Are You Brave?

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 Courtesy Flickr

While many would see the above image as horrifying proof of racism in America, we must remember the flip side. Yes, there were racists, but as the cartoon says, the Republican congress  gave blacks the right to vote and pushed for racial equality. The fact that violence and hatred still remained after the Civil War does not negate the valiant works of many white and black Republicans who fought and sometimes died to see that real freedom for all would not remain just a dream. I admire the men and women of the past and present who put race on the back burner and fight for freedom for all.

All too often we only see the massacres, the riots and the acrimony between the races (I suggest this would be true studying any society), but there is so much more to people than that. People were often horrified at the troubles between the races in the late 19th century, but put yourself back there after asking yourself how many hours you’ve spent watching the news and despairing at the idea that there’s nothing you can do to stop people in faraway places from victimizing each other. How many of us would have stood up to paramilitary groups inflamed by not only race hatred but by defeat, sudden poverty and loss? How many of us would have cowered or turned away in disgust after years of endless suffering and loss of human life?

Bravery is a rare and beautiful thing. We like to imagine ourselves brave. How many of us actually are?

THE 1873 BATTLE OF COLFAX: COUNTER REVOLUTION IN LOUISIANA

19th CENTURY DEMOCRATS AND RACE

US GRANT / COLFAX

Books I’ve Known And Loved

51ruU2pYgFL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_When Harriet Hanson Robinson explained to her busy (and presumably happy) single friend that she felt sorry for her  because she wasn’t married and could not  be a complete woman there was no hint of bitchiness.

Harriet was a contented creature of her time. In my early feminist days I would have found this hard to believe. I’d have crept around looking for the crumbling facade, the misery, the bitterness of a woman who spent her days washing heavy laundry and sewing for the entire months of May and June each year.

Harriet married a morally upright man who for the life of him could not keep from stepping on toes–landing him often out of work or underpaid. It seems Harriet was drawn to Mr. Robinson by his integrity, but I suspect she loved his ability to make light of life’s trials as well.

Harriet, who mingled with some of the famous families of Concord, Massachusetts (and had strong opinions about them all–she thought HENRY DAVID THOREAU a fake and a hypocrite and guessed his mother kept him well-fed by the pond), was the sort of strong woman who could make something from nothing without complaint. In fact she prided herself on running a household without the help of “an Irish.” She’d experimented with house help briefly when her husband was making some money but found after a few attempts that teaching young Irish girls how to work up to her standards was impossible.

So here’s the thing: I expected this book to be about an exception to the rule. I expected Harriet to be this modern woman in disguise. Maybe the author Claudia L. Bushman had expected that as well for she seems at times baffled by Harriet’s pride and devotion to her dreamer husband,  average children and life of housework.

There is a sense that the author of A GOOD POOR MAN’S WIFE had hoped Harriet in her private diaries might let loose against the order of her times. How is it she remained so cheerful? Why wasn’t she devastated when it became clear she would not be a world famous poet? Her honest appraisal of her rather lackluster children is seen as an ambivalence to motherhood (as a mother I find this a real stretch).

In the year after the death of her beloved son Harriet wrote a bittersweet poem of life and marriage:

My Choice–to William Robinson (her husband)

In shady paths, serene, content I grew,

Nor knew for me what gifts fair life enclosed:

When sudden–with her gilded lyre held forth,

Came Poesy–bright maid, who smiling said:

“Take me, dear child, take me and Heaven espouse”

I struck the lyre, and knew ambition’s joys,–

The praise of men, and all the world’s applause.

The love,–with soft beseeching arms appeared,

And said with low drooped eyes; “Come thou to me!”

In doubt I stayed, in sorrowing tears, I moaned.

But god-like still he waited long and sought.

Till I, forgetting men’s applause, my dreams

of high renown, with cries to him I fled.

And now, serene, content, with him I roam

In sunlit paths. Nor care what life contains.

Since love I keep, which holds embraces all.

Unlike the narrator in Robert Frost’s THE ROAD NOT TAKEN Harriet has taken the trodden road of 19th century womanhood, but like Frost’s narrator she is happy about the choice she’s made even knowing the dreams left behind on the other road. Again the author sees this as a telling sign of Harriet’s possible regrets despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary scrawled across the pages of her journal. I see this poem– in the context of Harriet’s life– as one  about the choices we all make–leaving some good things behind for  things that are better (hopefully). In Harriet’s case there’s no reason to believe she wasn’t quite happy with her choices.

“[and when I saw] the Smoky Mountains . . . I thought of heaven.” A Black College Student’s Trip South

A serious young man all set for his college road trip.
A serious young man all set for his college road trip.

Oh, the joys of a summer road trip! In 1893, William Frank Fonvielle, a student at Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina, waved goodbye to his friends who worked with him on the college newspaper. At the tail end of the giddy post-slavery years when young men and women like William with no first hand memory of slavery and with all the enthusiasm and confidence in the future that many college students once had (before colleges became soul-deadening reeducation camps) Fonvielle set out on a journey south armed with knowledge of the ancient languages and the stories of humanity captured in classic novels and histories.

The struggle for human freedom was an epic one tracing its beginnings further back than the African slave trade, further back into the dark recesses of human memory and written language.

It’s fair to say that William Frank Fonveille, his classmates and the many white men and women who helped educate the children of slaves saw this thrilling time as one of advance and victory. Yes, there were ominous signs in the Mississippi where a new constitution prepared the way for disenfranchisement, and in many places the newly won right to keep weapons for self defense against marauding gangs and local government tyrants was under assault, but hope remained.

The  dark signs were obscured in the Upper South by the promising property gains and improving literacy rates of the generation of black people who came after the war. When William, confident in his own future, journeyed on a train discussing Dickens with a white passenger beside him he had no idea how Atlanta with its colored restaurants, train cars and bathrooms would disturb him.

Yet I wonder if when he returned to North Carolina he really believed the doors would be shut upon another generation of blacks in the South.

Freedom is not a thing only once won. As the rights of man diminish across the globe in a dizzying number of ways we take our road trips nowadays not to investigate the course of freedom but to indulge in fantastical thinking. We take pictures of ourselves. We turn inward–but only superficially.

We let our emotions, not reality be the judge. We attend anti-gun rallies by day and massive drink-ups by night never realizing that more deaths occur each year due to alcohol (abuse and drunk driving). Factor in the crazy things we do when drunk or the suffering caused by an alcoholic parent or spouse! CLICK HERE FOR INTERESTING REAL TIME DEATH STATS.

Black Family courtesy Pinterest
Black Family courtesy Pinterest

We care more about how someone addresses us than the innocent men, women and children killed in our name. We care more about body shaming than female genital mutilation by groups of people our taxes fund.

Sgt. William Harvey Carney , Medal of Honor recipient. Wikipedia
Sgt. William Harvey Carney , Medal of Honor recipient.
Wikipedia

As young William Fonveille fretted over sitting in a sooty rail car could he be expected to imagine that one day Margaret Sanger would push for an abortion program to exterminate black people all together? When he crossed the border into North Carolina at the end of his eye-opening trip he breathed a sigh of relief. Never would his home state go the way of the Deep South. Never would freedom once fought for by whites and blacks alike be trampled over by small-minded and hateful humans seeking to destroy what they could not control: the desire of humanity to be free . . .

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This essay was inspired by “Somewhere” in the Nadir of
African American History, 1890-1920

Books I’ve Known And Loved

An explosion at the DuPont Company black powder yard courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library
An explosion at a DuPont Company black powder yard courtesy of
Hagley Museum and Library

“The patriotism of the people who worked in the powder mills during the war was only exceeded by the front line soldiers.”

On the day of the final explosion  Helen remembered her mother at the sink. The tree-lined village with its substantial homes and churches lit by new stained glass sat chilled by a March wind off the river. The men were at the powder mill. Some men worked there because they had to, but some came for the excitement of working a dangerous job. And dangerous it was.

The powder necessary for guns, signalling devices, whaling harpoons and later for movie making filtered into every shirt pocket, every wrinkle of a man’s skin with each tiny particle ready to explode from the smallest spark, the tiniest mistake of a worker. The mill made the town and the town devoted itself to the mill. Children delivered lunch pails to their fathers but only at a safe distance (though no place in town was truly safe when the mills exploded as they occasionally did).

Windows shattered, dishes crashed to the floor and hearts froze when the mill whistles blew signalling danger, yet on most days the townsfolk lived happy, productive lives either at peace with life’s inherent dangers or unable to really imagine that one small spark could take their lives. Other people died young–a man with young children, camaraderie at the mill and lazy evenings spent chatting on the porches of his neighbors’ house in the beautiful Hoosic Valley of New York could fool himself.

Not me. Not mine.

Jump in the river. This was the advice when sparks flew. The amount of powder at the mill, in the crevices, on the window sills, in the men’s hair determined the extent of the damage.

Back to young Helen watching her mother at the sink in their neat kitchen just after breakfast. Some tried to describe the look of a blast–towers of flames through billowing smoke, silhouettes of friends suddenly gone in a flash as the lucky men shivering in the river looked on.

Helen’s mother froze as the whistle droned on and on. Women and children lined the streets waiting, some fainting. When Helen’s father wet and dirty came through the door and collapsed into a chair at the clean table, he wept for his friends–the ones he and his surviving coworkers would have to gather the pieces of in the mill yard–a hand here, a foot with a shoe there. They picked up the pieces in a basket and covered them in a red handkerchief.

Funerals began on St. Patrick’s Day. Helen’s mother had knit her a perfect green sweater for the saint’s special day. But March had remained a lion and winds down Powder Lane where the children sledded in winter spoke the mood of the people. Springtime and green would come again, but for now life was cold and charred.

A retelling of Anne Kelly Lane’s informative and heartbreaking little book dedicated to her mother’s memory The Powder Mill Gates Memories of a Powder Maker’s Daughter.   

Support a wonderful indie author today!

Robert Todd Lincoln: Airing Dirty Laundry

110What does one say about a son who commits his mother into an insane asylum? With images of dark and dank cellars and mistreatment of patients we tend to tsk-tsk yet Robert Todd Lincoln, the eldest son of Abraham and Mary had money to put his mother up in a posh asylum. Still, Mary seething with hidden anger, pretending at tranquility, spent every waking hour at the asylum planning her escape.

How could a successful son of the famous Lincoln  despite his best efforts at distancing himself from his father’s name throw his poor mother away–and humiliate her? The public of the time and historians for a long while were in the dark and what they knew only made young Robert (in his thirties when he had his mother committed) seem callous.

Robert complained sometimes that his success no matter how he tried to avoid it was fueled by his name. Yes, he was a talented businessman and occasional government worker, but people wanted his name attached to their pursuits. No matter that Robert believed thoroughly he was a jinx. On hand for far too many tragedies Robert in later life avoided attending anything presidential for fear of bringing death upon the commander in chief.

059When in the 1970’s Robert’s sprawling summer estate, HILDENE, fallen into disrepair and ready for demolition was saved by a devoted group of Manchester, Vermont people a safe was found in Robert’s room. With money from his many successful endeavors–one being a part of the famous Pullman rail car company, Robert had built the summer retreat to escape his many cares.

I imagine though he admitted to never being close to his ambitious father who traveled and was killed, that so much death in the family and the responsibility of taking care of what some historians now say was a very narcissistic Mary Todd Lincoln felt like a millstone around his neck. After only a very short time  having Mary live with his wife and young family in Chicago, his wife moved out briefly. Caring for Mary sucked the oxygen from the once happy home.

077Some say Mary having seen so much death and felt so much sorrow suffered not from narcissism, but post traumatic stress disorder. Some of the symptoms include:

  • Suddenly become angry or irritable.
  • Have a hard time sleeping.
  • Have trouble concentrating.
  • Fear for your safety and always feel on guard.
  • Be very startled when someone surprises you.
  • Physical symptoms for no reason you can think of (called somatic complaints).
  • Feelings of shame, despair, or hopelessness.
  • Difficulty controlling your emotions.
  • Problems with family or friends.
  • Impulsive or self-destructive behavior.
  • Changed beliefs or changed personality traits.

For years Robert was seen as an unfeeling son by many until the safe was opened at Hildene and the true anguish of a son was revealed. Without daytime television or confessional blogging Robert and his wife quietly withstood the whispered remarks about throwing his mother away (she was released 4 months into her stay at BELLVIEW PLACE–where the rich went to regain their minds). The files revealed a different side of Robert. A young man only ten years after his father’s assassination watching his mother become more erratic, more impulsive, more dangerous to herself and others.

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As I live with a child suffering from PTSD I’m horrified at the random impulsiveness, the drinking of detergent, the many, many triggers that contribute to the brain’s unraveling. Robert’s young family must have watched on too with growing fear and concern. Even if Mary was only a narcissist Robert had a mess on his hands and  knew it. He cared deeply for his mother. He cared deeply for his wife and children. He set Mary up in the best possible health program he could find, but it wasn’t enough.

065Mary never forgave her son. Robert never set out on a public relations campaign to retrieve his reputation. Only years after his death the grief this private man felt was revealed. Behind the big cars and palatial estates was a man with ghosts in his closet.

Political Correctness: Ideas in Exile

A victim of political correctness . . . The Martyr of Solway by John Everett Millais
A victim of political correctness . . .
The Martyr of Solway by John Everett Millais

It’s tempting to tsk, tsk at little remembered holidays celebrated in America’s past like POPE’S DAY in Boston. Oh, how intolerant we say. Did they really set aside a day to burn effigies of the Pope? Not the Pope! We may applaud the current pope’s stance on global warming, no cooling, no warming. We may think it’s nice that he lives in modest housing. We may laugh dismissively at his seemingly hypocritical notion that gun manufacturers cannot be Christian (even as he asks why bombs weren’t used sooner on Germany in WWII). But it’s impossible to ignore that at times in history the pope and his minions have ruled with an iron fist. (To be fair here, I don’t believe only Catholic popes rule this way)

It’s hard for us Biblically, theologically and historically illiterate secularists to see what all the fuss was about. As Hillary Clinton might ask, “What difference does it make now?”

I’m not sure. I’m going stream of consciousness today.

But wait.

A sudden qualm.

A dread.

It comes over me as I formulate a post about Irish Catholic immigration in the mid 1850’s and the anti-slavery parties of New England. Will someone be offended that I made a Hillary joke about gun-running allegations? Will people hate me for insulting a woman? Will someone be offended if I say that New England Protestants feared the mass immigration of Catholics because in part their memory was long and they remembered when Protestants were burned for not following human authority?

Might someone dismiss me as a “climate denier” because I hold a healthy skepticism for  scientific and political authorities who have been wrong so many times over the course of history and have often been knowingly deceptive in order to profit on fear? I DON’T WANT TO BE CALLED NAMES. I WANT TO DISCUSS IDEAS. Is this a pipe dream?

HISTORY IS NOT BUNK. Does that statement offend you? I hope, dear reader, that it does not for if it does we are truly doomed in our hyper-sensitivity and ignorance.

Protestants in New England worried what a mass influx of hard-drinking, Pope-following poor people would do to their society because the Pope hadn’t always been this great guy and drinkers can sometimes be a bit of trouble (I know, not all Irish people drink–I’m part Irish). They worried too about crowded cities unprepared to deal with mass poverty and violence. THESE ARE NOT FOOLISH CONCERNS. Do any of us really know what it must have been like to live with the constant threat of disease and the endless amount of funerals for children under the age of five? Have any of you lived next to a rowdy bar? I have–it’s not fun. Don’t look down your noses at human concerns, please. We need compassion. Can we at least try to see that while their fears may have been overblown they were human concerns?

It is true that the media as always wanted to sell papers and novels. If anyone believes journalists and novelists don’t have agendas I respectfully tsk, tsk you. Just as novels and newspapers sold best when stories of slave-owners raping slaves appeared in them, stories about priests raping virginal nuns reaped a hefty profit. The media machine is only impartial in the sense that it finds whatever position best helps line it’s pockets. That position is usually one of fear and hate mongering. Now there are thoughtful papers that come and go from time to time but they don’t make money and no one reads them.

The shock to American society (especially in the North) was huge as the Irish poor fleeing an engineered famine (a great way to consolidate land for powerful elite) swarmed cities and joined the Democratic party (mainly because they saw in the Whig party a Puritan value system they didn’t like and because their friends led them).

So here’s the thing: At one time the pope and the monarchs the pope liked ruled Europe. If you did something as a monarch to piss off the pope he threatened excommunicating the whole country. To us moderns this seems silly. We’d just say F***-off and move on, but back then people–regular people–wanted their kids baptized by the church–THE CATHOLIC CHURCH because they were told their babies couldn’t be saved  any other way. We can tsk, tsk again at how dumb they were as future people will probably laugh at stories published in the 1970’s about oil being gone by the 1980’s.

Once the Bible became available to people some of them read it and some of them questioned the rules forced upon them by the authorities. Question the authorities? Question the thought police? They must have been mad! But no matter. They were dead soon enough. Dead or gone.

Gone sailing to the rocky shores of New England to live quiet, harsh and cold lives as outcasts and pilgrims who dared protest against thought police and the cruelty and injustice of what must follow.

Winslow Homer Nor'easter
Winslow Homer Nor’easter

Books I’ve Known And Loved

Confederate Soldier courtesy http://www.pbase.com
Confederate Soldier
courtesy http://www.pbase.com

“One surviving letter suggests that the men engaged in seizing black civilians may have had no uniform attitude toward the kidnapping.” And here lies a great truth: people are complex.

As much as we would like to think otherwise there are no super heroes–and villains while evil may only be slightly more blind to their imperfections than the rest of us. Most of us think we’re pretty good most of the time. It is the rare event that exposes us to the true nature of our selfishness and hypocrisy. We want to run from such exposure, but without it there is no impetus to change.

When evil exposes itself how easy it is to ignore it. How easy it is to go with the flow. Only blind people do not recognize how thin the veil of goodness and integrity is over our weak frames.

Before the Battle of Gettysburg Southern troops slipped across the Pennsylvania line and into the close-knit towns and villages filled mostly with women and children. The men had gone to war or raced further north with their livestock and valuables in the mistaken belief that the men in grey would leave the young and female alone.

Black women worried with their neighbors. Some remembered escaping from slavery years ago. Some had manumission papers proving they’d been freed and some had never tasted slavery, but as the sound of cavalry horses clip-clopping just outside their nighttime windows alerted them to their danger they gathered their frightened children to their breasts in dread.

And dread they should as the mission of these men was to gather the darkies and herd them south. A witness to this mass kidnapping said that this more than all the political talk proved that the war was about slavery. The marauders refused to be convinced what they were doing was wrong. In a few cases  northern men left behind did fight the kidnappers and win the freedom of some crying children and their frightened mothers but in general the blacks were herded. White women watched unable to help and afraid for their own lives (and virtue as rape was a very real fear) and cried at the sight of their black women friends and neighbors being led away south.

“Do you not feel bad and mean in such an occupation?” a Pennsylvanian asked. The soldier replied that “he felt very comfortable.” A judge in the same town asked one of the invaders “if they took free negroes.” “Yes,” he replied, “and we will take you, too, if you don’t shut up!”

Smugly we look on. How brute-like these soldiers were! Never would I do the same. I ask myself: when was the last time I spoke out about cruelty not from some safe distance in a comment box on a blog post but in the public square? When was the last time I listened to a cruel remark and said nothing to defend the victim? When was the last time I risked myself for another?

A surviving letter from a soldier, Colonel William Christian from Virginia, to his family gives me hope, but not perfect hope: “We took a lot of Negroes yesterday. I was offered my choice, but as I could not get them back home I would not take them. In fact, my humanity revolted at taking the poor devils away from their homes. They were so scared that I turned them all loose.”

Note that his first instinct was selfish: how would he get them home? The second instinct, the braver and nobler: give them freedom. And how many of us get to that second instinct?

Men like William Christian are BETTER than SUPER HEROES because they show us that despite our basic instincts there is a way of choosing better even if it’s not what arises from our first thoughts.

THE WAR WAS YOU AND ME edited by Joan E. Cashin is full of humanity’s constant, invigorating and maddening complexity. Wars are you and me and they’re happening every day with every choice we make to look into another human’s eye with love or turn away.

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