Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Book review: Clotel, or The President’s Daughter


Book review: Clotel, or The President’s Daughter
Introduction by Dr. Joan E. Cashin
M. E. Sharpe, Inc., Armonk, New York, 1996
191 pages

This is a workmanlike treatment of a subject that is a hardly imaginable foundation of early America: slavery.

It’s more a documentary than any modern understanding of a novel. Brown does a good job of character development for a limited cast of characters, including Clotel, the “mulatto” daughter of a black slave mother and a white father. The story of many aspects of slavery—disruption of families, cruelty of masters, the abolition movement, the economic importance of slave-based agriculture and production, the moral, philosophical and political debates about the “peculiar institution”—is written in a style that is manifestly journalistic and prosaic, not literary.


Clotel is a high impact read. Brown was born a slave in Kentucky circa 1818. He escaped, became an abolitionist and a writer in England, and was purchased by friends and freed in the middle of the 19th century. He published Clotel in 1853 as the first “novel” written by a black American.

It isn’t good reading. It’s harsh reading. It’s a terribly candid condemnation of a despicable fact of American history. It’s a catalog of shame and endurance and human spirit.

By the way, the subtitle acknowledges Brown’s unabashed reference to the story, well known in the mid-19th century, that Thomas Jefferson dallied with his slave, Sally Hemings, and had children with her.

Here are a couple items:

Prof. Cashin notes: “Historians estimate that perhaps 10 percent of the four million slaves living in the South in 1860 had some white ancestry.”1 Too many white owners forced themselves on their female slaves. In some parts of the South, a person with white lineage except for a black great-great-great-great grandmother could legally be sold as a slave.

Brown underscores the hypocrisy of slave owners who professed political, philosophical or religious convictions that were nominally opposed to slavery. For example, Brown states that in the middle of the 19th century, more than 660,000 slaves  were owned “by members of the Christian church in this pious democratic republic.”2

Slavery died hard. Writers like Brown helped to make it happen.

1 -  p. xiii
2 -  p. 187






Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Monday, December 29, 2014

The melting pot is real….



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 1853.

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.

1 -  p. xiii

  





Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Book review: John Adams


Book review: John Adams
Simon & Schuster, New York, 2001
751 pages

Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you don’t think the biography is the best way to do history. David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winner is a reason to change your mind a bit.


John Adams is simply a really good book. McCullough helps you to warm up to the man and to his personal experience in leading the Revolution and the first formative years of the American republic. 

Adams, our first vice president and second president, was among the few who were in the thick of it from the beginning, and he never shrank from doing what he expansively viewed as his duty to his new country.

McCullough’s prose is a delightful experience for the serious historian and the armchair dabbler who likes a good read. From cover to cover, this is a lush, genuine presentation of a man, his loved ones, his career, his commitment to do good works and his never-flagging appreciation that the object of government should be to do the people’s business and make possible a decent life for all.

John Adams was savaged by the earliest manifestations of partisan party politics, but he never stooped to play that game.

Too bad we don’t have someone like John Adams in a leadership role today.








Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The wisdom of Abigail Adams (part 2)


“…remember the ladies…”

Abigail (Smith) Adams (1744-1818)
Wife and counselor of President John Adams

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 century.



Source:
David G. McCullough, John Adams (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 104.







Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Friday, December 26, 2014

What does it take?


Why does anyone tolerate the idea of a felon continuing to serve in the U. S. House of Representatives?

UPDATE: Grimm announced his resignation from Congress on December 29, 2014.

Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) pleaded guilty in federal court this week to tax evasion—a felony—and admitted that he did the 19 other criminal acts in the federal indictment against him.


At the same time, he refused to resign from his seat in Congress.

Why isn’t every responsible political leader in both parties demanding that he step down immediately?

Why aren’t the other 434 members of the House demanding that he step down immediately?

Why isn’t every voter in his Staten Island district demanding that he step down immediately?

What does it take?
  








Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Clem Moore, meet Ernie Hemingway….



You know this one: “’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house…”

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 century tastes….







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…”

That’s how it starts, you can read the whole thing here.

If you’re a Hemingway fan, you should read the whole thing.

If you’re not a Hemingway fan, well, shoot, read it anyway for the hoot.


“…He whistled at his team and the team flew away. The team flew as lightly as thistledown. The driver called out, “Merry Christmas and good night.” I went back to bed…”





Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The wisdom of Jean de La Fontaine


“En toute chose il faut considérer la fin.”
“In everything one must consider the end.”

Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695)
French poet and writer of fables

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.”

Indeed.

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.
  






Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

“The true patriotism..."


“The true patriotism, the only rational patriotism,
           is loyalty to the Nation all the time,
                      loyalty to the Government when it deserves it.”


Mark Twain (1835-1910)

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 business?
  





Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Monday, December 22, 2014

Pelosi: “feisty” or “feckless” ?


Pelosi never tried to get to the high road....

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 pathetic politics.

Why do we keep re-electing people who won’t do The People’s work?
  








Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The wisdom of Sigmund Freud


“Lieben und arbeiten”
“To love and to work”

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)


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 that alone.

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?”








Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Remember Sandy Hook Elementary School?


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.

Shame on them.

We have too many guns in America.

Too many dead people.









Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Friday, December 19, 2014

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?


The U. S. Mint reported a strange thing the other day:

It costs 1.7 cents to make a penny.
It costs 8.1 cents to make a nickel.

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.

Let’s retire the penny.

Sorry, Abe.












Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The wisdom of Mark Strand


"The future is always beginning now."

Mark Strand (1934-2014)
Poet Laureate of the United States

Strictly speaking, this isn’t a paradox, but it is one of the mysterious facts of life:

we don’t know exactly what the future will be, but we know exactly how it all starts….all we have to do is look around….










Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Would you like to live like a chicken?


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 stand up.

That’s pretty much how many chickens live on commercial egg factory farms.

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 you.

An adult chicken can be squeezed into that space, but it’s ugly.

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 bit different….









Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Let’s spread the blame a bit more….


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 track.

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. 









Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Monday, December 15, 2014

The wisdom of Abigail Adams


“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 instances.”



Source:
David G. McCullough, John Adams (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 101.









Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The art of Mark Strand


“Tonight I walked,
lost in my own meditation,
…the labyrinth
that I have made of love and self…”


Mark Strand (1934-2014)
Poet Laureate of the United States













I wrapped my mind around this image of an accessible labyrinth of life, an indelible mixing of the impulses of love and the mandates of self-awareness, with many ways in, and no need for a way out….




The excerpt is from “For Jessica, My Daughter” in his Collected Poems (Knopf, 2014).






Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Bipartisanship, the hard way….


We have a bipartisan vote in the U. S. House on a continuing resolution to authorize federal spending and keep the government from shutting down.

The spending bill squeaked through, 219-206, with 67 Republicans voting “No” and 57 Democrats voting “Yes.”

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.









Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Friday, December 12, 2014

Republicans for Obamacare


There wasn’t a lot of ballyhoo about it.

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 exchange.


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 the leaders.

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 health insurance.









Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The art of St. Francis of Assisi




Such love does
the sky now pour,
that whenever I stand in a field,

I have to wring out the light
when I get home.

Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, St. Francis of Assisi (1181/1182-1226)



Photo by Ian Iott

I think it would be wonderful to feel so filled with love….
“…wring out the light…” is a very comfortable, very believable, very lustrous image….



St. Francis was the founder of the Franciscan Order. However, he was throughout his life simply a friar and was not ordained as a Catholic priest. He was canonized as a saint in 1228, two years after his death.

You may not know that in 1223 he created our beloved Christmas nativity scene, the crèche.







Lines from St. Francis as posted Dec 8, 2014, on the website: A Year Of Being Here
     











Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

It’s really not too disgusting for words….


On December 14, 2012, a crazy man killed 20 first-graders and six adults in the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Since then, the lowest estimate is that we’ve had 95 school shootings in America. That’s real close to an average of one a week.

Do we need more evidence that more strict gun laws are needed in our country?

Our elected leaders at the state level have done damn little to stop the carnage, and our elected leaders in Congress have done nothing.

It’s not too disgusting for words.

Try these words.

Imagine 20 dead kids sprawled on the floor, with bloody bullet holes in their little bodies.

Imagine yourself letting this happen again, and again.

We're going to let this happen unless we start doing something different.

If you're not going to do something about it, you're not going to do anything about it.

Too many guns.

Too many dead people.
   






Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Where’s the niddy-noddy when you need one?


In case you were wondering, this is a niddy-noddy:




Not sure if you need one, right?

Well, you might, if you’re a knitter, or if you spin your own yarn, that kind of thing….

Here's a demonstration by folks at The Woolery

The Natick 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 regions….







….and btw, a niddy-noddy is featured in an early 16th painting by Leonardo da Vinci, the “Madonna of the Yarnwinder,see it here.
















Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Sunday, December 7, 2014

“You kids go outside and play….”


A prime memory of my childhood is hearing my mother say, to my brother and me, “You kids go outside and play!”

‘Course, “outside” was a nice place, we had a big yard and fields and woods to play in….



Kids living in 19th century tenements in New York had a different perspective on “outside”….

….and for many of them, “play” probably meant “what you do when you’re not working.”










Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Red Cross fudges its numbers….


Have you heard that the American Red Cross has only a 9% overhead, and spends 91% of donations on its high-profile charitable services?


That’s what the Red Cross has been sounding off about on its website and in public pronouncements.

Too bad. It’s not true.

NPR and ProPublica.com are reporting on their look behind the scenes at the Red Cross, and they aren’t offering a pretty picture.

Turns out this essential charity—no doubt about it, the Red Cross does a lot of good, especially in emergencies and catastrophes—may have actual overhead expenses more in the range of 20% or more.

Turns out that Red Cross officials, so far, have refused requests from NPR and ProPublica to divulge detailed financial information that would reveal the true number.

Too bad.

Btw, the 91% percent figure has been deleted from the Red Cross website.







Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Friday, December 5, 2014

The wisdom of Theodore Roosevelt (part 4)


"Seize the moment. Man was never intended to become an oyster."

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)
26th President of the United States









Teddy hits the nail on the head again—don’t let the oyster factor mess up your life.
















Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Dress up for Thanksgiving….


There was a time when Thanksgiving wasn’t just about turkey and football.

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 1910.

Sure beats today’s store-bought Halloween costumes….







Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014