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Posts Tagged ‘musings’

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I think it was the video of Philando Castile’s four-year old daughter comforting her mother, saying I’ll keep you safe, after having just seen her father shot to death in front of her. I think it was that little girl’s voice full of resolve and determination, before she too began to cry, that made me weep hot tears in the night. What child should have to go through that? Those were the kinds of questions I used to ask God when I was little, especially after watching the evening news with my parents, about why did people harm other people. I used to ask a lot of why questions of the people around me. Not so much anymore. Now I try to find the answers for myself. And sometimes I learn there is no single answer or any answer at all. The world is a very bewildering place at the moment but there is still much beauty there though sometimes it is hidden.

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I took these photos in the Southwest Corridor Park near Back Bay Station. I don’t think the tourists know what they are missing as they walk past what looks a bit like a concrete jungle. A hidden treasure.

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opening

Can four words make a difference?

If the words … in these hopeful times … were repeated, retweeted, sang, drawn, pantomined, as so many other words are these days, could they change the world? Words repeated do influence mindset.

In these hopeful times…  In these hopeful times… In these hopeful times…

There’s many a political figure in this country and around the world performing the opposite gesture with great precision. They repeat and hammer home the words (or the idea) in these dark times, in these dangerous days and so on. And as these words are written, spoken, tweeted and visually executed to maximize emotion and often to veil truth, I see people around me huddle in fear, sink into despair, and when you ask them “why?” they do not have an answer. Or the answers revolve around fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the possibility of danger out of the darkness even if there is no darkness around them.

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budding

I do not wear blinders. I am aware of the harsh realities of this world. Realities that have been real since the dawn of mankind because those realities stem from human nature and human behavior that can be base. It can be full of grace as well.

I know that three words can make a difference. Yes we can. Yes we can. Yes we can.

One word can make a difference. Hope.

But where does one find hope … in times of challenge?

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new growth

It is great if and when one can find hope in a single individual. But increasingly I think hope comes from within.

For me it is a bit like finding beauty. Someone told me after viewing yesterday’s post, “only you can see the beauty in a dirty coffee cup.” I think others can too.

In these hopeful times, I am inspired by the goodwill of people around me helping others as best they can with what they have. You don’t have to be a billionaire to make a difference. I am inspired by the generosity of people, especially those who do not have great monetary wealth, supporting individuals and institutions that are struggling and those that are succeeding. I am inspired by the tenacity of people refusing to back down in the face of intimidation and inspired by the people who may not be ready for the front line but find ways to bolster, nourish and sustain those who are.

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a riot of blooms

In these hopeful times, I am angry at those working with great fervor to instill and validate hate and bigotry and at those who are so divorced from their common humanity that they may not truly understand how their policies will harm so many and help only the rich. The rich who are buffered …

Alas, upon reflection, is it a stretch to say in these hopeful times? Perhaps. I will simply have to work harder to make those words a reality.

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I’ve been thinking about the tree of life ever since a book near-literally fell from the shelves into my arms at the Boston Public Library. A non-descript old fashioned hardback with no book jacket. A bit over-sized though not especially thick. It was turquoise blue with gold lettering on the slender spine that said “Ain’t You Got A Right To The Tree Of Life?” The title page made clear that it was a collection of interviews by Guy and Candie Carawan, with black and white photographs by Robert Yellin, together capturing the words, images and songs of the people of Johns Island, South Carolina. I knew of the island and that the people interviewed must have been the descendants of slaves, slaves who most often were of West African origin, who had labored on the plantations producing indigo, rice and other produce that had made their white owners some of the wealthiest people in America. Slavery ended with the Civil War but by the time this book was published in 1966 a new war of sorts raged for civil rights especially the right to vote.

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Given that the preface was written by Alan Lomax, the famed ethnographer and musicologist, I figured the book was just another cool book documenting folkways before a group of people and their ways vanished. Probably a good read but I had so many books in my bag already. I decided to flip through it just a bit and then I would put it away.  I did put it away but not before I saw myself.

Now I grew up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia not the Lowcountry of South Carolina. But it really didn’t matter as I stared into a book at a landscape that had surely shaped the people, as my childhood landscape had shaped me, and looked into faces that reminded me of home.  Beautiful men and women with dark-hued skin. Some slim as a stick and others quite round. Seniors and babies and every age in between. Some people laughing, some people crying and then there were those with their heads thrown back in song as they prayed through music to God. The poverty comes through too. Even so the poverty does not overshadow the joy, the sense of community, and the intense devotion, a devotion that must have helped these people survive the present when they had little idea what the future held for them and their children.

Look at pictures. That’s all I intended before placing the book back on its shelf.  But then I thought maybe I’d read a page or two, just standing there in the library, and then I’d tuck the book back on the shelf.  It was just a couple of minutes of reading. And then I walked away.

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That night I dreamed about what I’d read. It was a scene described in the first interview by Rev. G. C. Brown. It opens with him describing how his father had been a slave. But then he goes on to describe his grandmother whom he had known. She was a stubborn woman with a cruel owner and when she did not do as was expected of a slave “he’d take her by the ears to the corner of a house, and just bang her head against the corner until she’d bleed. … She died in the insane hospital in Columbia. You couldn’t find three square inches on her head where there wasn’t a scar when she died. And well, you find naked places all through her head where she was beaten until she beaten into unconsciousness. … In her latter years it was discovered that during one of those forays the skull was crushed into her brain.”  It was horrific to think of that woman having to endure such treatment for so much of her life, for her children to know of her abuse at the hands of someone who saw her as less than human … and that people must have stood around and did nothing, for whatever reason, as she was having her head bashed against a wall.

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I returned to the library and checked out the book and have begun to read it properly. I’ve learned more about the people behind the book, Guy and Candie Carawan, and their incredible legacy of social activism. And then there’s Esau Jenkins and his mission of teaching people to read so that they could register to vote.  He operated a bus driving people to their jobs between the island and Charleston. He decided to get a group on the bus in the mornings to teach them how to read the part of the Constitution they needed to read before they could become registered citizens.  As one woman describes she didn’t think Jenkins would have any luck with her; she’d had too little book learning to read such a thing. But somehow, as she described, standing in line and watching the woman before her stammer (and thus failing?), for the woman who’d been on Jenkins’s bus, the words flowed. She even surprised herself.

 

I am immersed in the music of the peoples’ words as well as the lyrics of their music. The music transcribed by Ethel Raim were songs sung by the island congregation at Moving Star Hall. I can’t read the music notes but the words themselves have impact — sad, uplifting and thought-provoking.

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I’m still working my way through the book, this book that’s not so thick and mostly images. The words I read resonate, in some ways too much so, with words I hear today.  By the way, another book recently fell into my arms at the library, 865 pages including footnotes and index. It’s called The Framers’ Coup The Making of the United States Constitution by Michael J. Klarman. One book at a time …

Sources & Additional Reading

Guy Carawan

Alan Lomax

Esau Jenkins

Moving Star Hall

Ain’t You Got A Right To The Tree Of Life? (1966)

Ain’t You Got A Right To The Tree of Life? (1994 updated & revised)

 

The Framers’ Coup by Michael J. Klarman

 

 

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April 1 1737 Ad in Virginia Gazette

Imagine the infrastructure that had to have been in place in 18th century colonial America before the American Revolution.  Take just one ship arriving in one port city in Virginia, like York or Bermuda Hundred, both on the James River, with a cargo of nearly 500 African slaves.

People would have been herded off the ship and placed into a holding pen of sorts to wait for up to two weeks or more as they are advertised like stock, which in fact they are considered, in newsprint and by word of mouth.  Before they were led out onto an auction block to be sold individually or in small groups they would have been examined intimately, as they had been on the ship, to confirm their health. A few behind the scene deals would be made, of course. Not every slave would need to stand on the block before being transported to his or her place of servitude.

That’s one ship, one port and one delivery of slaves. But there were many ports in colonial America and many ships delivering their human cargo before loading their holes with colonial-made goods, like tobacco and molasses.

So imagine the growth in and the scale of operations over time – not one ship at one port with hundreds of slaves on board but multiple ships dropping off thousands of chained people who had homes and identities that were stripped away. Who had cultures millenia old that were dismissed in this new land. Who had languages, arts and religions that were deemed insignificant. Who had skin in wondrous shades of brown which made them seem so “other” that perhaps that otherness made it especially easy for people to dismiss their humanity.

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July 8 1737 Ad in Virginia Gazette

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August 3 1739 Ad in Virginia Gazette

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August 17 1739 in Virginia Gazette

Imagine how a concept of indentured servitude referred to in the early days of colonial life — you could eventually buy your way to freedom — evolved into something much more insidious and institutionalized as black African slavery became the engine for a growing economy. An economic growth that would help fuel the idea of creating an independent United States versus remaining colonies subject to British rule.

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May 25 1769 in Virginia Gazette

Not all were in agreement with slavery and eventually the slave trade from Africa would officially end around 1810 (though it would continue illegally long after).  As future generations of slaves were born, not in Africa but in the colonial and then United States, it became de rigeur not to allow them to learn to read or write. To prevent their gathering for worship except under very proscribed conditions. To prevent their free movement by chain, by brand and by paper pass. They were property – perhaps loved or respected by those who owned them – but they were property nonetheless.

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September 15 1752 in Virginia Gazette

Tens of thousands and eventually millions of people would be born into a system that had evolved to maintain a “free” labor force through intimidation, denigration and willful ignorance of horrors against humanity. I say willful ignorance because even people who were kind to their slaves had to be aware of what would happen if their slaves ran afoul of patrols without their papers and so on.  The identity of the slaves, their sense of self and of their worth in this world, would be shaped by a cruel system as would be the identities of the people who maintained that system with both wealth and whip. Slavery as an institution, on that scale and by that design, exist no more in this country … but human nature remains the same … the good, the bad, the ugly and all that lies in between.

When I compare 18th century newspaper clippings about slave auctions, slaves being sold as part of estate sales, advertisements for the return of runaway slaves, and so on to slave narratives from the 1930s, nearly two centuries later, it is extremely sad and insightful to see how slavery in this country was nearly successful in keeping a people down and it is only because of visionary and courageous people, of all races, working hard across all of those centuries that I am able to sit here pounding away on my computer. Without fear.

Why revisit this past? In this age of 140-character messages, history is becoming increasingly sanitized. And I guess because I am reading too much in this 21st Century about people looking back with nostalgia about those former times.  The patrollers of those centuries, from the 17th into the late 19th centuries, riding through the countryside in various states rounding up brown people without papers were not civil servants – they were a fear mongering horde whose jobs enabled their most base behavior. I don’t care the color of the shirt, red, or the hood, white, all who wore them in those times did so to generate fear. And people are wearing those colors today.

There are far too many people who are fearful today. And that is wrong. That’s my random musing this Sunday. Back to nature photography next week. Maybe.

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That’s what he said. I made an assumption he was a man based on the timbre of his voice because I was rather blinded by the blowing sleet and snow. I couldn’t see.

I was trying to cross the street, making my way to the train, but the puddle that had formed in the intersection earlier in the day was so large I couldn’t tell where the sidewalk ended and so I was having to walk in the street but I couldn’t see and was just hoping the drivers could see me.

“Here, take my hand!”

And so I reached out and a mittened hand grabbed mine, holding me steady as I danced across the slushy lake to his side. With no windshield wipers for my glasses all I could tell was that he was a tall man dressed a bit more properly for the weather than me. “Thank you,” I said and then I shouted, “Stop!”

He had started across the crosswalk toward the other side but in helping me he hadn’t noticed that the street lights had changed. Not many cars on the road that night but there was one that streaked past.

We crossed the road together, walking into the wind. Though we could not really see each other we still managed to chat about the weather. By the time we made it to the station we had concluded jovially that after surviving that winter of three three-foot snowstorms in a row, how bad was this really?

Entering the station, my glasses instantly fogged. I stared at what I thought was his general direction and said, “Thanks again.” He replied, “And same to you.”

And I thought as I waited on the platform that once again a stranger had taken my hand.

 

 

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When I walked toward the river yesterday, I was so cold. I knew I couldn’t walk the length of the Esplanade photographing its wintry landscape but I felt compelled to try. I had not been to the river in a long time. Rivers have been on my mind of late.

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I’ve been thinking about rivers and how they branch and what you can find in those branches over time. How rivers can run deep, they can run shallow, they shape the land even as the land shapes the flow of the waters.

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Of late both a song and a poem about rivers periodically run through my mind. The song, composed by Sam Cooke, begins …

I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh, and just like the river I’ve been running ever since

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will …

The poem, as written by Langston Hughes, opens …

I’ve known rivers:

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the

flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers. …

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My fingers already freezing, I made it to the river’s edge and began walking along an icy stretch.  I looked around waiting for something to catch my attention. I watched where the sunlight fell. Finally I came to a point, as may always be the case, when I had to decide how much further I could safely continue versus turning back.

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I paused, took a deep breath and looked around. I planted my feet and took a few photos. Right there. That was all I had. Just that given moment before I had to race into the nearest shop to warm myself. Later as I scrolled through the few pictures captured I was glad that I had decided to take action in that given moment. What to do in a given moment? That is the question I ponder as I follow rivers and as I do my best to follow the daily news.

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It is a deluge. A constant stream of information. A co-mingling of truth, lies, opinion, jargon and drama spread with too much rapidity across social media platforms, often without deep thought or editing. And not just at the Presidential level. The profound nature of the changes taking place right now in human history across this planet is quite breath-taking. It is paralyzing to some, invigorating to others, and then there is everyone in between. For me,  I am learning, as by the river, to pause and take a deep breath, and then to decide what I can do, from where I am, at a given moment.

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I’m not sure when I will be returning to the river, at least the Charles River. Too cold right now but Spring will come. The bared branches arching over the water will soon enough be green.

 

Sources & Additional Reading

The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes

A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke

 

 

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Eventually, it would work this way — some places were safe and some places were not. If you could make it to the safe place, sometimes woods, sometimes city, then you were safe. But eventually laws were changed, compromises made, and so then even if you made it to the safe place, you could be forcibly brought back to the unsafe place. Sometimes people stood up for you. Sometimes those people were steadfast but there were times when even those pillars were pushed aside. That is what the children remember. How if they did not have the right papers, and especially if they had no papers at all, how the pattyrollers could pick them up, hit them, chase them with dogs. It did not matter if they had made it to sanctuary. Laws said that they were less than human. Only 3/5ths. Until a President put pen to paper.

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It took me a while to understand the word drawn from the childhood experiences of the former slaves, their fears of the pattyrollers. These patrollers were charged with keeping track of slaves in the slave owning states and eventually given legal right to enter into free states and bring back those who had sought a free land.  Back into slavery the children would go … until a President put pen to paper.

That President was Abraham Lincoln. His pen upon paper produced the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order issued on January 1, 1863.

In his famous eulogy for the slain President, Reverend Phillips Brooks made note that Lincoln served a divided nation and describes how Lincoln was able to stand forth in the struggle between two American natures.

We are told he did not come to the Presidential chair pledged to the abolition of slavery. When will we learn that with all true men it is not what they intend to do, but it is what the qualities of their nature bind them to do, that determines their career! The President came to his power full of the blood, strong in the strength of Freedom. He came there free, and hating slavery. He came there, leaving on record words like these … “a house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.””

Brooks goes on with great eloquence, an eloquence that cannot be conveyed in a blog post but these words stand out to me … “Do not say that [slavery] is dead. It is not, while its essential spirit lives. While another man counts another man his born inferior …” Brooks ends the sermon with Lincoln’s own words delivered at Gettysburg. “He stood there with their graves before him and these are the words he said” –

“We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men who struggled here have consecrated it far beyond our power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.””

Over 150 years after the American Civil War, I live in what is known as a sanctuary city and I work in a place of sanctuary. I read of students demanding that their campuses become places of sanctuary. I wear no blinders, at least on this subject. What has happened before can happen again. But it does not have to. It does not have to. All this said as a new President of a different character continues to put pen to paper.

 

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