Most young people don’t look at history through the lens of hip-hop. Once they see this very powerful and profound history, they get a whole different respect for the culture.
—Khalid el-Hakim, from the Detroit Free Press
His Black History 101 Mobile Museum educates people on African-American history and culture by displaying selections of more than 5,000 artifacts from black history in the United States. Wish I was in Dearborn last night to see some of pieces on hand…
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Today’s Document from the National Archives:
Robert E. Lee’s demand for the surrender of John Brown and his party, October 18, 1859
On October 16, 1859, abolitionist John Brown and his “army” of some 20 men seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) in preparation for his war for slave liberation. By the morning of October 18, when Brown refused to accept the terms of this note, marines under the command of Bvt. Col. Robert E. Lee, stormed the building and captured Brown and the survivors of his party. The operation that Brown envisioned as the first blow in a war against slavery was over in 36 hours.
~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Cotton Mather called them ‘the hidden ones.’ They never preached or sat in a deacon’s bench. Nor did they vote or attend Harvard. Neither, because they were virtuous women, did they question God or the magistrates. They prayed secretly, read the Bible through at least once a year, and went to hear the minister preach even when it snowed. Hoping for an eternal crown, they never asked to be remembered on earth. And they haven’t been. Well-behaved women seldom make history; against Antinomians and witches, these pious matrons have had little chance at all.
—Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, from her paper "Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668–1735" in the 1976 spring edition of American Quarterly
Did you know that the ubiquitous slogan contained within the quotation above doesn’t end with a period but a semicolon? That it comes from a Mormon feminist and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian?
Rather than a rally cry for bold behavior, Thatcher Ulrich was lauding the underappreciated and shining a light on the historically invisible. As part of her research into Puritan funeral services, she was pointing to the value of an academically “neglected” group of quiet, dutiful Puritans who did not get as much attention as the so-called witches of that era.
Thatcher Ulrich says it’s her religious upbringing that drives her to work among the stories of everyday experience:
"Coming from a minority religious culture that emphasizes the value of the ordinary person and the everyday life and doesn’t celebrate being rich and famous has a lot to do with my orientation historically. Mormon women have had a very colorful and controversial history and that is a lot of what has interested me."
Joanna Brooks, a scholar, journalist, and Ask Mormon Girl blogger, is another one of those smart, strong female voices. Look for our interview with her this Thursday. It’s a good one!
Photo by Hillary Stein/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Tiya Miles, Public Historian
by Susan Leem, associate producer
"In my family, there was an oral history about Native American heritage. And it’s one that my grandmother talked about when I was young many a time on her front porch. So when I went to graduate school I wanted to explore this, and I was at a Native American history seminar when I first learned about Native American slave-holding. So I was confronted with two different ideas, or stories, about these relationships."
The MacArthur Foundation brought this fresh voice to our attention when it announced a public historian as one of their recent “genius” grant recipients. This is a fascinating title, and a weighty responsibility. What makes a historian a “public” one? And once you hear her speak, you’ll ask, “Why aren’t there more?”
The truth is that the greatest enemies to the doctrines of Jesus are those calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them for the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors.
What Might Autism Teach Me about What It Means to Be Human
by Krista Tippett, host
Photo by Sharyn Morrow/Flickr, cc 2.0
The Centers for Disease Control report that 1 in 110 children in the U.S. is now diagnosed somewhere on the spectrum of autism. In other words, this is a condition that affects many lives, many families.
General reporting and publicized controversies tend to focus on the physiology and neurology of autism, or on possible causes and cures. As I’ve followed such stories, I’ve longed to understand something about the inner world of people with autism and those who love them. I’ve wanted to hear about autism in terms of spirit, intellect, and human nature. And when I discovered Paul Collins’ warm and erudite book Not Even Wrong: A Father’s Journey into the Lost History of Autism, I knew I’d found a way in.
During a routine checkup, his beloved son Morgan was diagnosed with autism at the age of two and a half. Paul then went searching for understanding in history and literature. He traced the winding process by which 20th-century physicians finally diagnosed autism after centuries in which it was conflated with very different conditions, such as schizophrenia and Down syndrome. He had previously written about eccentric characters and forgotten inventors in history, and he began to find evidence of autism in some of these figures who had already captured his attention. In his travels, he also experienced how the spectrum of autism quietly reaches into centers of contemporary invention — such as Microsoft.
Some of our programs feel like an “experience” in the making. This one did. Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder have opened my imagination about what it means to be human, as well as what it means to be autistic, without for a moment downplaying the debilitation that life with autism also entails. I had imagined this condition to be thoroughly isolating and inscrutable.
The very word “autism” comes from the Greek for “self” — autos — connoting a state of being in which a person seems quite literally to live in his or her own world. And yet Paul and Jennifer help me grasp that autism is not one thing but a spectrum on the vast continuum of human personality. Autism has deepened their understanding of disability and of intelligence, curiosity, and accomplishment.
Most thought-provoking of all, perhaps, are their stories of how life with Morgan has imparted a new generosity and respectful good humor to their dealings with each other and their families of origin. There is a documented correlation between autism and families with achievement in fields like engineering, music, mathematics, science — professions that require an aptitude for logic and a capacity for intense, solitary focus. You can read a beautiful essay by the late scientist Stephen Jay Gould about his son with autism.
Paul writes this:
"Autists are described by others — and by themselves — as aliens among humans. But there’s an irony to this, for precisely the opposite is true. They are us, and to understand them is to begin to understand what it means to be human. Think of it: a disability is usually defined in terms of what is missing. But autism is as much about what is abundant as what is missing, an overexpression of the very traits that make our species unique. Other animals are social, but only humans are capable of abstract logic. The autistic outhuman the humans, and we can scarcely recognize the result."
There is more in this hour of radio than I can evoke in these paragraphs. And if you enjoy it, I’d encourage you to listen to my original, unedited two-hour conversation with Jennifer Elder and Paul Collins. It is full of illumination and warmth, and I didn’t want it to end.
How Aida Refugee Camp Got Its Name
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
We met Kholoud Al Ajarma, a Palestinian woman who coordinates the arts and media activities for the Lajee Center, while conducting interviews within Aida refugee camp in the West Bank city of Bethlehem this past March. What a gift to meet her and take her photo, along with many others while working there.
Members of our staff all had different ideas about where she acquired her marvelous English accent; we were all wrong. But now we know. Maybe you’d like to guess? Listen to the audio clip above from this week’s show in which Kholoud tells a charming story about how Aida camp got its name. Submit a comment here, and I’ll post the answer shortly.
Did Elites Help Cultivate the Local Foods Movement?
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
When we first released "Driven by Flavor," some listeners were rankled by Dan Barber’s assertions. In the video clip above, the Blue Hill chef argues that “elites” deserve recognition for catalyzing sweeping changes in our collective food consciousness:
"It has been a movement that’s pretty much started with the people who can afford to pay for this kind of food. Do I think that’s unfortunate? I really don’t … a lot of great movements in this country, including women’s suffrage, including the civil rights movement, started with elites and ended up becoming mass movements through powerful ideas."
What do you think? Are elites the chicken or the egg here? Or is there another way of understanding how the food revolution Dan Barber is a part of became so widely embraced?
Adolph Hitler’s 1919 Letter Reveals His Anti-Semitism
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
An eery document in the context of history. Adolph Hitler’s typewritten letter from 1919 revealing his hatred of the Jewish people was presented in New York yesterday and will go on display in Los Angeles. In the document, Hitler refers to the Jews as a “racial tuberculosis on the nation” and told Captain Karl Mayr, the officer who requested Hitler’s assessment, that the “final goal must be the removal of the Jews. To accomplish these goals, only a government of National power is capable and never a government of national weakness.”
Power, Politics, and the Downfall of Men
by Debra Dean Murphy, guest contributor
Marilyn Monroe holds a framed portrait of Abraham Lincoln. (photo: Milton Greene, via Michael Donovan/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
This spring I’m finally reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s masterful work, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. It’s been instructive to read her historical account in the midst of this season of political folly — from Newt Gingrich’s rapid freefall to Rep. Weiner’s embarrassing Twitter pics to John Edwards’ alleged criminal cover-up. But of course when is politics not a display of the follies of men? And I mean “men” here: rare is the female politician caught with her pants down, lawyering up to combat sleaze or scandal.
Published in 2006, Goodwin’s book chronicles the lives of Lincoln and three of his famed political adversaries — accomplished men who later became trusted members of his cabinet and fiercely loyal friends. (The film rights were secured by Steven Spielberg years before the book was finished; Daniel Day-Lewis plays the title role next year).
In America’s popular and poorly exercised historical imagination, Abraham Lincoln is mostly a cardboard caricature, but in Goodwin’s narrative he emerges as a compelling, complex figure. Not really a surprise, I know, but the person and his politics — Lincoln’s private ambition and public comportment, his personal burdens and professional brilliance — are irresistibly rendered.
So it’s never helpful (or truthful) to characterize earlier eras like Lincoln’s as more respectable or dignified than our own, top hats and high collars notwithstanding. The historical record is clear that politics has always been cutthroat and politicians have always been capable of the worst of human behavior. Nor should we assume that Victorian prudishness about sex curtailed the exploitation of women as disposable objects for the amusement of powerful men. Prostitution abounded in Lincoln’s America.
But there is something about the inherent contradictions regarding sex in our own age that seems to contribute to a perpetually adolescent outlook on human relationships. Americans are famously puritanical in our views about sex yet perversely voyeuristic about the sex lives of the famous.
We complain when CNN spends hours of air-time covering Anthony Wiener’s underpants problem, but seasoned media researchers know that such stories are the bread-and-butter of higher ratings and revenues. We gripe, but we can’t turn away.
There is also the correlation between the cultivation of celebrity and a lack of intellectual rigor, which makes sex (or at least sexiness) a preoccupation in American politics. Candidates for public office rarely speak in anything but clichés and soundbites; carefully controlled image is everything.
The three- to four-hour political speeches of Lincoln’s day — dense with ideas and historical and literary references — are unfathomable in our own. In a fast-paced visual culture, we want airbrushed good looks not lengthy, complex oratory. Before you know it, people like John Edwards think their sexual attractiveness makes them invincible.
In the end, though, the downfall of men like Wiener and Edwards — whether short-lived or for the long haul — may be less about sexual preoccupations (theirs and ours) and more about small lives (also theirs and ours). One of the ironies of our increasingly globalized world is that we are more solipsistic than ever, living our lives through the mediation of smaller and smaller screens, surrounded by people but starving for real human connection.
In 19th-century prairie towns like Springfield, Illinois where the isolation was real, it was somehow possible to “live large,” to practice the virtue of magnanimity: a generosity of spirit and intellect that is the opposite of our modern smallness, that seeks contentment not in self-gratification or the attainment of celebrity but in giving oneself fully to a transcendent purpose. Not that Lincoln and some of his rival-friends, especially, weren’t bundles of neuroses, capable, at times, of self-serving pettiness — but at least they exhibited, when it mattered most, something of genuine human selflessness in service to the greater good.
In our time, unfortunately, the self is most often the greater good. And politicians whose very survival as politicians — getting elected or staying elected — consumes their every waking moment, seem inexplicably tempted toward small, selfish, secret acts of betrayal and self-sabotage. Acts that are intended to prop up the insecure ego but which ultimately humiliate and destroy, laying low not just the powerful men themselves but the women and children, family and friends, who love them.
Debra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.
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