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January 30, 2018 / JV

Popped Tape: VULFPECK

I followed a winding road to end up at this royal windfall of sound. I’m just going to leave it here for right now.

January 30, 2018 / JV

What are the stakes of the n word?



At the beginning of his show on Friday, June 2, Bill Maher referred to himself as a house nigger. Chance the Rapper tweeted HBO asking them not to air another episode of Real Time. Michael Eric Dyson posted a tweet assuring that “the n word should be reserved for black use” but Maher has “been a champion of many fights for black justice.” Killer Mike meanwhile suggested it was weak to cry over the n word and there were more important fights, like banking with black-owned institutions.

Over the next few days, many people with a critical lens will expend copious amounts of energy explaining why it is inexcusable for a white man to say the n word. We will get caught in the same merry-go-rounds about the word’s complexity for black people and the lack of complexity for most everyone else; and whether comedy is beyond the realm of criticism. We will have to find a million different ways to phrase the reality that someone like Bill Maher will never know what it is like to actually be called — and treated like — a nigger.

What makes it so devastating though is that this is our stand in for democracy. We live in a country that parades as a democracy but does not care about public opinion or political protest. The president acts as a sovereign. Our systems — legislative, executive, carceral — do not respond to our cries for help or for mercy. Maybe someone losing their job is one of the few things we feel we can affect in this age of social media influencers and “corporate responsibility”? Maybe we feel most powerful exercising our muscle as consumers rather than as citizens and people who live in these borders.

And what’s worse, it’s not evident how this battle — the n-word battle that resurfaces every few years in an explosively public way — will impact that material lives of those of us who are most vulnerable to violence and death. It’s a battle that can be taken up because the target is clear, the transgression is unambiguous, and the solution is easy: DON’T SAY IT. But what’s not clear is what happens if we win this battle? Would it mean money, food, clothes, shelter, health care for all? Less funding to police departments and more funding to public schools? Increased accommodations for people with impairments and voting rights for all convicted and incarcerated people?

The fight over the n word has become an almost symbolic battle. It’s about public boundaries around a very real and violent history in which that word has been wielded against black people as a weapon. Yet, symbolic battles must symbolize something.



October 19, 2016 / JV

Tips for the solo, younger female traveler, for real.

An alley in Brussels

Yesterday I came across the NYT’s compiled take on the ever-enduring question of how to travel safely by yourself as a young woman. Some of it I think is useful and invariably true: it helps to dress like a local to some degree and furthermore to know the local mores. For example, in many parts of Japan, tattoos are taboo and can get you kicked out of an onsen or any place with shared showers. Similarly, if you are traveling in a more conservative country, it will save you a lot of hassle to keep your shoulders covered and, in some cases, your knees as well.

I also think the article does well to suggest having an itinerary, but no so much because without one you “risk wandering into areas where you shouldn’t go.” Having at least one destination when you walk out the door will lead you to a specific neighborhood and give you a point of reference for the day. Depending on how big the city is, this is an easy way to explore different neighborhoods without ending up lost or overwhelmed because you’re trying to cover too much. Ultimately, your time will dictate how leisurely you can plan, but in general, having destinations is crucial to – at the very least – not appearing lost, and I’d hope, to opening up the landscape piece by piece.

Moving on —

Practically everything else in the NYT article struck me as patently unachievable and even undesirable for any young woman who’s not traveling with a big budget or cushy savings. Splurge on my hotel? HA! I’ve never booked a hotel as a solo female traveler. For one, if I can afford to splurge, I don’t enjoy doing so on things I can’t enjoy with other people. And for two, I actually like meeting people from the place and prefer to stay with someone who is local, or if all else fails meet a fellow traveler in a hostel. This leads me to my first addendum to the NYT article, and what follows is a handful of tips that I hope will be a bit more realistic for the younger traveling woman.

    1. Meet and hang out with locals. Honestly, this is probably the single most important thing you can do for your safety (and your enjoyment). By hanging with someone who is familiar with the place, you will not worry so much about stumbling into a shady alley or a bad restaurant. A lot of people are adverse to couchsurfing but I almost always find my way back to couchsurfing when I’m traveling alone. Even if you’re not comfortable crashing at someone’s place, you can always join one of the organized activities or meet up with someone who shares your interests for a reliably noncommital coffee. Keyword search is key. Don’t be afraid to use it. (I often try my luck with “queer” or “lgbt” which, in many places, drastically narrows the options to people I’m more likely to feel comfortable around).


    1. Always have your route figured out before you leave the coveted wifi at your hotel / hostel / homestay. Depending on where, and for how long, you’re traveling, chances are you won’t have internet on your phone.  As noted earlier, it’s nice to have at least one solid destination when you leave your home base and 2 or 3 ideas for things in the neighborhood to do after. Whether you’re walking or taking transit, always look up the map beforehand. Even if Google Maps can’t connect to the internet while you’re out, GPS will still be creepily, accurately tracking you. So pull up the exact route, take screenshots if you are nervous of accidentally clicking something within the app, and check back periodically to see if your blue dot is on course.


  1. Try to avoid accepting things from men. This is not the NYT so I can keep it 100. To make things easier for yourself, try to very politely decline things men offer you — a drink, food, ride, anything. Of course, this is a broad generalization, and the appropriate thing to do may vary somewhat based on local custom. A quick-ish anecdote: A couple of years ago, I was on a bus from Cairo to a smaller, more rural city in the south of Egypt called Aswan. The bus was packed. The gentleman seated next to me took out a weathered bottle filled with some kind of sugary orange drink and offered me some. I knew only the barest of Arabic so I used a lot of gestures to communicate that I was extremely grateful for the offer – a couple of slight head bows, a gentle double hand wave, a big smile – but no thank you. He smiled back, gave a brief head nod, and held the drink out a centimeter further in my direction. I repeated; he answered. 

    After two or three rounds of this, I did some quick calculus. I could: A. keep doing this exercise till I had carpal tunnel in my neck, B. very slowly redirect my attention to the monotonous desert landscape rolling by, or C. accept the beverage. I’m the kind of person who does the things people say not to do when you’re traveling alone in an unfamiliar place. So I accepted the drink. I took what I hope was a very discreetly small sip and handed it back, thanking him very much. He then took several gulps which of course was my official cue that I was not on the verge of death.

    I share this story to highlight a time when it made sense to accept an offer from a strange man. In fact, after accepting multiple bottles of water, cups of tea, and paper cones of chickpeas on a sixteen hour train ride from Aswan back to Cairo, I realized that in Egypt, offering people things — however random or small — is a common gesture of welcome. Even if you only take the tiniest sample of whatever is offered, it is better than risking offense or being profoundly rude by declining.

    That said, avoid it unless you are truly getting to know a person. Otherwise, accepting things from random men can, as most of us already know, lead to other unwanted advances. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t socialize with men you don’t know. I’ve met and stayed with people of various genders when I’ve traveled and have had positive experiences with some who identify as men. The nub is to just keep aware that to accept something from a man can mean different things in different cultures — with some differences less apparent than others.

September 21, 2015 / JV

From the Vault: Nivea Gets It Wrong.

Note: I have a bunch of blog drafts from the last few years. I’m going to publish them occasionally. In fact, this is the 2nd from the O.A.B. series. From 8/19/2011. #NeverForget.

Not everything that is racially charged is racist.

When we compare the above image to the Nivea ad with the white male model (a privilege of the internet that’s nonexistent when reading a magazine), we see that both ads depend on a cultural bias that deems certain style choices (close shaven) as better. Yet we also see differences in the ad. From the absence of the “re-civilize yourself” message in the second ad, to the difference in posture — an oddly athletic (and vaguely barbaric?) crouch vs a commanding and upright stance.

Perhaps more important than asking “is this racist?” is to ask “is this some bullshit?” and the answer there is a resounding yes.

October 22, 2014 / JV

Popped Tape: Maryam

I literally cannot stop playing this song. I think I played it for seven hours straight yesterday. I’m headed to Cairo in a few weeks and a friend sent me a bunch of music from countries around the Sahara. This song, حصر مصر by Egyptian singer Maryam Saleh, was one of them. I, unfortunately, don’t speak Arabic (yet). But according to my friend, who describes himself as fluent in modern standard Arabic, the gist of the song is: “Basically it’s like if you get rid of all the bullshit, the soldiers, the dogs, the rats. The shit they brought with them will still be around.” So there you have it.

A piece of my heart also very deeply appreciated this live performance where you can hear the crowd singing and clapping along at parts. You can read more about my plans for Cairo and elsewhere on my “travel blog” (still putting it in quotes cuz I’m not yet comfortable with the idea that i have something called a travel blog whatever that is.)

January 24, 2014 / JV

Beyond Work


In a recent Jacobin article (reworked at Slate), Miya Tokumitsu argues that we should stop saying “do what you love,” (DWYL) because it “devalues actual work” and dehumanizes workers. Tokumitsu writes,

By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, DWYL distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it. It is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.

While Tokumitsu makes some great points, the article seems to miss the mark. The problem isn’t that a few smug elites (or idealistic moms) suggest doing what you love. DWYL is a saying; it doesn’t create the conditions for unpaid and low-wage labor, or any labor at all. The problem is that work has acquired a larger-than-life status, and — at least in the US — we’ve become committed to work as our life’s activity to the point that questions like why money is distributed how it is, or why the workweek is as long as it is are pretty much off the table. The problem isn’t DWYL (because we should, indeed, strive to do what we love with our time even if not as a job), but the problem is precisely that our attachment to the institution of work makes it so that people can’t do what they love, ever, even for a few hours a week, and they don’t have the time or resources to think about what they might love because their very livelihood is synonymous with something we call “work.”

Taken this way, our target of criticism is not a mostly innocuous phrase, or even the supposed ideology behind it, but rather the very institution of work that Tokumitsu seems unconcerned to interrogate. After all, it’s not as though the Steve Jobsian work ethic is the only one that’s problematic; our overall fetishization of “hard work” and the hugely popular Protestant work ethic that drives our economy, culture, and lifestyles is just as troublesome. This issue goes beyond fair compensation and leisure time and calls for reevaluating the way that we organize life around work over all else. Why is paid work our primary life activity, and why are we content to keep it that way? Even progressive views like Tokumitsu’s tend to take for granted and passively affirm compulsory wage labor as our dominant social and economic relation.

There must be a way to address employment conditions and demand that they improve now while also actively engaging the possibility and desirability of a postwork future. This is imperative not only because human experience should be about living creatively, building relationships, and, frankly, enjoying ourselves, but also because we have an empirical problem of permanent surplus labor. That is, too many people are competing for too few jobs just to get by; hence, the perpetual existence of an unemployed, or wageless, part of the US population. Combating this issue can’t simply mean fairer wages or “job creation,” but must entail a commitment to transforming society in ways that eliminate people’s dependence on the availability of wage labor and ensure that everyone has enough to do — and to discover — what they love.

December 30, 2013 / JV

Are there any worthwhile arguments against sagging?


I got into a disagreement today with some Grown Black Folks over this anti-sagging picture. A facebook friend of mine whom I don’t know at all posted this image, and though it wasn’t the first time I’d seen it, I couldn’t let it slide without saying something – partially for fear that if I didn’t say something, no one in his circle would. I expressed my discomfort with the image, noting its implication that sagging is bad because sagging is gay. To which he responded, it implies that those who created the fad were convicts who wanted to signal they were sexually available. To which I asked why that information would discourage me from sagging. To which he replied that if I was okay “copying convicts who are looking for sex with other convicts” then it wouldn’t. For him, however, that’s discouragement enough.

… Huh?

Beyond the question of whether the historical claim is even accurate, this little piece of propaganda is wrong on so many levels. For one, it implies that something is wrong with incarcerated people. Because people in “jail” doing whatever they may do is somehow worse than people outside of “jail” doing those same things.  It also implies that receiving anal penetration is something to be ashamed of. Though the ad manages to avoid using pronouns, it seems clear to me that it is directed at men and refers to men in “jail.”  Hence, it’s not only that anal penetration is wrong and doubly wrong in jail but also, it’s worse to be the “bottom.” And not only is it worse to be the bottom but it’s also, perhaps separately, wrong to let others know you are available for sex. Is it just me or do none of these implications make sense? Why is letting people know you are available for sex a bad thing? Should we not want sex? Or should we only seek it in private with people we already know? Is anal penetration, like, wrong? Or only when cismen are penetrated by the biopenises of other cismen? I mean, seriously. Shouldn’t the concern be that people are making safer sex choices with those who also want to? Or am I missing something?

As for sagging itself – which this image is only mildly about – I have yet to hear a convincing argument against it. Is there even a way to think about sagging in the US in this day and age outside of the context of respectability politics? What, exactly, is the matter with it besides the problematic, racially-charged stigma people attach to it? Or is the stigma itself the problem people want to avoid?


December 18, 2013 / JV

Yonce Facts



December 12, 2013 / JV

Hip-hop Is Global

This is one of those moments where I decide to just enjoy something.

December 7, 2013 / JV

Dying at Angola

I’m working on an essay about the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola Prison, and I came across this video for an annual event called Returning Hearts Celebration. Returning Hearts is organized by Awana Lifeline, a Christian “ministry effort” that started at Angola in 2004. The purpose of Returning Hearts is to allow incarcerated fathers a day with their kids, a day to play games, eat food, and learn the Bible. According to Awana Lifeline, the bad news is that over 5,000 people are imprisoned at Angola, the nation’s largest maximum security prison. And many of those inmates are fathers to a collective 20,000 children. What’s more, most of the inmates are serving life sentences without parole. The “good news,” though? “The good news is that over 1,000 inmates are Christians as well as the warden, Burl Cain.”

But how, exactly, is that the good news? When 95 percent of the inmates who enter Angola will die behind its walls? When 9 out of 10 of the fathers I see in this video will never spend time with their children outside of Angola’s gates, or walk outside with them for more than one day a year? When someone can be sentenced to 99 years for armed robbery, as per Louisiana’s sentencing laws? And I’m supposed to be convinced that anyone’s religious beliefs are the good news?

As I cried through the first half of the video, I was pressed to find the good news. Is it the laughter, the smiles, the tears? The contact and conversations and love? The one, or few, days a year when inmates and their visitors can just be? — in the moment, with each other, and exploring the spontaneity of social life among family and friends. These are things that all people, prisoners and not, parents and not, deserve. So in the age of incarceration, when so many people are locked away from so much of what makes up human experience, why is this made to feel like a victory?

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