Emily Atack: Adulting review – proof that the ladette is back

If you think working and doing your own washing are ‘adult challenges’ for someone in their late 20s, this one’s for you

Emily Atack is “going places”. Last year, she narrowly missed out on winning I’m a Celebrity … in which the Inbetweeners actor “found some new love and respect for myself”, presumably not while Holly Willoughby was panic-flicking giant cockroaches off her body with a cue card. Since then, her Instagram followers have grown in number from 70,000 to 1.4 million, she has done standup about her roaring 20s, has released a clothing range and is writing a book, which I can only assume is about how Atack found new love and respect for herself in the jungle, the standup tour, the clothing range and the book. You might ask what is left. A preposterously overpaid column in a rightwing newspaper? Leader of the country?

No, the inevitable consequence of all this is Emily Atack: Adulting (W), a reality TV series in which Atack, with the help of family, friends, and that most trusty of agony aunts, social media, sets herself a bunch of “adulting challenges”. These are less about putting on the Fill Your Face helmet in the Bushtucker trials and more like taking her cousin’s stepdaughter to soft play – which many find more terrifying than a kilogram of mealworms heading up their nose holes.

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A Revolution Doesn’t Look Like a Revolution
Three months ago, a global pandemic and a sudden economic crisis looked grave enough to suggest that something—if not a revolution, then at least the stirrings of a revolutionary era—was under way. Since then, the revolt against the pre-coronavirus status quo has only gained force. Crowds chanting “Black lives matter” and “Enough is enough” have marched all across the country. Statues have been toppled, buildings have been renamed, and pollsters report that public opinion has shifted with almost unprecedented speed. In Ferguson, Missouri, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, protesters carryied a guillotine. As a historian of the French Revolution, I can’t help but pay attention to guillotines (adopted in the 1790s as an alternative to the cruel and unusual punishment of death by hanging). If the United States right now is not in the early months of a revolution, Americans are certainly surrounded by the signs of past ones.Revolutions dress up in the costumes and rhetoric of the past for the same reason that, as Karl Marx once asserted, people learning a new language begin by translating word for word from a language already known to them. By repeating gestures and slogans from past upheavals—such as damaging a statue of Louis XVI, the French king beheaded in 1793—people pushing for permanent social change make the present recognizable as revolution. They might as well be chanting, “This is what a revolution looks like.”Simultaneously, opponents can exploit the word’s association with violence to make any change seem frightening: When early election returns in New York and Kentucky appeared to favor progressive insurgents over establishment favorites, the Republican Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted that the French Revolution had come for the Democratic Party. In an article likening “the illiberal left” and “cancel culture” to Robespierre, the libertarian author Samuel Gregg predicted that the United States is about to fall into an intolerant Great Terror of “wokeness.” In images that went viral Sunday, a St. Louis attorney brandished a rifle as protesters passed his palatial home. He thought they were “storming the Bastille,” he told an interviewer later.[Shadi Hamid: The coronavirus killed the revolution]Would-be revolutionaries and radical counterrevolutionaries both forget, however, that real revolutions invariably catch people by surprise. Revolutions happen when the distinct concerns of many different groups are for a time more or less soldered together—and this coming together is not planned in advance, but produced largely by chance. This is what historians call “contingency”: One thing builds on another in a way that is neither inevitable nor easily reversed.Think about the Russian Revolution. Mutinies in the army, strikes in the factories, a parliamentary body willing to ignore the czar and declare itself a provisional government—all these dramatic struggles had been under way for months before the Bolsheviks eventually took power. So, too, the Black Lives Matter movement has been building for years. Now the COVID-19 crisis and establishment politicians’ continuing battle with Donald Trump have helped move Black Lives Matter’s concerns to the center of American politics. The threat to Black lives from official violence, the failure of anything like public-health policy, the catastrophic scale of unemployment, the inadequacy of federal and state relief measures (so mistakenly referred to as “stimulus”), the climate crisis, America’s dramatic loss of international status over the past four years: All of these threads are now interwoven. It is too early to tell what shape the resulting social fabric will take.The historian William Sewell Jr. helpfully distinguishes between ordinary “events” and “historical events”; the latter resonate as world-changing because they somehow transform the very structures of daily life. In his analysis, the reaction to and aftereffects of an event—and not just the event itself—determine whether it is historical. Imagine, for instance, if the United States Navy had responded to the bombing of Pearl Harbor by concealing the number of lives lost and saying it had long planned to scupper the USS Arizona—the attack would still have happened, but it wouldn’t be the historical event “Pearl Harbor” anymore.Or consider the French Revolution. In the summer of 1789, King Louis XVI convened roughly 1,100 men from France’s tiny elite (aristocratic military officers, major landowners, lawyers, clergy) for the first meeting of the Estates-General (the closest thing the kingdom had to a national parliament) in 175 years. Refusing to abide by rules that effectively silenced most of those notionally represented (as gerrymandering and voter suppression thwart the popular will today), many delegates instead proclaimed themselves members of the National Assembly, a new, constitution-writing body. This was a standstill, not a revolution.A few weeks later, the king summoned troops to Paris and fired his most popular adviser. Parisians poured into the streets; on July 14, about 800 of them swarmed to the Bastille, a fortress on the city’s edge, where they hoped to find weapons and gunpowder. First welcomed by the fortress’s defenders, then fired upon, the crowd eventually succeeded in getting the troops to lower the drawbridge and abandon the Bastille. They then marched the soldiers to central Paris, killed the commanding officer, and paraded his head through the streets on a pike. Popular unrest had become a rebellion, but not a revolution.When word of the violence and mayhem in Paris first reached the National Assembly, 20 miles away in Versailles, its members were horrified. Educated men, many with great fortunes, they had little personal sympathy for a mob of workers and agitators. Fearful for their own lives, many worried they would be the next victims. Within days, however, their anxiety turned to hope, as National Assembly members who took part in a fact-finding mission to Paris reported being greeted by a peaceful and joyous crowd eager to shake their hands. Men whose politics we would today characterize as center-right then spoke positively about the attack on the fortress, describing its conquest as legitimate resistance to tyranny—much like their own decision to write a constitution.[Rebecca L. Spang: The revolution is under way already]The modern concept of revolution—as an enduring political and social change created through mass action—can be traced directly to that reevaluation. Neither the creation of the National Assembly nor the attack on the Bastille was a revolution in and of itself. Both might be dismissed as “performative” insofar as neither alone achieved anything like its stated goals. But revolutionary events, those that result in sustained transformations of society, are not made by strategic plan. They do not have bullet-pointed deliverables and clear metrics of success. If they did, they would be business as usual, not a revolution.The protesters seeking justice for George Floyd have similarly combined collective creativity, a devotion to ritual, and an ability to draw mainstream approval. The Black Lives Matter movement has worked for years to oppose police brutality and show how the American justice system condemns Blackness and routinely presumes the guilt of Black boys and young men. The grossly disproportionate health and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic made fundamental inequalities all the more glaringly apparent. But it was Donald Trump encouraging governors to “get tough” with protesters and his threat to mobilize the United States military that attracted prominent supporters and establishment politicians—including former President George W. Bush, Senator Mitt Romney, and many others—to the cause.An unexpected and growing coalition now exists. On a basic level, these are pro-democracy protests made difficult to recognize as such because they’re happening in a country that has widely been considered a leading site of liberal democracy. Critics have been fast to dismiss statements from Romney, Bush, and others as mere show, but they signal a decisive change in the direction of public opinion. Republican leaders may (in the eyes of many activists) be on the wrong side of history, but they want to be on the right side of the future.[Shadi Hamid: Things were going to be so much better]Yet if one major lesson of the French Revolution is that people make history, another is that it rarely turns out as planned. The members of France’s first National Assembly were hardly men with an obvious stake in disturbing the status quo. Their conscious impulses in the first months of the revolution were in many ways conservative; they wanted to protect themselves, ensure continuity, and get things over with as quickly as possible. In the name of honoring the absolutist monarchy’s debts, however, many of them opted for policies (such as nationalizing properties held by the Catholic Church and issuing a new currency) that proved to be far more disruptive than expected. We might think of the revolution’s radicalization as a Möbius trajectory—moving in what seemed to be a single direction, it nonetheless arrived on the other side of a metaphorical strip.If the United States is in the middle of a new American revolution, months and probably years will pass before its effects or causes are fully discerned. Even when structures are unstable and existing institutions lack legitimacy, “old regimes” never fall apart neatly and completely—they have to be taken apart piece by piece. Tearing down the Bastille took nearly a year; years more passed before the workers who did the job had all been paid. Late on the night of August 4, 1789, members of the National Assembly voted to give up privilege and abolish feudalism. But privilege (literally, “private law”: one set of laws for the nobility, one for everyone else; one set of laws for the province of Brittany, one for Normandy; one for pork butchers, one for pastry cooks) had been the foundation of the kingdom’s entire judicial and administrative order. Only after decades of legal, political, and violent conflict was something like a new order stabilized.The protocols and norms that emerged in the aftermath of 18th-century revolutions—the inviolability of private property, the abstract idea of the rights-bearing individual, the fiscal-military nation-state—are today under attack as forms of privilege themselves. For now, translating that critique into an existing revolutionary vocabulary (the “poetry of the past,” Marx called it in the text I mentioned above) helps to sharpen it and draw attention to it. But those acts of translation should not, however, be mistaken for revolution itself. For real structural change, Americans will need to look not behind them to vanished certainties but ahead to uncertain possibilities. What is the difference between a revolution and the failure of a state or the collapse of an empire? Only that in a revolution, many men, women, and children have the emotional energy to imagine a better future and put lots of creative work into trying to make it so.
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On a warm November day in 2017, Representative Mark Takano, a California Democrat, met with a whistleblower who had serious concerns about the 270-bed Veterans Affairs facility in Loma Linda. Later that day, Takano took a tour of the hospital, and was shocked by what he saw. Grime encrusted the water fountains; the floors of the operating room were noticeably dirty. Takano called for the VA’s inspector general to launch an investigation, which found “inconsistent levels of cleanliness” in the main hospital building, and unwashed floors, dusty cabinets, and a sterile instrument resting on a dirty rack in the inpatient dental unit. The rate of infection among Loma Linda’s patients was higher than the agency average, and the housekeeping department was largely incapacitated by high turnover, poor pay, and shaky management. A separate investigation found the bacteria Legionella pneumophila, which causes Legionnaires’ disease, in the water supply—a discovery that the facility had failed to communicate to clinicians.Today, in the midst of a pandemic that threatens everyone, but especially people with preexisting conditions, including the many veterans who suffer respiratory illnesses likely brought on by exposure to Agent Orange and burn pits, problems with cleanliness at VA facilities endure. For nearly two decades, the agency’s federal watchdog has uncovered filthy conditions at facilities across the country. The problem is due, at least in part, to the fact that 40 percent of all VA hospitals suffered from severe shortages of housekeeping staff in fiscal year 2019—the most recent data available. More than 2,000 cleaning positions are vacant across the VA’s national network, according to granular workforce data released by the agency in late May. And despite Takano’s spotlighting of issues in Loma Linda, the facility still has 21 unfilled housekeeper positions.“The way many think of custodial staff does not reflect the value that they provide to hospitals,” Takano told me recently. “They are critical to infection control; we need to see these employees as skilled workers.”[Thomas Chatterton Williams: Do Americans understand how badly they’re doing?]In the VA, housekeeping positions are generally reserved for those who served. Retired service members struggling with mental illness or physical impairments fill many of those slots. As of 2015, roughly 65 percent of VA housekeepers were people of color; currently 85 percent are veterans. Unlike clinical hospital staff, who are less likely to be veterans or minorities, housekeepers aren’t required to have advanced degrees, and they rarely win public accolades. But the VA’s 257-page COVID-19 battle plan relies heavily on housekeepers, and requires sanitizing everything from hospital chapels to body bags holding the remains of those who succumbed to the coronavirus. The VA, however, lacked enough cleaning staff to fully execute that plan. Ten days after its release, agency officials announced they needed to quickly hire housekeepers.In an impressive feat, the department hired 1,126 cleaning staff over the next month. But it’s unclear how quickly these employees were onboarded and whether this boost meaningfully shrunk the vacancy number or simply replaced some of the staff lost to attrition each quarter. The VA did not respond to a request for comment for this story.President Donald Trump earned historic support from veterans in 2016, in part by promising to fix the VA. Yet one of his signature legislative achievements, the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017, has disproportionately targeted lower-level employees, who are typically veterans. Many of them are housekeepers.From 2017 to 2018, nearly 900 cleaning workers were suspended or fired as a result of the bill, many of them for specious reasons or minor mistakes. The president, however, boasted of the office’s firing spree just a few weeks ago, in Memorial Day comments dedicated to America’s fallen. “They don’t take care of our vets, we fire them,” Trump said. He enthusiastically estimated 8,000 employee terminations—many of them veterans—calling the fired staffers “sadists” and “thieves.”“They didn’t take care of our vets,” Trump said. “Now they’re gone. We got ’em out.” Those no longer in the agency include housekeepers, yes, but also clinical staff crucial to COVID-19 care. Although an analysis by the American Federation of Government Employees showed housekeeping as the top position targeted by the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, nursing came second.The necessity of VA housekeepers—and the story of their mistreatment—is vividly illustrated on the grounds of the Pittsburgh VA’s University Drive campus, a sprawling, 14-acre system built on top of an abandoned mine shaft. When the virus reached the Steel City in March, it circulated on the third floor of the Pittsburgh VA’s mental-health ward. Four housekeepers manned the floor in good times, but staff fluctuations in recent years had brought that number to as low as two. Just before the pandemic, the Pittsburgh VA acknowledged 36 custodial vacancies, and had three housekeepers on the third floor, all of whom were veterans. The oldest was in his 70s. The virus moved throughout the floor quickly. Soon most of its patients were sick.[Read: The biggest worry for doctors fighting the pandemic]None of the rooms in the mental ward were negatively pressurized, which heightened the chances of virus transmission. Staff witnessed dust spilling out of the building’s air ducts, and housekeepers spent precious time running water faucets—supposedly to prevent the spread of contaminants. Another puzzling policy that raised eyebrows on the third floor: COVID-19-positive patients were allowed to freely walk about, in and out of their rooms. This added stress to already-demanding eight-hour cleaning shifts. A VA Pittsburgh spokesperson did not respond to a detailed list of questions concerning conditions and policies on the floor.“In that situation, you’re constantly having to disinfect,” one housekeeper, who requested anonymity because of a fear of retaliation from management, told me. “Even if [patients] were wearing a mask, anything they touched you had to bleach clean. But not knowing exactly what they touched or didn’t touch, we were constantly wiping. That’s your whole day. And after a while, that bleach gets to your head.”In the early days of the pandemic, housekeeping staff lacked access to preferred cleaning supplies and nurses had to reuse protective gowns. N95 masks were also in short supply and seemed to come last for cleaners. “If they did have them, we weren’t the priority,” the housekeeper said. “We are the ugly stepchild.” As housekeepers shoulder additional risks related to COVID-19, only a few are receiving additional pay.As of April, at least half a dozen Pittsburgh VA employees had caught the virus, including the oldest housekeeper, who fought in Vietnam. Reached by phone, he confirmed that he had been diagnosed with COVID-19, but declined to speak on the record. More than 24,000 VA patients and employees have been diagnosed, and nearly 1,700 have died, including at least 40 VA employees.As the Pittsburgh VA’s housekeeping staff contended with COVID-19, they surely could have used the hands of Kevin Patterson, a feisty Marine veteran who, for 16 years, cleaned many of the hospital’s nooks and crannies. I first met Patterson more than two years ago when on a reporting trip to assess the immediate impacts of the VA’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection. The office was created under Trump’s 2017 law and was responsible for the VA purge. At the time, Patterson was busy fighting an overwhelming number of proposed terminations as part of his work as the local vice president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Federation for Government Employees. Speaking in his cramped union office in 2018, Patterson warned that the purge was “getting the guppies instead of the trout.”The VA’s leadership has long undervalued housekeepers, and the federal Office of Personnel Management hasn’t updated the job description for VA housekeepers since the Vietnam War. As a result, many earn a lower hourly wage than their private-sector colleagues, which puts them on the edge of poverty. Their firing can be catastrophic to their personal finances.The AFGE warned that the 2017 law’s provisions could be exploited to fire employees without cause and crack down on union activity, but few lawmakers took their warnings seriously. Although the OAWP no longer releases adverse action reports to the public, data from 2017 to 2018 show thousands of frontline employees were demoted, suspended, or fired, including the housekeepers.Although some OAWP terminations were surely justified, many others relied on issues as minor as narrowly missing performance metrics or arriving late to work. Last October, the VA’s inspector general found that the OAWP “did not consistently conduct procedurally sound, accurate, thorough, and unbiased investigations.” In March, the Project on Government Oversight came to a similar conclusion, and found repeated instances of retaliation against employees who raised concerns about office dysfunction. (As of late last year, the OAWP’s current director had targeted just one department leader for punishment.)In our 2018 interview, Patterson bluntly warned that the widespread termination of employees would cripple hospital services and hit veteran households hardest. He and other sources also pointed me to a Pittsburgh VA administrator untouched by the accountability office despite his work to cover up the 2011–2012 Legionnaires’ outbreak and other accusations of misconduct. (He has denied any wrongdoing.)Shortly after my story was published, Patterson was fired under Trump’s accountability statutes. The official justification for his departure cited a shouting match between him and a colleague, though multiple VA employees described the incident as a minor dispute.During arbitration, Patterson argued that he was slapped with the charge as retaliation for his union activity, including his cooperation with my story. (In the course of his case, then-AFGE local president Colleen Evans, who also spoke with me on record, testified that after my piece went live, she was “approached by somebody from public affairs, who basically told me to watch my back.”) In May, a federal arbitrator overturned Patterson’s firing and ordered the department to reinstate him with back pay. (The arbitrator found no evidence that the firing was retaliatory.)[Read: The veteran who could be VP]Patterson is eager to return to work, both to help out his fellow union members and to come back from the brink of his financial collapse. After being fired from the VA, he found a job at an Amazon warehouse. Within a few weeks, a colleague injured Patterson with a pallet jack.As he healed and sought employment elsewhere, Patterson said his job history made it virtually impossible to secure a steady position. “My wife told me to stop saying I had been fired, but that was the truth; I couldn’t lie about it,” he told me. “Plus, some employers just don’t like to hear that word, union.”Despite a couple years off the job, Patterson can still quickly run through a housekeepers’ best-practices list and can tick off specific uses for the cleaning chemicals tucked away in broom closets throughout the Pittsburgh VA. “You have to pay attention to detail,” he told me, “because cleanliness in a hospital is not just wanted—it’s necessary and needed.”Many veterans face an untenable economic future. The veteran unemployment rate has nearly tripled since January, to 8.6 percent, only slightly lower than it was in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. At the same time, the VA is grappling with roughly 50,000 vacancies across a host of departments. Hiring qualified veterans into these positions would not only improve agency functionality but also provide security for struggling veteran families. Patterson and his wife, Crystal, face foreclosure on their home and pressure to pay their daughter’s college bills. Even though he won his arbitration case, he noted the VA could still appeal the decision, preventing his return to work for months.Takano told me he had reservations about the VA bill that led to so many terminations, but he voted for it, citing its statutes as strengthening whistleblower protections. He told me he now sees the OAWP’s work as “classist” and “galling.”“They fired a lot of cleaning staff to prove accountability came to the VA,” he said, “only to create a situation where cleanliness during a pandemic is difficult.”
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Du Bois Gave Voice to Pain and Promise
W. E. B. Du Bois was torn between hope and rage. Following the First World War, challenges to colonialism in Africa and Asia, revolutionary labor movements, demands for women’s rights and universal suffrage, and the growth of what would become the modern Black freedom struggle portended a new, radical future. However, the harsh realities of imperial conquest, capitalist exploitation, the subordination of women, and horrific racial violence remained firmly intact. Black people fought back. But, Du Bois wondered, could democracy ever become a reality for Black folks?In 2020, across the nation and the world, people have turned out in unprecedented numbers to answer this question. We are again grappling with the failures of democracy, the specter of Black death, and the tension between faith and despair. We are again fighting to affirm the sanctity and beauty of Black life. And Du Bois’s 1920 book, Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil, offers us a clarion call to action, to imagine a better tomorrow and continue, even in the face of death, to live, to fight, and to love.Du Bois finished the first draft of Darkwater on February 23, 1918, his 50th birthday, believing that it might very well be his final work. The previous year, he had undergone surgery to remove a damaged kidney. In the book’s autobiographical opening chapter, “Of the Shadow Years,” Du Bois wrote that he had “looked death in the face and found its lineaments not unkind.” He survived, although he felt assured that soon he would “enjoy death as I have enjoyed life.”America’s entry into World War I had tested his resolve. Du Bois, echoing current debates about the efficacy of Black patriotism, supported the war effort and encouraged Black people to “forget our special grievances,” as he wrote in the July 1918 Crisis editorial “Close Ranks,” and stand “shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy.” Du Bois was widely excoriated, with his harshest critics calling him a traitor to the race. In December 1918, Du Bois traveled to France, where along with organizing a pan-African congress, he saw firsthand the devastation of the war and heard directly from Black soldiers and officers how American racism had wounded them in body and soul. “With the armistice came disillusion,” he later recalled.[From the March 1901 issue: W.E.B Du Bois on ‘The Freedmen’s Bureau’]Du Bois’s disillusionment deepened by the end of the summer of 1919. Racial violence had exploded across the country, from Washington, D.C., to Chicago to Elaine, Arkansas. The lynching of Black people had skyrocketed. On August 30, 1919, in Bogalusa, Louisiana, Lucious McCarty, a Black veteran, was shot, dragged through town, and burned to the howling delight of some 1,500 spectators. Two weeks later, Du Bois submitted the final manuscript of Darkwater to Harcourt, Brace, and Howe.The trauma of the war and the horror of the “Red Summer” explain the harsh racial world Du Bois depicts in Darkwater. Race, as an ideology and social reality, had become an immutable fact, with the modern investment in whiteness being one of its most dreadful costs. “But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?” Du Bois asked rhetorically in the prescient chapter “The Souls of White Folk.” After pausing to reflect on the countless everyday acts of privilege—some silent, some ugly, all enraging—white people wielded like a weapon, he sardonically concluded that “whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!”In Darkwater, Du Bois reprised the image of a veil from his 1903 work, The Souls of Black Folk, to characterize the color line as inhibiting yet ultimately permeable. But this time it was much more violent and unforgiving. “There is Hate behind it, and Cruelty and Tears,” he painfully revealed. “As one peers through its intricate, unfathomable pattern of ancient, old, old design, one sees blood and guilt and misunderstanding. And yet it hangs there, this Veil, between Then and Now, between Pale and Colored and Black and White—between You and Me.” The veil, no longer solely a metaphor, was “true and terrible.”East St. Louis, Illinois, offered a prime example. Du Bois detailed how the wartime influx of Black migrants into the city unsettled the color line, heightened labor tensions, and caused “red anger” to flame in the hearts of white workers. On July 2, 1917, it exploded. White mobs “killed and beat and murdered; they dashed out the brains of children and stripped off the clothes of women; they drove victims into the flames and hanged the helpless to the lighting poles,” he wrote. Du Bois argued that racial terror is thoroughly ingrained in the soil and psyche of America.[Ibram X. Kendi: The American nightmare]Darkwater also speaks to the deep roots of our current struggle with the precarity of Black life and the traumas of premature Black death. “We know in America how to discourage, choke, and murder ability when it so far forgets itself as to choose a dark skin,” Du Bois lamented. He posed questions that still haunt Black parents: “Is it worth while? Ought children be born to us? Have we any right to make human souls face what we face today.” Having lost his first son, Burghardt, in 1899 at only 18 months, Du Bois pondered these questions from a place of personal sorrow, while also writing that Black mothers felt, and continue to feel, this pain even more acutely.At every turn in Darkwater, shadows seem to overtake the light. And yet, through the pain, Du Bois offers hope.Darkwater was the canvas for Du Bois’s bold postwar political vision and challenge to global white supremacy. This included ending European imperialism, pursuing economic justice and the redistribution of wealth, expanding the franchise and protecting the right to vote, recognizing the struggles and contributions of Black women, and investing in education. Darkwater represents a foundational moment in the long battle for Black freedom and democracy that endures with the movement for Black lives today.Du Bois also knew that any vision of the future for Black people had to be coupled with an appreciation for the beauty of life. In Darkwater, he wrote of his travels in the United States and abroad: the iridescent colors of the ocean in Maine; the vast living awe of the Grand Canyon; the heroic quaintness of France. “Grant all its ugliness and sin,” Du Bois wrote, “the petty, horrible snarl of its putrid threads,” but he could not forget that “the beauty of this world is not to be denied.”And above all else, there was the beauty and gift of Blackness. Tears welled in Du Bois’s eyes as he listened to the “wild and sweet and wooing” sounds of the jazz musician Tim Brymm and his military band playing in the small French hamlet of Maron. He delighted in memories of a walk down the streets of Harlem, surrounded everywhere by “black eyes, black and brown, and frizzled hair curled and sleek, and skins that riot with luscious color and deep, burning blood.” All this and more affirmed Blackness as a life-sustaining force that even the harshest forms of white supremacy could not deny.[Adam Serwer: The most dangerous American idea]“Which is life and what is death and how shall we face so tantalizing a contradiction?” Just as Du Bois asked this question in 1920, we ask it again a century later. Du Bois lived until 1963, leaving behind an enormous corpus of writings for us to learn from. Darkwater, however, rings especially prophetic. Du Bois gave voice to the pain and promise, the hopelessness and faith, the rage and beauty that continue to define so much of the Black experience in America.
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