Wednesday, November 25, 2020

HEAVY HEAVY--The Warmth of Other Suns


Heavy, Heavy,

If you are looking for something light to read, Isabel Wilkerson's  2010's The Warmth of Other Suns  is not  one you are going to put on  your short list. It is heavy in weight (some 500 pages) and  in challenging content..  If you are white and feeling pretty good about how you managed to succeed in spite of challenging circumstances, it will also be a rather nasty wakeup call. 

Should you decide to take up the challenge, you can start with the knowledge that writer Gay Talese called the book--“A seminal work of narrative non-fiction.”   My start will be to note that I finished it on the same day that President Elect Biden announced his first cabinet picks. Among them was the appointment of a  long time African American diplomat to be Ambassador to the United Nations.  Her story along with the story of Vice President Elect Harris, could easily be included as examples of the slow but hopefully steady continuation of what has now been called  the “Great Migration.”  Wilkerson said her central purpose was to tell the story of this vast population shift and emphasized that it did not come from abroad but from within the country.  From  WWI  all the way into the 1970’s several million  African-Americans moved out of the  Jim  Crow South and into the rest of the country.  Wilkerson also wanted to change the emphasis of past studies on this migration from demographic statistics, sociology, and politics to the more personal telling of  the life stories of those who dared to make and survive the journey. And for me that is what makes the book readable as a narrative rather than an academic tome. 

To do this she settled on three archetypal African Americans out of the many she interviewed. Then she distributed their stories in small snippets while filling the spaces in-between with the historical contexts they were living through.  Readers will meet a flamboyant MD,  Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, who drives alone in his Buick all the way to California from Louisiana to start a new life. They will  meet George Swanson Starling, a bright young fruit picker just starting his education, who has to flee Jim Crow retribution for his activism and finds himself working for the rest of his life on a rail line that plies the coast from his native Florida to the Big Apple.  And finally you will meet the lynchpin character, Ida Mae  Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper’s  long suffering wife,  who travels with her husband and their two children (with another on the way)  north on the Illinois Central to exchange  their no win cycle of poverty and violence for a  new life in the teeming tenements of  Chicago’s south side. 

Though each of these three suffered from the political, social, and economic  reality of the racist Jim Crow South,  each of them also faces the more subtle but equal racism in their new homes.  

Ida Mae called up the most emotion in me as her struggles center in the very Midwest that I grew up in. Dr. Foster’s journey hooked me because he was  flamboyant and theatrical.  There was a familiarity there as well because on  his drive to California  he went through Lordsburg, NM, a town my wife and I have driven through on Interstate 10 every year for the past five years on our way to winter in Tucson.  Foster’s experience in Lordsburg  was heart wrenching as he searched futilely for a hotel or motel that would rent him a room, while our experience many years later has always been pleasurable as we passed through. George Starling was for me the most tragic because he was intelligent but ended up  traveling back and forth between his new home and the place he left without ever managing to gain what he had started out wanting the most—a formal education.  

All three of these brave folks, who dispersed to every part of our land, blend together to tell the indelible truth that white America has not made enough progress yet to rid itself of its systemic faults.  The courage of these migrants to leave their birth homes, to survive in an entirely new environment,  and yes to succeed there amidst a system that was designed to block their every attempt to rise,  is ultimately a sign of hope for me.  There must somehow be a way to find some light at the end of our tunnel of shame. .

 Was the “Great Migration” worth it?   Did the millions just trade one enslaved condition for another equally as bad?   Wilkerson agrees that initially academic studies said that the migrations solved nothing and just transported the problems of the South to the North.  But she then goes on to argue that those conclusions were in error.  A modern re-study of the data shows her that the migrants were not just bringing the same unrest to their new homes.  She claims that on balance the migrants were more educated than their northern competitors, that their families were more socially stable,  and that they were  more likely to earn better salaries because they were willing to work harder and longer even in less desirable jobs.   In other words the migration moved the most able , the most dedicated, and the most resilient  to the new lands  where they didn’t necessarily prosper, but where they were at least able to recapture some dignity and wisdom that could be passed on to the next generations.    

There is  much more in this beautifully written and moving study,  but I will leave it to you to find those for yourself.    


Monday, November 23, 2020

Where Was I When Learned of JFK's assassination?

 According to Monmouth College Historian Jeff Rankin only eleven people are in town now who were at the college on Nov. 22, 1963 when John F Kennedy fell victim to Lee Harvey Oswald's bullets in Dallas, TX .  When asked to comment on where I was on that fateful day and how it connected to the college, I  sent Jeff the following.  . .    He added the loverly picture of a young guy without a beard who has aged only a little in the past sixty some years. 

Image for post

I DO WELCOME THE CHANCE to relate again the story of how and where my wife and I experienced the traumatic experience of John F. Kennedy’s death because it was indelibly connected to our lives, the college and its students. At my faculty retirement sendoff party in the late spring of 2002, my short talk included the observation that unfortunately my career at Monmouth College was bookended by tragedy. 9–11 occurred just after the start of my final year of teaching and John Kennedy was assassinated in the fall of 1963 just as I embarked on my first year.

Tom Fernandez and I were hired to teach in what was then called the Speech Department by Jean Liedman (yes the one the dorm is named after) beginning in September of 1963. Tom was an experienced Ph.D. and took over as head of the department so Jean (Miss Liedman) could devote more time to her duties as Dean of Women. I was a greenhorn instructor and slotted to teach some speech and direct the college theatre program. Dr. Fernandez was an avid promoter of competitive speech activities such as Debate, Extemporaneous Speaking, Oratory, and Oral Interpretation and immediately started to prepare some of our new students to compete at the Bradley Speech Tournament in November. My wife’s parents lived in Peoria (thus a free bed and meals that the college didn’t have to pay for) and we were quickly recruited to drive some of the competitors over to the Tournament.

That fateful Friday morning we loaded three MC students into our back seat and headed out on old Highway 150 (no I-74 freeway then) for Peoria. As we drove into Brimfield (again yes you had to drive though towns not around them in those days), I noticed that I could use some gas and pulled into the town’s little Standard station. While the attendant filled the tank (self service was not even a gleam in anyone’s eye back then), I went into the station to pay. A tiny screened black-and-white TV high on the wall in back of the counter was on and I looked up and heard a serious looking announcer say that they had just had a report that the president had been shot in Dallas. I returned to the car and told my wife and the students. We immediately turned the car radio on to hear bulletins as we proceeded on to Peoria. When we arrived on the Bradley campus, I parked outside of the Student Union. We rushed in and quickly found a large room packed with students and professors mostly sitting on the floor and watching a single TV set in stunned silence.

The speech tournament actually went on that weekend as students had come from several states to compete, but there was a weird pall about the whole affair. The competitors filtered out to do their events and then returned to that TV room to silently watch events unfold. We drove back to Monmouth on Sunday in tomb-like silence. I have no recollection of how any of them did in their events. And that is my “Where were you when you heard that Kennedy was assassinated story?”

I will add this coda. Three or four years ago at a Golden Scots weekend on campus an alum came up to me and said, “ I remember you. I was in your car when you came back and told us that Kennedy had been shot.” We did talk a bit about our experiences that weekend, but I am ashamed now to say that neither my wife or I can recall his name. Maybe if this is published he will come forward again.

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Review of THE ANGEL COURT AFFAIR by Anne Perry

Anne Perry’s The Angel Court Affair is rather thin soup even for this prolific “cosy” period mystery author.  It is billed as a Charlotte and Thomas Pitt novel, but Charlotte and all of the other female characters  (from the Pitt’s daughter to the crusty Lady Vespasia) are sadly left to populate the background,  Mr. Pitt, quite frankly, is far less interesting and more plodding.  He is initially asked to organize a  protective detail for  Sophia Delacruz, a British subject, who has married a Spanish nobleman.  Sophia is a  strident female evangelist, who has raised hackles among traditional Christians in a series of London speeches.  When she disappears and two of her associates are violently murdered, Pitt finds the Special Branch behind the eight ball and  involved in international political disruptions and long dormant academic  and financial chicanery rather than  evangelism. There are as usual some surprise turns at the end, but not much to convince anyone that the revealed buried motives are not stretched pretty thin.  Other than people going to gentleman’s clubs and riding in carriages, the period Victorian atmosphere is also rather minimal.  I give it a weak 2.5 and will, as usual, only pick up a Perry novel when there is nothing more compelling at hand.