t close with them, but she feels responsible for taking over their business and carrying on their legacy. In the meantime, her sister Miriam hasn’t spoken to her mother in two years. No one will tell Grace what their conflict is, so Grace is stuck in this world of secrets. When a violent crime strikes the Park family, the secrets start to leak out.

As one would expect in any novel with co-protagonists, Shawn and Grace are on separate courses steering toward each other. Through Shawn and Grace, Cha constructs a Los Angeles sharply different from most representations of the city. Beaches and palm trees are nowhere to be seen. Hollywood and the film industry are a vague presence on the outskirts. The white world that we’re so used to seeing in representations of LA is cast to the margins. Instead, we visit Los Angeles as most of the residents of the greater metropolitan area do: through diverse neighborhoods where clusters of immigrants, migrants, and marginalized—many of whom are brown or black—struggle to get a foothold in the middle class. In the liminal spaces where those marginal communities overlap, we see the regionally specific prejudices that develop. Cha unpacks the legacy of tensions between African-Americans and Korean-Americans that traces back to the racial unrest of the early 1990s. Much of this tension is rooted in actual events. Even the murder of Ava is a recreation of the real-life murder of Latasha Harlins by the shopkeeper Soon Ja Du on March 16, 1991. Cha is faithful to what actually happened, right down to the shopkeeper’s manslaughter conviction coupled with no jail time.

Despite its roots in the early ‘90s, Your House Will Pay is a very contemporary novel. Everyone is online; Twitter shapes some of the characters’ actions. Grace goes viral at one point. Cops shoot unarmed black kids and the media moves on from the killing at the same rate that ESPN moves on from yesterday’s scores. It feels like the novel is taking place right now—and in a sense, it is. Most of the events occur between June and September of 2019, which would have been the future for Cha when she wrote the book (which was published in October 2019). This creates a sense of immediacy. The book’s conflicts can’t be dismissed as part of the past. The characters’ actions matter because they impact the world we live in right now. The issues matter because they’re issues we’ll face when we wake up tomorrow.

Many of these events are difficult to discuss in a review because each of the book’s four sections is based on a reveal. It is, after all, a crime novel. Instead, I’ll focus on a moment that demonstrates the novel’s richness: At one point, the Park family is in the news. Grace, who has built her life around anonymity, has no idea how to act under the spotlight. She’s harassed by a white activist who sees himself as a journalist. As she tries to escape, she slips and cuts her lip. In her anger, she lashes out at the activist. He films it. In her anger, she says something mildly racist. The video of her tantrum goes viral.

Cha presents the scene with a delicate touch. On the one hand, the reader understands why Grace would lose her temper. She’s under undue stress. She’s a small woman being hounded by a large and threatening man. She’s confused about recent events in her life, and she’s being expected to process information way too quickly. As a reader, we feel for her. At the same time, stress and confusion don’t make racist outbursts any less racist. Grace masochistically reads all of the social media reactions to her tantrum and:

For the first time in her twenty-seven years, Grace felt herself hated. Her whole body burned, her skin crawling with a hot itch she couldn’t scratch away. Hers was a modest existence—her social circle had always been comfortably small, her opinions vague, her presentation inoffensive.

            Another way of framing Grace’s self-perception is this: she’s always been the model minority. By acting as such, she’s avoided much of the scrutiny and hatred that many brown people can’t avoid. At this moment, though, Grace is confronted with the fact that she’s still not a part of the dominant race in a racist society. She’s still other. She’s disobeyed the culture’s demands of her otherness, and now she’s being punished. Of course it’s confusing for her.

She turns to her sister for solace:

“Do you hate me, too, now?” [Grace] asked.

“Of course not.”

“But you think I’m a racist.”

“Grace, I think everyone’s a racist.”

In that simple reply, both Miriam and Cha shift the paradigm for how we need to talk about race in this country. It stands to reason that, if Miriam thinks everyone is a racist, then she includes herself. What if we all started from this point? Instead of asking if anyone is a racist, we all admit that we all are. If you’re drinking in a dive bar at 9:00 AM on a Tuesday, you’re an alcoholic; if you live in a country where, in the happiest city in the most progressive state, two out of every three African-Americans is incarcerated, then you live in a racist country. Our culture is bigger than all of us. It’s the ideological air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink. It shapes our views. So, as a member of this culture, is Grace a racist? Yes. Is Miriam a racist? Yes. Am I a racist? Yes. Are you?

And could we, by starting at this point, shift focus away from “racist” as an identity and instead examine the actions, the language, and the institutions that perpetuate racism? Could we move beyond judgment and into a place where real progress can happen?

When Grace goes viral, everyone in the novel is quick to judge her, to call her a racist, to attack her. In doing so, no one has to look inside himself or evaluate his culture very deeply. Instead, they can scapegoat Grace. This is something we do in real life all the time. We’re all a little thankful for knuckleheads like U.S. Representative Steve “Since When Did White Supremacy Become a Bad Thing” King. His racism is so much worse than ours and his power so much greater than ours that we give ourselves a pass. For Miriam, though, no one gets a pass. More importantly, judgment isn’t so much the point. Racist actions must be redeemed.

And, really, redemption has to be the goal. In this sense, Cha taps into the Christian traditions of her characters. Your House Will Pay isn’t a religious novel. Sure, the characters attend church and one of the main characters is named Grace, but Grace is no medieval allegory. She doesn’t mimic God’s grace by learning to love those who deserve it the least. Catholic grace isn’t the goal. Nor is vengeance—the primary idea from the Old Testament our society clings to. (And what is our prison system but an act of vengeance?) Vengeance creates an endless loop. Instead, after her racism goes viral and comes to define her, Grace seeks to redeem herself. She begins the process of understanding what beliefs she still holds that she needs to release. She allows herself to be imperfect. And she starts down a path of action that allows her to be an imperfect person working for positive change.

And this is just one part of Your House Will Pay. The novel is by no means didactic. As I’ve said, it’s a crime novel. Like all of Cha’s work, the novel starts with a slow burn and builds into a wildfire. By the time you get to the last hundred pages or so, there’s nothing to do but watch it burn down everything you thought you knew about Los Angeles. And, like the massive wildfires that have been burning through Southern California for the past few winters, you’re left with both devastation and the promise of new growth—the drive to build something new and better.


Race Writings 1: The Totalitarian Playbook

Berlin Mural

A mural in Berlin, not far from the Topography of Terror

If there’s one thing I think everyone agrees on, it’s that talking about race in America right now is hard. It’s uncomfortable. Part of the difficulty has to do with the way we talk, especially when we’re all separated by a pandemic. So much of our communication is done now on social media, where brief statements, pictures, and memes replace the long-form conversations that we should be having.

Obviously, I’m not good at social media. I rarely engage with it. I haven’t taken the time to learn how to communicate through it effectively. Still, I don’t want to say nothing in the middle of this massive moment in the history of social justice. So I’m going to pretend it’s the early aughts and use my personal website to post several essays, columns, and book reviews that I’ve written about race over the years. I’ll post one or two of these a week for the next couple of months. Here’s the first.

This essay was originally published on Morpheus in November 2017. I think it’s as relevant today as it was then. It’s long, but I also think it’s engaging and some people might find comfort in it. I hope you enjoy it.

Topography of Terror

Topography of Terror in Berlin

The Totalitarian Playbook


An exhibit called the Topography of Terror stands in front of a remaining section of the Berlin Wall. It’s longer than a soccer field and it details, step-by-step, the rise of the Third Reich. In June, 2017, I traveled around Germany with my father and uncle. Berlin was our last stop before returning to Bremen, the city where my uncle lives. It was blistering hot out. There’s no real shade at the Topography of Terror. We baked in the sun and took our time with the exhibit, reading all the text, checking out the pictures, watching people around us doing the same.

Afterward, we grabbed lunch and talked about what we’d just seen. My dad said, “I can’t imagine how a guy like Hitler gets so much power.”

I pointed out that the Topography of Terror details exactly how Hitler did. It’s an old totalitarian playbook. First, you marginalize dissent by attacking the free press, intellectuals, and academics. Second, you find a scapegoat—typically a religious minority—and craft a narrative that details that scapegoat’s plans to destroy your society. Third, you redefine what a real member of your nation is. You usually do this on racial or ethnic terms. Then, you take what’s left of the populace, the ones who don’t question you, the ones who hold the same religious beliefs as you, the ones who look enough like you so you feel pure, and you start picking fights and building walls.

I said this to my father and uncle because, among other things, they’re Trump supporters. To his credit, my father had the decency to keep his Trump support to himself during the trip. My uncle did not. When faced with the opportunity to educate me—who he saw as a real life liberal university professor from California—he went for it. He baited me a lot on politics. I mostly wouldn’t take the bait. I’ve had decades of experience of political disagreements with my family. What all those conversations have in common is that everyone leaves believing the same thing they started the conversation believing. All of us, everyone, not just my family, develop complex patterns for seeing the world. We hang all of our beliefs on an ideological framework, whether we articulate that ideology or not. The only way to genuinely alter someone’s beliefs is to alter the framework they use to hold those beliefs. That’s a tough thing to do, and not a project I wanted to undergo on my trip around Germany.

Still, our political differences were heavy in Berlin. The whole time I walked through the Topography of Terror, I couldn’t ignore that Hitler’s not the only one to use the totalitarian playbook. Tyrants did it before him and after him. Right now, I live in a country where the president is trying it out. The Third Reich used the term lügenpresse, which literally means “lying press.” Trump supporters used this term until a more dynamic phrase meaning the same thing, “fake news,” caught on. The first budget cuts Trump attempted were to the federal funding for intellectuals. He went after the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. He went after funding for climate research. He attacked the very cornerstones of institutions that produce our scientific and cultural knowledge. In particular, Trump and the American right have been attacking universities and academics. Entire think tanks have been built and supported just to demonize academics (e.g. Turning Point, Texas Public Policy Foundation, which are just two of many). Republican governors and legislators in Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, and Utah have crafted bills to attack academics. All of this has happened subtly and been mostly overlooked in news cycles that tend to chase after the more spectacular and outrageous stories.

The second and third parts of the playbook are more obvious. Instead of the Jews, our current administration is banning Muslims, acting as if all 1.8 billion Muslims in the world are terrorists, ignoring that, if all 1.8 billion Muslims were terrorists, they would’ve won by now. And, while we don’t have a myth about an Aryan race (not much of one, anyway), we do have a myth of Making America Great Again, which means characterizing Latinos as rapists and murderers, kicking out immigrants, jailing African Americans, using a twitter war with Kim Jong-Un to reintroduce the myth of the Yellow Peril, and basically defining “a great America” as a white America.

I want to be clear that, by pointing out these similarities, I’m not saying Trump is the next Hitler. He’s not. He’s a buffoon, a lousy president, and an even worse human being, but he’s not Hitler. Still, he’s following the totalitarian playbook. When I was in Berlin with two of his supporters who just walked through an exhibit that details the playbook, and they didn’t make the connection, things got heavy.



In October, 2017, I did a reading at the Avenue 50 Gallery in Highland Park to celebrate the 100th issue of Razorcake. I co-founded the magazine with Todd Taylor back in 2001. One hundred issues of a punk rock ‘zine in the twenty-first century is no small landmark. I worked day-to-day on the magazine, doing close to half the work to create, publish, and distribute the first twenty issues. I can’t take much credit for the eighty issues that followed. Even so, I got to be one of the readers at the celebration.

Chris Terry opened things up by reading passages from his essay “One Punk’s Guide to Rap Music.” He told a story about hanging out in a parking lot, waiting for his dad to come out of the store, blasting A Tribe Called Quest on the car radio. His dad got back to the car and turned down the music quickly. This was right around the time of the beating of Rodney King. Racial tensions were high. Chris describes his dad as “the only black man in sight.” Recognizing this, Chris had to confront the dangers inherent in his biracial identity.

The next reader was Donna Ramone. As you may have guessed, Ramone is not her real last name. She introduced her reading by saying that she wished she could read fun stuff about gross Oreo cookies, but, as a Muslim woman in America in 2017, she felt like she had to use every platform she had to speak out. Her story was about being targeted and harassed at an airport, and about how that target and harassment was indicative of an overall trend she, her family, and the Muslim community faced increasingly. Amazingly, Donna made the reading funny.

Up next was me: a white guy. I read a story about skateboarding. Talk about white privilege.

The final reader of the night was an eleven year-old poet, a member of the Puro Pinche Poets collective. She performed in front of a crowd of rough-looking, heavily-tattooed punk rockers in their twenties, thirties, and forties. She read a bilingual poem that ended with a condemnation of Trump. It was amazing and touching. I couldn’t imagine doing what she did when I was eleven. But when I was eleven, I didn’t have to deal with the problems she has to deal with. Unlike this poet, my dad wasn’t swept up in an ICE raid. The totalitarian playbook never separated my family across two borders.

Berlin Wall

The ruins of the Berlin Wall


When I was in my late twenties, I worked construction. I daydreamed a lot about a novel I would write. It would be about a construction worker who decides that, if he’s still working the same job at age thirty, he’ll kill himself. As that birthday approaches, he decides to enter into a life of crime instead, figuring a cop or another criminal would polish him off and he’d have some fun on the way out. I never wrote the novel. Instead, I asked myself two hard questions. First, why was I thinking so much about a main character just like myself committing suicide when he reached the age I was about to reach? Second, instead of a life of crime, why didn’t I find a better way to get out of construction?

So I made a plan. It started with scraping together enough money to allow me to change my life. Though I was already working 7:00-4:00 in my regular construction job, I took on a side gig renovating a dentist’s office. I worked there evenings from 5:00-11:00 for the length of the job, which was about three months. It was exhausting, but I figured that I’d be a few grand ahead of the game at the end. While it mostly worked out, I did run into one real snag.

Every night when I finished, I had to drive past the police station to get home. I would have all of my tools in the back of my truck. I knew going into this and I learned again the hard way that, if you’re driving a truck full of tools and the sun has set, a cop will pull you over. Not every time you drive that truck at night. Just every time a cop sees you driving that truck at night. Over the course of that three months, I got pulled over six or seven times. I wasn’t violating any traffic rules prior to any of those traffic stops. Once, I got a ticket for not wearing my seat belt even though I was wearing my seat belt. Once, I got a ticket for listening to headphones while driving though I wasn’t wearing headphones while driving. Every time, I was asked if I’d been drinking. I hadn’t. Twice, I performed field sobriety tests. I passed.

I thought about these traffic stops when I read an open letter that Derrick Estrada wrote for the website Morpheus in 2017 (which, sadly, is no longer available on that website). On the one hand, I know the anger, the suffocating disgust that comes from being hassled and bullied so much by cops. On different occasions, I’ve had cops punch me, crack me with a nightstick, jab a gun barrel into my sternum, and slam my head against the hood of his car while I was handcuffed. In all of those cases, the cops were in the wrong, acting because they saw me as poor white trash, an easy target. So when I read that piece from Derrick, I knew somewhat where he was coming from.

But there’s one big difference. Derrick’s black and I’m white. Derrick will always be more vulnerable in a traffic stop than I ever was.

And also this: I’m not poor any more. My plan worked. I scraped together money and moved to California and started a punk rock magazine and published some books and got a doctorate and got a job at a university and even got tenure at said university. Now, I have gray hair and all the signifiers of a middle class white guy. I drive a Prius or an old BMW motorcycle. Cops never pull me over, even when I drive past them going eighty. If I talk to a cop these days, he usually calls me sir. He never sees the poor white trash, the easy target, that he would’ve seen when I was driving a truck full of tools at night.

Derrick may accomplish all I have. Full disclosure, I know Derrick and I fully expect him to be more successful in life than I’ve been. But even when Derrick gets gray and cops have to call him sir, they’ll still see the black. He’ll still be an easy target.



Lately, these three memories have been grouped in my mind. I’ve been thinking that, though I’m not a Muslim, Donna’s problems are my problems. Though no one sees me as black, Chris’s problems and Derrick’s problems are my problems. Though the new ICE gestapo isn’t going after my family, the Puro Pinche Poet’s problem is my problem. I don’t mean this in a Je Suis Charlie kind of way. I’m not going through the same shit that Donna, Chris, Derrick, and the poet are going through. Donna, Chris, Derrick, and the poet aren’t going through the same shit as each other. All of our problems are individual, but all of our problems are connected.

In some ways, this connection is literal. Chris, Donna, and the Puro Pinche Poets all write for Razorcake, the magazine I’ve poured so much of my heart and soul into. In no small way, my hope for the future of the world is tied to the continued existence of Razorcake. And Razorcake is dependent on arts grants to survive. When the arts are no longer funded, Razorcake no longer exists. When the voices of African Americans, Muslims, and Chicanos are attacked, Razorcake—a ‘zine that provides a platform for those voices—gets attacked, too. Also, the university where I work services mostly working class students: white kids who know what it’s like to be called “trash,” Dreamers, first-generation kids who will have to raise their younger siblings because their parents are being ripped from their family in ICE raids, black kids who’ll have to drive home through white neighborhoods where cops will see them as an easy target, Muslim kids who are just holding on, trying to weather this storm of religious ignorance and intolerance. When academics like me are attacked, the one institution that gives these kids a chance is attacked. When these groups are marginalized, the job that I’ve dedicated my life to, the one that services these groups, is marginalized.

In their 2004 book Multitude, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri outlined their hope for a revolution. It began, they theorized, with a multitude of people recognizing that a single, networked power structure is leading to massive injustice and global devastation. Later, the Occupy movement gave us the term “the one percent” to understand what this power structure is. For the multitude to be successful, they have to join to fight against this power, but they have to maintain their singularities to do it.

So, for example, I can read Derrick’s piece and recognize that I need to help the Black Lives Matter movement. I need to help them because institutional violence against African Americans and particularly African American men is out of control. I need to maintain that singularity. But I also need to work with Black Lives Matter because if black lives don’t matter, then brown lives don’t matter and Muslim lives don’t matter and white trash lives don’t matter. And when I see a Muslim ban that keeps Donna’s overseas family from being able to come the her wedding (if she decides to get married), I need to fight against that because a Muslim ban is seriously fucked up. But also because a Muslim ban is part of the same totalitarian playbook that marginalizes academics like me and defunds arts programs like Razorcake and supports institutional violence against Derrick and Chris and lets ICE kidnap a Puro Pinche Poet’s dad and put him on the other side of a border from his family and tries to build a wall between an eleven-year-old poet and her father.