Arts Re: Starbooks
posted by March 2 at 10:31 AMon
I went to college with Ishmael Beah, the former boy soldier of Sierra Leone, whose memoir A Long Way Gone is distributed in virtually every Starbucks. In college, I admired his soft-spoken manner and wide smile. It was a fairly standard admiration, of running in similar circles, but was never closer than a shared lunch table. I now know his public persona better than I ever knew the real Ishmael, and before his book I didn’t know anything of his past of lost family, narcotic-fueled battles, or UNICEF rehabilitation.
On February 20th, Ishmael started his Starbucks book tour at the U-Village Starbucks. The cafe could not hold the crowd, but was nonetheless ready with advertising samples of brownies and some new Cinnamon-latte-dulce-de-something, which I sipped while Ishmael answered questions about the healing power of hope or how we can stop all wars. He did not have such broad answers, but was focused on his activism of building awareness of child soldiering and the incremental steps that must be taken to stop the practice. The book and its distribution seem to be just one step in his process that goes beyond lofty discussions of world peace. As he does this tour, he continues to speak at UN conferences and has just launched the Ishmael Beah Foundation, a resource for activism to end child soldiering.
I do wonder where Starbucks fits in—I am a Starbucks cynic—though perhaps Ishmael is not. Obviously, there are tons of people who adore Starbucks, but I don’t like their smell or the noise their chairs make on the tile floor. At worst, I don’t like their corporate packaging of a co-opted homogeneous lifestyle. Are they using Ishmael? Is he using them? Maybe on the spectrum of sacrifices he has made, the cooption of his story to millions of happy Starbucks customers, to help save others, is not the worst thing. But in exposure and promotion, is there a line to cross? Is this story from Playboy the line and what does Armani have to do with any of this?