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My wife and I are visiting Amsterdam, and today we went to the Dutch Resistance Museum. It’s really excellent, with very creative displays and lots of information delivered in easily-digested-yet-substantial bites. For us, it also provided a lot of lessons that are all too relevant to our situation in the United States today.

The first is that resistance is messy: morally messy. The actions people took to hurt the occupiers, such as a railroad strike, also hurt the people (hunger increased) and the resistance itself (since members depended on the trains for transport). Few moral choices were perfectly clear or afforded an option that resulted in entirely clean hands. Forcibly called up to work in Germany, men could either go, thus unwillingly helping the German war effort; refuse, and be shot or sent to concentration camps; or hide, endangering their families. Those who weighed the options and went to Germany were castigated by many compatriots afterwards–“Why didn’t you hide?”–but they had not necessarily chosen the worst of three bad options. And then there were the many civil servants and officials who faced the unenviable decision: do I stay in my position and try to intercede for my people, soften the effect of the Nazi takeover, or do I resist and, at best, be replaced by a member of the Dutch Nazi Party? Some were outright collaborators, but many others were simply trying to walk an impossibly thin wire.

It’s the nature of violent regimes to set up such impossible choices. Divide and conquer was a common and effective strategy of the Third Reich. In the Netherlands as elsewhere, they instituted Jewish councils that were charged with carrying out Nazi requirements. Even those leaders who did their best to mitigate the decrees were set up to be perceived as collaborators by their own people; that was one of the occupiers’ intentions.

Another effective strategy was the frog-in-the-pot approach. The Nazis didn’t lower the hammer right away. People were devastated by the invasion, but it soon appeared that life remained pretty normal, even for Jews. Bit by bit, more repressions were added: a registry system, labels on passports, requirements that schoolchildren learn a Nazi-approved curriculum . . . Different people drew the line in different places, and some just kept their heads down and put up with all of it; some, no doubt, were even sympathetic to the German aims. But again, those who genuinely opposed fascism and anti-Semitism were still that frog in the pot, noticing a growing discomfort and wondering when to say “too hot.”

Is this sounding familiar?

Those who resisted did not always agree on how to do it, when to do it, or how much was too much or not enough. In fact, the impression one gets from the museum’s displays is that internal conflict was at least as common as unity. For example, people criticized even the bravest actions for coming too late. One heroic act of resistance was planned in intricate detail and attempted three times before modest success and devastating punishment (execution, imprisonment, exile). The German occupation required everyone to have papers; for many, forgeries were the only option since genuine ones would be marked with a “J” and thus be a sentence of internment or death; the forgeries, naturally, did not match what the Registry Office held. So, going to the source, the conspirators plotted to blow up the Registry Office. In the end, they succeeded in starting a fire that destroyed 15% of the records. (Today, someone wanting to carry out equivalent sabotage would have to be a hacker.) There was much rejoicing, but since most Jews had already been deported, many people also pointed out that if the bombing had been carried out earlier, many more lives would have been saved.

If this kind of sniping doesn’t sound familiar, you can’t have read any liberal or leftist responses to the news over the past year and a half.

I wonder how people responded when it was not the liberals, nor the socialists–both pillars of Dutch life, according to the museum–who rushed to the defense of Dutch Jews, but the fringe, mistrusted Communists. I wonder if, when this defense of the Jews was seized by the Germans as a pretext for vicious crackdowns that shed some of the first blood of the occupation, there was a wave of recrimination: “If we’d just stayed quiet, those people would still be alive.” I don’t know, but there are hints in the displays that some at the time were uneasy with the Communist-Jewish alliance, and that the protests gave the regime the excuse it was waiting for. If so, we’ve heard those arguments more recently and closer to home.

Also familiar was the way that some people were treated as heroes while their partners in resistance were virtually ignored. For example, Gerrit van der Veen, one of the conspirators in the Registry Office bombing, has numerous streets named after him across the country, while another, who was gay, gets little recognition. See?: I have already forgotten his name, while van der Veen’s sticks because it’s a major street and a tram stop. We enact unfairness like this constantly, giving white women credit for #MeToo without acknowledging the black woman who initiated it, or allowing our prejudices to influence which resisters of Trumpism get more attention and praise. Then these injustices prevent our unifying to fight our common enemy: sexual harassment or the administration’s policies.

Even resisters were prejudiced and entitled. When Jews who survived the camps returned to Holland, many of their neighbors downplayed the Jews’ suffering, didn’t want to hear about it, or drew facile, false equivalents. A young girl who survived Bergen-Belsen heard all about the rationing of food and confiscation of bicycles that her neighbors endured, though they didn’t want to hear about the camp.

Do that failure to hear each others’ experience, and a defensiveness about others’ greater suffering, sound familiar?

Most Dutch, inheritors and upholders of a global empire, were slow to acknowledge their hypocrisy, and the people they colonized made deals that also sit uneasily on the conscience. Many Indonesians took up arms against Dutch and Dutch-East-Indian residents of Indonesia, some of whom had lived there for generations. The Indonesians wanted to be a free republic, and saw the Japanese fight against the Dutch as an opportunity to free themselves from colonial rule. So, despite Japan’s own imperialism and the repressiveness of the Japanese army, they joined forces with Japan to drive out the Dutch. Many Dutch East Indians and Dutch were bitter about this and didn’t understand for years, if ever, that the struggle for Indonesian independence was much like their own struggle against German occupation. Resistance to oppression created uncomfortable parallels and unsavory coalitions, then as now.

And there was the passionate support of the Dutch royal family, which had fled to England, which might seem an odd rallying cry for a pro-democratic movement but also inspired and unified the people; and the almost comically bourgeois forms of resistance, such as the woman who, when compelled by the Nazi officers to darn their socks, claimed ignorance and sewed them shut. Gasp!–but, laughably minor though it seems, it got her into trouble.

It seems as if we have been here before. Here’s the thing to remember, then: the Dutch resisters were victorious. They needed the Allies to liberate the country, ultimately, but they hung in there through starvation and repression and outright murder, until they won and the Nazis lost. This, even though their resistance movement was filled with infighting and compromise and sniping.

Maybe that’s just what successful resistance looks like. Maybe even when your efforts are messy and you get a hundred things wrong, it can be enough. Maybe we should stop worrying about being such a flawed, frustrating resistance movement, and just keep on keeping on. They also serve who only sabotage the officers’ socks. And if enough serve in enough ways, we will win.

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Today’s political misconception is the one about enslaved African-Americans being counted as three-fifths of a person in the United States constitution. It’s true; it was spelled out in Article 1 until repealed by the 14th Amendment after the Civil War. But the assertion that an African-American amounts to only 60% of a white person is only part of this law.

The complete meaning is worse than that. Much worse.

The question the delegates were wrestling with was: Since states are represented in the House of Representatives based on their population, how do enslaved people count toward that representation? The abolitionists’ answer was “They don’t,” which was logical, since slaves were not treated as human beings under the law and certainly weren’t permitted to vote, themselves. Why should their owners get more representation based on that enslavement? The southern answer, illogically but expediently, was “The same as free people.” A family of ten that owned 90 slaves would therefore have the representation in Congress due 100 people. (Of course, it was not the individual or family, but the state as a whole that got the representation.)

Slave states wouldn’t ratify the Constitution without getting to count slaves toward their Congressional representation, and two slave states were needed to reach the nine out of 13 needed for ratification. After much wrangling, the delegates reached the Three-Fifths Compromise.

It would be bad enough if the article meant what it is often misunderstood to mean: that each free person is 100% of a citizen and each enslaved person is 60% of a citizen. But in fact, enslaved people didn’t count at all, except in order to benefit those who enslaved them. (Important aside: Indians were explicitly placed outside the count entirely; I don’t know to what extent that was a recognition that they were citizens of their own nations living among the citizens of the U.S., and to what extent it was an assertion that they were personae non gratae, though I can hazard a guess. Free blacks were counted the same as whites, but their numbers in the slave states were negligible at the time.) Slaveowners among the delegates had the chutzpah to argue that “blacks ought to stand on an equality with whites” (Charles Pinckney, SC), although they certainly weren’t arguing for racial equality in any other context. Not to put too fine a point on it, they wanted to count pieces of their property towards their representation, exploiting the fact that that property resembled a human being, though in their view “it” was not.

The Three-Fifths Compromised enshrined one of the most despicable facts of the U.S. slavery system: enslaved people were regarded as people when it benefited the enslavers, livestock when it didn’t. Thus, on the one hand, an enslaved woman had no rights her owner was bound to respect, as if she were a cow or sheep. On the other hand, the owner could have sex with her, something that would have been both taboo and illegal for him to do with non-human property, and their offspring would be considered human children (and, of course, the owner’s property). Likewise, bounty hunters and hunters of runaway slaves delighted in the opportunity to have prey that were so intelligent. Human escapees offered them a challenge that deer, bears, and wild pigs did not. But like the animals, they could be caught, tortured and killed with impunity.

The three-fifths rule was another means by which white supremacist governments had things both ways. People who were enslaved could not vote, nor had any rights that distinguished them from livestock, but whereas having more sheep did not entitle a state to more representation, having human livestock did. Every person brought from abroad to the auction block in New Orleans or Richmond gave Louisiana or Virginia that much more power to maintain that enslavement. Each enslaved woman who, raped by an owner, gave birth to a child, was by compulsion strengthening the chains holding them all.

That’s what’s meant by “three-fifths of a person.”

Next post: Donald Trump, Jr.’s meeting about “adoption”

Things I love about “Stay Alive.” (It’s okay for me to write a list instead of an essay, right? This is my blog and I make the rules, right? Okay, whew.)

1. Eliza’s “Stay alive . . .,” later joined by Angelica and the women of the company, is a plea to Hamilton, but also the voice of every person who’s sent someone off to war, whispering “stay alive” to the person they love. And it’s a prayer for the revolutionary effort as a whole, which is not doing well.

2. The condensed and quite accurate account of the war at this point. In addition to concisely filling us in on how dire both the strategic and equipment circumstances are, in well under three minutes “Stay Alive” also takes us through one representative battle. It also tracks the three friends, whose role in the plot is not only tell us about Hamilton’s private life, but to give us a personal connection to the various aspects of the war: the southern battles with Laurens, espionage with Mulligan, leadership in key northern battles with Lafayette.

3. The tension built by the piano’s repeated four-note figure and the heartbeat that runs under most of the music. The stakes are very high.

4. The rhyme “Yeah. He’s not the choice I would have gone with / He shits the bed at the battle of Monmouth.” As Lawrence Block’s burglar/book lover Bernie Rhodenbarr says in The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling, “Bad verse is when you can tell which line is there to rhyme with the other.” It had to have been “Monmouth” that Miranda needed a rhyme for, but it doesn’t sound like it. He makes great verse out of tough rhyming challenges like this all the time.

5. As is true throughout the play, singers refrain from punching up the rhyming words, so that it can take several times through before you hear that

The best thing he can do for the revolution
Is turn n’ go back to plantin’ tobacco in Mount Vernon

conceals a rhyme:

The best thing he can do for the revolution is turn n’
Go back to plantin’ tobacco in Mount Vernon

What’s even better than a clever rhyme? That’s right: a clever, subtle rhyme!

6. Washington is being the grownup again. Charles Lee didn’t just talk (write) smack about him; he was part of a serious campaign to get Congress to remove Washington from his post, dating from well before the Battle of Monmouth. (Honestly, the campaigners had a point, though Lee’s animus was personal; he’d always resented Washington’s promotion over him. If Washington renamed Fort Constitution Fort Lee in order to mollify him, it didn’t work.) Hamilton and Laurens, young and brash, rise to the bait, but Washington serenely focuses on the mission.

Washington: Don’t do a thing. History will prove him wrong
Hamilton: But, sir!
Washington: We have a war to fight, let’s move along.

Lacking Washington’s maturity, they ignore him. Now, when Hamilton says, “Laurens, do not throw away your shot,” do you think he is saying “Don’t duel”? Or “Aim to kill”? More on that in the next entry . . .

We’re at war. The battle’s intensity is felt in the BOOMs, the military snare drum, the chaos of voices erupting with “Rise up” and the “whoas” from “My Shot.” It’s the country’s shot. “Understand? It’s the only way to rise up,” says Hamilton.

The song introduces George Washington, not at the height of his success but at the verge of complete failure, which in this account isn’t blamed at all upon his leadership. I just read Lafayette in the (Somewhat) United States, by Sarah Vowell, and Washington screwed up plenty in the early years of the Revolutionary War; the many lost battles, including this one for New York, can’t be blamed entirely on the soldiers’ lack of discipline, equipment and experience. What Miranda chiefly wants us to know about Washington (and I know of no account that disputes this view) is that, simply put, he’s a grownup. A mentor to the hotheaded Hamilton, sure, and beyond that, someone who’s grounded in reality, keeps a check on his own ego and insecurities–in other words, someone we’d want as the “father of our country.” His most glaring flaw is obviously known to the creators–Christopher Jackson, who portrays him, starkly says, “He owned people”–but other than a tiny hint later in the play, when “Black and white soldiers wonder alike if this really means freedom,” and Washington says, “Not. Yet,” Miranda gives us no reminder of it. His Washington is the wise, prudent father, the one who summons Hamilton and others to their better, more mature selves.

We see only glimpses of that in this song, for example when he advises, “Dying is easy, young man–living is harder,” but more is to be revealed. For now, it’s enough to hear the hero worship in Miranda’s voice when his Hamilton says of the general, “Here he comes.”

Like so many of the songs, this one is a marvel of succinctness. We’re introduced to the daunting military situation; Washington and how he’s viewed by his soldiers and himself; his frustration with his soldiers (“Are these the men with which I am to defend America?” is a direct quote); the disastrous battle for New York (“Watch the blood and the shit spray . . . we’re abandonin’ Kips Bay”); the strategic decisions under pressure:

Guns and horses giddyup
I decide to divvy up
My forces, they’re skittish as the British cut the city up
This close to giving up . . .

All of this sets the stage for Washington’s hiring Hamilton as an aide-de-camp. He was one of several, but it’s true that the two men had a special relationship that continued to the end of Washington’s life. It’s also true that Washington snubbed Burr, not in the same hour that he promoted Hamilton–that’s just for dramatic contrast and compactness–but in a battle around this time. (Wikipedia does not know why.)

I’m unable to decide whether Hamilton wants the job, and I enjoy the ambiguity. He didn’t want to be “secretary” to anyone else, even leaders as illustrious as Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox; does he feel differently toward the general? Or when Washington holds out the job offer and he says, sotto voce, “I am not throwing away my shot,” is he resisting being his glorified secretary? Arguing for the anti-aide-de-camp side is Hamilton’s continued chafing at his role. “Hamilton still wants to fight, not write,” Burr will say in the next song, and Hamilton himself will later say to the newly-promoted Burr, “I wish I had your command instead of manning George’s journal” (“The Story of Tonight [Reprise]”).

On the other hand, there’s that rapid list of ideas Hamilton produces for Washington, which could be interpreted as “here’s a few suggestions for you, now let me go on fighting,” but sounds more like a man interviewing for a job he eagerly desires:

I’ll write to Congress and tell ‘em we need supplies . . .
I’ll rise above my station, organize your information,
‘til we rise to the occasion of our new nation. Sir!

Judging from video I’ve seen of the performance, he’s proud when he gets it. But when I hear that final cannon blast, I wonder if Hamilton is also thinking, “Damn, I’m stuck with it now.” BOOM!

How will our lives appear to the people of future generations? How will our story be told? Hamilton repeatedly raises these questions. It’s a historical drama about history itself.

Of course Miranda fictionalizes when he has Hamilton meet all three of these friends at once. Maybe they didn’t ever all gather together, in a tavern or anywhere else. But when they sing,

Raise a glass to the four of us
Tomorrow there’ll be more of us,

the details of who and when are not the point. The song is about the seeds of change, the people who were on board the train when it began rolling so fast there was no stopping it. So they are confident that

when our children tell our story
They’ll tell the story of tonight.

The lines I ponder most are:

Raise a glass to freedom
Something they can never take away
No matter what they tell you.

Do you think it’s true? There are political prisoners all over the world, even here in the republic Laurens (the principal singer in this short song) and friends are hoping to found; people are locked away for life, sometimes in solitary confinement, for trying to use their freedom. But in the sense of “Gedanken sind frei,” thoughts are free, I guess it’s true. In which case, maybe that is the freedom Laurens and the others are toasting: the freedom of the mind, which can be surrendered but never taken.

I am in the midst of a week’s study leave. As usual, I didn’t really clear my desk before this “break from usual responsibilities,” much less write the reflection and eulogy I will need for Sunday, so it is far from a week of pure study. But I am managing to spend most of my time immersed in two topics.

One is death and grief. My first book of the week was Irvin Yalom’s Staring Into the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death. By pure chance, the reading for my women’s group was an excerpt on different ways of incorporating past losses into our lives, from On Living, a memoir by hospice chaplain Kerry Egan. Tuesday, I was browsing the natural history section of a bookstore and stumbled upon H is for Hawk, which thanks to a review, I knew was not only natural history but very much about the author’s process of mourning her father’s death. It is now on the pile. The next day, I was browsing the DVD section on a rare trip to San Francisco’s Main Library, and remembered that I’ve been looking for the first season of Six Feet Under for a while. They have it! I’ve watched two episodes, and the people who told me it’s a really good look at death and grief are right.

The other area of immersion is African American history and fiction, a long-term remediation project to fill the gaps in my education and better equip myself to fight white supremacy. I’ve read Bud Not Buddy, a children’s chapter book by Christopher Paul Curtis. I’m also reading March by Geraldine Brooks, with the grain of salt I keep on hand for books about the black experience by white people, especially fiction, but so far, so good: it’s teaching me some things about the Civil War years that I didn’t know, and I’ve been nibbling at this book since December so I really want to finish it. Next up is Ida: A Sword Among Lions, an intimidatingly thick biography of Ida Wells by Paula Giddings–many thanks to Mariame Kaba for the recommendation.

On this grim anniversary, I’m moved to share one of the greatest war poems I know, which was inspired by Genesis 22 and the war that began one hundred years ago today, by most reckonings. The poet, Wilfred Owen, died in that war. He was 25.

“The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

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I’d been braced for Pete Seeger’s passing for years, but I was still very sad several weeks ago when the news came that he had died, at age 94. I was a little stunned when, within 24 hours, a stern warning came over social media from a colleague: if we sang too many Pete Seeger songs in church that Sunday, we’d be alienating Generation X and Millennial congregation members.

The author, who is just about my age, has since stepped back from that rigid recommendation, acknowledging that the 140-character limit of the format she’d chosen had cost her message some nuance. We all know how that is. (A warning to the Twitter generation?) But I was no longer concerned only with that one statement. The chorus of agreement that met it—mixed, to be sure, with many younger-than-Boomer voices protesting that they know and love Pete Seeger’s music—showed how badly these generational concerns can deepen the ruts we get into. We UUs clearly aren’t ready to move beyond our brother UU, Pete Seeger. On the contrary, we’d better run if we’re ever going to catch up with him.

I understand the exasperation with Baby Boomer domination of our culture, especially UU culture. I think the phenomenon is real, and I appreciate people’s reminding us that there are other generations, and not to get stuck in nostalgia for the boomers’ heyday, that is to say, the 1960s. And there are other people who have died in the last month who deserve our honor but don’t get much attention, such as Amiri Baraka and Chokwe Lumumba.

Still, not to lift up Pete Seeger’s work and life would be to cut off our nose to spite our face.

First of all, it’s important to remember that Seeger was not a boomer. He wasn’t even just a bit older than the boomers, like boomer icon Bob Dylan (born 1941). Seeger was born in 1919 and served in World War II. My colleague Dan Harper pointed out exactly why Seeger began playing the college circuit in middle age: because his thriving career as a performer and recording artist was throttled by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) when it blacklisted him for insisting on his, and his associates’, First Amendment right to the freedom of assembly.

Which brings us to another reason we need to memorialize Seeger. No U. S. citizen can understand their country without knowing about the Red Scare. If you don’t know much about HUAC, reading the transcript of Pete Seeger’s testimony is a good introduction.

Seeger was a die-hard union supporter, and we don’t pay much respect to the labor movement in Unitarian Universalism. My congregation has its old lefties of Seeger’s generation, bless their rabble-rousing souls, but on the whole, we UUs have settled into a comfortable liberalism. The demands of the labor movement—now as in the 40s and 50s when his Almanac Singers and (to a lesser extent) Weavers were singing its songs—aren’t liberal, but radical, and they’re not comfortable. They shake up the system. It needs shaking up. Remember working 9 to 5? Weren’t those the good old days? In this and so many other ways, working people are going backwards, and Pete Seeger was one who kept pushing against that tide.

Another trend Seeger’s example helps us buck is that of receiving (consuming), rather than making, music. His concerts were always participatory and he never missed a chance to remind us that we are born to be music makers. He once said,

Once upon a time, wasn’t singing a part of everyday life as much as talking, physical exercise, and religion? Our distant ancestors, wherever they were in this world, sang while pounding grain, paddling canoes, or walking long journeys. Can we begin to make our lives once more all of a piece? Finding the right songs and singing them over and over is a way to start. And when one person taps out a beat, while another leads into the melody, or when three people discover a harmony they never knew existed, or a crowd joins in on a chorus as though to raise the ceiling a few feet higher, then they also know there is hope for the world.

I mostly listen to music; my guitar languishes in a closet and my fingers have lost their calluses, and I rarely gather with friends to make music, except in church. I want to change that. He’s a gentle prophet nudging us to make that change.

The most chilling comments in the wake of Seeger’s death were the ones dismissing music of 25, 50, and 75 years ago as ancient history. One way that Unitarian Universalists are totally mainstream, completely in the sway of U. S. American culture, is in our disdain for the past. We revel in our refusal to look back, as if focusing on the future is the secret to being progressive. I don’t buy it. I still think that those who will not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. We’re repeating it now, as those who have been thrown into poverty by others’ mismanagement of the economy are reviled as lazy spongers, as were those of Seeger’s childhood, the Bonus Army. We’re fighting battles that labor organizers of two generations ago thought they had won for us (workplace fatalities, for example, have plateaued after years of welcome decline). We’re struggling to keep our rivers clean—Seeger worked with the Clearwater efforts on the Hudson for almost 50 years—and maybe if we want to prevent poisonous spills such as we’ve seen in West Virginia and North Carolina in the past couple of months, we should look to the environmental strategies of 50 years ago, instead of trying to start from scratch every time. Maybe we give up so easily because we don’t know that we stand in a long heritage of struggle for true progress. As another UU singer, Utah Phillips, said, “The long memory is the most radical idea in this country” (Thanks, Dan Schatz, for that timely quote.)

Pete Seeger never stopped raising his voice, even decades after he insisted that he couldn’t sing anymore. It was never about the quality of his voice anyway—it was about heart and commitment. We still need them, and when I find someone who devoted himself to making a better world long after most people retire or give into cynicism, I’m really happy for his example. So as soon as the news of his death came, I scheduled a Pete Seeger Memorial Singalong Celebration, and we’ll be raising our voices tomorrow, March 8, at 6 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto.

Black History Month, day 28

I’ve tried to make many of these entries positive, so as not to suggest that African-American history has been nothing but sorrow. The genius of black poets, leaders, artists, composers, dancers, writers, and organizers is the heritage of African-Americans and other Americans–for that matter, of all of humanity.

Still, there are tragic passages of history I have wanted to include. First, they’re part of our history and think we can learn who we are by learning our country’s history, just as we learn it by knowing our family’s story and our own. Second, they also tell us about the tremendous courage, creativity, and perseverance of African-Americans. It gives me hope for the human spirit even as it makes me feel sick at how cruel and ignorant we can be. And third, they counteract the racism, and internalized racism, that says African-Americans must be near the bottom of the social structure because of some fault within themselves or their culture.

One of the phenomena I didn’t know about until a few years ago is the sundown town: a town where black people were prevented by official policy, enforcement by police or unchecked vigilantes, restrictive covenants, and the like from “allowing the sun to set on them”–in other words, they could pass through, spend money, even work (usually as laborers or domestics) there, but not live there. (There have also been towns that were “sundown” to Jews, Chinese, Native Americans, Mexicans, and others. San Jose, California, now home to more people of Vietnamese descent than anywhere outside of Vietnam, used to exclude Asians.) I touched on this a bit early in the month in my entry about the Green Book. The national expert on it is James Loewen, whose book, Sundown Towns, is a fascinating read; you can also read about sundown towns on his website, and look up towns you know.

Surprise: they will mostly be outside the South. He began his research in his home state of Illinois, and eventually confirmed 456 sundown towns there; in Mississippi he has confirmed only a handful. The phenomenon of white Americans creating white-only towns (sometimes by violently expelling the towns’ black residents) took hold around the end of Reconstruction and was most widespread from 1890-1940. It declined, but didn’t end, then; at the time of his research a few years ago, some towns were still effectively closed to certain groups, usually black people. At its peak, Loewen surmises that “probably a majority of all incorporated places kept out African-Americans” (2).

Headline from Appleton, WI, a town whose historian has done some constructive work to acknowledge its past. I guess when your most famous son is Joe McCarthy, you'd be pretty foolish to hide your head in the sand.

Levittown, the famous planned community that began in New York and was also established in three other states, is widely credited with establishing suburbia and the American middle class. It made home ownership available to blue-collar families. Which blue-collar families? White ones. Black people were not allowed to buy houses there. Repeat this pattern all over suburbia and you start to understand why African-Americans have found it so hard to gain a foothold in the middle class.

For the ambitious and history-minded, Loewen provides a guide to determining whether a given town is, or used to be, sundown. If you enjoy researching genealogy or local history, this is a great project, and Loewen will post your results.

Why bother, especially if the town’s status changed two generations ago? Because the reputation lives on, if not among the people who have always been allowed to live there, then among the excluded populations, with the result that they continue to feel excluded. Without ever being told straight out that people like me (Jews) used to be forbidden to live in Darien, CT, I knew it was a town I didn’t want to drive through, much less live in. I would feel very different about it if the town formally acknowledged its history and apologized for the injustices of the past; until it does so, the impression it gives is that it is content to continue to ride the coattails of ancestral anti-Semitism. Likewise, if a town I live in used to exclude African-Americans, I’d want it to explicitly declare that those days were over and all were welcome, so that it didn’t continue to maintain a de facto exclusion by its reputation.

Black History Month, day 23

Who am I kidding. This letter is for everyone: for those who were meant to perish and for those whose innocence is indicted here because it is the “innocence” of those who do not wish to see.

My father and my sweetie both spoke this week of the importance of James Baldwin to them, naming him when I asked people for their favorite African American writers. Now I’ve gotten to a passage in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow quoting from The Fire Next Time, a book I haven’t read since American Lit, in 11th grade. Baldwin is writing to his nephew.

This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it . . . .  It is their innocence which constitutes the crime . . . . This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you that you should perish. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being, You were expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity . . . . You have, and many of us have, defeated this intention; and, by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp on reality. But these men are your brothers –your lost younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we,  with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what it must become. It will be hard, but you come from sturdy peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains  fell  off . . . . We cannot be free until they are free. God bless you and, Godspeed. (The Fire Next Time, 5-10)

He wrote that fifty years ago. It’s a drop in the ocean of anti-African bigotry going back before the transatlantic slave trade, but fifty years still seems like a long time to keep our eyes on the prize. A long time to hold on.

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