Become M.A.D.E. It’s A Lifestyle: How to Live a Good Life by Building Great Relationships

MADE ReviewAmong the many genres of literature that are available for public consumption perhaps the least appealing is the so-called “self-help” book. Often they adopt formulaic approaches to life’s most pressing challenges leaving readers completely unsatisfied and their innermost questions unanswered. Yet sometimes books appear in print that are written for the explicit purpose of edifying others and they manage to light a spark, not necessarily from the artistry of the written word alone but through the authenticity of the experiences reflected upon by the author. Eldredge E. Washington’s Become M.A.D.E. It’s a Lifestyle: How to Live a Good Life by Building Great Relationships delivers in this respect, which makes it an excellent primer for youth of any background seeking purpose or direction in a world where the costs of inaction are steadily rising. A self-described “hard-headed kid, who thought he was a thug because his pants were three sizes too big,” Washington takes the reader on a journey through his life as a Monroe native who moved to the heart of Atlanta and became infected by the hustling spirit that permeates the city. As he phrased it, “areas like Downtown, Midtown, and Buckhead help me to stay on track and work hard … being around people who look like they are doing something productive makes me more productive.”

The theme of managing one’s environment is dominant throughout Become M.A.D.E. Barely beneath the surface in each chapter is a constant tug of war between the author’s efforts to remain psychologically centered and true to himself and ensuring that the people he surrounds himself with facilitate rather than impede this process of self-discovery. Consequently, Become M.A.D.E. acquires a dual function as part autobiographical snapshot and part Socratic dialogue. Several dialogues are taking place: between the author and his environment, the author and his family, and perhaps most significantly from a pedagogical perspective, the author and the reader.

Each chapter is framed by a series of questions, designed to stimulate introspection and a weighing of one’s priorities. Do you feel you need to create new relationships with people who support your dream? What do you normally do for fun with your friends? Name one mentor you feel you should model? Explain.

These queries serve as handy interludes which allow the reader to insert themselves as interlocutors in the conversation of self-development. Here we see another theme rise to the fore: the centrality of family and community as the foundation for one’s personal and professional development. Defying the capitalist myth of the “self-made man”, Eldredge overflows with appreciation when it comes to acknowledging the pivotal role that his parents, his sisters, and even some of his earliest employers played in helping him to achieve the level of success he has reached.

When his parents had to leave Georgia for a job opportunity Eldredge was tasked with the responsibility to exercise guardianship over his two younger sisters Winnie and Victoria. “In my head, I was their new daddy and in their head, I was the overprotective big brother who kept getting on their nerves,” he observed reflecting on the enormity of the challenge before him. Far from a choice, Washington embraced tasks of this kind as obligatory. Speaking on mentoring younger siblings he writes, “this relationship is sometimes overlooked … but the truth is that person is watching your every move and you are their mentor.” In fact, a careful reader may notice that Eldredge navigates roles from a mentor (with regard to being a guardian to his two younger sisters), to “peer” as it relates to the competitive relationship with his older sister Paula, to an “apprentice” (the third form of relationship) under his older brother Nick of who he admiringly writes, “where he went, I went; what he wore, I wore,” and eldest sister Shardia who “showed him that practice does make perfect and hard work will pay off in the end.” Indeed, a rich psychological portrait of the human self and its many permutations within the family unit is provided within these pages. Parts of it come off as a contemporary Anton Chekhov play.
huey o newtonIn this regard, Eldredge resonates in the text as the archetypal dreamer who through a variety of human experiences becomes a revolutionary. Again, this component of the book could be more keenly perceived in the context of the author’s full story which is given partial, though in-depth, treatment here. Nonetheless, subtle indications of this revolutionary mindset appear near the end of the text where he memorably intones, “Your name is the only thing you will have when it’s all said and done, so make it stand for something when people mention you.” Such appeals to legacy building is a trademark feature in the writings of all revolutionaries whether it be Thomas Paine who wrote “We have the power to begin the world over again,” in his radical 18th century pamphlet Common Sense, Malcolm X’s prescient closing remarks in his autobiography that he had “cherished [his] ‘demagogue’ role,” under the knowledge that “societies have often killed the people who have helped to change these societies,” or Marcus Garvey’s fiery proclamation that “If I die in Atlanta my work shall then only begin, but I shall live, in the physical or spiritual to see the day of Africa’s glory.”

Apart from the situation within his own family, it’s obvious by the end of the book that Eldredge has internalized this ethic of guardianship, an ethic he had to adopt at an unusually young age, and expanded it as a social doctrine to be implemented in our everyday lives and throughout the world. “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. may be the best example I can think of when it comes to starting a M.A.D.E. Generation. He discovered his purpose in life and he realized where he could help his generation.” The radical possibilities latent in this message cannot be overstated.

We currently live in a period where many of the civilizational traumas and evils that Dr. King faced loom large over any attempt toward self-determination or collective progress. #BlackLivesMatter has risen as the clarion call of a generation of youth discontent with the status quo and fully prepared to sever the generational chains that have bound them to lives of despair for far too long (the recent protest and removal of Mizzou University President Wolfe is a clear example of this). These cultural and political waves can only be sustained if we uplift and celebrate those who are not only willing to critically analyze the concentration of forces arrayed against the oppressed but leverage that analysis to constructively engage and undermine existing powers (if necessary to the point of collapse). However clearly it’s conveyed in the pages of his book, there can be no doubt that Eldredge Washington is among this number in the overlooked streets and alley ways of empire and for this reason Become M.A.D.E. is an essential read. A practical tool for liberation in the hands of Black youth and a valuable historical document for those who come after.


Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

aslan_zealotUnder the logic of the reigning “national security” regime the line between legitimate dissent and “terrorism” has often been blurred if not entirely abolished. Examples are plentiful. From Joe Biden’s denunciation of Julian Assange as a “hi-tech terrorist” to the repeated (and unsubstantiated) allegations that Edward Snowden, by publicizing NSA crimes, is “helping the terrorists”, this fact is difficult to ignore. Unfortunately, repressive policies of this kind are not new. It’s in the nature of power systems to discredit opposing views by portraying them, independent of facts, as civilizational threats which can only be overcome through massive doses of state violence. So constant is this principle that it can even be found in the histories of civilizations that we have been taught to conceptualize as apolitical, mystical, and immune to the ideological contests of the “modern” world.

Religious studies scholar Reza Aslan lays bare this essential truth, and much more, in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. In this remarkably ambitious and penetrating examination of the “Jesus of history”, Aslan paints a Jesus thoroughly immersed in the political culture of first century Palestine, a society characterized by “the rapidly expanding divide between the absurdly rich and the indebted poor.” It is in this environment of systemic injustice that Aslan presents Jesus as “a Galilean peasant and Jewish nationalist who donned the mantle of the messiah and launched a foolhardy rebellion against the corrupt Temple priesthood and the vicious Roman occupation …”

Like the contemporary power elite, the power factions of first century Palestine—the Roman Empire and the Temple authorities—laid down explicit ground rules prohibiting those acts of disobedience which endangered core doctrines of the ruling class. Harshest punishment was reserved for those who engaged in the crime of sedition. For those with the temerity to defy the Roman occupation, execution was the only answer. As Aslan observes, “Jesus was crucified by Rome because his messianic aspirations threatened the occupation of Palestine, and his zealotry endangered Temple authorities.” This acknowledgement is central to Aslan’s portrayal of the “Christ of history” because it inserts him squarely in the middle of the Jewish liberation struggle of his era, a liberation struggle that was meant to be won on earth, and not, as some would later contend, in heaven. Other consequences follow if we accept the radical humanity of Jesus, foremost the fact that he failed to liberate Jerusalem from the tyrannical power of Caesar.

To paraphrase Aslan in an interview on this book, here was Jesus “as a tightrope walker without the net.” Throughout, the reader is made to confront this haunting absence, the historical assertion that Jesus wasn’t, as Stephen claimed in the Book of Acts, a “God-man”, but a flesh-and-blood human being subject to the same political pressures and consequences as his revolutionary predecessors. So it was by no means unusual for someone in first century Palestine to claim to be “the messiah” with the objective to liberate the Holy Land from the brutality of Rome. Judas the Galilean, Hezekiah “the bandit chief”, Menahem, Simon son of Giora, and Simon son of Kochba are just some of the “messiahs” who, like Jesus, were also crushed under the weight of the Roman Empire.

It was years after Jesus’ execution, when his followers (headed by the Jerusalem assembly) continued to spread his emancipatory message, not during his lifetime, that he was celebrated as the messiah. But this outcome was only reached after a period of intense internal conflict centering on the cultural identity of the Christ movement. In one camp was the brother of Jesus, James. He maintained that the Christ movement should retain its character as a movement principally dedicated to the liberation of the Jewish people and the Law of Moses, but not completely closed to non-Jews. Opposing this interpretation was Paul (Saul of Tarsus), who, despite having never met Jesus, insisted that mere belief in Jesus, completely divorced from the ritualistic practices and laws of first century Judaism, was sufficient to call oneself a member of the Christ movement.

On this topic Aslan’s analysis is most compelling, as it shows how revolutionary leaders, once killed, can easily be co-opted by the powerful and drained of all features deemed “dangerous” or “subversive” (what Dr. Cornel West once referred to as “the Santa-Clausification” of Dr. King is an obvious contemporary example of this phenomenon). It was upon the ruins of Jerusalem, decimated by Titus after the mass Jewish insurrection of 66 C.E., that this new “pacifistic” and thoroughly Hellenized Christ emerged: “With the destruction of Jerusalem, the connection between the assemblies scattered across the Diaspora and the mother [Jerusalem] assembly rooted in the city of God was permanently severed …” This initiated the split between “the Christian community and Jesus the Jew.”

As a result, the Roman Empire, the occupier, was free to “[erase], as much as possible, any hint of radicalism or violence, revolution or zealotry, from the story of Jesus …” Vital historical context of this kind, coupled with a nuanced critique of how these political interests converged in scriptural presentations of Jesus, forces the reader to rethink some of the more pernicious beliefs that have become standard in many religious circles. For instance, Aslan intelligently deconstructs the age-old slander that it was “the Jews”, and not the Roman Empire, who were responsible for the killing of Jesus. Drawing from the documentary record of first century Rome, Aslan is unequivocal in his conclusion: “a story concocted by Mark strictly for evangelistic purposes to shift the blame for Jesus’ death away from Rome is stretched with the passage of time to the point of absurdity, becoming the basis for two thousand years of anti-Semitism.”

From his graphic description of Titus’ terrorist assault on Jerusalem—a savage attack where he “ordered his men to build a stone wall around Jerusalem, trapping everyone inside and cutting off all access to food and water” (this should remind us of Israel’s punishment of Gaza)—to his description of crucifixions as “a public reminder of what happens when one challenges empire” (this should remind us of the judicial lynching of Chelsea Manning), Reza Aslan’s Zealot is a triumph of the scholarly imagination, a meaningful exploration not only of the documentable realities of the world Jesus inhabited, but of what he calls “truth intentionally detached from the exigencies of history.” In this period of renewed intellectual dialogue—where reductionist, de-contextualized explanations of extremely complex and multidimensional religious narratives passes for informed commentary (re: New Atheists) —books like this are sorely needed. One can only hope that the “Jesus of Nazareth” and his revolutionary example of defiance motivates others to pursue this path of inquiry, if not out of religious inspiration then for the sake of that component of the human mind we all should nurture regularly: the spirit of dissent.