Why the KKK monument in Selma, Alabama, must never, ever be built.

In Uncategorized on October 9, 2012 at 11:51 pm

A private group wants to build a monument to honor Confederate Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest in a public cemetery in Selma, Alabama.

Forrest led the Confederate troops during the Battle of Selma in 1865, one of the final battles of the American Civil War. He lost Selma – badly.

Before the war, Forrest was a slave dealer. He advertised his company with posters like this. Selling human beings had made him a very wealthy man. By God, he was going to defend his way of life – even if he had to die.

Then there’s the Battle of Fort Pillow in which Forrest commanded the massacre of nearly 500 black Union soldiers after they had surrendered. This is how Forrest himself described the massacre:

“The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for two hundred yards. The approximate loss was upward of five hundred killed, but few of the officers escaping. My loss was about twenty killed. It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.”

After the Civil War, Forrest was among a small group of disgruntled Confederate officers who founded the Ku Klux Klan, or KKK. Whether or not Forrest was the first Grand Wizard of the KKK remains unclear, though he was known as The Wizard of the Saddle, so there’s that.

In March, vandals reportedly stole the bust of Forrest from atop its 7-foot base, infuriating the Friends of Forrest, the group funding the new enterprise. Now they want to rebuild and expand the thing and put a fence around it. They also want to install security cameras and L.E.D lights.

You have got to be kidding me.

Last week, the Selma City Council voted to stop all work on the monument – until the courts decide if a private group can own a plot of public land.

This American says no. Public symbols that serve to honor slave owners do not deserve our collective esteem as Americans.

Could Forrest supporters have built this statue in 1865, or even in 1875? The answer is likely no. To put forth such a plan at that time would have been stupid, and possibly treasonous.

I used to visit Selma frequently when I was a teenager. My cousins lived there, and they drove my brother and I around a lot. We drove to the Piggly Wiggly. We drove to the downtown Selma video store. We listened to tapes. We must have passed the Forrest monument a gazillion times during those drives.

Our Selma trips petered out in the early 90s along with cassette tapes, and soon afterwards, I started college. I chose to major in history with a focus on African American studies. Suddenly I understood the importance of Selma in a new and profound way. It was no longer just the backdrop of an Indian American kid’s summer vacation.

It was where the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965 had taken place. Martin Luther King Jr. led the second of these three historic marches, but it was the first one that earned the name Bloody Sunday.

The Selma to Montgomery marches played a pivotal part in the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Last week, Michelle Obama called voting rights “the nation’s most important civil rights issue”. The KKK has historically sought to suppress the black vote by using terror tactics. We know all too well about those. There may not have been beheadings, as such, but there were public lynchings that were equally gruesome.

Nathan Forrest was not even from Alabama; he was from Tennessee, the birthplace of the Klan. He has a state park named after him in Eva, Tennessee. His remains are buried in Memphis. He has his very own monument there for people to enjoy if they choose.

But leave Selma alone.

Hate groups have been on a steady and dramatic rise since 2008, the year President Obama took office.

A few weeks ago, residents of a Louisiananeighborhood discovered KKK fliers in their mailboxes. Smartly, people are keeping cool heads.

But in Georgia around the same time, a KKK chapter sued the state because it rejected their application to adopt a stretch of highway.

It is when the barks of hate groups reach the level of litigation that we should all pay attention.

If the Forrest statue in Selma gets approved, it will reignite racial tensions. It will serve as a major recruitment tool and pilgrimage site for the KKK and groups like it. No city needs that kind of press. Especially Selma.

Freedom of speech is one of the sacred laws of our land, but there are rare instances when it must be overridden by concerns of national security. The Union won the Civil War in 1865, so it makes no sense to use its public lands afresh in 2012 to honor an ex-Confederate leader.

Selma should quash this thing before it gets out of hand.

© S.V. Pillay 2012


Dear Yoko: A Humble Request on John’s Birthday.

In Uncategorized on October 9, 2012 at 3:59 am

Dear Yoko,

I  hope my letter finds you well on this joyous double birthday of John and Sean. As I write this, it is still October 9th in Chicago, so I would like to squeeze in a birthday greeting that I hope you will convey to Sean – and also to the spirit of John.

Unfortunately, I am writing to you with a heavy heart.

My dear friend’s husband passed away last month unexpectedly at the age of 39. He was a vibrant and kind man. I have been on the front lines with her since that horrible night at the emergency room and just about every day since then. She and their three-year-old daughter are still in shock and living with unbelievable grief. They lost a husband and a daddy. The rest of us lost a brother, son, and friend. This tragic event within my immediate circle is a strange coincidence, I admit, but it is not my ultimate reason for writing this letter to you, believe it or not.

Buddha was right. Life is suffering. Horrible things befall us all the time. There is no way to prepare for life’s shocking events. You, Sean, Julian, and the rest of the family know intimately about this type of loss. But as I said, the reason I am writing is altogether different than simply comparing wounds.

The above photo is me with a poster I purchased from the Imagine Peace Exhibit in Montreal, Canada, at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2009. The exhibit happened to coincide with a visit another friend and I made there in June of that year.

The timing was pure good fortune.

Yoko, I would like thank you for making it possible for us to experience this powerful and moving exhibit.

If I may be so bold, I would also like to make a humble request.

Please consider sharing the Imagine Peace exhibit – exactly as I saw it in Montreal in June 2009 – across the country and around the world. More people deserve to experience this exhibit. It seems terribly unfair that they are not able to. 

The Imagine Peace exhibit was unique, interactive, thought provoking, poignant, and absolutely inspiring. The people of the world should be able to walk through the magical maze of spaces engendered by the vision of peace that you and John shared.

Some say harsh words about John, but I am not one of them. I know he was a flawed man, as I am a flawed woman. Human flaws don’t take away from the vision of peace we three share. They certainly don’t take away from the power of the Imagine Peace Exhibit which has left a lasting and profound impression upon both me and my friend who was with me.

I was eight years old when John died.

I specifically remember the reaction of a portly girl in my Northwest Indiana Montessori classroom. She was wearing a John Lennon t-shirt and hugging herself in it, thereby hugging John. She cried, “My baby’s dead, My baby’s dead.” I just looked at her, curiously. It would take several more years before I understood the full impact of what that meant.

Now, when I think of my friend who has lost her partner of nine years and their young daughter who has lost her father, I think of you and Sean. I look at that iconic photo of you and John from the exhibit, and it gives me hope that my friend can soldier on – just like you have soldiered on.

Yoko, I appreciate all the work that you do in the name of peace.

Thank you for being a personal inspiration to me – and a beacon for my friend and her daughter during this dark time in their lives.

I hope that you will consider my humble request.


S.V. Pillay



If you are agreeable to this plan, please let the exhibit come to Chicago first!


If you ever come across some articles I wrote recently on bluefin tuna, please don’t be mad. I come out strongly against the practice of eating this fish and the aspect of Japanese culture that propagates this practice. Please know that I have the highest regard for many other aspects of Japanese culture. With that said, maybe you don’t give a shit, but in case you do, I would like to cover my ass.

© V.S. Pillay 2012

Alzheimer’s, a Daughter’s Memory.

In Uncategorized on October 10, 2012 at 2:31 pm

I hold my father’s hands down while I administer the nebulizer. 

He tries to slap my hand away when I put the mask over his mouth and nose—it doesn’t hurt, and I would appreciate how absurd it is if I could muster it, but I can’t right now.

I’m doing my daughterly duty with compassion, and even though it’s exhausting, I don’t care. My dad’s comfort is worth it. I just don’t know how my mother does all of this 24/7; I really don’t. Thankfully she has angels in her life.

After I put the mask on him, I hold his hands down and rub them for reassurance while he breathes in the warm, medicated steam. Later, I place two pieces of gum into his hands. He says, “thank you.” It is such an earnest sentiment, disproportionate to the act, as if I have done some great service, way beyond gum sharing.

I watch resignedly as he pets our dog, who is always by his side. I try to intercept a napkin that goes swiftly into his mouth. He slaps my hand away again. Maybe he thinks it’s his beloved vettila I’m taking away, and that’s why I’m getting the beat down. I don’t know. This sucks. Not just that I have to take care of him, but that I can’t talk to him about anything. No philosophy, no politics, no space, no poetry, nothing. I kiss his hands. The same hands that once expertly clipped aneurysms, now gently yet nervously fidget with no stimulation. These are the same hands that corrected mine on the steering wheel. And the hands that used to pick me up when I was a child.

This surgeon’s hands were once patient and never shook. Now they have become impatient and impulsive. 

When my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, my family didn’t have any emotional conversations about it; I suppose we were all in shock. One day he was a renowned neurosurgeon with over 25 years experience, and the next day he was asked to see a psychiatrist before returning to the hospital. He hadn’t harmed any of his patients, but there was evidence that he was forgetting things enough for people to be alarmed. And when the psychiatrist asked him what year it was, dad said 1993.

But it was 1997.

My brother spoke with me on the phone shortly after that and told me dad probably had Alzheimer’s disease. I was barely 25. I thought Alzheimer’s was a disease for old people, like really old people, and my dad was just 63. Then the neurologists at Mayo Clinic confirmed our fears.

My father had dementia of the Alzheimer’s type.

As a neurosurgeon, he knew the precise meaning of this, as he and the brain were on intimate terms. What tragic irony. I remember one day, before the official diagnosis had been made, we were both sitting at the kitchen table. It took me several moments to gather the courage to ask him about his forgetfulness at work, but when I did, he responded severely and in no uncertain terms,

I will never forget the brain.

I felt so sad for him, for his tacit acknowledgement of his forgetfulness, and for his utter certainty that he would never forget the brain. Here was a man who was so passionate about the brain that before medical school, he received a Ph.d in zoology based on his study of, what else, frog brains.

But my dad was more than a neurosurgeon. He was a pilot, a photographer, a lover of philosophy, poetry, art, and Indian classical music. I still see him listening to Carnatic records in our 1970s living room. With his head swaying, he would slap his thigh to the beat or snap, sing, whatever; he would just enjoy the hell out of the music. And then there was poetry. He loved it all. John Keats, Omar Khayyam, Tagore, and most especially Malayalam poetry, which he would sing exuberantly, slapping our shoulders or knees at a particularly gusto-filled verse, smiling all the while. There was a silent reverence that people had for him that I understood because I idolized my father in a way, even though we had some rough years together during high school.

As a teenager in the late 80s, I wanted absolute freedom to listen to Pink Floyd, hang out with my friends, smoke pot, and write in my journal. My Indian parents were not only at times embarrassing, but giant roadblocks to that end—the American freedom I desperately craved. My search for identity was a condition rife with confusion for a young Indian-American person, and I made many bad choices. I wish I could tell him now that I knew he was trying his best to raise an Indian kid in an American world. I wish I could tell him that he taught me well.

My dad was not a god. He had faults like everyone else. He was a very intense individual, and that intensity sometimes manifested in harsh ways, but I choose to remember him, overall, as a very loving and generous person.

Sometimes when I hold his hands, I silently convey all of this to him, and somewhere, beyond the brain, I know he understands. 

The early stages of Alzheimer’s disease are the worst. The repeated asking of the same questions can be mind numbingly torturous. Every day, for the first couple of years, he would ask if someone fed the dogs, even though eventually we had only one dog. It was beyond annoying. The question would be asked a hundred times a day, or at least it seemed like that to us, and if we didn’t answer him right away, he got crazy angry. He was plagued by a laundry list of irrational, strange, and sometimes hilarious behaviors. One time he picked up a family member’s 8-month old baby by the leg saying, this is mine, and then proceeded to take the child to his room, placing him on his bed. For my mother, especially, taking care of my dad was a constant practice of patience and selfless service.

Dad doesn’t recognize anyone anymore, except my mom and sometimes not even her. The trauma of the diagnosis and the horror of the first five years have come and gone. The rising action and the climax are over. I anticipate the resolution could drag on for some time.

I have learned many lessons from my father not only from his general character and way of being with people, but through stock phrases he was fond of repeating. Whenever my brother and I fought over something, and my father overheard the inevitable, that’s mine, he would remind us in a stern tone,

There is nothing called yours and mine here.

As we grew older he would say,

What we know is very limited; it is all God’s grace. 

He stopped repeating this particular phrase a year ago; everyone who interacted with him heard it. It was an aphorism his memory held onto tenaciously, until it too had to go.

My dad taught me the importance of what he called, one-pointed focus, and he gave me the freedom to choose my own path. From him I learned real passion. He was deeply interested in his work, and he studied it voraciously throughout his career. He even bought a 3-D television set to watch his surgeries, which he had to use specialized goggles to view. (He was one of the first nerds, I think.) Videotapes of brain surgery were a constant part of my growing up. I couldn’t believe those were my dad’s hands. The same hands that used to help my mom fry our family’s constant supply of plantain chips could also delicately operate on a spinal cord.

My father’s hands are a landscape in and of themselves. Rivers of veins bulging out of fertile earth. They are a perfect union of working man and artist. When I was a child, I would sometimes peek into my parents’ bedroom and see him lying there just staring at his open right palm. And then at his index finger. This practice was a mystery to me then, but now I think I understand.

It was a meditation on oneness, on the unity of things which only appear to be different.

And when I look at my hands now, I see not just our physical similarities, but also some greater connection of consciousness between him and I and all things.

© S.V. Pillay 2012