In some parts of the American South, about 1 out of 8 “white”
people have at least one black ancestor.
We’ve always known that some black folks have a white
granddad somewhere in the family tree.
Recently I read Clotel,
or The President’s Daughter, by William Wells Brown. It’s reputed to be the
first novel written by a black American. Brown, a former slave, published it in
In her foreword to the 1996 edition of Clotel, Dr. Joan Cashin notes: “Historians estimate that
perhaps 10 percent of the four million slaves living in the South in 1860 had
some white ancestry.”1 Brown extensively documented the
well-known inclination of some white male slaveowners to rape their female
slaves, and, with some regularity, produce mixed-race children.
We all know a little bit about dominant and recessive genes.
Some children of black-and-white parents are very dark-skinned, and some are
very light-skinned, and most are somewhere in between. The reality of “passing
for white” has been known for centuries.
Now Vox.com has offered a modern, complementary factoid: “…in
a lot of the South, about 10 percent of people who identified as white turned
out to have African DNA…” Researchers writing recently in the American
Journal of Human Genetics used DNA analysis to characterize the ancestry of
folks who think of themselves as white.
In South Carolina and Louisiana, about 1 out of 8
self-identified “white” folks have DNA from African-American ancestors.
Detailed DNA analysis showed that the initial white/black
unions “…generally occurred in the early 1800s…”
As we all know, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings weren’t
the only ones doing it.
If Abigail Adams had been named Absalom Adams, he surely
would have been a conspicuously good candidate to be a Massachusetts delegate
to the Continental Congresses.
Abigail was an indefatigable advisor to her husband, a
deeply wise observer of public affairs, a patriotic supporter of the
Revolutionary War and a staunch advocate of common sense and the public good.
In March 1776, when John was a delegate to the Second
Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Abigail took time and care to include the
following in one of her letters to him:
“…and by the way in the new code of laws which I suppose it
will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies, and
be more favorable to them than your ancestors…”
Abigail was a remarkable American in the 18th
David G. McCullough, John
Adams (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 104.
Clement Moore wrote it in 1823, almost 200 years before
Santa went digital, it’s an iconic feel-good poem, it’s written to early 19th
What if Ernest Hemingway had been moved to memorialize the
domestic Christmas Eve experience?
James Thurber, America’s high-profile early 20th century
humorist, asked himself that question, and decided to answer it in the pages of
The New Yorker magazine in 1927:
“It was the night before Christmas. The house was very quiet. No
creatures were stirring in the house. There weren’t even any mice stirring. The
stockings had been hung carefully by the chimney. The children hoped that Saint
Nicholas would come and fill them…”
It’s from La Fontaine’s Book III (1668), Fable 5 (The Fox
and the Gnat).
It’s a very early and very elegant way of saying that, as a
mark of prudence and for the most pleasing successes, one should always take
the long view.
Mark Strand, a past Poet Laureate of the United States, offered
this complementary observation:
“The future is always beginning now.”
Jean de La Fontaine isn’t at the top of the charts these
days, but he was a familiar voice to educated Americans and Europeans in the 18th
century. David McCullough notes that President John Adams was wont to quote
from the fables of La Fontaine.
“The true patriotism, the only rational
is loyalty to the Nation all the time, loyalty to the Government when it deserves it.”
This reminder from Mark Twain comes to me by way of my trusted
personal advisor in Dixie.
I don’t feel comfortable with Twain’s view that distinguishes
“the Government” so completely from “the Nation.” At least, I think, you can’t
have one without the other, in our modern context. Neither is dispensable—we are, collectively, the Nation, and the Nation cannot persist without government.
Yet, I’m drawn to Twain’s bald awareness that governments can be
disreputable and undeserving of respect, let alone loyalty. In many respects,
our current representative governments in Washington and in many states are
abhorrent and not deserving of our loyalty.
Anyone who feels that way has an obvious remedial recourse: stop
voting for incumbents.
Why do we keep re-electing the people who won’t do The People’s
I’ve read some misguided blather about Nancy Pelosi’s very
public opposition to the great big compromise spending bill that passed through
Congress on its way to President Obama’s desk a few days ago.
This bill is a nasty one. Republicans inserted some ugly
riders. There was disgusting horse trading on both sides of the aisle, in the
House and in the Senate, by both parties.
But let’s make the call: Republicans won in the November
elections, and a compromise bill—both sides saw ugly elements in it—was the
best anyone could hope for. President Obama was right on that point.
So who’s giving the House Minority Leader points for
breaking with her party’s president and fighting the bill?
There is some talk that Pelosi’s “feisty” fight heartened
disgruntled members of the Democratic caucus, and some talk that she was making
a point, for Boehner’s benefit, that Democrats in the House will be able to
prevent override of a presidential veto for the next two years.
Here’s my take: Pelosi proved the contention of thoughtful and democratic (lower case “d”) skeptics, like me, that too many in the Democratic
leadership and the Democratic rank-and-file are just like too many in the Republican
leadership and Republican rank-and-file: more interested in politicking and
re-election than in doing The People’s work for the good of our country.
Everyone in Washington knew that a spending bill would be
passed in pretty quick order. Everyone in Washington knew that a government
shutdown would be disastrous.
I think Pelosi should have taken hard-core liberal positions
in down-and-dirty negotiating with Boehner and company, and struck the best
deal possible, and made a very public commitment to passing the ultimate
compromise bill, in the interest of doing “good government” instead of doing predictably
Why do we keep re-electing people who won’t do The People’s
It’s claimed that Freud, a neurologist who is revered by
some as the father of psychoanalysis, suggested that the good life can be
understood in simple terms: to love and to work.
I think both love and work are pretty good ideas, but Dr.
Freud’s prescription for life is a bit too transitive for me, a bit too
solitary. I’ll defend “to love and to work” as far as it goes, but it doesn’t
go far enough or deep enough.
I’m convinced that a big part of the bounty of my life is
sharing—sharing love, sharing work, sharing the infinite and very expressible
joy of being a grandfather who is part of the developing life experiences of
three young grandchildren, all of whom, as you might well imagine, are
adding substantially to the love and work in my life.
For me, it’s not nearly satisfying enough to love the
beloved people in my life, to love the beautiful things and beautiful ideas and
beautiful words I cherish in my life, to love the concepts of—and my dedication to—essential amity and charity in my relationships with others.
For me, it’s not nearly satisfying enough to do skillful,
honest and useful work.
I want to share my reverence and my advocacy of these things
with all who have a like mind.
I want to celebrate love and work….and I know I can’t do
N.B. This is the putative wisdom of Dr. Freud. There are
skeptical sources and unconfirmed sources suggesting that someone asked him
what a person “should be able to do well,” or that a reporter asked him “What
is life all about?”
A few people haven’t forgotten what happened on December 14,
2012, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
You remember, right? A crazy man with an assault rifle
killed 20 first-graders and six adults at the school.
The families of several of the victims have sued the
companies that produce, market and sell the Bushmaster AR-15, a military-style rifle
with a 40-round magazine that was used by the shooter at Sandy Hook.
I have no idea about the prospects for a successful lawsuit.
I’m sure it’ll be tied up in courts and appeals for a long time.
I’m just happy that somebody remembers what happened at the
school, because our elected representatives in Washington have forgotten it.
The government—that is, us—spends almost $1.65 to produce a
dollar’s worth of pennies or nickels.
Are you thinking what I’m thinking?
At least, let’s make this call: what do we need pennies for?
In many retail establishments, you can toss your pennies into the “leave a
penny, take a penny” tray—you can literally give away the pennies you get in
change, so you won’t have to carry them in your pocket or purse.
Think about it—if you could lay eggs, how would you like it
if you would live your entire productive life on your knees, in a square cage
measuring two feet on each side and about four feet high?
In other words, you couldn’t turn around and you couldn’t
That’s pretty much how many chickens live on commercial egg
On January 1, California will implement a new regulation
forcing egg producers to allow a minimum of 114 square inches of space for each
chicken in their flocks, a 70% increase from the current requirement that
stipulates a minimum of 67 square inches per bird.
Think about it—a 67-square-inch cage is roughly 8 inches on
each side. Get out your ruler and measure that space on the table in front of
An adult chicken can be squeezed into that space, but it’s
Many birds on today’s egg factory farms pump out the eggs,
day after day, until they die, surviving in poor health, with open sores, in
fetid, cramped squalor.
When you think about it, it makes the cheese omelet taste a
In a recent column, E. J. Dionne at WashingtonPost.com
thrashed President Obama for “bailing out” House Speaker John Boehner in the
ugly culmination of the vote on government spending. Dionne said the president
is mishandling the interests of his own party—again—in dealing with the fractured
partisans and ideologues in the GOP.
I'm completely tired of hearing commentators and politicians
bash President Obama for the failure of our government leaders to embrace
reasonable negotiations and compromise to get the business of governing back on
Certainly, I am disappointed in some of the president's policy and political
moves in the past six years. Very disappointed.
But it defies understanding to keep hammering on President Obama's acts and
omissions as if he were the cause of the fractious bickering and grandstanding
and self-serving malfeasance of the members of Congress.
Let's be more fastidious about who we blame for what.
“I am more and more convinced that man is a dangerous
creature, and that power whether vested in many or few is ever grasping…”
Abigail (Smith) Adams (1744-1818)
Wife and counselor of President John Adams
….and here’s more of the letter she wrote to John in 1775:
“The great fish swallow up the small and he who is most
strenuous for the rights of the people, when vested with power, is as eager
after the prerogatives of government. You tell me of degrees of perfection to
which human nature is capable of arriving, and I believe it, but at the same
time lament that our admiration should arise from the scarcity of the
David G. McCullough, John
Adams (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 101.
It’s bipartisan, and it’s ugly. There are very bad riders on
this spending bill, specifically the Dodd-Frank attacks that will benefit the
banking industry and Wall Street, and changes that make it more likely that big
money can influence elections.
We have to face reality: the Republicans won in November,
they’re in the cat bird seat in Congress.
I don’t understand Nancy Pelosi’s decision to stand in the
doorway on this one. She knows a
spending bill is going to pass, and she knows the Republicans are in the
driver’s seat in the House. I think she would have done a great public service
by negotiating real hard with Boehner, and making a very public case that she
would ultimately support a bi-partisan bill, that is, proclaiming that her
driving commitment is to govern and not to politick.
We’re going to need negotiators in Congress in the next two
years, not self-serving pols who stand in the doorway. Let’s not make it any
uglier than it’s probably going to be.
Let’s give credit when it’s due: yesterday the GOP
Conference in Washington mandated that Republican senators take steps to
require their staffers to obtain health insurance through an Obamacare
The Affordable Care Act, as passed initially by Congress and
signed by President Obama, contained loopholes allowing senators and representatives
to exempt their congressional staffs from participation in the national health care
act. Instead, they were permitted to keep their subsidized Federal Employee
Health Benefits Program.
Now I’m waiting to hear that the Democratic senators will follow
It’ll be nice to hear leaders on both sides of the aisle in
the House of Representatives taking the same step.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) said "Washington should have
to live under ObamaCare just like everybody else until we repeal it.”
I agree….except for the “repeal” part.
I don’t really think the Republicans are going to repeal
Obamacare. It is helping millions of folks who otherwise couldn’t get decent
Historical Society in Natick, MA, has one in its museum.
At least as early as
the 15th century, the niddy-noddy was used to create and measure a
skein of yarn: the spinner would rhythmically wrap the yarn around this
eccentric device, and count off pre-determined lengths. The
resulting loops of yarn could easily be slipped off the niddy-noddy, and knotted
into a handy skein.
An historian of my acquaintance
mentions that the niddy-noddy was a conveniently simple tool for grandmas and
granddaughters to use in yarn-stuff teamwork in 19th century
America; it seems that the young and old ladies paired up often enough to do
this work that “Niddy-Noddy” became a grandmother-ish nickname in some
….and btw, a
niddy-noddy is featured in an early 16th painting by Leonardo da
Vinci, the “Madonna of the Yarnwinder,”
see it here.
There was a time when Thanksgiving wasn’t just about turkey
I know, I know, sounds impossible, but….
As a frame of reference, Macy’s kicked off its Thanksgiving
Day parade spectacular in 1924.
Before that, around the turn of the 20th century,
each year around the time of the traditional November holiday, not a few youngish
New York denizens got into the habit of getting really duded up in any
makeshift costume they could put together, and cadging pennies from
passers-by on the streets.These kids—they called themselves “maskers”—posed around