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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.
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).
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.
Black History Month, day 22
What I want to write about for today is how Haiti went from a brutally oppressive slave plantation to an independent nation, but what I mostly know about Haiti is how little I know. I just find it intriguing, for several reasons: how widespread the revolt was, a real grassroots movement. How they defeated England, Spain, and Napoleon, for heaven’s sake. How the successful revolt by slaves got the attention of US Americans: definitely that of northern abolitionists and southern newspapers, who commented on it, and surely that of enslaved people as well. The question of whether the Haitian revolutionaries were inspired by the US war of independence (seems likely enough), in which case there is an elegant circling-round, with our revolution partially inspiring theirs, then theirs in turn inspiring our “next revolution,” the Civil War. The interesting personalities of the leaders, such as Toussaint L’Ouverture and Boukman Dutty (I’m finding myself wanting to read a biography of each, and I almost never read biographies). How complex the racial and class relationships were, with a caste of black landowners, maybe even an aristocracy, such as never existed in the antebellum US South. How after the Haitians established a free republic, they waged a war to free the slaves of the Dominican Republic. How, nevertheless, their leaders were not agreed on whether to sustain a democracy or set up new autocracies.
If there were any sense of fair play in world politics, everyone would keep their hands of Haiti–a country that had overcome so much, the only one where slaves reasserted their rights and took over to the point of establishing a new republic, should be hailed and helped by all democracies from then on. (I know, naive. I also have this idea that people who survive cancer should all live to old age and never die of something as ridiculous as a car accident.) Obviously it doesn’t work like that, and not only because Haiti’s leaders vacillated between democracy and dictatorship. The US, far from seeing Haiti as a sister in freedom, invaded in 1915 and set up a puppet government, just one of many cases of the US invading a Caribbean or Latin American country at the behest of corporations. Of course, then-president Wilson was such a white supremacist that, far from rejoicing to see a former slave state gain freedom and equality, he probably found it galling. Again, if black people could run a country, what did that say about his harsh judgment about “governments sustained by the votes of ignorant negroes” after the Civil War? (Read his chapter on Reconstruction in his History of the American People, volume IX, if you can stand it.) We’ve meddled in Haiti ever since.
Black History Month, day 14
I knew that terrible conditions continued to oppress black Americans after Emancipation, of course. I knew that lynchings and the unequal application of the law kept a boot on their necks. I knew, for that matter, that slavery is still going strong around the world. But I didn’t know half the stuff documented in Slavery By Another Name, aired yesterday and available for viewing here now.
If you want to place someone beneath the notice of the public, declare them a criminal–it will give you lots of leeway for abusing them without anyone being willing to intervene. If they haven’t done anything illegal, make new laws that criminalize things they are already doing. The former slaveholding states would tolerate neither the equality of black people with white nor the loss of all that free labor. And so the law against vagrancy–the inability to prove that one has a job–was “dredged up from legal obscurity” and used to sweep black men into prison. (Once again, in our own wave of high unemployment, we have political leaders proposing penalties for being poor: Judson Phillips, president of the Tea Party Nation, recently spoke approvingly of the 18th century law against voting if one did not own real estate. Last November would have been my first election! And actual prison sentences for debt are on the rise, according to this article in the Wall Street Journal, and despite federal debtors’ prisons’ having been abolished 180 years ago.) Defendants were required to pay for the expenses the state incurred in convicting them. If they couldn’t pay the fees to ” the sheriff, the deputy, the court clerk, the witnesses,” they were in debt and had to work it off–again, laws created in order to manufacture criminals, i.e., slave laborers. Furthermore, contract laws were in place to penalize anyone attempting to leave a job before an advance had been worked off”–another form of thinly-veiled enslavement, practiced frequently today in countries such as India and the United States.
I wrote 1865-1945 because the author of the book Slavery By Another Name, Douglas A. Blackmon–another journalist with the Wall Street Journal–focuses on the scope of 80 years. It seems to me that this practice is far from over, but that’s for an upcoming post.
For today, please be aware that there are more slaves in the world today than there were in the entire 400 years of the African slave trade. Chocolate and flowers are industries with a lot of slave labor. If you want to give a Valentine to children in West Africa and women in South America, buy the chocolate or flowers that profit their ethical bosses, not the exploiters. Look for the fair trade symbol. One World Flowers is a good option for roses, and your local natural foods store probably carries non-slave-produced chocolate brands, such as Divine, Tcho, Theo, and Equal Exchange. (Whole Paycheck is not my favorite food store, but they are a good source for fair trade chocolate.)
Black History Month, day 6
Zumbi was a great military and political leader of African descent, known as Zumbi dos Palmares because of his legendary leadership of the quilombo (settlement of free Africans) by that name in colonized Brazil during the 17th century.His story–and the story of Palmares–is told in an excellent movie, Quilombo, directed by Carlos Diegues with music by another great Afro-Brazilian, Gilberto Gil. If that version of the history is accurate, Zumbi represented the rebellion side of the perennial debate among people rising up against oppressive circumstances: continue rebelling and hold out for fuller freedom, or accept a compromise from the enemy? Zumbi successfully challenged the more conciliatory Ganga Zumba for leadership of Palmares. Palmares finally fell to the Portuguese in 1694 and Zumbi was captured and summarily executed the next year. Brazil eventually gained its independence, of course, 127 years later.
One legacy of the quilombos is the martial art U. S. Americans of descent other than African or Brazilian may know: capoeira. According to the website Aruandê Capoeira,
Created by slaves brought to Brazil from Africa, during the colonial period, Capoeira is a martial art that grew from survival. People were brought from Angola, Congo and Mozambique, and with them, they brought their cultural traditions.
They hid their martial art and traditions into a form of dance. The African people developed capoeira not only to resist oppression, but also for the survival of their culture and the lifting of their spirits. After slavery, they continued to play capoeira.
Brazil’s Black Awareness Day (“Dia da Consciência Negra”) is celebrated on November 20 in Zumbi’s honor; his birthday is unknown but that was the day he died.
Here is Gilberto Gil singing the title song of Quilombo, accompanied by a slide show of this piece of black history.
Black History Month, day 4
Tomorrow our service will include centering words from Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, an African-American, Unitarian poet, essayist, lecturer and activist. She worked on the Underground Railroad and wrote and lectured about abolition, then, after the Civil War, lectured widely through the south to educate and inspire former slaves, as well as promoting Reconstruction. She was also very involved in women’s rights and temperance work. Just looking at her picture makes me wish I could sit in a meeting house and hear what she has to say.
Harper was also a popular novelist and poet. Her poetry is conventional for its day, which is to say it is not to my taste. Nineteenth-century popular poetry was very sentimental. But she used that sentimental format to portray the humanity of slaves: a mother’s heart breaking as she loses her child at auction, the thrilling story of an escape from slavery, etc., supplemented the rational arguments she made on the lecture circuit with the emotional appeal that might open some ears.
This, too, is a conventional lyric with a moral, but I like it:
“The Careless Word”
‘Twas but a word, a careless word,
As thistle-down it seemed as light,
It paused a moment on the air,
Then onward winged its flight.
Another lip caught up the word,
And breathed it with a haughty sneer;
It gathered weight as on it sped,
That careless word, in its career.
Then Rumor caught the flying word,
And busy Gossip gave it weight,
Until that little word became
A vehicle of angry hate.
And then that word was winged with fire,
Its mission was a thing of pain,
For soon it fell like lava-drops
Upon a wildly-tortured brain.
And then another page of life
With burning, scalding tears was blurr’d,
A load of care was heavier made,
It added weight that careless word.
That careless word, O how it scorched
A fainting, bleeding, quivering heart!
‘Twas like a hungry fire that searched
Through every tender, vital part.
How wildly throbbed that aching heart!
Deep agony its fountains stirred!
It calmed–but bitter ashes marked
The pathway of that careless word.
Black History Month, day 3
Another obstacle in the “Jim Crow obstacle course” was driving to the polls. The exhibit said that rumors would circulate on election day that black drivers would all be stopped; they were plausible enough, since harassment by the police and vigilantes was common. It also featured this chilling photo, from Life, showing a Clinton, Tennessee mob harassing black drivers. I believe the photo dates from when twelve black students in Clinton integrated the high school. I always wonder who the people in these pictures are and if they are proud, or ashamed, to show them to their grandchildren now. What must it be like to have one of your cruellest moments recorded in Life Magazine?
I also learned about the Green Book, the guide to where to find gas, lodging, food, and restrooms if you were traveling through places restricted by race–which included plenty of northern sundown towns, not just the Jim Crow South. Of course one would need something like this, but I never thought about all the things people did to accommodate a humiliating and potentially dangerous situation. Mark Knopfler wrote this song about a traveling band of gospel singers–clearly, the issue spoke to him decades later, as it does to me.
The lines “We’re a long way from home, just let’s pay the man and go” are such a concise expression of the weariness of living under daily discrimination.