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.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Mavis Staples and the Grandness of Musical History (video)
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Who doesn’t love the remarkable and enduring Mavis Staples? And teaming up with Jeff Tweedy? Well, the Grammy voters couldn’t resist her charm either, awarding her Best Americana Album for her latest work, You Are Not Alone. Which is a perfect opportunity to share these two videos of her and Wilco front man Tweedy performing acoustic versions of both songs he composed for the album: the title track “You Are Not Alone” (above) and “Only the Lord Knows” (below).
Her win also gives us a chance to remember her family’s legacy in the American civil rights movement. As Dr. Vincent Harding reminds us in an upcoming show, artists like The Staples Singers (“Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There”) and Curtis Mayfield created a soundtrack of hope for the movement. In the liner notes of Mavis Staples’ 2007 album We’ll Never Turn Back, she wrote this personal letter reminding us of this history and the need for positive change going forward:
“When we started our family group, The Staple Singers, we started out mostly singing in churches in the South. Pops saw Dr. Martin Luther King speak in 1963 and from there we started to broaden our musical vision beyond just gospel songs. Pops told us, “I like this man. I like his message. And if he can preach it, we can sing it.” So we started to write “freedom songs,” like “Why Am I Treated So Bad,” “When Will We Be Paid for the Work We’ve Done,” “Long Walk to DC,” and many others. Like many in the civil rights movement, we drew on the spirituality and the strength from the church to help gain social justice and to try to achieve equal rights.
We became a major voice for the civil rights movement and hopefully helped to make a difference in this country. It was a difficult and dangerous time (in 1965 we spent a night in jail in West Memphis, Arkansas and I wondered if we’d ever make it out alive) but we felt we needed to stand up and be heard.
So for us, and for many in the civil rights movement, we looked to the church for inner strength and to help make positive changes. And that seems to be missing today. Here it is, 2007, and there are still so many problems and social injustices in the world. Well, I tell you ¬ we need a change now more than ever, and I’m turning to the church again for strength.
With this record, I hope to get across the same feeling, the same spirit and the same message as we did with the Staple Singers — and to hopefully continue to make positive changes. We’ve got to keep pushing to make the world a better place. Things are better but we’re not where we need to be and we’ll never turn back. 99 and 1/2 just won’t do!”
A good way to kick off your Friday.
Angélique Kidjo’s Songs that Inspire the Struggle
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
“The songs tried to encourage us not simply to to be reactors, but to indicate our own initiative and our own power.”
In our interview yesterday morning, Vincent Harding spoke about the galvanizing power of song during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s. He also lamented that today’s “hip-hop young people” have not produced a soundtrack for their generation that can express the “great need and desire for a better world.”
But, for many African youth, Angélique Kidjo is helping create this soundtrack. The 50-year-old, Grammy winner is inspiring this rising generation by revisiting music that emerged from the American civil rights movement, namely that of Curtis Mayfield, whose music shaped and was shaped by the struggles of this time.
On her most recent album, Kidjo re-crafted his 1970 hit “Move on Up.” As Kidjo told the New York Amsterdam News in 2010:
“When I first heard this song when I was a child, I couldn’t believe those issues existed in America. When I moved to America, I not only realized he was telling the truth, but that those issues are still relevant. In fact not just America, but the world. When you take a look at the children of Africa, they stopped believing in what their futures could be. None of the leaders of Africa are thinking of creating jobs or creating a place where they can feel safe, confident, proud and dignified to live in, so I wanted to dedicate that song to kids and let them know it was O.K. to dream big.”
Kidjo performed her rendition of this Mayfield classic in South Africa at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. As she told the Sowetan in June 2010: “I wanted to do and dedicate this song to the youth of Africa to show that it is possible for us to overcome the challenges. Enough of thinking that what comes from outside is better than what is from here. … Africa is not about misery and poverty, there is joy.”
(photo: Michelly Rall/Getty Images for Live Earth Events)
Sitting Bull’s Legacy: Strength in Culture and Family
by Patrice Kunesh, special contributor
Louis Primeau (seated, far right), the uncle of my grandfather, served as translator and tracker for James McLaughlin (leaning against tree), the U.S. official who ordered Sitting Bull’s arrest in December 1890.
As a law student studying the tragic history of the federal government’s unwarranted removal of thousands of Indian children from their families, I told my mother of my intent to fight for the right of Indian tribes to secure the well-being of those children. She replied, to my utter surprise, “No child should have to grow up on an Indian reservation.”
My view of the reservation had been constructed around stories from my grandfather, Theodore Kelly, a Hunkpapa Lakota who grew up on the Standing Rock Reservation in the early 1900s. He spent summers running with abandon through the prairie grass, fishing along the banks of the Missouri, hunting and relishing tachupa, the bone marrow, which he said was the best part. Seldom did he hear shi’cha (“naughty”), only hoksila seka (“good boy”) and hoksila washte (“good girl”).
My mother then told me about the precarious side of his childhood: the grinding poverty, the disease, and the despair that had become rooted into every part of the reservation. Often there was not enough food for the family or fuel to heat the house. His brother, along with scores of other children, was sent far away to a boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania as part of the federal government’s assimilationist policies aimed at breaking up families and severing their ties to the land. Like so many other Indian children, he grew up confused and angry about his identity and indefinite place in American society. I was not dissuaded by my mother’s response — only more resolved to work for the rights of American Indian tribes to be self-determined and self-sufficient.
I found my inspiration in the words of Sitting Bull, the spiritual leader of the Lakota people who also grew up in a territory that became the Standing Rock Reservation. Sitting Bull is renowned for his prowess as a warrior and visionary spiritual leader; but, later in life when pressed by the army, he would look first to the children, the old, and the sick. He would seek to secure their safety and consistently would give away his possessions and meat to feed and clothe them. He gained a reputation as the most generous man in a society where generosity was the ultimate virtue.
Even in the face of defeat, Sitting Bull’s primary concern was for the children. On the threshold of the passage of the General Allotment Act — one of the most pernicious pieces of legislation leading to the utter destruction of the traditional tribal way of life on the plains and prairies of the Dakota Territory — Sitting Bull finally surrendered to the U.S. Calvary to save his people from starvation and further degradations.
Years of fighting a losing battle against the government’s confiscation of Lakota lands and confinement onto reservations had reduced the Lakota to a pitiful state of privation and dependency. In 1883, just seven years before his tragic death, Sitting Bull addressed a committee of U.S. Senators at the Standing Rock Agency. While the senators insisted on more land cessions from the Lakota in the sacred grounds of Paha Sapa (the Black Hills), Sitting Bull reminded them of their treaty obligations for compensation and supplies. His pleas were not for himself, but for the children.
He said to the U.S. Senators who were visiting Standing Rock:
“I am looking into the future for the benefit of my children, the Sioux, and that is what I mean when I say I want my country taken care of for me. My children will grow up here, and I am looking ahead for their benefit, and for the benefit of my children’s children too; and even beyond that.”
After years of conflict and the painful transition from an unencumbered life to a life as reservation accommodationists, some tribal people began to rethink what it meant to be Lakota, indeed to be part of the Sioux nation. To Sitting Bull, the true survival of his people meant cultural survival and the endurance of the tiospaye, or family relationships.
The foundations of his prominence as a leader and his spiritual powers were derived from his tiospaye, which nourished the Lakota lifeways and a culture that valued children and ensured their future well-being. Sitting Bull insisted on preserving the collectivity of the land and family through tribal customs and ceremonies.
Despite my mother’s faltering view of reservation life, she constructed her own life around the family as a sacred circle. In her home and in the homes of her 13 children, there is always a place for grandparents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, cousins and grandchildren. We often have a complete family circle at one time. The land we hold at Standing Rock also remains an essential cultural connection for us. It reminds us of Sitting Bull’s enduring legacy, which implores: “Let us put our minds together and see what future we can make for our children.”
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.