Tuesday, November 17, 2015


BABY ORCA, My new children's book about a baby killer whale, comes out February 23, 2015. Learn about these magnificent mammals, how mothers and grandmothers care for the young and teach them to hunt.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

New Album of Ed Bland's Music

My late husband composer Ed Bland was a prolific composer. He composed music in a variety of genres: Jazz, Blues, Soul, Gospel, Hip Hop, Ragtime, and contemporary classical. He wrote for the recording industry, TV, film, dance, bands, and orchestras. This new album URBAN FUNK contains 25 tracks of the last music he composed. The first 12 tracks he conceived of as a dance suite that might be used by modern dancers; the remaining 13 tracks are funky, top-tapping, and highly original. Ed's music synthesizes three musical canons: European, West African drumming, and African-American.

Writing about his artistic journey on his website, Ed said: "Throughout my professional life, my creative efforts have been haunted by aspects of a cultural warfare that has been simmering under the world’s cultures for several centuries. It is a warfare between a pagan prolongation of the eternal moment found in the traditional religious rites and music of Black West Africans living below the Sahara and conventional Western civilization’s pursuit of postponed rewards. As a consequence, in Western civilization there is never a Now, only a vague future.

Ironically, the African slave trade, with all its horrors and social disruption, also presented an opportunity for transformation. It was the slaves’ ability to rise to the occasion and create a new culture and persona that enabled them to survive and coexist in America. Traumatized by slave-ship voyages, deprived of languages, Gods, families, communities, and rituals, it became necessary that the slaves modify what remained from their past and invent new cultural forms. In a range of work encompassing “Urban Funk,” Atari Video Games,“Skunk Juice,” THE CRY OF JAZZ, Urban Classical, the Detroit Symphony, Dizzy Gillespie, Hip Hop, “Urban Counterpoint.” I have composed music that celebrates the pagan prolongation of the eternal Now.

You can read this entire essay on Ed's website: EdBlandMusic.com

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Shedding the Skin of Entitlement

I am a white woman who grew up in a small farming community in southeastern Virginia during the days of segregation. Even as a child I sensed something was terribly wrong with our way of life. I felt I was getting stop and go messages, mixed signals, all the time. My parents and my church taught me the "golden rule." Do into others as you would have them do unto you. But it was clear that this golden rule was white rule. No white people I knew wanted to be done unto as they were doing unto blacks -- forced to wait in line at the post office until all the whites had been served, forbidden to sit at a table in the drugstore and enjoy a Coke and Nabs like the white society ladies, barred from ordering ice cream at the soda fountain, from eating at any local restaurant, from swimming in the so-called public swimming pool, from going to the same school my brother and I attended barred from doing everything I took for granted. And it wasnt as if these blacks were strangers. They were our neighbors and friends whom some of us had known all our lives. Although my brother and I could play with the children of our black neighbors just like regular kids on our farm, we couldn't acknowledge that friendship in public. We couldnt ride the same school bus and go to school together. We couldnt go to church together and we couldnt go to the movies together. Well, we could, but whites had to buy tickets just inside the street entrance and sit in the lobby; blacks had to buy tickets in the alley the same cashier sold the tickets -- she just rotated the stool on which she sat to face the window where blacks bought their tickets, and they sat up in the balcony. When I asked my parents why we couldn't sit and eat at the same table as Bea and James, the black couple who worked for my parents, they told me white people and colored people -- that was the term white Southerners used then -- didn't eat together. But we were eating the same food that my mother cooked for all of us. When I asked why, nobody gave me any answer that made any sense; they just said thats the way things were. Some people said if God had wanted the races to mix, he wouldnt have made us different colors. Well why? Youre not supposed to question God. But why not?
Then there was the pledge of allegiance to the flag. You know the part about liberty and justice for all. But there was no liberty and justice for all. Whites had more liberty and justice than blacks.
So I began to wonder if what my parents and the church and the pledge were teaching me were all lies because the way we were living did not exemplify those teachings. The song we sang in Sunday School was particularly bothersome. Jesus loves the little children, all the children in the world. Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight.
Well, if we were all precious why did white children have privileges that black children didnt have?
Why did my white skin give me privileges that Bea and James and Emma Jane and Aunt Sara and Uncle Bill and Rachel and Annie Lee and Carrie and Nancy and other blacks in my community didnt have?
Sometimes I inspected my face in the mirror. What if I had been born with brown skin? I would still be me but white people would treat me differently. I just happened to be born with the skin of privilege. I hadnt done anything to earn that privilege nor had any other white person. The whole system rested on the pernicious lie of white supremacy that undergirded slavery and segregation and Jim Crow laws and that still undergirds racism today. White people don't want to talk about it and don't want to own up to it because it would expose the darkest side of their heart and soul. But until we have that painful discussion, we will not take meaningful steps toward healing our country of its racist wounds.
I listen to white millionaire male politicians in Congress talk about Social Security and Medicare as entitlements but thats wrong. These are programs into which Americans have paid throughout their working lives. If these politicians want to confront entitlement, they only need look in a mirror to see they embody the entitlement of the lie that being born white carries privilege. You don't have to do anything to earn that privilege. Its your birthright if you have white skin. This lie of white supremacy is the ultimate entitlement, the one we should eliminate, not Social Security and Medicare.
For a few days following the murders of nine people by a racist assassin in Charleston, it seemed that meaningful actions to flush racism from our country might begin with renewed vigor, that maybe after all the sorrow and grief and anger and outrage, this time we wouldn't go back to tolerating racism as usual. White politicians finally seemed to get it that the Confederate flag symbolized slavery and lynching and raping and segregation and injustice and oppression. It only took 150 years! The flags started coming down and several major merchandisers announced they would no longer sell them. These were important symbolic gestures, but symbolic gestures alone will not end racism. For a few days, after the Charleston massacre, it seemed Americans were united against this heinous crime, that instead of starting a race war, the white supremacist terrorist had triggered a unified surge of blacks, whites, Hispanics and other minorities in common commitment to heal this nation's open sore. For a few days that's the way it seemed, but then the fires began at least eight predominantly African-American churches torched as of this date in five southern states (Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee) since the Charleston murders. Not to be outdone by funerals for slain African-Americans, the racists crawled out of their sewers to do the only thing they seem capable of -- destruction.
 It makes me wonder -- how do racists live with themselves? Are they so devoid of compassion, so bereft of humanity that they cannot imagine how they would feel if someone came into their church and opened fire, killing their loved ones for no reason other than the color of their skin? Have their hearts become so frozen with hate that they would not shed tears or grieve their loss? instead of showing compassion, these soulless barbarians have exposed their pitiful personhood by burning black churches. In a former time they would probably have been among the white people who brought picnics to lynchings as if attending outdoor theatre.
 Yes, white people did that and some whites are still killing black Americans in the modern equivalent of lynching -- the shooting of black men and boys by white policemen and this latest atrocity in Charleston. Black Americans have been living with these atrocities for centuries and too many whites have tried to deny racism still exists, that its all in the past. Charleston should demolish that illusion.
We need to fess up. Yes, white people have to own up to racism. No, those of us alive today didn't create slavery but some of us born in the South have ancestors who kept slaves. Many of us abhor this legacy of evil and many whites have given their lives fighting for civil rights and justice for all, but the historical truth of our racist way of life the truth our segregated history has conveniently whitewashed -- rests on whites who kept slaves and went to war to maintain that awful system, and later generations of whites who perpetrated that system with discrimination against African-Americans in housing and employment opportunities and education. Although slavery ended with the passage of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865, its terrible legacy of the myth of white supremacy continues to rip apart our national soul and wound our nation more than any foreign threat from Al Qaeda or ISIS. The young white man who shot nine of our fellow Americans Charleston, South Carolina, didn't come out of nowhere. He is the product of our racist culture, nurtured and groomed by the belief in white supremacy that continues to influence racist attitudes, discrimination, criminalization of black men, shooting of black men and boys by white policemen, and now this latest mass murder of African-Americans. We should be grief-stricken and we should shed our tears and mourn, but we should also take action beyond collective grief. And we should stop trying to paint those who murder black Americans as mentally deranged, lone wolves or bad apples. Racists know what they're doing and to whom they're doing it.
In his eloquent eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the slain pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, President Obama said it would be a betrayal of all the reverend stood for if we allowed ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again once the eulogies have been delivered, once the TV cameras move on.” He also noted a lot of real racial progress has been made. I have experienced that in my own life, growing up in a segregated southern community that is now so integrated that interracial families can live here comfortably and safely. This happened because blacks and whites of good will banded together to transform this community. For me, its a powerful example that we are not beyond redemption if we commit to working together with mutual respect. 

It's not easy to own responsibility for perpetrating a system that has and continues to hurt so many of our fellow Americans, but we would not still be a racist country if whites had not tolerated racism, had not elected racist politicians who passed legislation to obstruct voting rights and who support policies that only perpetuate racist violence.
Perhaps we could take a page from South Africas Truth and Reconciliation process, which helped that country move from apartheid to democracy. We are in a struggle here to maintain and fulfill the promise of democracy. Put yourself in a black Americans shoes. Would you be man enough or woman enough to walk in them? Shed the skin of entitlement that has so permeated our culture, conveyed in thousands of insidious ways. Know that we are more similar than we are different. Beneath the superficial color of our skin, we carry DNA that connects every human being on Earth today to people that appeared in Africa some 200,000 years ago. Scientists tell us that race is meaningless biologically, that we all belong to the one human species on our planet, Homo sapiens.  Sapiens means wise. May we strive to live up to our species name.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Writing is Good for the Body and the Soul

People write for all kinds of reasons: to create an imaginary world; make a statement; escape. Some people even write for their health. Writing in The New York Times Science section (January 19, 2015), wellness blogger Tara Parker-Pope says: "Studies have shown that writing about oneself and personal experiences can improve mood disorders, help reduce symptoms among cancer patients, improve a person's health after a heart attack, reduce doctor visits and even boost memory.

"Now researchers are studying whether the power of writing--and then rewriting--your personal story can lead to behavioral changes and improve happiness."

She quotes Timothy D. Wilson, a University of Virginia psychology professor and lead author of a Duke study of the effects of personal story on struggling college freshmen. “These writing interventions can really nudge people from a self-defeating way of thinking into a more optimistic cycle that reinforces itself,”  he said

Dr. Wilson, whose book “Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By,” was released in paperback in January 2015, believes that while writing doesn’t solve every problem, it can definitely help people cope. “Writing forces people to reconstrue whatever is troubling them and find new meaning in it,” he said.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Endangered in America

No, this is not about the greater sage grouse, the mountain yellow-legged frog, or any other endangered nonhuman species. It’s about members of our own species. Black men -- particularly young black men -- are endangered in America. They are criminalized, incarcerated disproportionately and, in far too many incidents, killed by police – the very people charged with protecting us. All of us.

In city after city, young black men are routinely stopped by police for “walking while black,” sometimes on the street where they’ve lived for years. Some black men have even been stopped or arrested by police while trying to enter their own homes, most notably prominent Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2009.

Some years ago in Los Angeles, a friend was stopped on a street outside his apartment and held at gunpoint in a squad car for two hours. The police were looking for a suspect in his 30s; my friend was in his 70s, but he “fit the description!” Black men, from teenagers to adults, have heard this accusation all too often. But the only description they fit is that of being a black man, and too many white Americans think that in itself is associated with criminality. The “crime” is simply being born a black male.

America’s wretched racist legacy has conditioned many whites to fear non-white skin color – the “we” and “them” attitude gone pathological – and some in positions of authority respond by unpacking the national weapon and unloading on black men.

Young black men are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts, says a new report from ProPublica, released October 10, 2014. In an analysis of 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012, ProPublica found that “blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.” Imagine the national outrage if a proportional number of young white men had been shot by police during that same time period. We need a surge of national outrage over the murders of young black male Americans.

August 2014 was a particularly deadly month: Michael Brown, age 18, killed August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri; Ezell Ford, 25, shot in Los Angeles, California, August 11, 2014; Dante Parker, 36, tased in Victorville, California, August 12, 2014. When he developed trouble breathing, Parker was taken to a hospital where he died. Not even black male children are safe from police shootings. On November 22, 2014, police in Cleveland shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice who was carrying a toy pellet gun.

Criminalization of black men has a long ugly history in America, as Khalil Muhammad, head of the New York Public Library’s Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture and author of Condemnation of Blackness, explained in an interview with Bill Moyers on June 29, 2012. “If we think about the moment immediately following the Civil War, there was the invention of something called ‘the Black Codes’ in every Southern state. And those codes were intended to use the criminal justice system to restrict the freedom and mobility of black people. And if you crossed any line that they prescribed, you could be sold back to your former slave owner, not as a slave, but as a prisoner to work off your fine after an auction where you were resold to the highest bidder. It tells you something about the invention of the criminal justice system as a repressive tool to keep black people in their place,” Muhammad told Moyers. “And it’s still with us. It’s still with us, because ultimately, as a social problem, crime has become like it was in the Jim Crow South, a mechanism to control black people’s movement in cities.”

Slavery ended long ago but the psychological dregs remain with us. President Obama has not been immune to the racism that still infests and sickens our society. Since he campaigned for the presidency, he has been the target of racist epithets and cartoons, vilification, unprecedented disrespect, and attempts to paint him as non-American. Although his election is one of the most triumphant moments in American history, it has not triggered a post-racial era. On the contrary, it unleashed a virulent Obama hatred and blatant resurgence of political racism. One entire political party – the Republican Party – has spent the past six years trying every tactic in its book of dirty tricks to destroy the Obama presidency. Any day, I expect to hear some Republican or Fox News wag blame Obama for bringing the Ebola virus into the U.S. Think it’s far-fetched? It’s not impossible from a party that rejects the findings of science, spurns evidence, celebrates ignorance and has done everything it could to block, obstruct or kill every social policy President Obama has tried to get through Congress. It’s as if Republicans are trying to exact revenge on the American people for electing Barack Obama president.

In campaigns throughout the country, Republican candidates have only one issue: anti-Obama. At the Congressional level, Republicans have supported only two issues: more tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires; and overturning the Affordable Care Act, which is, in fact, providing health insurance to millions of previously uninsured Americans, reducing medical costs and working much better than even its proponents expected. They have put nothing positive on the table. Because of their inaction and right-wing ideology, I have come to a conclusion I don’t like, namely, that the Republican Party, which once had real statespersons like Eisenhower, is now a party of rich, racist old white men who care nothing about the poor, the middle class or minorities. Indeed, a right-leaning Supreme Court majority gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Republican-governed states have gerrymandered districts to isolate minority voters most likely to vote Democratic and have set up obstacles to discourage minorities, the young and the old from voting. Racism run amuck at the highest levels of government.

You see, Barack Obama was never supposed to be president. He was never supposed to make it through the racist maze. He was never supposed to get out of the “place” that racism designed to confine all African-Americans but particularly African-American men. The fact that he did – that a majority of American voters elected him twice – sent a shockwave through the racists among us. And they are trying to ensure that it never happens again. Of course, they won’t win. America is too diverse, and that diverse population is only increasing. But in the meantime, we have to waste time and precious human resources putting up with those racists who occupy some powerful positions. More importantly, we have to recognize the ugly racist undercurrent of some local and national politics and exercise our votes to get racists out of office. There are more intelligent, more compassionate, more tolerant Americans out there. We know this because they turned out to elect the first African-American president in our nation’s history, and every day they make significant positive contributions at every level of community life, from operating free clinics to raising funds to provide fuel assistance to needy people. There is much unheralded goodness and generosity in this country, and we need to tap into it.

In 2008, President Obama said, "Yes, we can." And we did. Twice. Now we have to do everything we can to rid our culture of racism. Ultimately, our democracy and the social health of our nation depend on it.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Why I Write Nature/Science Books

People ask me why I write nonfiction – nature/science books in particular. I didn’t plan it that way but after some 30 years making my living as a science writer of books, magazine articles and television shows, I figure I must not be too bad at it. I knew I wanted to be a writer from around age 8. I loved reading more than anything in the world – fairy tales, Nancy Drew mysteries, Hardy Boy mysteries, and Book-of-the-Month-Club novels that an adult cousin passed on to me after she finished reading them. I thought I would write fiction, but life takes many unexpected twists and turns. The adventure of life is to follow them and see where they lead.

The first twist for me was an opportunity to write a book about scientific discoveries that were made by chance or error. I had to work really hard to write that book because I had no background in science. I was a literature major with a minor in creative writing. The year I worked on that book was grueling. I had a full-time job but spent weekends in the New York Public Library doing research for the book. I did get a book, Discovery By Chance, written, and after it was published, other science writing jobs on television documentaries came my way. To write one of those films, which was about tropical rainforests, I traveled to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s field station on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, to do research. Being in the rainforest and meeting a bunch of field biologists hooked me on science, especially evolutionary biology, the science that deals with life on Earth, who we are, and how we evolved.

I don’t know anything more fascinating than the fact that life evolved on this fortunate planet, and that of all the directions life could have taken, creatures like us evolved. Chance figured in our evolution as well. We wouldn’t be here had it not been for a cataclysmic accident that wiped out the dinosaurs. Some 65 million years ago, an enormous asteroid (6 miles across) hit the Earth, sending up dense dust clouds that blocked the sun’s rays and darkened the skies. Without sunlight, plants couldn’t carry out photosynthesis and manufacture food that is the base of all food chains. Without their plant food, the vegetarian dinosaurs and many other species died of starvation along with the carnivorous beasts like T. Rex that fed on them. Without the sun’s warmth, the Earth also experienced cold winter conditions. Scientists think the fallout from this asteroid killed up to 70 percent of all plants and animals on Earth at that time – a mass extinction.

It was a fortunate extinction for us, because living in the shadow of the gigantic beasts was a small shrew-like insect-eating mammal that may be the ancestor of modern placental mammals. A specimen 160 million years old has been found. Over time, following the extinction of the dinosaurs, numerous mammals evolved, including primates and the great apes that are our ancestors.

I find it exciting to learn what we share in common with our closest primate relatives – the chimpanzees – and how we differ. Our modern human species, Homo sapiens, first appeared in Africa about 200,000 years ago -- only a flicker of evolutionary time. DNA analysis shows that all of us who are alive today are descended from those early humans who lived in Africa. At the deepest level of our cells, our genetic blueprint, we are all African. What is more profound or exciting than that?

I write about nature and science because they form our knowledge base, provide evidence for what we know, and point toward solutions if our leaders are wise enough to embrace evidence. Sadly, today too many people in positions of power deny science and embrace superstition. I write science because I cherish life and hope in some small way to contribute to the education needed so desperately to protect our planet and save humanity from its self-destructive ways. Think of this: Dinosaurs ruled the Earth some 135 million years; our species hasn’t been around even a quarter of a million years. We are babies, and some of our grown-ups act like toddlers having tantrums. At the current rate of willful destruction of the planet’s resources, we won’t need an asteroid to wipe us out. We’re doing it to ourselves.

Is there hope? I like to think so. We’re a resilient, hardy species with huge brainpower. If we use our intelligence, creativity, compassion and ability to cooperate with each other and solve problems, we could protect our home planet and improve the quality of life for everyone. But it's a big IF.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Looking Back and Moving Forward

Today, May 17th, is the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. I was a junior in an all-white Virginia high school (there were no racially integrated schools in the South at this time) when the decision was announced. In my naivete, I thought there should be a celebration.

But there was no celebration. Instead Virginia politicians turned to fear-mongering against “mongrelization” and mounted a policy known as “massive resistance” to implementing the court’s decision. Using every political tactic at their disposal, including closing schools to prevent desegregation, Virginia’s politicians succeeded in delaying school integration until the late 1960s. One entire county, Prince Edward County, closed its public schools for five years rather than integrate. Here and in other areas of the state, private academies for white children sprang up but black children sometimes had no education at all. It was an ugly time in our history. Looking back now, I wonder how grown people could have acted so hatefully against children and against people they had known all their lives.

Even when I was a child, segregation never made sense to me. It went against everything my parents, my school, and my church taught me: love your neighbor as yourself, all men are created equal, respect everyone, liberty and justice for all. An old Sunday school song depicted a world quite different from the one in which I was living: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children in the world. Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight.” I felt I was getting mixed signals from these institutions and my community. When I asked why, nobody seemed to be able to give me an answer that made any sense. I felt I was getting simultaneous stop and go signals about how life should be lived.

Growing up on a farm, my brother and I played with the children of our black neighbors. We were friends. It was okay to play together in our yard, but we couldn’t express that friendship in public. We couldn’t go to school together; we couldn’t go to church together; we couldn’t go to the movies together.

The cultural mantra was “separate but equal,” but there was no equality in separation. I remember the “White Only” and “Colored Only” signs next to water fountains and on waiting room doors; the “White Only” and “Colored Only” sections of the local movie theater. Blacks weren’t allowed to sit at tables in the local drugstore/soda shop. Even the cemeteries were segregated. Did this mean heaven and hell were segregated? I felt that segregation made victims of both blacks and whites, that it limited freedom for all of us, though I knew I wasn’t humiliated and discriminated against as black people were. By the luck of the genetic draw, I was born white, but I would be no less me if I were black. Skin color was just another feature like eye or hair color. But segregation exploited skin color as an inborn badge of superiority or inferiority. Segregation said being black diminished a person's humanity, relegated a person to second-class status. But whites had done nothing to deserve their superior status. It didn't make any sense.

I didn’t understand how anybody calling themselves Christian could embrace segregation. Throughout my teenage years, I argued with my father, who was a devout Christian, on this point. Neither he nor my mother were racists. Like many other decent, well-meaning white southerners, they were born into the system of racial segregation, but they harbored no hatred of blacks. Indeed, there were some genuinely loving friendships between blacks and whites, especially between black and white women. But they were emotionally shackled by a system that required holding back feelings and avoiding openly embracing each other’s humanity. So there was intimacy and denial of intimacy – a system of wounded love. Always you had to be aware of how far you could go. The social taboo – the line that must never be crossed, on fear of death for black men – was interracial mixing – the great sexual bugaboo. Until 1967 when the Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s law against interracial marriage as unconstitutional, mixed marriage was a felony in the state of Virginia and other southern states.

We’ve come a long way since 1954. Interracial marriage is no longer taboo, we have an interracial president who was raised by a single white mother and his white grandparents, and schools throughout the country are racially integrated though still segregated in many areas because of housing patterns. But we’re not in a post-racial society yet. Blacks still experience discrimination in job opportunities, housing, educational opportunity, access to medical treatment, and administration of justice. Black male children are especially at risk of racial hatred, such as the wanton murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, whose murderer was acquitted. Black male students in grades K-12 are nearly two-and-a-half times more likely to be suspended from school than white students. Young black men are stigmatized as criminals or potential criminals. According to the Center for American Progress, people of color are “ disproportionately incarcerated, policed, and sentenced to death at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts.”

So segregation is no longer legal but America still suffers from racism. Indeed, since President Obama’s election, racism seems to have surged particularly in the Republican Party. Legislation to hinder and limit the voting rights of African-Americans and other non-white minorities has been passed in various Republican-led states. Jim Crow has resurfaced under the guise of preventing so-called voter fraud. The journey to get beyond racial segregation that began 60 years ago with the Brown v. Board of Education decision hasn’t been completed yet. But I choose to believe we can overcome racism if enough people of good will speak out and remain vigilant. In some small pockets of the country, including many in the South, it has already happened quietly and peacefully.