Politics/Current Events

Show Compassion, Don’t Let Extremism Win

The past five days have been extremely emotional. It started with the horrific terror attacks in Paris that overshadowed a slew of other coordinated violence and natural disasters across the globe. But, it didn’t stop there.

Since then, my Facebook feed has become filled with a stream of animosity and hatred that is primarily fueled, I think, by a deeply emotional and irrational reaction to terror attacks on Western soil. When you add a dose of ignorance (that is, an absence of facts or logic) to the mix, you get a dangerous concoction of arrogance, aggression, and xenophobia.

It makes me wonder: Have we learned nothing from 9/11? In the days and months following that September day, Americans were horrified, angry, and scared. We allowed a deceitful administration to lie to us and talk us into launching not one, but two wars. And the truth of the matter was, we didn’t need much convincing. We were craving vengeance, revenge, justice…anything. But, we’ve now seen what happens when we make such important decisions based on emotional, knee-jerk reactions. The same thing is happening now in the wake of the Paris attacks. People clamor for more war while we let our fears dictate our reactions….And this is exactly what the terrorists want.

So, I want to take a moment to address some of the things that I’ve seen making their way through the Facebook universe, and offer a historian’s thoughts on the situation.

Be smart; don’t click “share” without first checking to see if it’s true. I think this is the first step to addressing the tide of fear and hatred. Just because someone on Facebook shares something from a random website or blog, that doesn’t make it true. In fact, a lot of the stuff I’ve seen out there is just simply wrong, false, inaccurate, fake, deceitful, incorrect, fictitious, misleading. Take the following picture for example:

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These are supposedly Muslim women here in the USA protesting for the downfall of our country. A simple Google search, however, reveals that these are actually women in Iran.

The caption reads (at least in one of its variations) that these are Muslim women HERE in America showing their “appreciation” for American freedom by writing “Down with USA!” on their hands. When I saw this, I was shocked, and thought, if this is true, it is certainly absurd and infuriating. BUT, instead of clicking “like” or “share,” I simply opened a new tab and Googled “muslim women America down with usa on hands.ALL of the results on the front page easily and quickly revealed that this picture is actually from Iran, NOT America. Mind you, as a historian I have years of experience doing hardcore, extensive archival research on complex topics. But you don’t need all that to confront such blind, ignorant bigotry. All you need is Google. So, PLEASE do humanity a favor and do some basic fact checking before you contribute to the spread of falsities and hatred.

The claim that President Obama is weak on ISIS. Of course, this sentiment is driven by political allegiances. Obama is not a gun-toting tough guy who sounds like he’s from the Wild West, using phrases like “dead or alive” and “smoke them out” of their holes… so, he must be weak, right? After the Paris attacks, France lead a series of airstrikes against ISIS targets, and I saw people shouting (or, the caps-lock equivalent thereof): WHY AREN’T WE DOING ANYTHING?!

Well, here are some numbers for you to put some things into perspective: According to statistics just released by the U.S. Department of Defense, in the last 15 months, President Obama has authorized 6,353 airstrikes against ISIS. All of the other 12 coalition countries combined have launched 1,772 strikes. That means that 78% of the bombs being dropped on ISIS are American. So, Obama leads more than 3 out of 4 of the attacks against ISIS, and yet his opponents are still claiming that he is weak, taking a back seat?! The extreme right-wingers even go as far to say that this “reveals” that he’s not-so-secretly a Muslim terrorist himself. Give me a break. Get your facts straight instead of mouthing off about things you don’t understand. And whether you want to believe that President Obama is weak or not, the fact remains that we are still leading the fight against ISIS – by a large margin. And the pesky thing about facts is that they remain true whether you choose to believe them or not.

Refusing to take Syrian refugees. I want to express my thoughts on this in length, because as I’ve said before, I believe that the treatment of Syrian refugees is not a political issue – it is a test of our moral fortitude. But first, I want to get a few facts out there:

(1) No one is suggesting that we just throw open our borders and let people from Syria just run across and do whatever they want to. Did you know that the vetting process to obtain refugee status in the United States is one of the toughest in the world? In many cases, it is more difficult for a refugee fleeing war to be allowed into the country than it is for someone to get a student visa to come attend college. As it is now, America’s vetting process for refugees takes TWO YEARS and involves multiple international organizations. First, refugees must go through 2 interviews at the United Nations; then, they are fact checked by three US government departments, including the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI. That’s just for the normal, everyday people. If, at any time, a red flag goes up, they go through a lot more. This vetting process has an EXCELLENT track record. The United States has taken in 784,000 refugees since 2001. None of them have carried out attacks. It’s not 100% fool-proof, mind you; nothing can be. Out of those 784,000, three men have been arrested under suspicion of potential involvement in terrorist activities. That means, that out of all the refugees we’ve taken in during the last 14 years, exactly 0.0000038% wanted to (potentially) do America harm – – AND WE CAUGHT THEM. That’s the thing about these refugees. They’re in the system; the government keeps closer tabs on them than any of the rest of us. (And, no the Tsarnaev brothers [the Boston Marathon Bombers] were not “refugees.” Their family came over under the protection of political asylum, which is different.)

(2) There is  a particularly ignorant idea that I’ve seen floating around Facebook…and it goes a little something like this: “Why are all the Syrian refugees men?!?! They’re sending over their men as an invasion! Wake Up America!!” Really, I’m not sure how ignorant and scared you must be to believe this line of “reasoning.” The Syrian Civil War has been going on for over four years, and of course when a family decides that there is no future for them in their home country and that they must make the hard decision to leave, the father or oldest brother will go first – not to invade Western countries, but to find a place to live, to establish a little bit of stability so that when he calls for his family to come, they’re not all living on the street or worried about how to survive. THAT is why men came first. But now that the war has gotten so incredibly horrible, entire families leave everything they’ve ever known, and pay bandits to help them pile onto a boat and flee the constant danger. Now there is no time for men to go first; everyone has to flee as soon as possible;

(3) Syrians aren’t “looking for a better life.” That’s incredibly naive and degrading. The VAST majority of these Syrians would choose to stay in their home country, given the chance. They’re not looking for a free ride on American welfare; they’re not wanting riches and endless possibilities in the US of A. They’re not simply looking for a “better” life. They’re just hoping to live. Period. They want to be able to wake up and see another sunrise. Do you want to know why they’re risking their lives to cross open seas and walk across entire nations? Take the horrors of Paris on November 13, 2015. And now imagine that is your life EVERY.SINGLE.DAY. That is what these people are fleeing. The fear that they, or their children may suddenly be BLOWN UP, reduced to ragged pieces of flesh or pink mist. And it’s not only one set of bombers that they have to fear: They get to worry about whether it will be their own government killing them, or if it’ll be Russian jets, American drones, or ISIS suicide bombers. Everywhere they look, there is only death.

(4) There is a mindset that we shouldn’t “take care of” anyone else until there is no poverty or hunger in America. In other words, this argument states that somehow these refugees will be getting money that would otherwise be going to feed starving children or homeless veterans. This is simply an illogical, gut-response argument that isn’t based on knowledge of the facts. There are starving children and homeless veterans for a number of political reasons that I don’t have the time or effort go to into here. We are the richest nation in the history of the world; we COULD pay for every single person in our country AND every single refugee if we wanted to. But we don’t. It’s not that we CAN’T pay for our own; we don’t. This problem has nothing to do with the refugees. (Not to mention that refugees wouldn’t simply be getting a check and living off of our government, so their lives wouldn’t cost us a whole lot…Don’t worry.)

(5) All of these governors who are vowing to refuse any and all Syrian refugees…Guess what – you have no legal authority to do that. You don’t have a legal leg to stand on. The Refugee Act of 1980 gives broad, discretionary powers to the President of the United States to accept and handle refugees.

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I’ll end with my thoughts on the morals and ethics at play here. Because, it’s easy to get bogged down in the political fights of numbers, statistics, jabs, lies, and sound bytes. We forget that, at the heart of all of this, are people. Human lives. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children. All of whom have fears of their own, along with things that bring them joy; people who have just one life to live – and this is it.

The United States of American is a country of immigrants. We are made stronger, not weaker, by our cultural, religious, ethnic, sexual, and racial diversity. We constantly think of ourselves as a moral leader in the world, the “beacon of hope” that stands for freedom and compassion and acceptance. There is a plaque on the Statue of Liberty that reads: Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

What is it that we actually stand for?

What is it that we actually stand for?

If we shut our doors to these Syrians whose homes and lives have been destroyed, then we are betraying everything that we as Americans proclaim to stand for. I was horrified to learn that Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz believe that America should only let in Christian refugees! These men want to become the next President, and they believe that some lives are more worthy of saving just because they adhere to one particular religion over another. There is no religious test for true compassion. In fact, that’s the definition of compassion – it’s a sympathy and concern for the suffering of others based on their common humanity, nothing else.

Moreover, the people who are screaming and clamoring to keep the Syrians out are the same ones who claim to be “Pro-Life” – who shout that “All Lives Matter!” So, the lives of unborn fetuses matter more to you than the refugee children and mothers and fathers who seek safety and life? Is it because the “life” that you so desperately defend is white and “Christian” (even though it’s unborn and hasn’t had the chance to choose a religion yet)?

And for those of you who use religion as a way to justify the ignoring of Muslim suffering, I suggest you read your own Bible. Take, for example, Leviticus 19:33-34: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them.  The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born.  Love them as yourself, for you were once foreigners in Egypt.  I am the Lord your God.”  Or how about Matthew 25:41-46:  

“”Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  For, I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not love after me.”  They will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?”  He will reply, “Truly, I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”  Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

I came across this disgusting, repulsive picture this morning:

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The Facebook caption reads: “Can you tell me which of these rattlers won’t bite you? Sure some of them won’t, but tell me which ones so we can bring them into the house.”

It compares all Syrian refugees to rattlesnakes. It dehumanizes them, robs them of their very humanity as a way to justify Islamaphobia and xenophobia. You can have compassion for a human, but you can’t have compassion for a rattlesnake. Funny thing though, the Nazis dehumanized the Jews. They called them rats, vermin, a plague. It made it easier for the Germans to gas the Jews if they didn’t see the Jews as human. It makes the decision to ignore the suffering of Syrian refugees if you don’t think of them as humans.

I understand that much of the fear of terrorist attacks is justified. But, we shouldn’t let that fear drive us to devolve to a point that we ignore the fact that the same terror and same enemy that we face is also what these Syrian refugees are fleeing from…only their fears aren’t of potential attacks to come in the future. They are fleeing from daily war. One of our greatest founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin once said: “Those who would give up essential Liberty to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” I think this applies to our current situation as well. We can not be willing to sacrifice our values (which include sharing liberty with others) just out of fear for safety. Otherwise, there is nothing that makes America exceptional. Otherwise, we are nothing but a large group of people who are only interested in ourselves. “Freedom should never be at the expense of someone who has no freedom.” Elie Wiesel said that. He’s a Holocaust survivor, so he knows something about human nature and the fragile existence of freedom and life. We should never purchase our freedom by denying it to others.  But, luckily, compassion, the value of all human life, and national security are NOT mutually exclusive.  We can still be a shining beacon of hope to those fleeing warfare and death AND keep ourselves safe.  We just have to double down on our security efforts while also taking a breath and pausing to remember what it is we stand for before we make drastic decisions.

Do you want to know the ironic thing? This reaction is exactly what ISIS wants. Having 30 or so US Governors declare that there is no room for Muslim refugees…Having millions of Americans (and other Westerners) spew anti-Muslim hatred on social media…It’s the perfect propaganda for the ISIS cause. They will be able to say: See, the West hates Muslims! When anything goes wrong, they show their true nature! ISIS leaders have made this goal clear, stating in January that they hope their endless string of attacks on Western civilians would “compel the Crusaders to actively destroy the grayzone themselves.” In other words, they’re hoping that Western government and civilians will react violently, over generalize, and destroy the “grayzone” of the world, creating an oversimplified worldview where the West = Good; and Muslims = Evil. ISIS is hoping that innocent Muslims will become the victims of discrimination, bigotry, even violence. This will only drive others to become radicalized and join the ISIS cause.  In other words, ISIS is setting a trap for the West, and we’re walking right into it.  

So, if we forsake our American values, our belief that “all men are created equal,” and give in to base, animalistic emotions and fears…then the terrorist win. Then, they have transformed us into a nation that is willing to declare that some lives are worth more than others, and that we don’t think rationally, and don’t even care to. We have to destroy the threat caused by ISIS and international terrorism, but we shouldn’t forfeit our values and sell our souls to do so.

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Categories: Politics/Current Events | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Refugees and the Test of Morality

Gustav Schroeder, Cptt. of the St. Louis.  Photo Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Gustav Schroeder, Cptt. of the St. Louis. Photo Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. this past weekend, and one part of the permanent exhibit stood out to me. It was the story of the German transatlantic liner, the St. Louis. In May 1939, it sailed from Germany to Cuba with 937 passengers, most of them Jewish refugees fleeing the escalating violence in Nazi Germany. The passengers had been granted visas to Cuba; however, when the ship arrived, only 28 people were let off. The remainder were told to go home.

The ship then sailed northwards, hoping that the United States would provide refuge. But, the President, State Department, and Congress all denied aid to the passengers of the St. Louis. They were close enough to Florida to see the city lights of Miami, but were not allowed to dock. The “Land of the Free” was dedicated to “staying out of world affairs” and many Congressional leaders worried that letting in a flood of refugees would hurt the U.S. economy.

Voyage of the St. Louis - USHMM

The St. Louis was forced to return to Europe. Several European countries agreed to take in the refugees, but within a short time, Hitler’s Blitzkrieg engulfed Europe in war and brought much of the continent under Nazi control.

Of the St. Louis’ 937 passengers, 284 were ultimately killed in the Holocaust.

As I stood and read the story of the St. Louis, I couldn’t help but think about the masses of Syrian refugees fleeing civil war and almost certain death in their home country. They have left everything they know and love behind and are asking someone to help them.

Whether or not we are doing ALL that we can to help these people is not an economic or political question, it is a MORAL question; it is a test of ethics. As the case of the St. Louis shows, it’s a test that we have failed before…Are we going to learn from our mistakes, or is someone 70 years from now going to sit and judge us for not doing more?

Remember that these refugees aren’t just numbers; they’re all human beings with worries, fears, hopes, and joys.  The majority aren’t just “seeking a better life;” they’re simply looking for a way to survive, to make sure that their children don’t die in a bomb explosion.  

Migrants stand in a field as they wait for buses, after crossing the border from Serbia, near Tovarnik, Croatia September 24, 2015. Hungary may consider opening a "corridor" for migrants to pass through from Croatia by train or bus if Austria and Germany want one and take full responsibility, Prime Minister Viktor Orban's chief of staff said on Thursday. The route of migrants journeying northwards through the Balkans from Greece shifted to Croatia and Slovenia after Hungary sealed off its border with Serbia earlier this month.  REUTERS/Marko Djurica - RTX1SBFP

Migrants stand in a field as they wait for buses, after crossing the border from Serbia, near Tovarnik, Croatia September 24, 2015. Photo: REUTERS/Marko Djurica.

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If you’re wondering how you can help the 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt you can donate to any of these charities:

The UN Refugee Agency: Provides cash for medicine and food, stoves and fuel for heating, insulation for tents, thermal blankets and winter clothing.

Save the Children: Supplies food for Syrian kids and supports education in Syrian refugee camps.

Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders: MSF is operating three rescue ships in the Mediterranean Sea that can carry hundreds of people to land.

Unicef: Delivers vaccines, winter clothes and food for children in Syria and neighboring countries. The agency is working to immunize more than 22 million children in the region following a polio outbreak.

International Rescue Committee: The group’s emergency team is in Greece, where nearly 1,000 people are arriving per day.  Founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein.

World Food Programme: The agency says it is struggling to meet the urgent food needs of millions of displaced Syrians.

Mercy Corps: Refugees are most in need of clean water, sanitation services, temporary shelter and food, the agency says.

Aylan Kurdi & Syria’s Child Victims of War: A new fund named after Aylan himself. Money goes to “Hand In Hand For Syria,” a U.K. based organization that works with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

CARE: Reaches Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Yemen and those displaced inside Syria with food, hygiene items and emergency cash. It’s also helping refugees crossing into Serbia.

Categories: History, Politics/Current Events | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Building the First Slavery Museum in America

Below is an article that I found on the New York Times’ website today.  It’s written by David Amsden, and the link to the original article can be found here.  As a historian studying the process of memorialization and memory-making, I find this Whitney slavery museum to be incredibly fascinating.  I’d love to take a field trip down to New Orleans to check it out.  

 

Building the First Slavery Museum in America

By: David Amsden, for the New York Times 

John Cummings (right), the Whitney Plantation's owner and Ibrahima Seck, its director of research, in the Baptist church on the grounds.  Credit: Mark Peckmezian for the New York Times.

John Cummings (right), the Whitney Plantation’s owner and Ibrahima Seck, its director of research, in the Baptist church on the grounds. Credit: Mark Peckmezian for the New York Times.

Louisiana’s River Road runs northwest from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, its two lanes snaking some 100 miles along the Mississippi and through a contradictory stretch of America.  Flat and fertile, with oaks webbed in Spanish moss, the landscape stands in defiance of the numerous oil refineries and petrochemichal plants that threaten its natural splendor.  In the rust-scabbed towns of clapboard homes, you are reminded that Louisiana is the eighth-poorest state in the nation.  Yet in the lush sugar plantations that crop up every couple of miles, you can glimpse the excess that defined the region before the Civil War. Some are still active, with expansive fields yielding 13 million tons of sugar cane a year. Others stand in states of elegant rot. But most conspicuous are those that have been restored for tourists, transporting them into a world of bygone Southern grandeur — one in which mint juleps, manicured gardens and hoop skirts are emphasized over the fact that such grandeur was made possible by the enslavement of black human beings.

On Dec. 7, the Whitney Plantation, in the town of Wallace, 35 miles west of New Orleans, celebrated its opening, and it was clear, based on the crowd entering the freshly painted gates, that the plantation intended to provide a different experience from those of its neighbors. Roughly half of the visitors were black, for starters, an anomaly on plantation tours in the Deep South. And while there were plenty of genteel New Orleanians eager for a peek at the antiques inside the property’s Creole mansion, they were outnumbered by professors, historians, preservationists, artists, graduate students, gospel singers and men and women from Senegal dressed in traditional West African garb: flowing boubous of intricate embroidery and bright, saturated colors. If opinions on the restoration varied, visitors were in agreement that they had never seen anything quite like it. Built largely in secret and under decidedly unorthodox circumstances, the Whitney had been turned into a museum dedicated to telling the story of slavery — the first of its kind in the United States.

The Whitney Plantation's "Big House" in January 2015. Credit: Mark Peckmezian for the New York Times

The Whitney Plantation’s “Big House” in January 2015. Credit: Mark Peckmezian for the New York Times

Located on land where slaves worked for more than a century, in a state where the sight of the Confederate flag is not uncommon, the results are both educational and visceral. An exhibit on the North American slave trade inside the visitors’ center, for instance, is lent particular resonance by its proximity, just a few steps away outside its door, to seven cabins that once housed slaves. From their weathered cypress frames, a dusty path, lined with hulking iron kettles that were used by slaves to boil sugar cane, leads to a grassy clearing dominated by a slave jail — an approach designed so that a visitor’s most memorable glimpse of the white shutters and stately columns of the property’s 220-year-old “Big House” will come through the rusted bars of the squat, rectangular cell. A number of memorials also dot the grounds, including a series of angled granite walls engraved with the names of the 107,000 slaves who spent their lives in Louisiana before 1820. Inspired by Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, the memorial lists the names nonalphabetically to mirror the confusion and chaos that defined a slave’s life.

Ibrahima Seck, the Whitney's director of research, at a memorial on the plantation. Credit: Mark Peckmezian for the New York Times

Ibrahima Seck, the Whitney’s director of research, at a memorial on the plantation. Credit: Mark Peckmezian for the New York Times

Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, was among those to address the crowd on opening day. He first visited the Whitney as the state’s lieutenant governor in 2008, when the project was in its infancy, and at the time he compared its significance to that of Auschwitz. Now he was speaking four days after a grand jury in New York City declined to indict a police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, a black man who was stopped for selling untaxed cigarettes; 13 days after another grand jury in Missouri cleared an officer in the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager; and two weeks after Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park, was killed by a police officer. Evoking the riots and protests then gripping the nation, Landrieu said, “It is fortuitous that we come here today to stand on the very soil that gives lie to the protestations that we have made, and forces us as Americans to check where we’ve been and where we are going.”

The mayor concluded his speech by extending his hand to an older man standing just offstage to his left. Stocky and bespectacled, with a thick head of unkempt white hair, John Cummings was as much a topic of conversation among those gathered as the Whitney itself. For reasons almost everyone was at a loss to explain, he had spent the last 15 years and more than $8 million of his personal fortune on a museum that he had no obvious qualifications to assemble.

The Whitney Plantation's "Big House" in 1926. Credit: Robert Tebbs/The Collections of the Louisiana State Museum

The Whitney Plantation’s “Big House” in 1926. Credit: Robert Tebbs/The Collections of the Louisiana State Museum

“Like everyone else,” John Cummings said a few days earlier, “you’re probably wondering what the rich white boy has been up to out here.”

He was driving around the Whitney in his Ford S.U.V., making sure the museum would be ready for the public. Born and raised in New Orleans, Cummings is as rife with contrasts as the land that surrounds his plantation. He is 77 but projects the unrelenting angst of a teenager. His disposition is exceedingly proper — the portly carriage, the trimmed white beard, the florid drawl — but he dresses in a rumpled manner that suggests a morning habit of mistaking the laundry hamper for the dresser. As someone who had to hitchhike to high school and remains bitter about not being able to afford his class ring, he embodies the scrappiness of the Irish Catholics who flooded New Orleans in the 19th century. But as a trial lawyer who has helped win more than $5 billion in class-action settlements and a real estate magnate whose holdings have multiplied his wealth many times over, Cummings personifies the affluence and power held by an elite and mostly white sliver of a city with a majority black population.

“I suppose it is a suspicious thing, what I’ve gone and done with the joint,” he continued, acknowledging that his decision to “spend millions I have no interest in getting back” on the museum has long been a source of local confusion. More than a few of the 670 residents of Wallace — 90 percent of whom are black, many the descendants of slaves and sharecroppers who worked the region’s land — have voiced their bewilderment over the years. So, too, have the owners of other tourist-oriented plantations, all of whom are white. Members of Cummings’s close-knit family (he has eight children by two wives) also struggle to clarify their patriarch’s motivations, resorting to the shoulder-shrugging logic of “John being John,” as if explaining a stubborn refusal to throw away old newspapers rather than a consuming, heterodox and very expensive attempt to confront the darkest period of American history. “Challenge me, fight me on it,” he said. “I’ve been asked all the questions. About white guilt this and that. About the honky trying to profit off of slavery. But here’s the thing: Don’t you think the story of slavery is important?” With that, Cummings went silent, something he does with unsettling frequency in conversation.

“Well, I checked into it, and I heard you weren’t telling it,” he finally resumed, “so I figured I might as well get started.”

This was a practiced line, but also an earnest form of self-indictment: Cummings’s way of admitting his own ignorance on the subject of slavery and its legacy, and by extension encouraging visitors to confront their own. As with the rest of his real estate portfolio, which includes miles of raw countryside and swampland, a 12-story luxury hotel near the French Quarter, a cattle farm in rural Mississippi and a 1,200-acre ranch in West Texas that he has never set foot on, he initially gravitated toward the Whitney simply because it was for sale. (“Whatever Uncle Sam and the bartender let me keep,” he likes to note, “I bought real estate with it.”) Originally built by the Haydel family, a prosperous clan of German immigrants who ran the property from 1752 to 1867, the grounds had been uninhabited for a quarter century. “I knew I wasn’t going to live here,” Cummings said as he drove past the blacksmith’s shop that he spent $300,000 rebuilding, where a plaque noted that a slave named Robin worked on the plantation for 40 years and where the actor Jamie Foxx, playing a slave in “Django Unchained,” was filmed being branded. “But aside from that, I didn’t know what I would do with the place.”

It takes just a few minutes of conversation with Cummings, however, to understand that he would never have been keen on restoring the Whitney in the mold of neighboring plantations, which rely on weddings and sorority reunions to supplement the income brought in by picnicking tourists. Pet projects he has taken up in recent years include outlining for the Vatican a list of wrongs the Catholic Church should formally apologize for and — to the chagrin of, in his words, “my friends who have all had political sex changes in the past 15 years” — exploring ways to curb the influence of conservative “super PACs.” Decades ago, his interest in abuses of power led to his involvement in the civil rights movement; in 1968, he worked alongside African-American activists to get the Audubon Park swimming pool in New Orleans opened to blacks. “If someone is going to deny someone rights simply because they have the power to do it — well, I’m interested,” he explained. “I’m coming, and I’m going to bring the cannons.”

Still, his plans for the Whitney might have gone in an entirely different direction, if not for the existence of an unlikely document. The property’s previous owner was Formosa, a plastics and petrochemical giant, which in 1991 planned to build a $700 million plant for manufacturing rayon on its nearly 2,000 acres. Preservationists and environmentalists balked. Looking for avenues of appeasement, Formosa commissioned an exhaustive survey of the grounds, with the idea that the most historic sections would be turned into a token museum of Creole culture while a majority of the rest would be razed to make way for the factory. In the end, it was wasted money and effort: The opposition remained vigilant, rayon was going out of fashion, the Whitney went back on the market and Cummings inherited the eight-volume study with the purchase. “Thanks to Formosa, I knew more about my plantation than anyone else around here — maybe more than any plantation in America outside of Monticello,” said Cummings, a litigator accustomed to teasing secrets from dense paperwork. “A lot of what was in there was about the architecture and artifacts, but you started to see the story of slavery. You saw it in terms of who built what.”

After digesting the study, Cummings began readying “any book I could find” about slavery.  Particularly influential was Africans in Colonial Louisiana, by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, a professor at Rutgers.  Certain details startled Cummings, like the fact that 38 percent of slaves shipped from Africa ended up in Brazil.  No wonder, he thought, that the women he watched on television celebrating Carnival in Rio de Janeiro so closely resembled those he saw dancing in the Mardi Gras parades that surrounded him as a youth.  “I started to see slavery and the hangover from slavery everywhere I looked,” he said.  As a descendant of Irish laborers, he has no direct ties to slaveholders; still, in a departure from the views held by many Southern whites, Cummings considered the issue a personal one.  “If ‘guilt’ is the best word to sue, then yes, I feel guilt,” he said.  “I mean, you start understanding that the wealth of this part of the world – wealth that has benefited me – was created by some half a million black people who just passed us by.  How is it that we don’t acknowledge this?”

Cummings steered the vehicle past the yellow fronds of banana trees and pulled to a stop in front of a sculpture, a black angel embracing a dead infant, the centerpiece of a memorial honoring the 2,200 enslaved children who died in the parish in the 40 years leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. At traditional museums, such memorials come to fruition only after a lengthy process — proposals by artists, debates among the board members, the securing of funds. This statue, though, like everything on the property, began as a vision in Cummings’s mind and became a reality shortly after he pulled out his checkbook. Perhaps most remarkable is that this unconventional model has yielded conventionally effective results: at once chastening and challenging, beautiful and haunting. “Everything about the way the place came together says that it shouldn’t work,” says Laura Rosanne Adderley, a Tulane history professor specializing in slavery who has visited the Whitney twice since it opened. “And yet for the most part it does, superbly and even radically. Like Maya Lin’s memorial, the Whitney has figured out a way to mourn those we as a society are often reluctant to mourn.”

Before leaving the grounds, Cummings stopped at the edge of the property’s small lagoon. It was here that the Whitney’s most provocative memorial would soon be completed, one dedicated to the victims of the German Coast Uprising, an event rarely mentioned in American history books. In January 1811, at least 125 slaves walked off their plantations and, dressed in makeshift military garb, began marching in revolt along River Road toward New Orleans. (The area was then called the German Coast for the high number of German immigrants, like the Haydels.) The slaves were suppressed by militias after two days, with about 95 killed, some during fighting and some after the show trials that followed. As a warning to other slaves, dozens were decapitated, their heads placed on spikes along River Road and in what is now Jackson Square in the French Quarter.

“It’ll be optional, O.K.? Not for the kids,” said Cummings, who commissioned Woodrow Nash, an African-­American sculptor he met at Jazz Fest, to make 60 heads out of ceramic, which will be set atop stainless-steel rods on the lagoon’s small island. “But just in case you’re worried about people getting distracted by the pretty house over there, the last thing you’ll see before leaving here will be 60 beheaded slaves.”

The memorial had lately become a source of controversy among locals, who were concerned that it would be too disturbing.

“It is disturbing,” Cummings said as he pulled out past Whitney’s gate. “But you know what else? It happened. It happened right here on this road.”

John Cummings brought these cabins from another plantation to replace the ones at the Whitney, which were destroyed in the 1970s. Credit: Mark Peckmezian for the New York Times

John Cummings brought these cabins from another plantation to replace the ones at the Whitney, which were destroyed in the 1970s. Credit: Mark Peckmezian for the New York Times

A nation builds museums to understand its own history and to have its history understood by others, to create a common space and language to address collectively what is too difficult to process individually. Forty-eight years after World War II, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in Washington. A museum dedicated to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks opened its doors in Lower Manhattan less than 13 years after they occurred. One hundred and fifty years after the end of the Civil War, however, no federally funded museum dedicated to slavery exists, no monument honoring America’s slaves. “It’s something I bring up all the time in my lectures,” says Eric Foner, a Columbia University historian and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.” “If the Germans built a museum dedicated to American slavery before one about their own Holocaust, you’d think they were trying to hide something. As Americans, we haven’t yet figured out how to come to terms with slavery. To some, it’s ancient history. To others, it’s history that isn’t quite history.”

These competing perceptions converge with baroque vividness in the South. The State of Mississippi did not acknowledge the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery until 1995 and formally ratified it only in 2013, when a resident was moved to galvanize lawmakers after watching Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” While some Southern states have passed resolutions apologizing for slavery in the last decade, a majority, Louisiana among them, have not. In 1996, when Representative Steve Scalise, now the third-highest-ranking Republican in the House, was serving in the Louisiana State Legislature, he voted against such a bill. “Why are you asking me to apologize for something I didn’t do and had no part of?” he remarked at the time. This episode recently came to light amid the revelation that in 2002 he addressed a gathering of white supremacists at a conference organized by David Duke, formerly the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization founded the year the Civil War ended.

Slavery is by no means unmemorialized in American museums, though the subject tends to be lumped in more broadly with African-American history. In 2004, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opened in Cincinnati with the mission of showcasing “freedom’s heroes.” Since 2007, the Old Slave Mart in Charleston, S.C., has operated as a small museum focusing on the early slave trade, on a site where slaves were sold at public auctions until 1863. The National Civil Rights Museum, which opened in Memphis in 1991 and was built around the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, offers a brief section devoted to slavery. Next year, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is scheduled to be dedicated in Washington as part of the Smithsonian Institution, a project supported by $250 million in federal funding; exhibits on slavery will stand alongside those containing a trumpet played by Louis Armstrong and boxing gloves worn by Muhammad Ali. “It has to be said that the end note in most of these museums is that civil rights triumphs and America is wonderful,” says Paul Finkelman, a historian who focuses on slavery and the law. “We are a nation that has always readily embraced the good of the past and discarded the bad. This does not always lead to the most productive of dialogues on matters that deserve and require them.”

What makes slavery so difficult to think about, from the vantage point of history, is that it was both at odds with America’s founding values — freedom, liberty, democracy — and critical to how they flourished. The Declaration of Independence proclaiming that “all men are created equal” was drafted by men who were afforded the time to debate its language because the land that enriched many of them was tended to by slaves. The White House and the Capitol were built, in part, by slaves. The economy of early America, responsible for the nation’s swift rise and sustained power, would not have been possible without slavery. But the country’s longstanding culture of racism and racial tensions — from the lynchings of the Jim Crow-era South to the discriminatory housing policies of the North to the treatment of blacks by the police today — is deeply rooted in slavery as well. “Slavery gets understood as a kind of prehistory to freedom rather than what it really is: the foundation for a country where white supremacy was predicated upon African-American exploitation,” says Walter Johnson, a Harvard professor. “This is still, in many respects, the America of 2015.”

In 2001, Douglas Wilder, a former governor of Virginia and the first elected black governor in the nation, announced his intention to build a museum that would be the first to give slavery its proper due — not as a piece of Southern or African-American history but as essential to understanding American history in general. Christened the United States National Slavery Museum, it was to be built on 38 acres along the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, Va. Wilder, the grandson of slaves, commissioned C. C. Pei, a son of I. M. Pei, to design the main building, which would be complemented by a full-scale replica of a slave ship. A number of prominent African-Americans, including Bill Cosby, pledged millions of dollars in support at black-tie fund-raisers. The ambition that surrounded the project’s inception, however, was soon eclipsed by years of pitfalls. By 2008, there were not enough donations to pay property taxes, let alone begin construction; in 2011, the nonprofit organization in charge of the project filed for bankruptcy protection. As it happens, it was during the same period Wilder’s project unraveled that John Cummings, unburdened by any bureaucracies, was well on his way to completing a slavery museum of his own.

Cummings and Seck at one of many memorials to slaves on the plantation.
Credit: Mark Peckmezian for The New York Times

For much of the last 13 years, Cummings has been joined on the Whitney’s grounds by a Sen­egal­ese scholar named Ibrahima Seck. A 54-year-old of imposing height, Seck first met Cummings in 2000, when Seck, who has made regular trips to the South since winning a Fulbright in 1995, attended a talk at Tulane with Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, the Rutgers professor. Cummings put up Seck at the International House, the hotel he owns in downtown New Orleans, and invited him to see the Whitney. Though at that point it was little more than a series of decrepit buildings entangled in feral vegetation, Seck was impressed that Cummings was thinking about it exclusively within the context of slavery. As someone from the region of Africa that provided more than 60 percent of Louisiana’s slaves, he was disturbed by the way other plantations romanticized the lives of the white owners, with scant mention of the enslaved blacks who harvested the land and built the grand homes fawned over by tourists. After walking the property with Seck for a few hours, Cummings invited him to return to New Orleans the next year to help crystallize the Whitney’s mission. Seck took him up on the offer, and for the next decade, Cummings flew Seck in from Africa each year during the scholar’s summer vacation.

Since 2012, Seck has lived full time in New Orleans to serve as the director of research for the Whitney. “As historians, we do the research and we write dissertations and we go to conferences, but very little of the knowledge gets out,” Seck said one afternoon in his French-inflected baritone while seated on the antique upholstered sofa in the parlor of the property’s Big House. “That’s why a place like this is so important. Not everyone is willing to read nowadays, but this is an open book.” He took a moment to glance around the lavish room, its hand-painted ceiling now meticulously restored. “Every day I think about how remarkable this is,” Seck said. “One hundred and fifty years ago, I would not be able to do what I’m doing here now. I would have been a slave.”

The alliance between the two men has been an auspicious one, with Seck’s patience and expertise serving as a counterbalance to the instinctual eccentricity of Cummings. While Seck researched the Whitney’s history, Cummings became something of a hoarder, buying anything he thought might one day be relevant to the project. When he learned about a dilapidated Baptist church in a neighboring parish that was founded by freed slaves in 1867, for example, he brought it across the Mississippi and had it restored on the grounds at a cost of $300,000. When recordings of interviews with former slaves that were made in the 1930s as part of the W.P.A.’s Federal Writers’ Project were acquired, Cummings hired a son-in-law who works as a sound engineer in Hollywood to clean them up; he plans to install a speaker system near the slave cabins, where the recordings will play on a loop, allowing visitors to hear the voices of former slaves while staring into the type of homes in which they once lived. After Seck unearthed in old court documents the names of 354 slaves who worked on the land before emancipation, Cummings bought an engraving machine so they could be etched in Italian granite in a memorial he christened the “Wall of Honor.”

“By 2005, it was clear to me that we were building a museum, but I’m not sure John was thinking about it in those terms,” Seck said. “If John feels something, he just goes ahead and does it. His stubbornness can be frustrating, but who in the world is willing to put so many millions of dollars into a project like this? If you find one, you have to support it.”

In his years of working on the Whitney, Seck has come to see the museum as both a memorializing of history and a slyly radical gesture: Cummings’s desire to shift the consciousness of others as his own has been altered, and in the process try to make amends of a kind that have been a source of debate since emancipation.

“If one word comes to mind to summarize what is in John’s head in doing this,” Seck said, “that word would be ‘reparations.’ Real reparations. He feels there is something to be done in this country to make changes.”

In 1835, a biracial child named Victor was born on the grounds of the Whitney, the son of a slave named Anna and Antoine Haydel, the brother of Marie Azelie Haydel, the slaveholder who ran the plantation at the time. One hundred and seventy-nine years later, a group of both the black and white descendants of the Haydels made their way to the Whitney’s opening in December. Many were meeting for the first time, and the sight of them embracing and marveling at the similarities in their appearances was as powerful as any memorial on the plantation. Among the black Haydels in attendance was one of Victor’s great-grandchildren, Sybil Haydel Morial, a well-known local activist who is the widow of Ernest Morial, the first black mayor of New Orleans, and the mother of Marc Morial, a subsequent mayor. “I was with John when he helped get the pool in Audubon Park opened to blacks,” she said in a later conversation. “Now, with the Whitney, he has given us a place where we can come and clear the air. If my slave great-grandfather had lived eight more years, I would have known him. Yet growing up, whenever my elders talked about slavery, they’d always get quiet when we kids were near.” Morial added that she hoped “some people around here may find their views changing” after visiting the Whitney, which seemed to be the case with some of her white relatives at the opening.

“I have to say, I was a little offended when I heard that slavery, of all the stories, was going to be the focus,” Glynne Couvillion, a white Haydel, said while standing inside the Baptist church, surrounded by dozens of ghostly sculptures of child slaves that Cummings commissioned to represent those interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project as they would have looked when enslaved. “But after today, I’m just in awe and proud to be connected to this place.”

For all the time and money Cummings has dedicated to the Whitney — and he is by no means finished, with plans to build an adjacent institute for the study of slavery — the museum was built on a shoestring budget compared with traditionally financed institutions. (The Holocaust Memorial Museum cost about $168 million.) Besides Seck, there were only two full-time staff members, an energetic young woman named Ashley Rogers, who serves as the director, and her deputy, Monique Johnson, a descendant of sharecroppers from the area, and it was evident that they were still finding their footing. Like the other plantations along River Road, the Whitney can be seen only through a guided tour — the cost is $22 — and a number of the docents struggled to find the proper tone. (“Time to depress you a little more,” one could be heard saying at various points.) Others struggled to answer questions about how, exactly, sugar cane was harvested by slaves, responding instead with generalities intended to incite emotion rather than educate: “It was the hardest, most grueling slave work imaginable.”

Yet this awkwardness might well serve as one of the Whitney’s strengths. Talking about slavery and race is awkward, and the museum stands a chance of becoming the rare place where this discomfort can be embraced, and where the dynamic among the mainly mixed-race tours can offer an ancillary form of education. A man who grew up in a “maroon community,” as bayou enclaves founded by runaway slaves are known, was so moved during his tour that he volunteered to work as a guide. A young black woman mentioned that she avoided tours at another nearby plantation because an ancestor was lynched on the grounds. Among the Whitney’s first visitors was a black man named Paul Brown, whose father was a field hand and who arrived dressed in a sharp blazer and a fedora on opening day “to shake the man’s hand who made this place possible.” During his tour, he offered personal anecdotes that served to buttress the white guide’s skittishness — bringing the past into the present, for instance, by pointing out how the images of slaves etched in one memorial were reminiscent of portraits of his ancestors. “I wish some of my white co-workers would come to this place,” he said afterward. “They’d understand me in ways they’ve failed for 30 years.”

Jonathan Holloway, a dean at Yale College and a professor of African-American studies, arrived for a tour in late January. He was in the area to give a talk at Louisiana State University about the ways the horrors of slavery are confronted and avoided in heritage tourism, and he found the Whitney to be a “genius step” in a long-overdue direction. “People have tried to do a museum like this for years, and I’m still stunned that this guy made it happen,” he said afterward. “There I was, coming down to talk about how in trying to tell the story, it’s often one step forward and two steps back, and boom, here’s the Whitney.” Holloway was particularly taken by the museum’s subversive approach. “Having been on a number of tours where the entire focus is on the Big House, the way they’ve turned the script inside out is a brilliant slipping of the skirt,” he said. “The mad genius of the whole thing is really resonant. Is it an art gallery? A plantation tour? A museum? It’s almost this astonishing piece of performance art, and as great art does, it makes you stop and wonder.”

Cummings, for his part, has been on the grounds every day since the Whitney opened, where he is in the habit of approaching visitors as they enter and telling them how they should feel afterward: “You’re not going to be the same person when you leave here” — a line that some found more grating than endearing. Inwardly, though, he was constantly making notes on what could be done to improve the experience.

“Look, we’re not perfect, and we’ve made a lot of mistakes, and we’ll make more,” he said one afternoon as the sun set across the sugar-cane fields that surround the plantation in much the form they did when slaves worked them 200 years ago. “We need all the help we can get — not financial, but we need brains.” With this in mind, he recently started reaching out to prominent African-American academics, hoping to create a board of directors — typically the first step for a museum, not one taken six weeks after opening day. “I’m firing before I’m aiming, O.K.?” he said. “I’m smart enough to know I don’t have the answers, but so far it looks like it’s the right thing.”

Cummings in the Cabin

Cummings and Seck in one of the cabins. Credit: Mark Peckmezian for the New York Times.

Correction: February 26, 2015
An earlier version of this article misidentified the source of the phrase “all men are created equal.” It is from the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution.
Categories: History, Politics/Current Events | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

A Dose of Good News

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I woke up this morning and, like I do every day, stumbled out of bed, shuffled into the living room, turned on the morning news, and poured myself a cup of coffee.  The opening jingle of CBS This Morning helped pull me into consciousness and I waited for Charlie Rose, Norah O’Donnell, and Gayle King to tell me what’s going on in the world.

cbs-this-morning

And of course, I was barraged with news that a nearly eradicated disease was making a comeback because idiots with no medical training decide that they know better than medical doctors and not only abstain from vaccinating their children (which, should be considered child abuse), but spread their idiocy and convince other sheeple to hop on the bandwagon.  And then you have presidential hopefuls like Rand Paul and Chris Christie making matters worse by ignoring science and turning this whole thing into some political debate about big bad government taking away your personal liberties (seriously, these guys want to be in the White House??? And have access to the nuclear launch codes???).

Then the next story was about more beheadings and violence in ISIS controlled territory.  And I thought about the Koch brothers recent announcement that they plan to spend $900 million on the 2016 presidential race, and I began pondering the definition of democracy and oligarchy and then I began spiraling into the dark abyss of misanthropy.  It took everything I had to not crawl back into bed and try to start over.

So, I decided to look up some GOOD NEWS in order to combat the urge to get “I HATE PEOPLE” tattooed on my forehead.

If you’re like me and needing some hope for humanity, here are a couple of stories that will lift your spirits!

1) Nineteen Year Old Invents Affordable Prosthetic Limbs:  

Easton LaChappelle was always interested in robotics.  When he was just 14, he built a robotic hand from Legos and a few rudimentary electrical components.  When he was 17, he earned an internship at NASA.   He once met a girl who was born without an arm and when he learned that her prosthetic arm cost $80,000, he knew that he could make a better one for a fraction of the cost.  LaChappelle recently unveiled the 3rd generation of his prosthetic arm: It’s fully robotic and can do many things a human arm can do, with a full range of motion and agile fingers….Oh, and you can control it with your mind!  God, if those old plastic stumps cost 80 grand, this robotic arm must require a second mortgage, right?  Nope; it costs $350.  That’s pretty much the cost of three college science textbooks.   And the really cool thing?  LaChappelle, who’s now 19, made the design open to the public, free of charge.  So, he won’t become a bajillionaire off his invention, but he hopes that having the plans out there for the world to use will result in someone improving his design to create an even better prosthetic.  “No one person can change the world,” LaChappelle says in the video. “It takes multiple people, so if I can develop technology in a way so other people can take what I’ve done and grow from it and do something more with it, someone could take that and keep impacting someone else’s life and eventually try and rule out a lot of the bad in the world by giving back to our own kind.”  (Read a 2013 article about LaChappelle on engineering.com here and a 2015 article on Huffington Post here.)

Hear LaChappelle talk about his invention in his own words:

Another video here: 

LaChapelle

 

President Obama shakes hands with the robotic arm that Easton LaChappelle invented. (photo courtesy of www.america.aljazeera.com)

President Obama shakes hands with the robotic arm that Easton LaChappelle invented. (photo courtesy of http://www.america.aljazeera.com)

 

2) The Humans of New York (HONY) Fundraiser for Mott Hall Bridges Academy in the Bronx, NY:

If you haven’t been following this story, you should.  I absolutely love Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York photography project (really, by now, it’s more than a project – it’s more of a combination of commentary on human life, social movement, and window into the soul) – and I’m not the only fan; he has over 12 million followers on Facebook.

Back on January 19th, he posted a random picture of a boy named Vidal.  Stanton asked Vidal who influenced him the most in life.  Vidal’s answer:  “My principal, Ms. Lopez…When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”

Vidal, photo from HONY, January 19, 2015 (www.facebook.com/humansofnewyork)

Vidal, photo from HONY, January 19, 2015 (www.facebook.com/humansofnewyork)

Stanton was intrigued and went to meet Ms. Lopez at Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a middle school in the Bronx.  He soon fell in love with Ms. Lopez and the whole school, and I can see why.  HONY started doing a profile on the school, highlighting the teaching philosophy and the many wonderful teachers there.

According to Ms. Lopez:   “This is a neighborhood that doesn’t necessarily expect much from our children, so at Mott Hall Bridges Academy we set our expectations very high. We don’t call the children ‘students,’ we call them ‘scholars.’ Our color is purple. Our scholars wear purple and so do our staff. Because purple is the color of royalty. I want my scholars to know that even if they live in a housing project, they are part of a royal lineage going back to great African kings and queens. They belong to a group of individuals who invented astronomy and math. And they belong to a group of individuals who have endured so much history and still overcome. When you tell people you’re from Brownsville, their face cringes up. But there are children here that need to know that they are expected to succeed.”

Ms. Lopez, principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy (photo posted Jan. 23, 2015 - www.facebook.com/humansofnewyork

Ms. Lopez, principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy (photo posted Jan. 23, 2015 – http://www.facebook.com/humansofnewyork

Feeling the compassion of the teachers and administration at the school, Stanton asked what they would do for the school if money wasn’t an option.  At a meeting, Ms. Lopez and the school’s Director of Programs Ms. Achu came up with an idea of how the HONY community could help the school (on the HONY Facebook page, Stanton points out that it was Ms. Achu’s idea, and he and Ms Lopez whole-heartedly agreed):  They wanted to take the scholars on a trip, to show them that there was a world beyond their neighborhood.  And not just a trip to anywhere, but to Harvard University to show the scholars that anything was possible for them.

So, at noon on January 22, Stanton launched an online fundraiser, hoping to raise $100,000 for the field trip.  Within 3 hours, they had raised $185,000.  Within 24 hours, $365,000 worth of donations had piled in.  Within 4 days, HONY and Mott Hall Bridges Academy supporters had raised $700,000.  Two days later, the total had jumped to $1 million.  As of today, the total raised has reached $1.2 million!

And the cool thing?  If you scroll through the donations, you’ll see that it’s from people donating anywhere from $2 to $50 – with the average seeming to be somewhere around $15.  After scrolling through for several pages, the highest donation I saw as for one hundred dollars.  So, this is the result of many, many people validating the importance of the work that these educators and world-changers at Mott Hall Bridges Academy are doing.

HONY and the school officials have already announced that $700,000 is enough money to make the Harvard field trip a permanent part of the school for its students.  All money raised in excess of $700,000 will go into a scholarship fund for MHBA graduates.  The fund will be called the Vidal Scholarship, and the first recipient will be Vidal himself.

This story has rightly gotten a lot of press in the past 10 days.  Here, you can find articles on CBS, CNN, and the Huffington Post as just a sample.  And here’s a video of Brandon Stanton, Vidal, and Ms Lopez on the Ellen DeGeneres Show yesterday.  (Target decided to make a surprise donation to the academy and to schools in the surrounding neighborhood, too!)

If you’d like to donate to the fundraiser, you can do so here.  The last day is tomorrow, February 5, 2015. 

 

Hopefully, those stories filled you with a little more compassion and idealism.
It’s easy to get disheartened and overwhelmed with negativity, so let’s take these stories as motivation to get out and make the world a better place,
one small act of kindness at a time.

Categories: Humor, Ideas & Philosophy, Politics/Current Events, Science/Technology | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

History Is Personal

We Read to Know We're Not Alone

History is Personal:  
A Queer Southern Boy & the Power of Books

As someone who has spent the vast majority of his life inside a classroom, I know firsthand the liberating power of knowledge.  When you learn, the realms of reality expand, new possibilities arise, and doubts are swept away like dust in the wind even as new doubts blow in to take their place.  Learning to think critically, to analyze and draw one’s own conclusions is a profound process of liberation, a process of casting off the chains of ignorance.  The act of learning itself – whether from life’s experiences, the pages of a book, or from a teacher’s lessons – is empowerment, and if knowledge is power, then ignorance cannot be bliss.   For me, history has always been more than an interest in past events; it has been a source of legitimacy, granting me the courage to explore the many facets of myself and boldly accept my identity with the knowledge that there have been countless others like me in the past.

As I grew up in southwest Georgia, I didn’t quite understand what it was that made me feel different from those around me.  Let me rephrase that – I knew what it was that made me feel different, but, for the longest time, I didn’t understand the implications of that difference.  As I got older, I knew that I was inexplicably attracted to other guys even though I never considered myself gay.  In fact, I didn’t know what “gay” was.  Plus, I never felt different enough to need a whole new identity or label for myself.  I just knew that I could never really participate when my friends were checking out girls.  I also wondered if my friends struggled with the same fleeting thoughts and desires as I did, if their gazes skipped over the chicks in bikinis on magazine covers and lingered instead on the muscled men that graced the front of fitness journals.  I honestly thought that they must be dealing with the same issues, but just like I never mentioned it, they were keeping it a secret, too.

Even as I got older and my puberty-fueled fantasies became exclusively male-oriented, I never thought of myself as gay.  I didn’t know that gay existed as an option for me to “be.”  That’s because the knowledge wasn’t available to me, not yet.  I knew that there were men out there who had sex with other men, but I didn’t know that they constituted some thing known as “gay.”  In fact, the only things I knew about such actions between men came in the form of slurs, jokes, and – most powerfully for me at the time – from the pulpit of my Southern Baptist church.  What I learned in those pews was that homosexuality was a sin…and if it was a sin, then it had to be a choice, and an erroneous one at that!  Homosexuality, as I understood it, was just acts – something that some people did sometimes. I didn’t yet know that it was something that could be used to define – and segregate – a whole group of people as something fundamentally different.

And then I went to college.  By that point, I had realized that no matter how hard I tried or diligently I prayed, these urges and attractions I had weren’t going away; they were something permanent.  As early as my first year on campus, I became aware of people who openly identified as “gay” – that’s what they called it when a guy was attracted to other guys.  I heard people say they were born that way.  And they were fine with it.  I instantly recognized that within me – I knew at that moment that I must be “gay,” too.  It was the only explanation for why I had a crush on that guy in class, and why I couldn’t help it.  But the idea of telling anyone that I was gay terrified me.  In fact, it terrified me to even tell myself.

I vividly remember one evening in my university library:  I was taking a break from writing a paper by perusing the shelves.  As I was meandering along, the title etched into the spine of one book stopped me dead in my tracks:  Growing Up Gay in the South I remember my heart starting to pound as I looked around to make sure no one else was nearby.  I contemplated pulling it from the shelf, but how would I explain it if someone saw me reading such a book?  But, I did slide the book from its resting place and read it all there in the library that night.  The entire book was full of stories about people like me and I was exhilarated as I flew through the pages.

That night I had stumbled into the “HQ” section of our university’s library, which is the Library of Congress Classification System’s call number for the section on “family, marriage, women, and sex” (I find it odd that books on family, marriage equality, sexuality, pornography, and rape are all located on the same shelves, but that’s a topic for another day.)  I went back to that section often and read as much as I could, but was still too afraid to discuss anything I was reading – or even to check out the books – for fear of word somehow getting back to my hometown about my “dabbling” in gayness.

I eventually came out to family and friends, but I would have never had the courage if it hadn’t been for those books because they showed me that I wasn’t alone. And then when I entered grad school, I found out that there historians who only studied sexuality and gender!  They wrote dissertations, articles, and whole books not just on life stories of gays and lesbians – but on what it meant to be “gay” or “straight.”  I found books about how the ancient Greeks understood love between men, how the Native Americans accepted that there was a third gender in between men and women, and how science – and the search for a “gay gene” – wasn’t the only factor in defining gender or sexual identities.

With each book that I finished, I felt more empowered, more confident because I felt less alone.  I was blown away by the intricate, not-so-sub-cultures that George Chauncey deftly uncovered in his classic Gay New York.  Scholars like Jonathan Ned Katz and David Halperin taught me that words have power.  Above all others, Susan Stryker revealed to me the important difference between “sex” and “gender” and that our gender and sexual identities are fluid and malleable.  When I read Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, I cheered on as working class lesbians in mid-twentieth century Buffalo, New York defied the odds and established their own bars and community by asserting power over their own lives.  I cried when I read some of the poignant life stories that Patrick Johnson eloquently captured in Sweet Tea.  And when I closed Allan Berube’s Coming Out Under Fire after devouring it in a single sitting, I sat back in wonder as I realized that “gay history” is not on the margins of “real history,” like a quaint interest piece; it is absolutely fundamental to understanding the rest of history as we know it.

I no longer really identify as “gay” because I don’t feel connected to today’s gay culture.  But, of course, I’m not straight either.  I’m in love with a man, but I don’t accept all of the other baggage that comes with being “gay.”  So, I think of myself as queer, something different with no need of a further definition.  It’s more fluid, less confining, and I like that.  Moreover, the study of history has taught me that it’s okay to throw off labels and come up with my own identity – or collect many identities.  People have done it for millennia.  That’s why, for me, history has never been just a hobby, never just a profession.  It’s a path of reflection, a way to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be human, of what it means to simply be.  You can’t put a price tag on such a journey.

C.S. Lewis once said that, “We read to know that we’re not alone.”  I believe that the truth of his words echoes throughout the ages.

 

 

Categories: History, Ideas & Philosophy, Politics/Current Events, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Do You Know What You Did?

Do You Know What You Did?

Categories: Humor, Politics/Current Events | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Hmmmm….


Fear of Time Running Out

 

 

X Trapped in Facebook

 

 

SLAVE TO TECHNOLOGY:

X Slave to Technology

HAVE WE REACHED “NEWSPEAK”? 

X Newspeak

 

HERE’S A LITTLE BIT OF GENDER DECONSTRUCTION FROM A 7 YEAR OLD:
(there’s a typed version of it below her handwritten letter)

X shame on lego

 

AND TO END WITH: 

X God approves

X Defense Box Tops

Categories: Ideas & Philosophy, Politics/Current Events, Religion | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Murica

waterboarding = baptism in freedom

 

 

 

Knock Knock Freedom

 

 

 

Kids in North America

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Hodge Podge

I’m trying to avoid my scheduled reading for today for as long as possible (George Mosse’s Nationalism & Sexuality and Carl Schorske’s Fin-De-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture), so I scoured the interwebs and dug up these gems for you:

Some politics to start if off…

Department of Common Sense

Love Listening to Lies

Voltaire Quote

And some more Nerditude

Sapiosexual

Spontaneous

German

Being a Geek

You are the Universe

Categories: Humor, Nerdgasm, Politics/Current Events, Random Info | Tags: | 2 Comments

T-Minus 1 Week

We’re seven days away from Election Day, and I’m getting more and more nervous.  Of course I want my guy to win, but it’s looking like it’s going to be a very close race, perhaps coming down to a single state’s electoral votes (Ohio, go figure!).  And while I think the Electoral College is outdated and ridiculous, that’s a topic for another post.

I have three quotations that I’ve had to continuously chant to myself like mantras over the past several weeks as I’ve read editorials, opinion pieces, and Facebook posts that make me want to throw my aging laptop out of our second story window.  So, as November 6 draws nearer and the political discussion intensifies (which is a good thing in my opinion – please don’t take me for one of those who gets annoyed by seeing talk of the election), I thought I’d share my “mantras” with y’all:

First, is a definition of patriotism that I can agree with:

And these are the two that I have to tell myself when people’s opinion infuriates or perplexes me:

See y’all on the other side, and may the best man win!

Categories: Politics/Current Events | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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