The Wisdom of Strangers

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I have been accused of being too friendly and too willing to talk to strangers.

Here’s the thing: I’ve met some amazing people this way and also learned from each of them, and I wouldn’t forego these experiences for anything.

After having to put my cat down last week and then cancel an event that I had my whole heart set on, I was feeling pretty aimless when I drove 1,100 miles to Georgia but decided to go anyway and see what happened.

What I had hoped would happen was fairly clear would not when I arrived in the city I came to. As Bono sang, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” To make matters worse, the place I was renting a “studio” apartment from for a couple of weeks was shoddy and not terribly clean; it certainly looking nothing like the pictures on the Internet.

Still, I thought, okay, maybe I’ll learn something new here.

I returned to my room today to find the staff electrician fixing the two-burner stove that wasn’t working. I was very hot and very tired after an eventful morning and lunchtime and just wanted to lie down and take a snooze.

The stove job turned out to be pretty complicated, and the man was in and out and in out of my room getting more supplies, turning the electricity on and off, and getting even more supplies. I sat down at the little table to check Facebook. Then I heard him humming and asked him whether he was a musician.

The man is probably in his late 30s, dark-skinned, and with what I thought as a Hispanic accent. For the next half hour we talked about our favorite classical composers, blues musicians, and Michael Buble’s CD of Sinatra music. He also told me about getting a French press for his mother and that he would be visiting her that night to teach her how to use it.

It was when I finally thought to say, “My name is Cynthia, by the way” that he told me his name in both Italian and Spanish. Was he both Italian and Spanish, I asked?

“My mother is Spanish and my father is Italian and Native American,” he answered.

Does he have any Cherokee blood? I asked.

“Ottawa,” he answered.

I explained that I had asked because the two times now I’ve driven to Georgia, I’ve been appalled by the way “Cherokee” is used for the names of stores and such that have no relationship to the Cherokee nation.

He smiled ruefully, and then told me that his mother being Spanish came from a heritage that was partly to blame for the ravaging of his father’s ancestors in the Americas.

He spoke softly and succinctly. “I did research on all the countries that were responsible for that for my master’s thesis.”

“What was your degree in?”

“Linguistics.”

I kicked myself even as I asked, “What are you doing working here?”

“A lot of people ask me that.”

“I take it back, I take it back! I’m not trying to demean your job. God knows, not just anyone could do what you’re doing. I was just thinking that you have so much knowledge and wisdom to share; you would make a wonderful teacher.”

He spoke ruefully again, and slowly. “I do think of myself as a teacher. I do try to engage people and show them how that history repeats itself.”

“And is repeating itself right now.”

“Yes.” We agreed that corporations were enslaving people all over again.

Then he told me about a 16th century monk who had seen what went on in the “new world” and had tried to get the ear of Isabella and Ferdinand to stop the plundering and depredations.

“You have a calling,” I said. “It’s almost a ministry.”

He nodded.

He was done by now fixing the stove and putting all the supplies back on his cart.

“Thank you for all I’ve learned from you today,” I told him.

“It was my pleasure.”

And he rolled the cart away.

For the curious, here is what Wikipedia has to say about the monk he told me about, Bartolomé de las Casas:

Bartolome de las casasBartolomé de las Casas (Spanish: [baɾtoloˈme ðe las ˈkasas] ( listen); c. 1484[1] – 18 July 1566) was a 16th-century Spanish colonist who acted as a historian and social reformer before becoming a Dominican friar. He was appointed as the first resident Bishop of Chiapas, and the first officially appointed “Protector of the Indians“. His extensive writings, the most famous being A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies and Historia de Las Indias, chronicle the first decades of colonization of the West Indies. He described the atrocities committed by the colonizers against the indigenous peoples.[2]

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Benjamin Lay: Abolition’s Prophet

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When I hear people try to excuse historical acts of racism by saying, “That’s how people were then,” I get apoplectic. I think of people who throughout history have clearly demonstrated they knew right from wrong, no matter what the prevailing society was like.

Now I have another weapon in my arsenal: Benjamin Lay (1682-1759) of Abington Township, PA.

Thanks to Marcus Rediker, the general public can know more about this fierce warrior for emancipation through his book, The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became First Revolutionary Abolitionist.

In 1738, Benjamin Lay walked 20 miles to attend the annual Quaker’s Philadelphia meeting, according to Mr. Rediker. Keep in mind that it wasn’t until 1758 that the Quakers outlawed slave-holding among the brethren. Lay carried with him a hollowed-out book containing an animal bladder filled with red pokeberry juice. When it came his turn to speak,

“Throwing the overcoat aside, he spoke his prophecy: ‘Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures.’ He raised the book above his head and plunged the sword through it. . . .He then splattered (the red juice) on the heads and bodies of the slave keepers.”

He was expelled from the meeting.

Lay was not a single-issue prophet, though. It wasn’t just his views on emancipation that caused people to disparage him. He truly believed and tried to bring forth a Utopia where everyone was equal and would live simply by growing their own food and making their own clothes and respecting nature. He himself lived in a cave, subsisting only on fruits and vegetables because of his belief in animal rights, and he refused to use anything that existed because of slave labor.

Mr. Rediker posits that Lay isn’t well known today because was not a “gentleman saint” like William Wilberforce, who led the British abolition movement. Lay was “wild and confrontational, militant and uncompromising.” Sounds like a great many prophets.

Being a little person as well as having a hunched back made people think he was “deformed in both body and mind.” It could be that his own “otherness” contributed to his strong feelings about slavery, but it is obvious that his main inspiration is from his understanding of Scripture and what was revealed to him.

According to Joe Lockard of the Antislavery Literature Project at Arizona State University, Lay also was known to perform what might be considered “guerilla” street theater to try to get people to confront the evil of slavery. He even kidnapped a fellow Quaker’s son to show the pain that enslaved families endured when slave-holders broke those families up.

The one book that Lay wrote, which was published by Benjamin Franklin, is available online at:  https://antislavery.eserver.org/religious/allslavekeepersfinal/allslavekeepersfinal The book is titled All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates. It looks as if it will take some effort to read, but may be well worth the fortitude to understand Benjamin Lay’s devotion to the cause.

Lay must have felt well vindicated when the Society of Friends in Philadelphia did decide to discipline and/or turn slave-holders out of the community. He died a year later.

Mr. Rediker’s book is available in audible form as well as hard-cover and paperback. He is Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh and Senior Research Fellow at the Collège d’études mondiales in Paris. He is the author of numerous prize-winning books, including The Many-Headed Hydra (with Peter Linebaugh), The Slave Ship, and The Amistad Rebellion. He produced the award-winning documentary film “Ghosts of Amistad” (Tony Buba, director), about the popular memory of the Amistad rebellion of 1839 in contemporary Sierra Leone.

An essay from his book appeared in The New York Times last year and the last paragraph is relevant to our times:

“In his time Lay may have been the most radical person on the planet. He helps us to understand what was politically and morally possible in the first half of the 18th century – and what may be possible now. It is more than we think.”

Never Forget Hiroshima, Nagasaki

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I tell myself never to forget the horrible things of history that we must not let happen again.

Despite years of participating in Hiroshima Day memorials, this year August 6 made no impression on me.

The havoc and chaos of following the daily outrages of this vile regime have warped my brain into a single, obsessive thought: What will it take to bring these criminals to justice?

But today I did remember that President Barack Obama made a historic visit to Hiroshima to lay a wreath and meet survivors of the atomic bomb just a little over two years ago.

In his reporting for The New York Times, Gardiner Harris wrote on May 27, 2016:

“President Obama laid a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial on Friday, telling an audience that included survivors of America’s atomic bombing in 1945 that technology as devastating as nuclear arms demands a ‘moral revolution.’

“Thousands of Japanese lined the route of the presidential motorcade to the memorial in the hopes of glimpsing Mr. Obama, the first sitting American president to visit the most potent symbol of the dawning of the nuclear age. Many watched the ceremony on their cellphones.

” ‘Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed,’ Mr. Obama said in opening his speech at the memorial.”

A 91-year-old survivor, Sunao Tsuboi, met the President. ” ‘I held his hand, and we didn’t need an interpreter. I could understand what he wanted to say by his expression.’ ”

The world has changed again, just since May 2016. An immoral revolution took place and we have heard the regime say that it will strike North Korea with “fire and fury” and threaten Iran with a disaster never before unleashed on a country. I have already documented many, many of the other daily outrages and high crimes and misdemeanors wrought in fewer than two years.

This is why I must never forget August 6. Tomorrow, August 9, is the 73rd anniversary of the day when the bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

 


 

Crimes Against Humanity

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Do you believe the regime when it says that it has reunited all “eligible” children with their parents?

I don’t, but when I saw that volunteer civilians were involved in the work of reuniting families, I felt much better about it. Knowing that neither the ACLU, nor the judge overseeing the lawsuit against the regime, is letting go until every last child is with its parent(s) helps as well.

What bothers me more is the term “eligible.” What a useful term for the government to use. “Eligible,” as if each child had ticked off the right boxes or come up with the right number or fulfilled some other benign requirement.

What “eligible” really means is that the government can’t return hundreds of “ineligible” children because it deported the parents and doesn’t have the will or the care to find them.

Then there’s the children who’ve been sexually abused while in detention and the ICE agents who have told them things such as, “Your mother doesn’t want you anymore.” That’s because they deported Mom and made her sign a complicated form that says she would give up her child without telling her that she had a right to legal counsel to determine whether she would leave her child with relatives in the US and go back to face the horrors of her own country alone.

Of all the scenes of hell that our national nightmare has introduced us to in the past year and a half, surely this one is the most “eligible” to be called a crime against humanity. Since it involves more than one country, I say this crime should be prosecuted in the Hague. Stephen Miller, from whose Satanic mind it was birthed, and Kiersjten Nielsen, who oversaw the program, should be the first defendants.

The attorney general belongs in the dock for avowing that this was a “law” that needs to be upheld. No, it wasn’t a law; it was a policy change that never saw the light of day in Congress and never saw any repudiation by the GOP. So perhaps international lawyers should be questioning Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell as well.

And when they all cry “I was just following orders!”, time for the head of the regime to take his turn in the dock.

 

Published At Last – Barracoon

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Can you imagine being known as the last living African kidnapped by slavers and brought to the US 50 years after the outlawing of the slave trade?

Zora Neale Hurston, novelist, playwright, essayist, and anthropologist, did try to imagine, and her curiosity drove her to patiently tease out of Oluale Kossola (slave name Cudjo Lewis), the story of his ordeal.  When she first met Kossola and told him what she was hoping to learn, he said, “Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Afficky soil some day and somebody say and callee my name and somebody sayn ‘Yeah, I know Kossola’,”

Part of the sadness of Hurston’s book, Barracoon, is that it was never published until this year, when it is so unlikely that anyone in West Africa would remember Kossola’s name. Several publishers refused it when she finished her last draft in the 1930s.

Kossola was a member of a sub-group of the West African Yoruba tribe. The US banned the slave trade in 1808, but people found a way to continue to smuggle enslaved people through the Middle Passage. A major supplier of slaves was the king of Dahomey, who acquired wealth and political dominance through the trade. Kidnapped Africans were held in bondage in barracoons (Spanish for barracks) along the coast, and Ouida (or Whydah) in Dahomey was a major shipping point.

It was there that, in 1860, Timothy Meaher and William Foster sailed the Clotilda to bring 110 lost souls to the “New World.” The 19-year-old Kossola had been captured in a raid on Bante; his family and most of the citizens were slaughtered outright. The young men were yoked and brought to the barracoons of Ouida.

Though Kossola at first expressed joy that Hurston wanted to know his story, in 1927 when she traveled to Plateau, Alabama, to meet him, he was often reluctant to talk to her. He was 86 years old, but his grief at never having been able to go home was still upon him. Some days she would bring peaches and watermelon as bait to get him to sit down with her; other days he would just ignore her presence and continue to garden or pursue other hobbies while she waited patiently.

Her persistence paid off. Reading Barracoon, one feels as if one knows this elderly man who has undergone so much pain, outliving his beloved wife and his sons and daughter. His voice is rendered perfectly, and you can hear him saying “you unnerstand me,” his oft-used interjection.

After emancipation, the Clotilda slaves had no way to earn the money to go home. And home didn’t exist anymore, though they couldn’t have known that. When they were kidnapped, their rest of their entire tribe was killed, and there was no Bante anymore.

So they re-created their home where they were, calling it Africatown (now Plateau). It was meant to be a place for only those born in Africa, but because of intermarriage among slaves there were many black people who were born in the United States as well. Renting land from their former owner until they could buy it, 11 families “created a community that embodied the ethos and traditions of their homeland,” writes editor Deborah G. Plant in her afterword.

Thank goodness this book has finally been published! Most memoirs of formerly enslaved people were born into the “peculiar institution.” To hear firsthand from someone who was actually born in Africa 200 years after the first enslaved people were brought here is to learn more about the horrible mechanics of slavery and how one little band of people created their own homeland in Alabama.

It also teaches about the persistence of memory and the longing for that place called home. This should be an important part of our national conversation about dismantling racism. I have recently seen people who consider themselves “progressive” basically say that African-Americans today have no right to say they are victims of slavery.

Yet, knowing one is descended from people who knew no other home than a slaveowner’s plantation does cause soul damage. Knowing that one’s ancestors were considered sub-human does cause psychic damage. Knowing that the whole history of white supremacy gives white people today a feeling that they the right to trample on the freedoms of African-Americans – whether they’re having a barbecue or mowing someone’s lawn or waiting for someone outside a store – yes, that is victimization. We can’t stop it until we own it

A Map of the World

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As a bumbling, stumbling out-of-control toddler lurches his way across the world, knocking alliances and good will into the trash bin and trying to redraw the map of the world, people wonder how he can still be followed by any sane person, let alone be shown homage by the majority of the one group that’s supposed to keep him in check.

A quote from Oscar Wilde came to mind this week and I was introduced to another from Thoreau by my Facebook friend Christopher. I see similarities in them and also a diagnosis of what is wrong with those who continue to enable a narcissistic, greedy wannabe dictator.

Years ago, I saw a play by David Hare called “A Map of the World.” Hated the play but loved the title’s allusion: “Any map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at.” Oscar Wilde

Then this from Thoreau: “Friends . . . they cherish one another’s hopes. They are kind to one another’s dreams.”

Both quotes are about vision and how one sees oneself in relation to the world. First, a person has to have a vision of the map of the world and then acknowledge the billions of other co-inhabitants of what the Book of Common Prayer calls “this fragile earth, our island home.”

How do people grow up thinking that they are the only people on earth who deserve any rights, any privileges, any chance of a fulfilling life? How do they grow up never, ever thinking about the needs of anyone else other than their closed community?

How is their curiosity so suppressed that they don’t ever wonder what it’s like to be an African kidnapped from her homeland and brought to a strange country where she must work and possibly (probably) be raped by someone who thinks he “owns” her?

How is their imagination so stifled that they cannot imagine what it was like to be a Vietnamese or Laotian or Cambodian peasant and suddenly find you’re the “enemy” to airplanes that drop bombs and napalm on your or murder you just because you happen to live where the “enemy” lives?

How did they never develop any sense of empathy that would allow them to imagine having their children kidnapped by the very people they thought would help them?

While “utopia” literally means “nowhere” (from Greek, uonot and topos – place), it was coined by Sir Thomas More to mean a place where all are equal in social status, in economic status, and in political status, a Garden of Eden if you will. More himself, we know now, cared little for the equality of women, whom he scorned, and married only so that he wouldn’t burn in hell for having sexual thoughts and desires.

Still, More’s notion of Utopia lives on, and Wilde’s concern was that our map of the world ought to include a vision for that perfect place. Being gay, and being therefore a criminal who was sent to prison for being gay, Wilde would have had a vested interest in a place where homosexuality was not a crime.

So should we, and let’s include color of skin, religion, language, and ability in there.

As for Thoreau’s beautiful sentiment, shouldn’t we extend cherishing others’ hopes and being kind to other peoples’ dreams to everyone on this planet? Why limit our empathy? Who are we to say that anyone else should not have hopes that we respect and dreams that we do not trample on?

Only willful and determined and carefully cultivated ignorance could possibly account for people to think they are supreme and that anyone not like them is not to be regarded equally. By “ignorance,” I mean ignoring everyone else who does not look, act, or talk like them.

If their ignorance wasn’t so destructive, I might look for excuses why white supremacists grew up without a map of the world or the empathy to cherish other peoples’ hopes and dreams. But that ignorance is evil and deadly, and there is no excuse for it.

 

 

The Cross & The Lynching Tree

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I didn’t know anything about James H. Cone until the day he died, April 28, 2018.

I was at a “Dismantling Racism” training in Georgia. His name was on the syllabus. When I went online at the end of the training, the first thing I saw was Dr. Cone’s obituary.

I subsequently learned that he was considered one of the fathers of Black Liberation Theology. It was recommended to me that I read his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011).

As the title suggests, Dr. Cone makes the case that “until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a “recrucified” black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.”

Others have written about the nexus between Christianity and the avid way in which the oppressors’ religion was taken up by slaves. But Dr. Cone is the first I have come across to directly identify the broken body of a lynched person with the broken Christ on the cross.

He says that the cross has always been central to African-American worship because “the cross inverts the world’s value system” when it turns death into hope. Death doesn’t have the last word.

Enslaved blacks seized on the transcendent power of the cross; the cross is God’s critique of white supremacy, he claims.

This may seem like cold comfort at first, but for people whose lives were made to seem meaningless, the cross gave meaning to life and promised a life after death. And it did give hope. Dr. Cone quotes Richard Wright as saying, “Our churches are where we dip our tired bodies in cool springs of hope.”

Dr. Cone gives a long chapter to discussing how black artists were often able to make the connection between the cross and the lynching tree better than theologians and pastors. The blues were another way to transcend suffering, he says, and the poets, particularly Countee Cullen, who wrote about the “Black Christ” recrucified are many (see a portion of the poem below). He also writes about the famed Billy Holiday song “Strange Fruit,” written ironically by the Jewish Abel Meeropol many years before the Holocaust. Mr. Meeropol and his wife were the couple who adopted the orphaned sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

A long chapter is given to the most famous theologian of the lynching era, Reinhold Niebuhr, who was well-known as a social justice activist but who never spoke out personally or theologically about the sin of lynching. Many white supporters of equal status for blacks still used the argument at the time that “their day would come.” Martin Luther King Jr. would later say, “It is hardly a moral act to encourage others patiently to accept injustice which he himself does not endure.”

Of course, a whole system of theology cannot be explained in a one- or two-page blog. I hope to give readers a curiosity to read The Cross and the Lynching Tree for themselves. But as Dr. Cone says, “Though we are not fully free and the dream not fully realized, yet we are not what we used to be and not what we will be. . .We continue to seek an ultimate meaning that cannot be expressed in rational historical language and that cannot be denied by white supremacy.”

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