Author Archives

Katie Kosma

Between Jesmyn and Ta-Nehisi

Ta-Nehisi Coates testifies for slave descendents reparations before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on June 19, 2019. Cheriss May / AP Images

With Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates established himself as a virtuosic writer capable of amplifying the voices and trampled truths of people born black in America. In an interview for Vanity Fair, acclaimed author Jesmyn Ward sits down with Coates — “our most vital public intellectual” — to discuss his background, his process, and his love of superheroes. Coates keeps slavery top of mind when examining the United States’ past and present, calling it “the quintessential thing about America.” Maintaining this critical view of our culture, he has now parlayed his talents into his forthcoming fiction debut The Water Dancer (One World, available in September). Coates reveals the double-edged sword of having his words resonate — becoming a writer may be admirable, but becoming a really famous writer is another beast entirely. 

Slavery was the antithesis of love. While love sharpens awareness of humanity, makes us focus on the beloved’s way of singing to themselves when they think no one can hear, their way of holding their head just so when they are listening intently, their way of crying when they are angry or laughing when they are sad, slavery does the exact opposite work. It dulls awareness of humanity, reduces the enslaved to object, to tool, and to cash. This difference is what drove Coates to write.

The very fact that we feel like there might not be room for all of us to live here—now, white people never feel that way.

In order to be really good at being famous, in order to embrace it wholeheartedly, you have to dislike yourself.

“I could write slavery fiction all day…it’s the quintessential thing about America. It really is.” Along with the massacre, forced removal, and colonization of indigenous peoples and lands, Coates feels that this is the violent, secret heart of this country.

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From the Sewer to the Syringe

Bacteriophage on a bacteria / Getty

Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin growing inside a mold, so perhaps it’s not as vile as it first seems to learn that scientists are discovering cures for what ails us in sewage. As Sigal Samuel reports at Vox, as bacterial infections become more resistant to antibiotics, scientists are finding hope in phages — helpful viruses found in particularly disgusting places.

Already, 700,000 people around the world die of drug-resistant diseases each year, including 230,000 deaths from multidrug-resistant tuberculosis. And the problem is only getting worse.

This therapy might sound outlandish, but it’s not actually new — it dates back to a century ago. Phages were often used to treat infections in the first few decades of the 20th century, and in some places in Eastern Europe and Russia, that’s still the case.

According to a major new UN report, if we don’t make a radical change now, drug-resistant diseases could kill 10 million people a year by 2050. That’s more people than currently die of cancer.

He acknowledged the yuck factor of getting injected with a virus culled from sewage, but said that when someone has a truly terrible infection, they get over that psychological hurdle pretty fast.

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Taking Cents, Making Sense of a Broken Family

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After her parents underwent a “quietly vicious” divorce, Sari Botton’s family life turned upside down. No longer receiving what she needed, she felt the need for rebellion and revolution – by stealing tiny bits of money from her annoying stepbrother. Through this moving piece of personal history, Sari explores the relationship between family, money, generosity, and caretaking.

Sometimes, instead of a loan, I thought of it as war reparations. On the outwardly civil but quietly vicious battlefield of my parents’ divorce, I had been the clear loser.

He has a temper.That’s what we called it when he threw my ceramic piggy bank at me one evening while I was sitting on my bed, doing my high school homework.

As part of the transition, my mother also suddenly became much more generous toward her daughters…Now when I visited, there was The Ritual Offering of Things.

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You May Not Have Needed That Root Canal

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What if those terrible procedures you endured at the dentist were unnecessary? Ferris Jabr at The Atlantic exposes dentistry’s “academic and professional isolation,” a status that leaves it untethered to the evidence-based inquiry of the medical field. While there are some very good dentists out there, dentistry as a whole leaves wide open gaps (no gap-tooth pun intended) that allow some practitioners to order procedures that are both financially predatory and entirely needless.

When you’re in the dentist’s chair, the power imbalance between practitioner and patient becomes palpable. A masked figure looms over your recumbent body, wielding power tools and sharp metal instruments, doing things to your mouth you cannot see, asking you questions you cannot properly answer, and judging you all the while. 

Among other problems, dentistry’s struggle to embrace scientific inquiry has left dentists with considerable latitude to advise unnecessary procedures—whether intentionally or not.

It just adds to the whole idea that you go to a physician feeling bad and you walk out feeling better, but you go to a dentist feeling good and you walk out feeling bad.

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It’s a Small Paycheck After All

Illustration by Katie Kosma

While Disneyland’s employees tirelessly spread joy and maintain a spotless park, they don’t make enough money to pay their most basic bills. Some have to live in their cars. Jaeah J. Lee reports for Topic on how the low wages create an environment of princess costumes on the outside, poverty on the inside.

Out of the 5,000 people who completed the survey—one-sixth of Disneyland Resort’s workforce—73 percent reported that they didn’t earn enough money to pay for basic expenses like rent, food, and gas.

Since 2008, her hourly pay had risen $2, from $13.70 to $15.70 today. After adjusting for inflation, that equaled a ten-cent raise over ten years.

… up to five princesses share a small apartment.

After a coworker who was living in her car suffered a heart attack and died, Diaz quit her job at Disneyland.

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Rob Delaney and His Son’s Cancer

Charles Sykes / Invision / AP

If you watch the show Catastrophe, you already know Rob Delaney is a wizard alchemist at combining wit and empathy. He now uses this trademark combination in a piece for Medium, sharing his family’s gut-wrenching story of having a young son with cancer.

My baby was getting smaller, and that is a fucked up thing to see. The total amount he weighed was less than the amount of weight I should lose.

Henry’s tracheotomy tube prevents him from speaking, so I haven’t heard him make a peep for over a year. My wife recently walked in on me crying and listening to recordings of him babbling, from before his diagnosis and surgery. I’d recorded his brothers doing Alan Partridge impressions and Henry was in the background, probably playing with the dishwasher, and just talking to himself, in fluent baby. Fucking music, oh my God I want to hear him again.

Henry just turned two. We didn’t dare assume he’d have a second birthday with the prognosis he received after they took out the tumor and confirmed what kind it was. It was a real cunt of a tumor.

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There’s No Discrimination in Baseball!

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Historically girls have been excluded from baseball and pushed into softball instead. Baseball for All seeks to change that, empowering girls to stay in the game. At Lenny Letter, Britni de la Cretaz catches the organization’s annual tournament in Rockford, Illinois (home of the inspiration team for A League of Their Own). Almost 300 badass young girls from around the world take to the diamond, cultivating confidence and sisterhood.

The league was the first and only women’s professional-baseball league in U.S. history; it existed from 1943 to 1954. The [Baseball for All] tournament is this generation’s chance to make women’s-baseball history of their own.

It’s not that most girls grow up preferring softball, or that the development of girls’ softball sprung up because American girls decided they liked it better. The exclusion of girls from baseball in the United States was deliberate and systematic.

Often, when girls go to try out for their school teams, many of them are told they can’t play baseball if their school also has a softball team, citing Title IX’s “separate but equal” clause: if there is a comparable women’s team, a girl cannot play on the boys’ team.

Ella Comfort-Cohen, thirteen, wants people to “get logical: I’m a person who plays baseball, it doesn’t matter if I’m a girl or a boy!” Katrina is even more blunt about it: “One day it won’t be interesting anymore that I’m a girl playing baseball.”

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Pathologizing Black Communities: Chicago Violence Receives the Wrong Attention

Chicago Police investigate a person shot August 19th in the 13100 block of South Rhodes. (Tyler LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

When discussing racially-charged news, a loaded response in the U.S. is What about Chicago? This ‘question’ ripples in racist ways akin to What about black on black violence? – it leans on a need to pathologize and sensationalize black communities. Breanna Edwards at The Root reports Chicago homicides receive inordinate media attention, yet its statistics actually fall in the middle of national averages (St. Louis currently has the highest rate).

In the wake of recent violence, city officials responded by deploying an extra 430-600 police officers to affected areas. Edwards questions this as a solution. She instead cites uneven resource allocation and widespread school and health center closings — not a racial proclivity requiring policing — among the many critical factors creating unrest.

To be sure, no one can argue that guns are not an issue in the city, but gun violence aside, as the report notes, Chicago is more or less “unexceptional.” To be clear, I’m not insinuating that we should shrug our shoulders and let the issues in Chicago go unresolved, but in the same breath, the city is certainly not deserving of the stigma attached to its name.

“It tells a story that black people are pathological, that we don’t make moral decisions and that we don’t actually have community values as [Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel] pretty much said this past week and so it allows them to displace people from our communities and it allows them to continue to divest from our communities.”

Who can forget the controversial closing of more than 50 public schools in 2013, the largest school closure in Chicago’s history, closings that disproportionately impacted black and brown children and those living in poverty? Then there’s the fact that Emanuel closed half of the city’s 12 mental health clinics about 6 years ago, effectively gutting the mental-health care system, again, disproportionately affecting underprivileged communities, leaving those in the community who need help vulnerable.

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North Carolina’s Military Toxic Waste Negligence

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Living next to North Carolina Naval Base Camp Lejeune, Lori Lou Freshwater grew up drinking and bathing in water contaminated at levels 240 to 3400 times the safety standard. A candidate for “the worst water contamination case in U.S. history,” the area’s carcinogens caused her mother to lose two sons, one born with an open spine, the other with no cranium, and to develop two kinds of leukemia. The toxic dumping lasted from the ’50s through the ’80s, and as a stopover base for military personnel, up to a million others could be affected. With her harrowingly ironic last name, Freshwater returns to her hometown for Pacific Standard to report on the Superfund-status location’s history of negligence and pollution

Camp Lejeune has been characterized as a candidate for the worst water contamination case in U.S. history—and I am one of up to a million people who were poisoned. The tragedy, though, is hardly all in the past.

In other areas on the base, waste was generated and discarded into empty lots, forests, roads, waterways, and makeshift dumps. That toxic waste was then taken by the Carolina rains and summer thunderstorms down toward sea level, into water wells, and into the barracks, houses, trailers, offices, and schools—and finally into the bodies of thousands of Marines and their families: into our cells, into our bones.

The EPA has established a maximum contaminant level goal of zero parts per billionfor benzene in public drinking water systems. In 1980, Naval Facilities Engineering Command testing showed that one of the wells at Camp Lejeune measured 380 parts per billion.

Through this work, I’ve learned more about the military’s cover-up of the water contamination, and how the culture that says “Stay Marine” also ensures that some problems remain entombed in secrecy.

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The Sexist Trials of Female Attorneys

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The climate of a courtroom puts female attorneys on trial for their gender instead of allowing them to do their job. Lawyer and professor Lara Bazelon discusses in The Atlantic the pernicious discrimination female lawyers face in the courtroom, including constant degradation and impossibly constricting ‘rules.’

Sexism infects every kind of courtroom encounter, from pretrial motions to closing arguments—a glum ubiquity that makes clear how difficult it will be to eradicate gender bias not just from the practice of law, but from society as a whole.

I hated pantyhose, both the cringe-inducing word and the suffocating reality. They itched miserably and ripped. But showing up in federal court with bare legs was as unthinkable as showing up drunk.

I was practicing law differently from many of my male colleagues and adversaries. They could resort to a bare-knuckle style. Most of what I did in the courtroom looked more like fencing. Reading over my old trial transcripts, I am taken aback by how many times I said “Thank you”—to the judge, to opposing counsel, to hostile witnesses. And by how many times I apologized.

Embracing traits traditionally associated with women seems to pay off particularly well in litigation involving so-called women’s issues. In many of these cases, female trial lawyers are favored and even actively recruited. In the civil arena, for example, women have thrived in high-stakes medical-malpractice lawsuits where the plaintiff claims that the defendant’s product injured her genitalia or reproductive organs.

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