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Valerie Elverton-Dixon
Valerie Elverton-Dixon
Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar studying ethics, peace theory, public discourse, and the civil rights movement.

For Philip Seymour Hoffman


by: on February 4th, 2014 | 1 Comment »

Actors help us to see our humanity.

They put on various masks and characters acting within the contexts of various life situations. The best of them guide us to a deeper human truth that allows us to understand ourselves better. When we understand ourselves better, the hope is that we will make better moral decisions and thus do our part to advance the moral evolution of humankind.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the best and most important actors of our time, is dead, apparently from a heroin overdose. His death is a tragedy for all of us who have seen our humanity more accurately, more authentically because of his relentless struggle for truth. T.S. Eliot said: “Human beings cannot stand too much reality.” When we define truth as that which coheres with reality, we can see that human beings cannot stand too much truth.


The Power of Unity


by: on January 20th, 2014 | Comments Off

MLK and Malcolm X

Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X meet before the Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Credit: Creative Commons/Library of Congress.

As far as we know, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X only met once. They were both attending the debate on the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, and they briefly exchanged greetings at the US Capitol. There is a picture of the two men, shaking hands and smiling as if they were old friends who had not seen each other for a long time. History leaves us with a fascinating “what if.” How would the history of the civil rights movement, of the United States, and of the world have been different if these men had a longer meeting? What would have been different if the two had joined forces if such an alliance were even possible? How would the world be different if the two men had lived long lives?

The play The Meeting by Jeff Stetson imagines a meeting between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. in a Harlem hotel room a week before Malcolm’s assassination. According to the play, Malcolm X has invited Martin Luther King to visit him in Harlem, and King has accepted his invitation. The two men talk, not as larger than life national figures, but they talk as two human, all too human beings, in many ways ordinary men who have been drafted by extraordinary times to play an outsized role in the moral evolution of humankind. The question of how to portray this was a challenge to the actors playing Martin and Malcolm. (http://news.stlpublicradio.org/post/black-rep-presents-meeting)

I recently saw the current production of this play by the St Louis Black Repertory Company (http://www.theblackrep.org/) and I was struck by two insights. Full disclosure. My son is a member of the current Black Rep cast. He plays Rashad, Malcolm X’s bodyguard. The three actors in this play seem to all be in their thirties, the same age as were Martin and Malcolm in 1965. My first insight: I was reminded that neither of these men lived to see their 40th birthday. They were young men leading a movement of young people. They were deeply committed to a cause larger than themselves. They were my parent’s age. I was a girl when the civil rights movement was at its apex. Now my son is representing that time on the stage.

I thought about my generation and about the work we did, that we did not do, the work that we are still doing. I thought about this current generation of 30 somethings and their artistic imagination. I thought about the people younger than 30 and what this fragmented world of social networking and smart phones and video games and the surveillance state and the Hip-Hop International Nation, and the Internet means to the project of human rights.

At the end of the day, both Martin and Malcolm were interested in bringing about human dignity. And, here is my second insight. For all of their differences in how to achieve the end result, they both worked toward the same goal of justice for all of humanity through human unity.


A Memo from Santa


by: on December 24th, 2013 | 2 Comments »

To: Christmas Defenders

From: Santa Claus dictated to Valerie Elverton Dixon

Re: War on Christmas

For the past several years, the holidays have been scarred by talk about a “war on Christmas.” In the name of tradition, many of you lament the trend of people wishing each other happy holidays, changing the titles of various parades and pageants from Christmas to Holiday this or that. So, you have defined this trend as a “war on Christmas”, and you have entered into battle.

As you know this is my busy season. In some countries I made my deliveries on December 6, it has been busy for me since Halloween. When I learned of the discussion about whether or not I could be represented as anything other than a white man, I decided to send this memo.

To be brief and to the point: You need to stop.

You are not helping the Spirit of Christmas by insisting that people say what YOU want them to say, represent me the way YOU want me represented, and by refusing to allow the tradition to expand and to grow. Traditions must change in order to maintain. If they do not, they become stagnant, and sclerotic, and they die. The changes you see upset you. Take a look at your angry faces. Listen to your combative tone. Your defense of Christmas is choking the joy out of it.

Let us take a moment to review the history and the meaning of Christmas. The scriptures do not tell us that Jesus was born on December 25th. The ancient Roman world celebrated December 25th as the birth of the unconquered sun. It was a celebration of the winter solstice when the days begin to get longer.

In the fourth century of the Common Era, Chrysostom wrote: “[T]hey call it ‘Birthday of the Unconquered’. Who is so unconquered as Our Lord. . . ? If they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He is the Sun of Justice.”


Reflections on Madiba: Nelson Mandela and the Power of Dignity


by: on December 9th, 2013 | 2 Comments »

Sunday, December 8, 2013 was a day of reflection upon the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president of South Africa who died December 5, 2013 at age 95. As I reflect upon the meaning of this extraordinary life, I return again and again to his dignity and to the power this sense of self bestowed upon him, even before the South African people elected him to lead them.

Mandela was born into an African royal family, and he was groomed from an early age to be an advisor to kings. And so he was. He became an advisor to world leaders and rose to be the leader of his country and a moral example to the world. This all came to be because of his unyielding determination to be respected as a human being and not to rest until his people were also respected as free and equal human beings. The goal of the end of apartheid [apart hate] in South Africa was constantly before him.

Since Mandela’s death, I have heard many commentators speak of his dedication to non-violence. They marvel at his willingness to forgive both personally and politically. As a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, some have placed him in the pantheon of heroes and sheroes who dedicated their lives to a cause larger than themselves, who worked diligently for peace. Make no mistake, Mandela deserves this recognition.

At the same time, it is more accurate to place him next to El Hajj Malik el Shabazz (the post Mecca Malcolm X) than to Martin Luther King, Jr. or to Mahatma Gandhi. Mandela was a radical humanist in the mold of Malcolm X. He makes a cameo appearance at the end of Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X reciting Malcolm’s famous declaration:

“We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being, in this society, on this earth, in this day which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.”

Mandela was willing to achieve his goal of human dignity for all “by any means necessary.” This included violence against a violent and vicious system and through forgiveness and reconciliation at the moment of transition from an [apart hate] society to a rainbow society where all races are treated equally in custom and in law.


On Friendship and Faith: The Best Man Holiday


by: on November 19th, 2013 | Comments Off

It has been 14 years since the movie-going public has seen a group of college friends come together for the wedding of their friends, a football star and his fiancé – Lance and Mia– in The Best Man. In the movie, the best man for the couple – Harper– has written a novel based on the college days of the group. Tension arises when a secret from the past is revealed and the entire wedding is in jeopardy.

The best man, who questions the existence of God, encourages his friend, the groom, to rely on his own faith to make the decision whether or not to go through with the wedding. Now fast forward 14 years to the sequel –The Best Man Holiday– a movie full of laughter and tears, and we see how these characters have developed over the course of time. Friendship and faith remain the heart and soul of both movies, and, in my opinion, is the reason for their success.

There has been much ink about the first weekend success of The Best Man Holiday, the movie having earned more than 30 million dollars. (http://www.npr.org/blogs/monkeysee/2013/11/18/245941099/the-best-man-holiday-and-the-language-of-expectations) There is much commentary about the thirst for African-American audiences to see positive images of themselves on screen. I say the movies that African-Americans choose to support are deeper than that. Such is the case with The Best Man Holiday.


The Debt We Owe to Veterans on Armistice Day


by: on November 12th, 2013 | 2 Comments »

On Veteran’s Day, we take a moment to remember what veterans suffer. We recognize post traumatic stress and moral injury, when vets carry guilt regarding the things they saw and sometimes did in war. We see the suicide rates among military personnel, and we do not turn away from those veterans who come home from war with physical injuries that will require care for as long as they live. We remind ourselves of those who are living on food stamps and those who are underemployed or unemployed. We think about all that veterans have to offer society, a set of habits and skills that make them excellent friends, neighbors, employees and employers.

On Veteran’s Day, we think about what we as individuals and as a society owe to veterans. I say: we ought never to forget that Veteran’s Day began as Armistice Day that commemorates the end of World War I. Armistice Day reminds us that what we owe to ourselves and especially to veterans is the end to ongoing wars and the prevention of new wars starting.

War is not encoded on human DNA. It is a choice that happens when groups are in competition for resources. It rises from the will-to power. Yet history teaches us that there is often a moment before a war begins when it could have been avoided. This is the case with World War I. Reading an excerpt of historian Barbara Tuchman’s book The Guns of August in the anthology Approaches to Peace: a Reader in Peace Studies edited by David P. Barash, we learn how World War I was preventable.


The End of the GOP Walking Dead or Confessions of a European-American Bokor (a short story)


by: on October 25th, 2013 | 5 Comments »

It started out as an ordinary day. Get up, meditate, listen to Huggy Lowdown on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, do yoga, work on my next book, stop to watch General Hospital and have an early afternoon meal, back to work, 30-minutes on the stationary bike then dinner, evening TV and bed. But, this day a package came that transformed my ordinary day into an extremely extraordinary one.

A white ready post utility mailer waited for me along with some sale papers and bills in the mail. There was no return address. I was not expecting a package, so I opened it immediately. Inside I found a black genuine leather journal with gold edged pages and a long letter written on ivory parchment paper. The letter was written in small neat printing. Whoever wrote this letter was a careful, exacting person. It could not be a Halloween joke from one of my friends. None had the time to do a prank this elaborate. Something within told me to take this seriously. So, I turned on a lamp in the living room and sat down to read the letter.
Dear Dr. Dixon,

If you are reading this, I am dead. I have asked my attorney to send this journal to you. I am sending this to you because I think that you will know what to do with the information that it contains. I know that you study the religions of the African Diaspora as well as ethics, political philosophy and rhetoric. I hope that you will be able to at least begin to undo some of the harm I have done. I am also writing to you because I believe that you will know how to solve this problem without violence. You understand that we wrestle not with flesh and blood, but with powers, principalities and spiritual wickedness in high places. You know that these are emanations from idols, the created things we worship rather than worshiping Divine Love. So you know that what I am about to say to you is not a warrant for violence. You know that what I am about to say about the soulless living among us means that you and others will have to find a way to help these people find their humanity. You will have to love them back to health.


Gravity, Government Dysfunction, and Spiritual Laws


by: on October 17th, 2013 | 1 Comment »

When I saw the movie Gravity in 3-D, there was a moment when a tear shed by the main character – Ryan Stone played by Sandra Bullock – appears to float off the screen and into the audience. The tear contains her image. Suppose we live in a world that exits inside the 3-D contours of a universal tear. Tears of sorrow, tears of joy, and praying tears are the stuff of our human connection to each other. The movie is about survival through the seen and unseen cords that keep us from drifting into physical and spiritual oblivion. It is about a return from space to terra firma, to earth.

In the movie, Stone, her in-space colleagues – Matt Kowalski played by George Clooney, and Shariff Dasari played by Paul Sharma– are working outside their spacecraft to make repairs on the Hubble space telescope when a debris storm damages their spacecraft and leaves them in danger of their lives. Dasari is killed immediately. Stone and Kowalski must weigh their options and Stone must summon the will to live. We see the international connections where Russian and Chinese crafts aid in the new mission of survival. Faith represented by an icon of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers and a statue of Buddha, opens a window to transcendence. Faith in an afterlife gives her life sustaining hope.
Life calls to life as she responds to a radio transmission where she hears a human voice, a baby crying, and the ubiquitous barking dog. She howls back. Kowalski gives her courage and bolsters her determination to survive. In this movie the artistic imagination reminds us that we need each other to survive.

That we are connected beings is obvious when we go about our daily lives: a little girl holding her father’s hand in the store, an elder couple walking close to each other, our family and friends surrounding us when a loved one dies or when a couple marries. However, we fail to see how much we are connected through the apparatuses of government until the government shuts down. Research on illnesses; passport renewal; the functions of the Centers for Disease Control; food safety inspections; environmental protection; issuance of various permits all stop. Federal workers, federal contractors and businesses whose clientele is composed of federal workers suffer. And this is the short – very short – list.


Peace Day and the Good News


by: on September 20th, 2013 | 2 Comments »

The late Hip-Hop artist Tupac Shakur told the truth in the song “Ghetto Gospel” when he said: “Before we find world peace, we gotta find peace and end the war in the streets my Ghetto Gospel.” This is especially important to remember as we observe Peace Day – The United Nations International Day of Peace and Global Ceasefire – September 21. (http://internationaldayofpeace.org/) We ought to honor the day in our secular and in our faith communities and know that peace is a possibility when we understand that world peace begins inside each of us, one person at a time.

Peace Day was established in 1981 as a day to shed light on the universal ideal of global peace and non-violence. Very often when we think of world peace, our minds go to the various wars being fought between or within nations. We do not think of the daily/nightly gunfire we hear in our communities. We do think of the homicides that we read about in our local papers every day. We do not connect events such as the horrific shootings in Chicago with distant wars.

But, every global conflict is someone’s local conflict. The violence happens in someone’s neighborhood. It is local violence that disrupts daily life. Whether it is the violence of civil war in Syria or Iraq or gun violence in Chicago or New Orleans or a mass shooting in Colorado, Connecticut or Washington DC, what seems to be distant violence is up close and personal violence that happens on someone’s block, at someone’s school or at someone’s job. The violence leads to stress caused by the trauma, and it is possible that stress leads to more violence.

Now the question becomes: what are we going to do to end the violence in our communities? I say there are at least two things that we can do. The first is to think about making peace inside ourselves. Life is full of things that cause stress. We ought to learn the techniques that will help us reduce personal stress. One such technique is Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Mindfulness is about living in the moment. It means that we do not rehearse the past; we do not fret over the future; rather, we live each day, one moment at a time.


On Trayvon Martin and the George Zimmerman Verdict


by: on July 30th, 2013 | 11 Comments »

I waited.

My tears waited.

In March 2012 when the story of Trayvon Martin’s murder became national news, I waited to comment. Like those who took to the streets in hoodies, I could not understand how George Zimmerman could shoot and kill an unarmed teenager who was simply walking home from the store, be taken into custody by the police, and then go home to sleep in his own bed the same night without being charged with a crime. Zimmerman told the police that he acted in self defense, and that was enough. Trayvon Martin’s family had to hire a lawyer and the lawyers had to contact national civil rights leaders before a prosecutor brought charges. I did not comment.

Trayvon Martin’s parents said they had faith in the criminal justice system. They wanted a trial. When I learned of the verdict on Sunday morning, July 14, my delayed praying tears ended their wait. I wept. I grieved for Trayvon Martin and for all the teenagers whose lives are lost to gun violence, and I grieved for our criminal justice system and for our nation.

Before the trial

Nothing happens outside of a context, and the context for this tragedy is race in America. Race is not nature. It is a construction. It is a way to order the world in ways that allow a particular system of power relations to stay in place. It came into being and remains so to allow people to continue to make money from inequality. Human beings have always defined ourselves in relationship to group identities. Race understood as a biological classification based on physical characteristics was a way to understand the differences between Europeans and the various other peoples they met in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. When slavery became racialized – the black African could not run away and easily hide among the indigenous people or among the white population – a human hierarchy took hold where the enslaved were thought to be not only different but inferior, even vicious by definition.