Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Persuader - What Harriet Beecher Stowe wrought

What does it take to persuade—to move people from one position to another, or to get them to care about an issue that has never stirred their interest? How do you get a critical mass of people to believe that a dispute affects their visions of themselves as individuals and the world in which they live? We're often told that American society is polarized as never before, with civility in shreds and partisanship so corrosive that government has become nearly inoperable. But this year marks the sesquicentennial of a moment when politics truly failed and the American government splintered. Between 1861 and 1865, Americans did more than hurl verbal brickbats across the political divide; they fired cannons and rifles, killing one another in astonishing numbers. And they did so, in part, because a large number of Americans had been persuaded that they could not live in a country that countenanced slavery.

Slavery had been a contentious issue in the United States from at least the time of its founding. The soaring words of the Declaration of Independence caused many people to pause over the spectacle of humankind being treated like property in the ostensible land of liberty. The Constitution, ratified in 1788, seemed to settle the issue, with compromises written into its text that protected slavery and made Union possible. Some of the most prominent members of the founding generation believed that slavery was a dying institution. Yet the debate after the Louisiana Purchase, in 1803, and the three-year struggle over the admission of Missouri to the Union as a slave state, between 1819 and 1821, discredited such hopes: not only was slavery growing entrenched but the South intended to extend its dominion by carrying it west.

By the eighteen-thirties, Southerners were offering the country a new vision of slavery, as a positive good ordained by God and sanctioned by Scripture. Naturally, abolitionists in the North believed that the Bible told them the opposite: slavery offended the basic tenets of Christianity. Each claimed moral authority, hoping to win over the vast majority of citizens who were not activists on either side. Nothing would change in either direction without the support of these uncommitted and wavering citizens. They had to be persuaded that slavery, one way or another, had moral implications for everyone who lived on American soil.

This was the country that Harriet Beecher Stowe addressed in 1852 when she published "Uncle Tom's Cabin; or Life Among the Lowly," one of the most successful feats of persuasion in American history. Stowe's novel shifted public opinion about slavery so dramatically that it has often been credited with fuelling the war that destroyed the peculiar institution. Nearly every consideration of Stowe mentions what Abraham Lincoln supposedly said when he met the diminutive New Englander: "Is this the little woman who made this great war?" The historian David S. Reynolds, in his passionate "Mightier Than the Sword: 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' and the Battle for America" (Norton; $27.95), answers resoundingly in the affirmative. But the most fascinating part of his lively and perceptive cultural history is the account of how she did it.

Stowe, a deeply religious woman, claimed that "Uncle Tom's Cabin" came to her "in visions," that she did not so much write it as receive it from God. But even before the novel was written God helped the process along by having her reared in a family that was the perfect incubator for her talent. Stowe, born on June 14,1811, in Litchfield, Connecticut, was the seventh of the nine children of Lyman and Roxana Beecher. Her brother Henry Ward Beecher was born two years later. Harriet was five years old when her mother died of tuberculosis; Beecher, a prominent New England minister, remarried and had four more children.

Social reform was the Beecher family business. They produced progressive ministers, educators, writers, and a feminist agitator. Lyman Beecher recognized early on that his daughter Harriet was special, proclaiming her "a great genius" when she was just eight years old. Realizing that her talents might go to waste because of her gender, he wrote that he "would give a hundred dollars if she was a boy 6c Henry a girl—She is as odd—as she is intelligent 6c studious." Reynolds describes young Henry as "tongue-tied" and "seemingly slow," but Lyman Beecher need not have worried about either child. Stowe went on to become hugely influential in one of the few mediums available to women at the time, writing, and Henry Ward Beecher, the tongue-tied boy, became one of the century's most accomplished and celebrated preachers.

Reading and storytelling captivated Stowe from childhood. She read whatever books were available—even old theological tracts, though she found them somewhat tedious. The Arabian Nights provided more thrilling fare, as did Cotton Mather's "Magnalia Christi Americana," a series of stories about the development of Puritan New England. She wrote that they made me feel the very ground I trod on to be consecrated by some special dealing of God's providence."

This Puritan background was essential to Stowe's personality. It wasn't the anti-sex Puritanism of popular legend that gripped her; it was the levelling tradition that, as Reynolds writes, lent support to "radical independence and rebellion against authority." Puritanism in the North, he notes, helped spur "progressive movements against slavery, intemperance, and other social ills"—which is precisely what pro-slavery Southerners found so irritating about it. They thought of New Englanders as "law defying Puritans who endorsed all kinds of disruptive 'isms'— most dangerously, abolitionism."

Stowe's early life was as conventional as that of a member of the Beecher family could be. She was educated at female academies, including the Hartford Female Seminary, which her older sister Catherine had founded and ran. Stowe herself started teaching there in 1827, but in 1832, when her father became president of Lane Theological Seminary, in Cincinnati, she went along. It was a fateful decision, personally and professionally. Cincinnati was in the Upper South, close to the culture of slavery, and she began to hear stories that would provide templates for her most influential work. In Cincinnati, too, she met Calvin Stowe, whom Lyman Beecher had recruited to the faculty at Lane. Stowe and his wife, Eliza, became great friends with the Beechers. Eliza died in 1834, and two years later Calvin and Harriet married.

The couple had seven children, and Harriet wrote stories to supplement her husband's small income, lamenting, "I am but a mere drudge with few ideas beyond babies and housekeeping." When the couple's son Charley died, in 1849, at eighteen months, Stowe began, as Reynolds writes, her "fixation on Jesus Christ as the humble sufferer, the grand symbol of the burdens borne by the lowliest members of society." She explored this theme in a number of short stories and, of course, in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," when she portrayed the title character, an enslaved man, as a Christ figure. She said that losing Charley made her understand "what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her."

Stowe's religious fervor, combined with what she learned about slavery, produced her "visions." Visions and spiritualism were accepted parts of life in nineteenth-century America. Calvin Stowe himself spoke about having had visions of "aerial forms that passed through walls" from the time he was a child. At one point, the couple believed that Calvin's first wife, for whom Harriet had great affection, was communicating with them from beyond the grave. (Both welcomed the intrusions.) The first vision that led to "Uncle Tom's Cabin" came in February of 1851. While taking Communion, Reynolds writes, Stowe "saw four figures: an old slave being whipped to death by two fellow slaves, who were goaded on by a brutal white man." The man being whipped would become Uncle Tom. The "brutal white man" would become Simon Legree. The novel that resulted appeared in forty-one weekly installments in a Washington-based anti-slavery newspaper from June, 1851, to March, 1852, when it was published as a book in two volumes.

Stowe said of the book that she had a "vocation to preach on paper," just as the men in her family preached in pulpits. It's a crucial point, because the Beecher men, especially Henry, had helped to modernize the art of preaching. They moved away from sermons that followed a strict trajectory and that discussed doctrine in a routine way. Instead, they relied on narrative. Telling stories from the pulpit made the message of the Gospels more accessible to congregations by using drawn-from-life vignettes, a staple of church services today. Stowe, too, understood how influential narrative could be, and with "Uncle Tom's Cabin" she achieved what endless speeches in the halls of Congress, political tracts, harangues, and newspaper articles failed to do: she made the reality of slavery palpable to the American public. As one Southern commentator noted, "Thousands will peruse an interesting story, and thus gradually imbibe the author's views, that would not read ten lines of a mere argumentative volume on the same theme."

What was needed was a story with characters, fully realized, in whom readers would develop a stake. The novel's two plotlines, Northern and Southern, emphasize slavery's national reach. An enslaved woman, Eliza Harris, escapes north with her young son and joins her husband, George. Though out of the South, the Harrises must contend with the Fugitive Slave Law, which required Northerners to help return escaped slaves to their masters. Along the way, they meet friend and foe, in scenes meant to show the human capacity for empathy and for evil. The Southern plot centers on Uncle Tom, who, when his owners fall on hard times, is sold "down the river," away from his beloved wife and children. On the trip down, he saves the life of young Eva, prompting her father, Augustine St. Clare, to buy him. Tom and Eva, another of Stowe's Christ figures, become friends. While Eva is dying, St. Clare promises to free Tom but is killed before he can, and Tom falls into the hands of the villainous Simon Legree, with fatal consequences.

Stowe took pains not to demonize all Southerners, or beatify all Northerners. In her view, no one was corrupt by nature; the system of slavery spoiled everything and everyone it touched. But her story was effective because it directly assaulted Southern pretensions. Pro-slavery Southerners had been propagating a narrative of their own: slavery was a benevolent institution in which mentally inferior slaves were watched over by owners who treated them as part of their family. The Romans had had slaves, they argued, and the South was a new Rome. (Never mind the absence of the ancient civilization's great architectural, artistic, engineering, legal, and literary achievements.)

Stowe's novel exploded this myth of the South as a land of paternalistic slaveholders. Her description of Tom's sale down the river to the Deep South was an expression of slavery's core reality. The historian Steven Deyle has estimated that more than a million slaves were shipped from the Upper South to the Lower South between 1790 and 1860. "During this period, slave sales occurred in every southern city and village, and 'coffles' of slaves (gangs held together in chains) could be found on every southern highway, waterway, and railroad," Deyle writes. Without this domestic trade, the institution of slavery would have collapsed. More slaves were sold south than arrived on the North American continent via the infamous Middle Passage. They did not suffer the horrors of a transatlantic ocean voyage packed tight in a ship. But they did suffer the anguish of lost mothers, fathers, children, siblings, husbands, and wives. In what "family," Stowe's book asked, were members treated this way, sold off like cattle by their supposed "kin"?

The sexual mistreatment of enslaved women was a staple of abolitionist literature, and Stowe depicted it with particular force. The modesty of the age, however, allowed slavery's apologists to cast any who raised the subject as tasteless and crude. Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson's eldest grandson, wrote with bitterness about Stowe in his late-in-life unpublished memoirs, and explicitly sought to equate the entire work with sordid sex:
Mrs. Stowe's Uncle Tom's log cabin is a foul and atrocious Libel upon the slave holders of the Southern States, and was a garbage suited to the appetite of sectional hate. As true as if the description of the morals of New York, had been drawn from the five points or of Boston from its brothels.

Stowe's narrative was persuasive, however, because it fit with what many Americans were able to glean from their travels and knew from their experience of human nature. (What was the likely result of giving males control over the bodies of women who cannot say no to them?) Meanwhile, the Fugitive Slave Law made Northerners—by requiring them to return escaped slaves— an active part of slavery. It was harder to avoid the moral consequences of a system that all Americans were now being asked to allow to spread into the western part of the continent. In effect, Stowe raised with fellow-citizens the question she had asked herself: "This horror, this nightmare abomination! Can it be in my country?" In the decade following the novel's publication, a growing segment of the population decided that it could not, even if it meant going to war.

Uncle Tom's Cabin" was the pinnacle of Stowe's literary career, but it was not the end of it. In addition to publishing, in 1853, "A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin," essentially a reply to white Southerners' charge that she had misrepresented the facts of slavery, she wrote Biblical stories, children's books, and travelogues. She died of a stroke in 1896, still a much honored figure. But "Uncle Tom's Cabin" had long since developed a life beyond the novel. Reynolds details the explosion of tie-ins, including "a host of merchandise known as Tomitudes" (everything from biscuit tins and earthenware plates to card games and snuffboxes), and the rise of wildly popular "Tom shows," stage adaptations of the book. Versions of the play which appeared in the eighteen-fifties remained largely true to Stowe's original, and were hugely influential in turning many working-class whites—historically hostile to blacks, with whom they felt in competition as laborers—against slavery. Not surprisingly, however, there were major changes in the plays during and after Reconstruction. Reynolds tells us that during the eigh-teen-eighties as many as fifty Tom troupes were touring the states, and that by the eighteen-nineties there were as many as five hundred. As the troupes grew in number, they began to display the American tendency toward excess, what Reynolds calls the " '-est' factor, a fascination with the biggest, smallest, thinnest, oldest, and most outrageous, which reflected the bumptious confidence of the rapidly expanding nation."

Real bloodhounds, with what Reynolds describes as their "droopy ears and soft expressions," did not provide enough drama for the chase scenes, so fiercer dogs were brought in. Some shows featured alligators and at least one elephant. P. T. Barnum got into the act and, when he merged with J. A. Bailey's circus, added the most bizarre twist: duplicate characters for each role, from Little Eva to Simon Legree. "Everything double but the prices!" one poster declared. That, as it turned out, was not enough for audiences, and some shows soon advertised three or four of each. Then there were productions with boxing matches interspersed: Uncle Tom would step out of character and go three rounds with another actor before returning to the play. The iconic characters Stowe created kept a powerful hold on the public consciousness, but they also became caricatures, their original proportions distorted.

Reynolds describes, with somewhat less power than in the early chapters, how the novel and its protagonists continued to transfix the public well into the twentieth century. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" influenced revolutionary movements around the globe, even as effective counter-narratives arose. D. W. Griffith, a consummate storyteller, began Hollywood's love affair with the romantic version of the white South in his groundbreaking film "The Birth of a Nation"; "Gone with the Wind" continued the tradition, portraying the South as a gracious land of happy slaves—with no hint of the endemic cruelty of American slavery.

Changing sensibilities about race also took a toll on the novel's prestige. James Baldwin excoriated Stowe in his 1949 essay "Everybody's Protest Novel," not least for her depiction of Uncle Tom as a Christ figure, suffering and dying at the hands of Simon Legree. Baldwin objected to the suggestion that blacks be passive in the face of white violence. In the coming decade, of course, black civil-rights leaders would decide to do just that as they sought to destroy Jim Crow in the South, and Baldwin would later write protest novels of his own.

In the past two decades, historians and literary critics have started to look at "Uncle Tom's Cabin" from the perspective of gender, keeping in mind how difficult it has been, and still is, for women's writing to be taken as seriously as men's. Jane Smiley, in a controversial essay, asked why Stowe's novel has been more harshly treated than works written by men which are just as dated and offensive in their treatment of race, notably "Huckleberry Finn." Reynolds himself takes on those who would minimize Stowe's influence because she was, as they suppose, a cultural rather than a political figure. Politics narrowly defined—who got voted into office, who wrote and voted on the bill, who belonged to this or that political club—leaves out an enormous amount. For one thing, it leaves out half the population, since for most of American history women were excluded from the direct exercise of political power.

That cultural life matters isn't merely an insight from the new social history. Lincoln explained it as well as anyone: "He who molds public sentiment is greater than he who makes statutes." As a woman, Stowe had no hope of making a statute. But, like Lincoln, she understood how change is effected in society, and she used what tools she had, offering a new narrative—she might say a new "vision"—that was explicitly moral and, in that sense, extra-legal: beyond the calculus of power and interest, and firmly in the realm of right and wrong. The novel's overtly religious appeal to the reader, sometimes cringe-inducing portrayal of blacks, and unabashed sentimentality may grate upon modern sensibilities. But Stowe knew things—heard things, saw things—that we, thanks in part to her, will never be forced to confront: American slavery as it was. Arguments will continue about the novel's literary value and about her handling of race. For all that, it's still possible to see "Uncle Tom's Cabin" for what its author intended it to be: a cri de coeur to the American people, one that forced them to ask what kind of country they wanted their nation to be. Fortunately, Stowe's answer to the question was persuasive.

review by Annette Gordon-Reed
New Yorker, June 13 & 20, 2011, p.120

IKEA’s little secret (!!?!!)

In Sweden, IKEA's factory workers are paid $19 per hour and get five weeks of paid vacation every year. In America? Not so much.

IKEA's Swedwood plant in Danville, Virginia is the most dangerous plant in the wood furniture industry -- workers there have suffered more than 1,536 days of lost work due to accidents on the job in a 30-month period. According to the LA Times, IKEA's Danville workers are paid as little as $8 an hour and face racial discrimination from their managers. Workers often find out on Friday night that they'll be forced to work for the entire weekend -- and if they can't make it, they face disciplinary action.

In Sweden, IKEA's factory workers are unionized, which is one reason they receive better wages and have a safer workplace -- but the company is going all out to prevent American workers from receiving those same rights and protections. Please sign the petition to tell IKEA to give its American workers the freedom to organize.

The workers in Danville have filed for an election to start a union of their own -- the election could come as soon as six weeks from now. But rather than pay its workers fair wages, Swedwood pays the notorious union-busting firm Jackson Lewis thousands of dollars a day to hold mandatory "captive audience meetings" with the Danville workers. At these meetings, the Jackson Lewis associates inundate the workers with anti-union propaganda and veiled threats that are backed up with random firings.

Here's the good news: The publicity surrounding this organizing drive has already made a difference -- last month, Swedwood announced that Danville workers would no longer be forced to work mandatory overtime. But Liz Cattaneo of American Rights at Work stresses that continued public pressure is extremely important: "If IKEA thinks the public isn't paying attention, they're going to play hardball … throughout the election process - which could mean more firings and more union busting."

Now that the workers have filed for a union election, you can bet IKEA will redouble its efforts to squash their rights. They need our support now more than ever.

Please sign the petition to tell IKEA's head of Corporate PR that we are paying attention, and we expect IKEA to treat its American workers just as well as its Swedish workers:

True/False: Turkey bacon is more nutritious than pork

FALSE: the hefty salt and fat found in some turkey bacon negate its positives. Bacon is a prime example of why label-reading is important. Pork bacon comes in smoky, super-thick, fatty slabs but also in naturally leaner center-cut slices; the latter can contain as little as 60 calories, 1.5g sat fat, and 260mg sodium per slice. Turkey bacon also wanders all over the nutrition map. A slice of Jennie-O’s ultra-lean version is a nutrition bargain, at 20 calories, 0g sat fat, and 120mg sodium. But others can contain the same sat fat as center-cut pork bacon – and even more sodium.

WHAT TO DO: If you like pork, choose a lean, high-flavor cut. If you need less fat, find a lean, lower-sodium turkey product.

source: Cooking Light, July 2011, p.99

Friday, June 24, 2011


Lacrimosa dies illa,
qua resurget ex favilla
judicandus homo reus.
Huic ergo parce, Deus,
pie Jesu Domine,
dona eis requiem.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Help your kids reach their potential

Consider the benefits of California's official 529 College Savings Plan

The ScholarShare College Savings Plan can help give you a way to create a careful, consistently maintained college savings strategy. All your earnings are federal and California State income tax free when used for qualified higher education expenses, which may make a substantial difference when it comes time to pay for tuition, books, and room and board.

Consider opening a ScholarShare Plan Account

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Carolyn M. Clancy
Executive Vice President
Personal and Workplace Investing Services
Fidelity Investments
Fidelity Brokerage Services LLC

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Executive Director
ScholarShare Investment Board

Guidance provided by Fidelity is educational in nature, is not individualized, and is not intended to serve as the primary or sole basis for your investment or tax-planning decisions.

Please carefully consider the Plan's investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses before investing. Contact Fidelity for a free Fact Kit, or view one online. Read it carefully before you invest.

The ScholarShare College Savings Plan is offered by the ScholarShare Investment Board, an agency of the State of California, and managed by Fidelity Investments. If you or the designated beneficiary is not a California resident, you may want to consider, before investing, whether your state or the beneficiary's home state offers its residents a plan with alternate state tax advantages or other benefits.

Neither the principal deposited nor the investment return is guaranteed by the State of California, the ScholarShare Investment Board, Fidelity Investments or any affiliate thereof, or the federal government or any agency thereof.

Units of the Portfolios are municipal securities and may be subject to market volatility and fluctuation.

* Periodic investment plans do not guarantee a profit or protect against a loss in a declining market.

Fidelity Brokerage Services LLC, Member NYSE, SIPC, 900 Salem Street, Smithfield, RI 02917

The Futility of Rooftop Solar Panels

Q: Lithium and other batteries are some of the great 21st-century technologies, and China as made them a priority in a way the US hasn't. Do you think the US can compete?

A: The current lithium technology was invented by a guy at the University of Texas; innovative battery companies are overwhelmingly here in the US. There are several that venture capitalist Vinod Khosla backs. There are people like Donald Sado way at MIT, whom I back directly. I think if you want a leading indicator that you can feel good about, look at the amount of IQ working on energy today and the kinds of tools those smart people have to communicate and to create simulations. Compared to 20 years ago, it's night and day. In terms of innovation IQ and risk taking and starting up new companies, the US blows everybody else away.

You could have the government throw money at the most politically favored guy in the country to go build a battery factory. And there are billions of dollars that have been assigned to that waste. Or you could actually back people who have better battery ideas.

You have to think of two types of batteries. One is a battery for a car, and it has to be light and crash-proof, but the total amount of energy it has to store is not all that large. Now, that doesn't give you an environmental benefit unless your grid has somehow changed. But at least it gives you a security benefit, because you're sourcing your coal for your grid locally. The harder battery problem is the second type-the battery. If you're getting, say, 50 percent of your energy from solar, and the sun only shines during the day, then you have to be storing enough energy for the night. And that is a mind-blowing problem. I mean, that's more demanding by a factor of a hundred than any other battery challenge we have today.

I think people deeply underestimate what a huge problem this day-night issue is if you're trying to design an energy system involving solar technology that's more than just a hobby. You know, the sun shines during the day, and people turn their air conditioners on during the day, so you can catch some of that peaking load, particularly if you get enough subsidies. It's cute, you know; it's nice. But the economics are so, so far from making sense. And yet that's where subsidies are going now. We're putting 90 percent of the subsidies in deployment- this is true in Europe and the United States-not in R&D. And so unfortunately you get technologies that, no matter how much of them you buy, there's no path to being economical. You need fundamental breakthroughs, which come more out of basic research.

Interview with Bill Gates by Wired Editor in Chief, Chris Anderson
Wired, July 2011, p.108

Thursday, June 16, 2011

NAACP Honors Clarence Mitchell, Jr.

Living in the 21st century, we are all standing on the shoulders of giants. Some are well known. Others seem to disappear from the pages of history. One of those giants whose name has faded from recent memory is Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. (1911-1984).

Nicknamed the 101st senator by colleagues on Capitol Hill, Mitchell led the fight for justice and equality as a lobbyist for the NAACP. As chief of the Washington Bureau from 1950 to 1978, his work in building relationships on both sides of the aisle led to the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960 and 1964, as well as the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter awarded Mitchell the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the country.

According to current Washington Bureau Chief and lobbyist, Hilary O. Shelton, anyone who works in the interest of justice and equality owes a debt of gratitude to Mitchell. He is not a household name among civil rights pioneers, Shelton notes, because he often worked diligently behind the scenes.

"Even though he has been gone from the position for over 30 years, people know him on Capitol Hill," Shelton said.

Mitchell's responsibility was to advocate for the NAACP's civil rights legislative agenda to Congress, the White House and government agencies, Shelton said. Mitchell walked a tightrope for decades, striking a delicate balance of persistence and humility in order to make inroads across party lines and in the face of hostility. He registered to vote as an independent so as not to appear biased toward either party. At the time he took the job, most Blacks in the U.S. identified with the Republican Party and notorious segregationists Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms were Dixiecrats.

According to his son, Michael, Mitchell started out with aspirations of becoming a physician. Upon graduating from Lincoln University in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression, Mitchell took a job with the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper to make ends meet. After covering a lynching on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Mitchell was compelled to answer the call to justice.

Mitchell's relative obscurity is the reason two native Baltimoreans took it upon themselves to make sure that the man, his work and his legacy were acknowledged on what would have been his 100th birthday. Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, immediate past president of the Baltimore City NAACP chapter, and Michael Johnson, director of the Paul Robeson Institute, collaborated to not only recognize, but also to educate people about the work of native son Mitchell.

"When you look at civil rights and voting rights and housing - if it wasn't for him, none of those bills would've passed," said Cheatham. According to Cheatham, Morgan State University was able to survive because of Mitchell's support. He also helped secure an engineering school on the college campus, which now bears his name. The main courthouse in Baltimore as well as an admissions building at the University of Maryland are also named for Mitchell.

Civil rights was a family affair. Mitchell's wife, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, established the youth component of the NAACP and was the first Black woman to practice law in Maryland. Mitchell's mother-in-law, Lillie M. Carroll Jackson, established the Baltimore City NAACP chapter and presided over the largest NAACP chapter from 1935 to 1970.

The weeklong centennial celebration honoring Mitchell's life included an educational program for students in Baltimore City public schools, a panel discussion, church services and a discussion with Prof. Denton L. Watson, author of Lion in the Lobby: Clarence Mitchell Jr. 's Struggle for the Passage of Civil Rights Laws. The celebration culminated with a birthday breakfast on March 8 featuring Shelton as the keynote speaker and a tour of the Clarence Mitchell Jr. courthouse in Baltimore.

NAACP Maryland State Conference President Gerald Stansbury acknowledged Mitchell's lasting legacy. "I think it's amazing that his whole family had a legacy of activism," said Stansbury. "He was a freedom fighter. I think the NAACP was very fortunate to have [Mitchell] be a part of it."

by Cindy Barnes-Thomas
reprinted from Spring 2011, The Crisis, p41

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

1012 Natchez

review by Eisa Ulen

Nioki McElroy has published a memoir that often reads like a personal testimony brought on during an ordinary conversation with an elder eager to share her true-life tales. A PhD. who has not attended Wintergreen but who also chose to share her personal narrative with readers, McElroy bears witness to her own life in 1012 Natchez: A Memoir of Grace, Hardship, and Love.

By telling what she saw, and how she saw it, as she came of age, married and started her family in the mid-20th century, McElroy resists the silencing of Black women who experience America differently than the mainstream - even when those Black women become university professors.

When she writes about the beginning of her husband's "own Black consciousness that defined the man he was to become," for example, she also testifies to the state of public affairs affecting countless Black people who were never given the opportunity to write their truths:

"Mac attended Chicago Public School System for grade school in the 1920s and '30s. The schools were segregated - his classmates were Black and the teachers were White. Black teachers were rare since very few Blacks were admitted to Chicago Teachers College, where teachers received their training at that time ... Mac never forgot the way he felt during the year when a disinterested White teacher never bothered to learn his name."McElroy also remembers and tells of the May 1930 lynching of George Hughes, one of too many Black men who were never given a fair trial for the alleged crime of assaulting a White woman, and whose stories of injustice are still insufficiently documented.

McElroy helps continue the work started by campaigner Ida B. Wells when she recounts not only Hughes' lynching, but also the riot that followed - a riot that destroyed the most prosperous sections of a small African American community under siege by hostile Whites. McElroy's work is accessible and her prose is often conversational, creating a tone that is familiar in its frank recounting of the past. I wish the book were longer, that the author had more fully developed some of her ideas and filled in some narrative holes. Nevertheless, McElroy's specific experience in a world dominated by wealth, manhood, and Whiteness belongs to all Black women who struggle to maintain an authentic identity in American society.

Eisa is author of the novel
Crystelle Mourning and lives with her husband and son in Brooklyn.
Reprinted from the Spring, 2011 issue of The Crisis, p34

Circle of Sisters Bearing Words, Bearing Witness

Review by Eisa Nefertari Ulen

Through their work, literary, ambitious Black women writers remember and tell. They bear witness to their lives and the lives of other African Americans. Whether they are crafting fiction or nonfiction, these women tell truths - not one truth, but the many truths that together form the diverse experiences of Black American womanhood. Two books, one a memoir and the other a collection of short essays by Black women writers, work in this tradition. Shaping Memories: Reflections of African American Women Writers, edited by Joanne Veal Gabbin, is an anthology of first-person essays crafted by academicians.

According to these sisters, the Ivory Tower has historically been hostile to the presence of Black women educators. In response to consistent subjugation and" othering" by the dominant gaze of their less-than-collegial university colleagues, these women come together to gaze lovingly upon each other at a regular retreat established by Gabbin called the Wintergreen Women Writers' Collective.

In the first essay of the collection, "A Distant Star Called Possibility," Nikki Giovanni says this about Wintergreen:

"We played cards, swam,
walked in the woods (dodging the bears),
read poetry to the group,
cooked and ate,
and it was great.
It was supposed to be a onetime thing,
but we all said: Let's do it again.
And we have been doing it for the last twenty years ...
It is a safe place.
To relax.
To be surrounded by love.
To be.
A haven.
Where we cheer each other on...
riding the night winds,
our hearts skip across the clouds,
coming to rest on a distant star called possibility;
we arrive at Wintergreen.
Good for us."

By contributing their personal truths to one book, these women open wide the sacred circle of female bonding and include us all in the reassuring rhythms of female talk. Many of the anthology's contributors were firsts or among the firsts in their departments or even among the entire college faculty. Isolation, marginalization and the struggle to secure full-time tenure-track work without the benefit of mentors within the university system compelled the contributors to come together at Wintergreen and be reaffirmed.

But for the contributors to this collection, their journeys to a professional life of engagement with words, ideas and their own work as writers began much sooner than their first trips to Wintergreen. These narratives document pivotal moments in their own lives that led them to the writer's life. For some, those moments were violent, such as the time in 1950 that Gabbin "could not have seen the metal pipe that [a white boy] took from behind his back and crashed into my head" or when, in 1954, an adult raged at a young Janus Adams for integrating the local school: "She spat at me and tore my dress." Some of those moments are also beautiful, as when Nikky Finney's Grandmother Beulah gave her"the hands and heart to be a poet" or Paule Marshall's mother's friends would gather at the kitchen table and talk as "a kind of magic rite, a form of juju ..." And sometimes, those pivotal moments are as banal as Kendra Hamilton's "six week writing assignment, the kind tenth-grade teachers hand out every day" or the Friday evening in 1995 that Marilyn Sanders Mobley"decided to clean my closet."

Together, the 25 contributors, including Toi Derricotte, Sonia Sanchez, Mari Evans and Opal Moore, have generated a line of narratives that forms a circle, what Karla FC Holloway calls in her essay "a sanctuary of my own making. Words like a womb." Indeed, there is an impulse in the work collected in Shaping Memories that insists on rebirth.

Eisa is author of the novel Crystelle Mourning and lives with her husband and son in Brooklyn.
Reprinted from the Spring, 2011 issue of The Crisis, p34

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

From Rebirth To The Age of Social Responsibility

review by Darryl Wellington

If the generation of Black scribes who toiled and published – and struggled with the predetermined expectations of race-conscious audiences and editors, and still published-between 1934 and 1960 was "the indignant generation," what was the generation that preceded them? The sweeter generation? The art-for-arts-sake generation? Were they largely an unindignant generation? Of course not. The generation of Black writers and artists of the 1920s have a distinctive group name. They were not unaggrieved. Their period of flourishing artistic creativity became familiarly known as the Harlem Renaissance.

The primary engine behind the Harlem Renaissance was a savvy White patron, publicist and impresario, Carl Van Vechten. In the next decade, the major philanthropic power -"the most important grant-giving body to African American intellectuals in the 1930s and ·1940s - was the Rosenwald Fund, based in Chicago, whose institutional largesse supplanted Van Vechten's patronage. The names changed, but nothing else? Lawrence P. Jackson's exhaustive The Indignant Generations is a record of how much changed. A subtle and essential cultural shift underscores The Indignant Generation's generational marker. It may have been as simple, yet as complex as distinctive differences in emphasis. The writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance tended to stress the elevation of Black identity, and the achievement of a sense of self-esteem equal to White America. The movement, which believed itself to be thoroughly modern, in vogue and progressive, was not untouched by the headiness and decadence that characterized the roaring '20s - hence it was not without its penchant to romanticize ecstatic jazz, exotic Africa, decorative art and sexual liberation. To be Black, yet full of self-confidence and in tune with the bohemian ideals of the roaring '20s was to be liberated, wasn't it?

Evidently not, said the next generation, for whom the romance soured, or rather, the faith that America's entrenched racism could be resolved by high art and bohemian swagger faded. The stock market crash rocked all America. The Great Depression legitimized class politics. The Black writers and artists of the '30s and early'40s regrouped after the socio-economic shocks (which hit hardest minority groups at the bottom of the barrel) and what little assistance they could find was provided by the Works Progress Administration writers and artists programs, the Rosenwald Fund, a few Black scholarly and political journals (such as The Crisis) and (in ways that should not be underestimated) the Communist Party USA. Sometimes domineering and manipulative, the Communist Party USA still championed causes such as the Scottsboro boys, and throughout the '40s - Lawrence P. Jackson frequently notes - "the typical young Black writer was still faced with only Communist front groups or racial uplift magazines to publish their work." The aesthetic ideal of the Communists of the day was social realism, and while Black writers frequently clashed with rigid CPUSA expectations, they were forged by them. The novels they wrote and plays they produced were also forged by offense that in the modern world – because they believed themselves to be as prescient and progressive in their thinking as had the members of the Harlem Renaissance - segregation was still the law of the land. To contemplate the situation was to know that indignation had reached an apocalyptic boiling point. Out of social irritants, and an intellectual impasse was born the late great protest novel.

The cultural and artistic watershed was Richard Wright's unrelentingly bleak and realistic Native Son, so challenging in its time that the entire indignant generation is sometimes characterized as "the Richard Wright school." "To name the period after its star is yet a misnomer," Jackson explains, both because of the diversity of perspectives within the period, and because the reaction against Wright was just as powerful as his initial influence. By the late fifties, thanks to critical responses championed by Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, protest writing was out. A bouillabaisse of new criticism, idealistic social integrationism and complex ambiguity was in. Then another sea change hit, called Black power. The militant '60s Black aesthetic surpassed the indignant generation by foreswearing any identification with middle-class America at all.

The social realism of the'40s came and went. But who were the writers and books that defined old-school social realism, hammering at the walls of segregation? Try The Street by Ann Petry, Youngblood by John Oliver Killens, Stranger and Alone by J. Saunders Redding, Last of the Conquerors by William Gardner Smith, to name a few. But good luck finding the books. The Indignant Generation is a study of a generation lost in history, whose accomplishments have often gone out of print. The sheer number of titles is astonishing; among them must be a few neglected masterpieces.

Lawrence P. Jackson – previously best known for his biography of Ralph Ellison - has done a masterful and comprehensive job of documenting and instigating a reconsideration of an angry generation who still believed that storytelling was a social responsibility. it's an idea that - reexamined in the era of Oliver Stone and Spike Lee- doesn't seem so old-fashioned at all. The works need to be reassessed in the light of day, not indignation.

- Darryl Loenzo Wellington lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and has published his work in Dissent, The Nation, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The Christian Science Monitor.
This review appears in the Spring, 2011 issue of The Crisis, p.33

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Why do I have to read these books?

"You are reading these books because you're in college, and these are the kinds of books that people in college read." If you hold a certain theory of education, this answer is not as circular as it sounds. The theory goes like this: In any group of people, it's easy to determine who is the fastest or the strongest or even the best-looking. But picking out the most intelligent person is difficult, because intelligence involves many attributes that can't be captured in a one-time assessment, like an IQ test. There is no intellectual equivalent of the hundred-yard dash. An intelligent person is open-minded, an outside-the-box thinker, an effective communicator, is prudent, self-critical, consistent, and so on. These are not qualities readily subject to measurement.

Society needs a mechanism for sorting out its more intelligent members from its less intelligent ones, just as a track team needs a mechanism (such as a stopwatch) for sorting out the faster athletes from the slower ones. Society wants to identify intelligent people early on so that it can funnel them into careers that maximize their talents. It wants to get the most out of its human resources. College is a process that is sufficiently multifaceted and fine grained to do this.

College is, essentially, a four-year intelligence test. Students have to demonstrate intellectual ability over time and across a range of subjects. If they're sloppy or inflexible or obnoxious-no matter how smart they might be in the IQ sense-those negatives will get picked up in their grades. As an added service, college also sorts people according to aptitude. It separates the math types from the poetry types.. At the end of the process, graduates get a. score, the G.P.A., that professional schools and employers can trust as a measure of intellectual capacity and productive potential. It's important therefore, that everyone is taking more or less the same test.

I could have answered the question in a different way. I could have said, ''You're reading these books because they teach you things about the world and yourself that, if you do not learn them in college, you are unlikely to learn anywhere else." This reflects a different theory of college, a theory that runs like this: In a society that encourages its members to pursue the career paths that promise the greatest personal or financial rewards, people will, given a choice, learn only what they need to know for success. They will have no incentive to acquire the knowledge and skills important for life as an informed citizen, or as a reflective and culturally literate human being. College exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.

excerpt from “Live and Learn – Why We Have College” by Louis Menand
New Yorker magazine, 6 June 2011, p.74