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Tell Everyone: I am Affirmative Action

Why I want you to know #iamaffirmativeaction

And why others need to tell you too.



Dear Justice Scalia,


I went to high school in rural Pennsylvania, a coal mining town with few resources and no support for education. At the time, some of our high school teachers had never been to college, others came and went. We had no Math beyond Algebra II, I never took Physics or Chemistry and I knew nothing about studying or learning. When I took my SAT’s the first time my combined score was 710. Everything about my situation was similar to the inner city, under supported schools—and I was that student who had the weakest form of preparation possible for college.


While my older brothers made it to college (one on the War on Poverty scholarship, others on State opportunity grants), they had been to parochial high school in a nearby town we moved from when I was twelve. They were smart and the nuns of All Saints prepared them. My sister, two years older, was a dedicated reader (or obsessive) and an autodidact and she was admitted to the state college system. I was the typical underachiever. Good grades in things like communication, bad grades in anything that had tests. If we had a guidance counselor, which we didn’t, they would have told me to try community college at best.


But because I was in rural Pennsylvania, I had to get out. For many reasons, but most predominately, we were experiencing episodes of racism from our all-white community that was making life harrowing for my parents. I needed to go away. 


Bad tests scores

Average grades

No skills

One award, Spanish

No sports

No club memberships

Not a cheerleader, a student leader, or a distinguished anything.


No recommendations


Who would look at that senior’s application?


Affirmative Action created an understanding that the individual is not responsible for their conditions and that their potential cannot be measured by their situation. Underfunded and weak schools existed in the inner city and in rural communities. I had no idea that when I applied to the University of Pittsburgh, they categorized me as Affirmative Action. Not as an Arab- American, but as the rural underrepresented. The equivalent of the one-room schoolhouse.


It was thrilling to be accepted into Pitt. From my perspective, I had hit Oz, but I also was struck with incredible fear. There was no way I could navigate not only the campus that was so huge, but the classes for which I was under prepared.



You’re right Scalia, these places are beyond us AA students—my first class Psych 101 was over 1000 students—bigger than my home town. Without individual attention, I was on my own to study something that was remote to me and in a language I didn’t understand. The professor, who was at the front of the class and on big screens all around the room, was illustrating hypothalamus injections in rats and I’m like…? Working full time, living on my own, the pressure was unbearable.  I was ill-equipped. My alternative was only going back to that hometown and it wasn’t an option.



That first semester wasn’t great. I did well in writing classes, media classes, but my first D, ever in Psych 101. In survival mode, I made an observation.  Take only small quirky classes, forget the 101’s and go for the “environment of future dystopias.”


Well, Scalia, like all kids from rough places, my sense came up with a plan and I made Pitt work—graduated Cum Laude, on the Dean’s list every semester after the first. Faculty were allies and friends. I even had a side business helping friends write their papers. (I could write).


Folks who come from circumstances that are disadvantaged don’t dwell on their shortcomings, they get large, like puffer fish—defending ourselves from failure. Many of us with affirmative action also had to work or take care of kids—affirmative action didn’t make it cushy, it made it possible.


The sense that I could be part of the academic society, that I could learn the language, make the choices, be the person who could lead,  buoyed me.  Let’s see:


MFA Columbia University

PHD University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Author of 3 books and hundreds of articles and poems in anthologies

Author of 5 plays

Schweitzer Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Humanities (sponsored by Toni Morrison)

Fulbright Senior Fellow

Professor of English and Creative Writing, Mills College


The most important outcome of all of this is being co-founder of VONA, The Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation. This is my payback to Affirmative Action, to Toni Morrison, and to all the supportive professors and the University of Pittsburgh and residencies. This foundation specifically supports and nurtures writers-of-color by holding workshops where their work is central. My affirmative action gift to others who may not find their voice is this landscape of anger, hate and discrimination.


So Scalia, that Psych 101 class scared me so bad, I would cry afterward. Reading the text was painful. But Affirmative Action had believed in me and while it was a long time before I could forgive myself for being so unprepared, I pushed through and hopefully the generations who have encountered me in the classroom were somewhat affected by it.


I am encouraging others, Justice Scalia, to write their #iamaffirmativeaction story. There is nothing so life-affirming as looking at how something succeeds. Affirmative action is not about the numbers or the race card or the blame game—the most important word there is ACTION. We take an action to give you opportunity to a world outside of your own.


This is my story. And it’s a story of how something works. Thank you


Elmaz Abinader, MFA, PhD.






Justice and Photography

Photographs and Justice.


My fascination started with a picture of passengers in the steerage of a ship, photographed by Alfred Steiglitz, and another of the one of the busy city street during a snow storm. Photographs of ordinary days in the life of the city during the early 1900’s in the glossy pages of Beamont Newhall’s History of Photography. This was the text we were using in my undergraduate Photography class.


We studied the development of film, the daguerreotype, processes of silver and albumen, Lumiere brothers, Muybridge and successive photos revealing the movements of horses. We found that photography developed (no pun) quickly from requiring the subjects sit for twenty minutes while the light etched their representations on plates to the easy stop motion. We studied the inventors like Eastman who created roll film, Louis Lumiere, who developed autochrome which led to colored photos.  It was a fast moving art that evolved not only in technique and facility but also in purpose.   

Then here, four weeks into the semester, was Steiglitz and his pictures of cities. The early pictures seemed ordinary, without much beauty, and in the two in the book, no one was facing the camera—not deliberately.  My teacher explained that Steiglitz, along with many other photographic artists of the time, were using photographs as documentaries; the images not only represented life, they also commented on it.


We did have not big projections or power point presentations when I was in undergraduate school, but I had the Beaumont book (which I own still, forty years later) and I studied the nuances of the photographs: the angles, the details from the frost rising from the horses backs to the broom leaning against the newspaper box (?). This was 1893, “A Coachman in a Snowstorm” and the street life intermingled in ways that allow us to see the action and the paralysis of the snowstorm in the city. 

 Steiglitz and Edward Steichen and other Secessionists, used their lenses to illustrate issues of poverty and wealth, the conditions of the streets and of the country. While no direct political statements were attached to each photograph, they provided a deliberate perspective that had emotional force.



I was captivated because I learned then, that photographs were not representational, not very often at all. They are a way of seeing. When the photographs of Dorothea Lange and Marguerite Bourke-White illustrated conditions during the war and the depression, my connection to the documentary photography movement was set. While I could appreciate the nature moments of Ansel Adams, I was more drawn to Henri Cartier Bresson images of WWII this moment of confrontation. 

In the pursuit of this, I spent hours at Hillman Library going through the old periodical section of Life and Look magazines and I fantasized about a life in photojournalism. To be there for “The Kiss” or peeking in the windows at the Leesburg Stockade like Danny Lyon, whose witnessing led to the released of the imprisoned women (Lisa Gray thanks)?


I built a darkroom in my closet, got a great SLR, first a Pentax DTL 1000 then a Minolta. I had interchangeable lenses and loaded my own film and developed my own photographs. I shot friends and family and scenes and events. Sadly I was all mechanical and had to swallow the truth that I could not shoot something that had a perspective—sure, there was composition, but not interpretation.  I didn’t have the eyes or technique or passion. Courage.


Nevertheless my need to view the world through the photograph was fulfilled by the constant access to pictures through print magazines and now the Internet.  Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement, photographs gave us the images of death, hate, and resistance. The revealing cover picture of the massacre at My Lai people allowed us to question the righteousness of the Vietnam War. The picture of the students gunned down at Kent State brought the protest home for us. These kids were ordinary and familiar.


We have seen peaceful resistance and violent response to civil rights for more than sixty years. The march on Washington is now iconic in the image of King linked with other leaders.   Bull Connor attacking marchers with dogs…this is our memory


These pictures, which were documentarian, also had a perspective of the truth, an uncomfortable truth, a truth that weighted on us in our daily lives.

The government understood that and so the scrutiny of our actions abroad was controlled.  Records of the Iraqi invasion are not documented to the public in the same way as Vietnam. The emotional response that photographs evoke was avoided. Mass graves, assassinations, destroyed villages, tortured victims, biological weapon responses—these are pictures of the past.


            So when the images of Abu-Gharib were momentarily available, a reaction rose up and then fizzled out—something had changed.  The outcry was momentary and the horror did not settle in us as a country in the same guilt-ridden way as My Lai. We got dependent on everything that was presented to us-- Life without journalists and photographers capturing the raw truth of the invasions and incursions helped us switch away from seeking the frankness of images without explanation.  Our complicity could be a little more fluid (looking up those pictures was devastating by the way)





Now we are in a new era and there are lots of photographs and films, and the pictures that are showing up are presented by the public -- they are pictures taken by phones and pads--movies and images that illustrate the current systemic war against black and brown people and children in this country. They are the rawest form of documentary photography that we have ever had, some by photographers and some by passersby.


These photographs and movies are witnesses to crime and often suppressed. The video of the police officer shooting the handcuffed man in El Paso last year was blocked until last week—long after the man was gone. Often the police’s dashboard cameras on cars seem to go dead, so we are dependent on the quick skills of the public to help position us emotionally in these stories.

We are deluged, not as much in the news, as in our feeds, Facebook and twitter. Citizen to citizen.

What do we see when we see these children sleeping side by side with less room that cows in a barn?


What is our response to tanks and military weapons facing down civilians in Ferguson?


There are lots of pictures and videos, convincing and damning and yet they don’t have the emotional impact of the Massacre at My Lai for instance, even though these stories are happening here on our soil.


How does a viewer see something different from subjugation and oppression?

Disproportionate force and suffering children?

(not to mention Gaza, Syria, etc.)


            I am mystified and each time one of these photographs or films surfaces, I review it with the same detail that I did Steiglitz, look at the nuances, angles, emotions…


            Sure, if I believe the images, then I have to believe that our world isn’t safe and the folks who are in charge will hurt us bad. That’s a hard truth, but I don’t think that is the issue here. AND, I don’t think it’s because we’re immune to the images of violence since we’ve seen so many.


            Back to my college education and a theorist named Erving Goffman. Frame Analysis. Let’s face it; I'm theory light—probably on the Dr. Seuss level of theory. But Goffman hit me right away—his Frame analysis, work on stigma, and discourse theory connected the world of media and language. Frame Analysis and I'm quoting some puff online thing here. In the social sciences, framing comprises a set of concepts and theoretical perspectives on how individuals, groups, and societies organize, perceive, and communicate about reality. Framing involves the social construction of a social phenomenon - by mass- media sources, political or social movements, political leaders, or other actors and organizations. It is an inevitable process of selective influence over the individual's perception of the meanings attributed to words or phrases.


Now what’s important about Frame Analysis, you can “frame” a concept in a total lie and then it becomes truth (re-keying) kind of a revisionist history, before it’s historical. It’s the Weapons of Mass Destruction approach to understanding history. According to Goffman, more than one source has to be in the job of the construction of the rekey—Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh, for instance, says that the Democrats benefit from racial strife. Fox news announces that only racists talk about race and Ferguson has nothing to do with race.


As these ideas are absorbed or even dismissed, the lens with which one  sees the photographs and videos coming from Ferguson refracts in the direction of the keying. Not all responses are the same, but all are affected.


Many rhetoricians, linguists, discourse theorist, communication specialists have demonstrated the effects of the these slippery media re-wirings of fact and opinion and how the compilation of the frames change the way we see things. I am more horrified, others are dismissive. Some say it’s awful and they purposely look away. Some don’t want to talk about it. Not see it. Not see a thing. Not seeing is also a way of keying. You can have no experience with the horror and so it deepens your commitment to its unimportance. A whatever.


For whatever it’s worth, the persistence of these images have not brought justice. Not to Oscar Grant, not to Michael Brown. So the frame has hardened. But hopefully not for everyone.


Homework: I offer 3 here, to examine with the frame that houses your perceptions. Go in, like it’s Dorothea Lange or Albert Steiglitz. And immediately re-key.







And So I Cry

And so I cry…


The VONA/Voices reading 2014 blew the roof off Berkeley City College. Our faculty, Chris Abani, Faith Adiele, Staceyann Chin, Junot DÍaz, Tananarive Due, M. Evelina Galang, Mat Johnson, Randall Kenan, Marjorie Liu, David Mura, Andrew X Pham, Willie Perdomo and Patricia Smith, compelled us with stories of love, disaster, birth, identity, confusion, war, hell and music. 

I read too, a poem, about Palestine and the apartheid wall that runs 708 Kilometers (439 miles) and is concrete, razor wire, broken glass and fence.” Climb Up and Over.” The poem was about my childhood and how as kids we roamed around our town without worrying about barriers; and it was about maps, and how maps show details of terrain with colors and shapes and lines and how walls have no place on maps, or in worlds. I chose this poem of all the ones in my book because of the tragedies in Palestine: the attacks and murders and injustice. All going on right now. As I was coming to the end of the poem I started to cry. I tried to push through the final lines, the audience encouraged me, comforted me. My voice cracked, I could feel my nose warm, my eyes burning and my throat blocked. The last three lines came out like a knife tore my esophagus.

I bowed, I left the stage, and I sulked. 

The writers who preceded me and followed me were funny, wise, romantic. Andrew X Pham’s motorcycle cut through Baja with brilliant descriptions of a reckless young ride, Faith Adiele imitated a sister-in-law screeching to her dadddddy, throwing the audience into fits of laughter. Mat Johnson, played with a girl’s identity, messed with the language of race. Patricia Smith followed the bodies of dead babies to their sorrowful families, Staceyann Chin, blew up a moment where a white woman took the chair from her table at a coffee shop. They kept their composure – didn’t crack—let the audience find the feelings in the work.

I cry a lot on stage. For over thirty years, I have told stories of my grandfather as a refugee, my grandmother fighting her way to the US, my mother losing babies, my humiliation as a child, about the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, about the second intifada, about the way the earth cracks when history is too abrasive. At some moment, once in a while, I melt, fall apart…no matter how familiar the script or how many times I have done it before.

I don’t mind the crying. Much. I tell writers in my workshops that there’s an honesty to going through the crying, to not be embarrassed. Our classes erupt often, especially when the writing becomes the way of discovering truth, rather  than knowing it.  Tissues make the rounds in the classes. You can see VONA/Voices teachers carrying boxes in their totes along with water and pens. 

I'm a classic crier—heartwarming commercials, romantic movies, injustice of all kind. I remember a story, last year, where a kindergarten kid was handcuffed and taken to jail for acting up—I saw his little wrists wrapped in metal. Ugh. Once in Trader Joe’s a woman who was mad at her son for touching something on the shelf in checkout, made him kneel down, until she was finished with her transaction. This boy was taller than me, wearing a basketball outfit, falling to his knees in front of everyone. He kept his head down, and his mother growled while he knelt beside her. My body wrapped tight and I cried.

Every time I am part of a group reading, I choose my works carefully – I want the poem or the story excerpt to resound with something the audience might be following or feeling. VONA/Voices is a community that shows solidarity with Palestine—rarely do I need to explain how occupation and walls are apartheid. So I chose this poem, at this time when we were seeing a boy burnt alive, another tortured by police and now 70 murdered in 48 hours. The poem felt right.

But I ended up wishing I was more like Staceyann, bold and fierce, cleverly mining a single scene for an explosion on white privilege, or like Faith, who rolled her eyes up and squealed in a princess squeal, making us laugh, hard. Despite the love and praise after the reading, the notes and the warmth, I said, “someday, I’ll write something funny.”

Fat chance.

I examine the crying thing. The audience must think I am so moved, I can’t control myself. There is sympathy and empathy. I am feeling the poem—but, these scenes are familiar to me—they are not new, not shocking, not earth-rattling—this disproportionate unbearable move to obliteration is and has been going on. So what is it? That each time I read “Climb Up and Over,: I am grieving? No. Because once I sit in my seat, I'm fine and enjoying the other readers.

 What makes me cry is trying to get someone to believe me. To get the level of seriousness, to understand the horror. Perhaps I don’t trust my words enough. And so the push come from inside me. Using all the power in my body, shooting from my feet to my head—heat, anger, sorrow, shock—I can’t name them or transfer them outward—they bottle up and erupt, just as I'm trying to punctuate the moment. What can’t be released quivers, high seismic activity.

I can say: A woman I know has a house where the wall curves—it’s the view outside of her windows on all but one side—the wall 25 feet high  keeps the sun from coming into her kitchen.  Entire families have been murdered. A Palestinian woman came home to her house and settlers occupied it and threw her out –she got arrested.

Nothing I can write is compelling enough, convincing enough, at least that what I'm thinking since I come home to newsfeed that shows children’s blood splattered bodies and their stuffed toys nearby also covered in blood.

 I cry because I can’t write the fullness of these things,  my poems and stories feel weak, a half-effort, a pea in a  bucket. When I read, I go back to the inspiration that created poems like “Climb Up and Over.” Returning to the first time seeing the wall, the immenseness of it, the ugliness of it, the way it tortures the Palestinians and the landscape…

And so I cry… and live with that as part of my story, my presence and the small whisper to the sky that is left to see.




Climb Up and Over



Our garden bordered an alley which crossed into a hayfield and stretched to the hillside

Our yard had lilacs that surrounded a pond filled with sweat peas and crested by vines

Our porch led to a street that lined the road running from our house all the way to West Virginia

and we walked from one house to Neff woods from another to the waterfall across a bridge


The coalmining corner of Pennsylvania with all its faults let cows chew from this neighbor

to the next and children crossed yards that were not theirs to get to school and sit on the steps

of someone’s porch without asking and we didn’t know that this was belonging


This was Pennsylvania and not Abu Dis where a wall was erected right down main street

keeping the kids away from the school they’ve been going to their whole lives-- so what

do they do? they wonder, like the farmers of Azzoun whose vegetable fields, olive trees


are out of reach, who stare at the twenty five feet of stone and wire, guarding them

from their own food as a security measure that forces a four-kilometer walk to get in a gate

that gives them twenty minutes to slip over to the other side for bushels of barley


to take home, if it’s still there or if you live in Ana'ta district in East Jerusalem, it’s probably

not---some things had to move to make room for the wall and without your home

everyone is more secure. The landscape is sliced and lands are carved and contained.


I have studied maps--the blue waters and the green mountains, yellow countries

and red ones all meant something to the cartographers and I followed them,

a puzzle of colors explained in the legend in the corner that said this was the earth:


Lakes, mountains, cliffs, buttes, highways, hiking trails, one way streets, capitols, borders

mileage counters, oceans, river snaking through states and countries, ranges peaking

across the Urals, frozen tundra, pampas, veldt, thickly populated cities, railroad tracks


I run my finger along each symbol, each road designation, each color, each touchstone

How do you mark a barrier? Make it part of a landscape? What is the symbol of restraint?

What is the color of confinement, disruption, loss and separation? Of sorrow? How do you

hold that pen, diagram the atlas, sketch the captivity? Do no draw the wall

of the Great March to liberation, just mark a slow death to the earth that inhabits

it and the people who make it home.