All posts by Chuck Fager

The Big News That’s No News: U. S. Church Membership Falls Below 50%

How do we find “truth” about what’s going on in our confused & confusing society?

One source many often turn to for answers is public polls. If a big time pollster says something is happening, many of us still choose to believe it must be so.

A prime example of this phenomenon is the decline in U. S. Church attendance & membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Gallup is just out with a report saying it’s happening, on a major scale. So if there’s a poll behind such an assertion, it must be true:

Gallup: “Americans’ membership in houses of worship continued to decline last year, dropping below 50% for the first time in Gallup’s eight-decade trend.

In 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999.

U.S. church membership was 73% in 1937 when Gallup first measured it. It stayed near 70% through 2000 before beginning to decline, to 61% in 2010 and 47% in 2020.. . .”

Continue reading The Big News That’s No News: U. S. Church Membership Falls Below 50%

The Nice Guy and the Madman Prophet

Nicholas Kristof, New York Times columnist

Nick Kristof is the New York Times’s  Certified Good-Guy columnist. While he’s an intrepid reporter, who has earned two Pulitzers, he’s best known for an uncanny ability to make even an unfolding tragedy like the one he recounts here feel like an upbeat family story.

Almost effortlessly he turns it into what could be the trailer for a newly-discovered Dick Van Dyke/Mary Tyler Moore movie, complete with cameos by Fred MacMurray and Mister Rogers, and a sunny happy togetherness ending. Guaranteed.

It’s only nattering nabobs of negativism, like me, who could think otherwise.

But I did. I read Kristof’s column, and my first thought was, “Oh, heck no: Papa Joyner wouldn’t shoot his own kids when his uprising starts. Of  course not. “ Continue reading The Nice Guy and the Madman Prophet

A Non-Mystic Report on The Trip I Didn’t Take to Ghent

From The Guardian:

“One of the world’s greatest masterpieces, and surely the most stolen piece of art of all time, Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece, has a new €30m (£26m) glass-case home.

While remaining within St Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, for which it was painted in 1432 by the Van Eyck brothers, the 12-panelled polyptych will be located in the Sacrament chapel, the cathedral’s largest and most easterly chapel, within a bullet-proof display case that is 6-metres high with an interior of 100 cubic metres. . . .

The oft-stolen Altarpiece in its new ultra-secure display case, which cost somewhat north of $35 million dollars.

. . . somewhat understandably, a top priority for those involved in the project has been the masterpiece’s security. During its 588-year history, the Ghent Altarpiece has been nearly burned by rioting Calvinists, stolen by Napoleon for the Louvre in Paris, cut in half after falling into the hands of the King of Prussia, coveted by Hermann Göring and taken by Adolf Hitler before being rescued by a team of commando double-agents from an Austrian salt mine where it was destined to be blown apart with dynamite.

It has not survived entirely unscathed. One of its 12 panels remains missing after a daring heist on the evening of 10 April 1934, which has since baffled police detectives, bemused amateur sleuths and driven to despair the Nazi agents ordered by Goebbels to find it as a gift for the German Führer .

[Yes, of course they made a movie about it: The Monuments Men (2014), directed by and starring George Clooney and a cast guaranteed to set middle-aged hearts aflutter. But it was a dud. One typical commenter in the Washington Post called it “a very bad version of Hogan’s Heroes meets The Sound of Music. I kept waiting for someone to break out into song. Pathetic and embarrassing would be a compliment. . . .” He walked out. Left just in time, too, because,  someone in the movie soon did break out into song . . . .]

My friend Douglas Gwyn, a distinguished Quaker theologian, included the Ghent Altarpiece in his new book, Into The Common.

For him, the Ghent altarpiece

. . . is both an astonishing work of art and a panoply for contemplation by the eye of faith. Its vast scope is balanced by its minute detail, down to identifiable species of vegetation: a mind-reeling combination of macrocosmic and microcosmic perspectives. The van Eycks were famed miniaturists and the altarpiece constitutes miniaturization on a grand scale. Contemplating it, one intuits the beauty of one’s own obscure place in the epic of divine providence.

The central panel of the Altarpiece, “The Lamb of God”

[The centerpiece features the Lamb of God; from the] wound in its side pours blood into a golden chalice. On the altar are the words of John the Baptist in John 1:29: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Above the Lamb hovers a dove, the Holy Spirit. And above that, the central upper panel depicts God the Father enthroned.

In front of the altar is a fountain flowing with the water of life. Paradoxically, this water is the blood of the Lamb. All these elements form a central vertical axis. In the background of this park-like scene, a skyline of buildings suggests the new Jerusalem (Rev­elation 20) as the setting. The scene extends into two panels on either side of the central one, forming an earthly, horizontal axis.

. . . Fourteen angels kneel in worship closest to the altar. Behind them stand an array of Hebrew prophets, Christian apostles, and pagan philosophers, some with oriental faces. And from the four comers of the panel a multitude of peoples are advancing to­ward the Lamb, balancing the static sense of an eternal, heavenly ecstasy with a moment of historic, earthly fulfillment.

The composition of this panel derives from the Book of Revelation, the Apocalypse of John, in particular the seventh chapter. Revelation’s exotic flood of visions and voices from heaven has fascinated, tantalized, or alienated readers for two thousand years.

Well, put me down somewhere between tantalized and alienated. John’s Book of Revelation has continually left me puzzled and unenlightened; and I make apocalypse jokes like there’s no tomorrow.

But no question, the Ghent altar piece is best in class of its kind of art. (In its shadow our recent apocalyptic behemoth, the Left Behind series, is left utterly behind.) So in the abstract, I can appreciate Doug Gwyn’s swoon over it.

However, while it’s at the pinnacle, there are many other cathedrals in Europe with relics. How many such churches I don’t know, but it’s probably in the hundreds. And many —I’d guess most — of them have their own art pieces and relics; especially relics, including objects, preserved corpses and even detached body parts of saints and other churchly eminences.

In 2008 I spent several weeks in France. While there, I toured a few cathedrals, in Toulouse & Arles. In one of them, the interior was quite dimly lit, yet I walked along the nave, noting various niches & mini-chapels on either side.

One such niche had a black wrought iron gate across its entrance, with a chain and lock. I paused and peered between the bars. Behind them was thick glass, maybe doors, on which was a film of dust and smoke, indicating years of quietude (aka neglect).

I paused, leaned into the gate and squinted. Behind the glass were reliquaries, their shapes unmistakable and their intricate, dull gilt decoration just detectable.

Not one, or a few; dozens. And not on shelves or in alcoves, nooks or crannies.

In fact, a heap. A jumbled pile. Yes, I’ll go there—
— A  junk pile; sacred maybe, but junk. The cathedral’s essentially clandestine holy dustbin.

I stood for a few minutes, continuing to squint, sorry my pocket camera wouldn’t work in that half-light. There was no signage, not even in French, to advise about what mix of once-revered clerics, third-tier saints, obscure visionaries and supernumerary martyrs had been downsized into consecrated cathedral detritus.

Protect us?? Who protected him?

I came out blinking and musing into the afternoon light. I recalled that some prominent names from my Catholic boyhood (looking at you, St. Christopher) had been officially debunked and declared to be pious myths as part of the updating (repackaging?) by the 1960s Second Vatican Council.

But I hadn’t thought that others, evidently many more, had quietly been, to filch a more tasteful British phrase, made redundant. How many miracles had been consigned to the church’s version of internal dumpsters? There had to be truckloads.

Some weighty sociologists of religion have written of the “routinization of charisma” in religion. This notion could arguably be corroborated by the fact that, just in this one cathedral, Catholic masses had been performed, probably daily, for near a millennium.

At the center of each performance, doctrine says, a miracle is evoked and repeated. As this ritual goes on in Catholic churches worldwide, the miracle recurs at all hours seven days a week, century after century, more like clockwork than clocks.

Miracle it might be, the sociologists argue, but how could it not thereby become also routine? And how could the associated paraphernalia not fall prey to the changes of fortune and fashion?

One rebuttal to such questioning is to point to masterpieces like that in Ghent. The Van Eycks’ achievement leaps beyond superb technique, they say, to become a renewer of the divine mysteries that doctrine says underlie the ritual.

The defenders may have something there. Yet masterpieces are rare. There are so many churches to fill; hence much art, religious and secular alike, is imitative, and slides down a slope through kitsch, into self-parody and ends up deservedly as, well, trash.

The doctrinal mysteries, being invisible, may endure; but can the same decline overtake the remnants of obscure holiness? Arles gave a slight but unmistakable nod of reply. For my part, in years as a Quaker, I have absorbed much of the early Friends’ iconoclastic attitudes: I prefer my cathedral to be a plain meetinghouse, unadorned but by the Light Within. It is our own special brand of philistinism, and we are quite humbly proud of it.

Yet what will happen to that mound of old reliquaries?

The cathedral has stood for many centuries. It would be no big deal to let these gilded priestly discards lie in that niche for a few more generations, as the thickening dust becomes opaque and the last faithful who remember them die off.

Then — well, the honorable denouement would involve chanting processions and pointed mitres and incense and special crypts.

But one can also imagine an ever-increasingly anemic church, now bleeding for billions from the overdue costs of priestly pedophilia, being forced to send a nameless team to unlock the chain, likely under cover of darkness, pry open the squealing iron gates, brusquely check relic boxes for precious metals and jewels, and dump their other contents into some common container.

Then an unmarked truck heads for a compliant, close-mouthed funeral director’s crematory, which is fired up before dawn, with little more than a parting splash of holy water if they’re lucky.

Douglas Gwyn, author of “Into the Common.”

Presumably in Heaven the rewards of their honorees are secure. But here I saw, as a non-mystic visitor, that alongside the ancient motto of Sic Transit Gloria Mundi needs to stand another, Sic Transit Sanctus Mundi (Goodbye to yesterday’s holiness) as well. And maybe even a third, if only as a footnote, that not even an ornate gilded urn will do more than slow the eventual passing. Oh, wait: “Dust to dust” (Genesis 3); they already have it.

As you see, my cathedral stop was no masterpiece, but memorable all the same. I wonder how different It would have been had I been able to take a weekend side trip to Ghent. Much better if Doug Gwyn and I had gone together.

Excerpt of the Day: “Emergency Everywhere”

From the New York Review of Books, March 25 2021:

Regina Marler: Fire season in California ended in mid-December, but I can’t bring myself to unpack the boxes near the front door.

I threw them together overnight—family photos, backup drives, mementos, passports—in late September, when three wildfires merged, creating the Glass Fire, and burned west into rural Sonoma County, where I live. The Walbridge Fire, which came closer, had been contained only ten days earlier.

Regina Marler

For weeks I kept the gas tank full and wore a respirator mask on my trips out for groceries and bottled water. (The electricity had been cut, and without it the well doesn’t work.) Mostly I stayed in with the windows shut, watching birds materialize through the smoke to land on the feeder. Blackened, blistered bay leaves spattered the driveway.

At night, I woke hourly to scan the surrounding woods for an orange glow. What if no warning came? Like almost everyone in the Bay Area, I have friends who’ve fled fires at night, driven through flames. I ran my risk assessment daily. You could say the fire had already gotten me.

Climate fiction is a genre of necessity—a new, rapidly expanding chorus of alarm. It’s beginning to seem strange not to mention climate change in realistic fiction, and not only because it’s an existential threat.

As Bill McKibben wrote in these pages, “we are entering a period when physical forces, and our reaction to them, will drive the drama on planet Earth.”

The term “climate fiction” itself came into use around the turn of this century. (Its catchy abbreviation, “cli-fi,” was coined by a blogger and environmentalist, Dan Bloom, in 2007.)

While environmental disasters have been a staple of dystopian science fiction since the late nineteenth century, writers before the mid-1960s rarely envisioned anthropogenic climate change. Terrible things just happened, like the hurricane that sweeps humanity off the planet in J.G. Ballard’s first novel, The Wind from Nowhere (1961).

But more recent climate fiction tends to assign blame. The reproductive toxins that render most women infertile in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), for example, derive from leaking nuclear plants and discarded chemical weapon stockpiles—very much humanity’s doing. Almost all climate fiction is political now. It wants to kick the reader’s chair. . . .

In The Inland Sea, an artful debut novel by , the effects of climate change have become inescapable and relentless. The book opens during the record-setting Australian heat wave of 2013—until 2019, Australia’s hottest year on record:

Ambulance crews raced towards Circular Quay and Parramatta to tend to the elderly, the pregnant, and the very young. In the western suburbs dogs and babies were discovered comatose after five minutes left inside locked cars…. At Taronga Zoo, the lions were given milk-flavored ice blocks. Carrot-flavored ice was fed to the zebras.

Dozens of fires break out along the south coast, and flash floods follow the fires: “The ocean bled into the land. Salt water seeped into the crops. Rivers not rivers. Homes not homes.”

The narrator, who is unnamed, is adrift after dropping out of a one-year postgraduate honors program. She moves to a semi-seedy part of Sydney and takes a full-time job at an emergency call center, a temporary stopgap, she thinks. She knows the work might be stressful, but

the script we were taught on our first day was meant to shield us from distress. If all went as planned, the person calling didn’t tell us about the fire raging down their cliff or the body they’d discovered at the bottom of a gully. We waited to hear the caller engage with the paramedic or the firefighter and then quietly hung up before hearing the details. We were not meant to hear the problem. We were not meant to hear the woman howl for the baby turning blue in her arms.

[But] at work, she finds that others’ emergencies are “leaking through the borders” of her own life.

Madeleine Watts

Riveted by the calls that come into Triple Zero—Australia’s emergency call number—she jots down details in a notebook. When more than 135 fires are burning across New South Wales, a woman calls to let the fire service know that she has “chosen to go instead of stay. I lived through the fires of ’94, she told me. It’s like a war zone. Smoke everywhere. I’m not going through that again.”

The narrator thinks, but does not say, that she also remembers driving through those fires with her mother, “remember[s] the smoke and the heat and the roads blocked off and no way home.” She connects the caller to the fire brigade and writes “like a war zone” in her notebook. . . .

A Guest Post: Preserving the Work of a Photographer Who Documented Native Americans

This remarkable tribute is by Mark Schwartz, an attorney from Bryn Mawr PA. It is a remarkable tribute to the work and memory of a photographer friend, Christopher Cardozo, who in turn had made a career of preserving and paying tribute to the work of an earlier pioneering photographer-ethnographer. It was so striking i am posting it here, with Schwartz’s permission:

Christopher Cardozo: Foremost Authority on American Indian Ethnographer and Photographer Edward S. Curtis, died on February 21, 2021 in Minneapolis at age 72

Despite a family lineage in the law going back to Justice Benjamin Cardozo, Christopher Cardozo serendipitously took a very different path, candidly observing  that “I would probably be a walking malpractice suit”.

Born February 27, 1948, after graduating with a degree in photography and film from the University of Minnesota, a professor invited him to Oaxaca, Mexico to help make a film.  After taking five months to save up to buy a 10-year-old VW Beetle, camera lenses and film, Cardozo made the trek across the continent,  finally arriving only to be informed that his professor had  decided not to make the film. The curt apology was,  “I should have written.”

Notwithstanding, Cardozo stayed on in the remote Mexican village of  San Andres Chicahuzxla, Oaxaca, Mexico.

He spent six sometimes dangerous months in 1972 documenting a place and people who were losing their way. Chris’ sepia-toned images of the villagers prompted a friend to observe that his photos were remarkably similar to Edward Curtis’ work.

Christopher Cardozo with a portrait

His curiosity piqued, Cardozo furiously studied, acquired, exhibited and  replicated Curtis’ work. This became the making of a career spanning more than fifty years.

He thus became the foremost authority on Curtis. Cardozo came to realize,  “I was led to this. This was my soul’s purpose. Why I ended up on Earth at this particular time was to make this  work available to people.”

Edward Curtis’s exposure to Native American culture came some seventy years earlier than Cardozo’s parallel experience.   In the summer of 1900 , Curtis (1868-1952) witnessed one of the last performances of the  Blackfoot Indian Tribe’s “Sun Dance” ceremony. Ushered in to the lives of Native Americans , Edward Sheriff Curtis wrote “It’s such a big dream. I can’t see it all.” This became Cardozo’s catch phrase in sharing and perpetuating Curtis’ dream of preserving the history and legacy of these magnificent people.

Curtis had left a promising career as a society photographer to photograph Native Americans in their home lands. He spent three decades at this.

Smithsonian Magazine said:

At the beginning of the 20th century, Edward S. Curtis worked in the belief that he was in a desperate race against time to document, with film, sound and scholarship, the North American Indian before white expansion and the federal government destroyed what remained of their natives’ way of life.  For thirty years, with the backing of men like J. Pierpont Morgan and former president Theodore Roosevelt, but at great expense to his family life and his health, Curtis lived among dozens of native tribes, devoting his life to his calling.

Over the course of thirty years Curtis had compiled a photo-ethnographic study: The North American Indian. In 1911 the New York Herald characterized it as the most gigantic undertaking since the publication of the King James Edition of the Bible.

Consisting of  twenty leather-bound volumes,  twenty portfolios containing more than 2,200 original photogravures, and  4,000 pages of anthropological text. His attention to detail included transcriptions of tribal language and music,  and the work involved the active participation of  over 10,000 Native Americans.

Finalized in 1930, in the depth of the Great Depression, less than three hundred sets were actually produced with only two hundred actually sold. This published work was in addition to some  45,000 to 50,000 negatives (many on glass) , ten thousand wax cylinders of ceremonial music and language recordings, and motion picture footage, all taken by Curtis.

The magnum opus completed, having driven himself to the limit, Curtis lost everything,  suffering a physical and nervous breakdown in 1930. He died in 1952 essentially unknown and penniless.

“Northern Plains Brave 1905,” a portrait by Edward Curtis.

It was in the seventies, in large part owing to Cardozo’s activities, that Curtis’ work enjoyed a resurgence.

Summing up his own contribution, Cardozo told the Minneapolis Star & Tribune (12/18/18),

“I believe I was instrumental in changing the conversation about Curtis. He’d been thought of as an ethnographer….. But I got people to see his work as the artistic achievement that it was. The platinum prints, the gold tones, the cyanographs—they leave me speechless at times.”

Cardozo is the author of nine monographs on Edward Curtis, and has created and curated one-person Curtis exhibitions that have been seen in nearly one hundred venues in over forty countries, and on every continent, but Antarctica. Why? He summed up his vision in a Forbes interview:

Edward Curtis created the most valuable and sought-after set of rare books in US history and left the world a legacy of inestimable importance. It is a deeply human story which, at its essence, is imbued with beauty, heart, and spirit. I believe that in no small part, this is why these iconic images have endured for over a century. It also helps explain why Curtis is the most widely collected photographer in the 170 year history of the medium, and why his photographs have been exhibited to rave reviews all over the world, from Papua, New Guinea to Paris.

Having collected Curtis’s artwork for decades, Cardozo created the world’s largest and most broad-ranging Curtis collection. His personal collection has been exhibited in major museums internationally, and was the subject of his widely heralded monograph on Curtis: Sacred Legacy; Edward S. Curtis and The North American Indian, and a new monograph on his personal collection titled Edward S. Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks, in which Cardozo said

“Curtis’ work changed the way our nation viewed Native Americans and generated a broad-ranging dialogue for greater compassion, understanding, and inclusion. For more than a century, his images have moved and inspired diverse audiences, transcending economic, cultural, social, educational , and national boundaries. He accomplished this at a time when Native Americans were commonly viewed with disdain or hatred and some individuals were still actively advocating for the extinction of all Native peoples on the North American continent. Contributing to that work was Minnesota writer Louise Erdrich who wrote that Curtis’ images of women were “ as disquieting as they are profoundly beautiful.”

With the few remaining 160 sets of Curtis “The North American Indian”  financially and physically out of reach  of new generations of  scholars and students, Cardozo undertook the three-year painstaking task of artisan republication of  the 20-volume work and accompanying portfolios, so as to coincide with the 2018 sesquicentennial of Curtis’ birth.

With the republication accomplished, Cardozo, long bothered by the fact that he was a white man owning so much of Native America’s legacy, launched the “10,000 Print Repatriation Project”  to connect the descendants of those photographed with their ancestors’ images.

As the founder of Cardozo Fine Art in Minneapolis, he has pioneered techniques for preserving and revitalizing  historic photographs, as well as developing cutting edge techniques for contemporary photography. He was also the founder and board chair of the Edward S. Curtis Foundation,  dedicated to preserving and exhibiting the work of Edward Curtis. No one has done more to increase the awareness, understanding, and appreciation for Curtis’ work than Cardozo. Friends and family are committed to continuing his work.

Author Mark Schwartz.

Upon reaching the age of 70, he wanted to return full circle to his own photography which launched this incredible journey.

Christopher Cardozo is survived by his beloved Mother Patricia, Sisters Julie and Claudia, Brother Jeffrey, his Niece Brittany Lease (Lewis) and their children Alden, Ben and Milo.  Chris also has ten Goddaughters and Godsons with whom he shared many years of companionship and mentoring.  His network of friends, scholars and artistic colleagues knew him as a man with a lovely zest for life lived with no estimated time of arrival . . . .

 

 

Going Postal

One day, deep in the pit of my midlife angst, I saw a job notice on a bulletin board at the Merrifield postal facility. It was for a part-time EEO Investigator.

It was 1990, and for five years I had been moving mail in this enormous mail processing  center in the DC Virginia suburbs.

I was told, and I believe it, that every day six million pieces of mail came in at one end of the block-long-hangarlike facility, and that same day six million pieces needed to go out the other end. There were seasons of the mail, but like the nearby Potomac River, it never stopped.

The post office was good money and honest work, but I was desperate to get out. I wanted to write stuff about and for Quakers,  organize events, stir the pot. It was a harmless enough ambition, assuredly obscure; but it was mine.  Unfortunately, nobody was hiring for that.

The EEO gig would be a step up. At least it called on my civil rights experience from the Sixties. This would not be marches or jail, rather  the humdrum nitty gritty of their aftermath, making the legal progress work. (If it did.) Continue reading Going Postal

An Apology (not quite) to Senator Richard Burr

Yes, I admit it. I have often called North Carolina Senator Richard Burr a lazy & unresponsive legislator.

I mean, don’t you remember the landmark Burr Act to clean up hog waste & coal pollution in the state?

Me neither. Because there is no such thing.

I used to think that Burr’s main ”landmark” on Capitol Hill, from which he says he’s retiring next year, would be his effort to prevent the Senate Intelligence Committee from investigating the shameful & illegal U. S. torture program from the “War on Terror” years. When he failed in that, he later exerted himself to kill the finished report: no luck there either, though he did delay its full release.

Otherwise, I thought, Burr’s “career” would be remembered mainly for avoiding town hall meetings with actual citizens (as distinct from private  & profitable huddles with lobbyists). That and diligently growing his personal stock portfolio while in office in ways that hinted broadly of misuse of inside information.

If there’s ever a historic marker put up in Burr’s memory, the curious will have to search for it, and it will have plentiful blank space.

But despite all my “elite” blogger’s disdain, I have now been shown up as having grossly underestimated Burr’s legislative work ethic and its impact. The crushing exposé came in a report in  the New York Times on March 22, 2021.  

It turns out that Burr is quite capable of working like a dog, by golly a determined attack dog at that. The Times even has the paperwork covered with bite marks to prove it.

I apologize for the error.

Of course, it had to be just the right burning, moral, lives-are-at-stake issue to get Burr to jump the leash and put down the stock market reports.

But three years ago, he found  it, sho nuff. Continue reading An Apology (not quite) to Senator Richard Burr

The Island Ponies & The Real Mustangs

First, from the Raleigh NC News & Observer:

A wild horse that roamed North Carolina’s Outer Banks has died, a group that manages her herd says.

The mare, nicknamed Dusty, died at age 25, the Foundation for Shackleford Horses wrote Saturday on Facebook. She was “one of the grand dames of the wild herd” that lives on the Shackleford Banks, which is the southernmost island on Cape Lookout National Seashore. . . .

“Rest well, run free, old girl,” the group said of Dusty’s death.

More than 100 wild horses live on Shackleford Banks, according to the National Park Service, which co-manages the herd with the foundation. . . . .”

I once visited another “wild” band, on Assateague Island, another link in the same outer banks chain with its own band of “wild” horses.

A “wild” pony on Assateague.

I remember it well. The horses stood around, lounged really, under the watchful gaze of uniformed park rangers. They let my kids walk up and stroke their long necks. Numerous signs told us what to do and not do around them, especially not feed them. The feds made sure they got proper nutrition. About the only thing they had to fear was hurricanes.

When we left, the kids were puzzled at my dismissive comment: “They’re not ‘wild horses,’” I snorted. “They’re Welfare Ponies.”

This disdain reflected memories of my other previous visit with such a band, which happened in 1977, almost 3000 miles west, under starkly different conditions: not the cosseted, beach-surrounded, foundation-protected eight square mile sliver of Shackleford. Instead they roamed a vast chunk of windswept & sunburnt high desert, almost 900 times as large. There was more wilderness in all directions beyond it. No upscale shorefront condos over the next rise; instead threats of death on every side.

Starvation and thirst stalk them relentlessly,  as do hunters with battered cowboy hats, well-oiled rifles, and utter contempt for any government beyond (maybe) a distant county sheriff. Most of the land is federally-owned, and land management agents were scattered across the region, but they kept a low profile, and were not from the National Park Service.

Recalling  the expedition into these other horses’ domain,  the phrase that comes to mind  is from the gospel, of John, The Wind Bloweth Where It Will.   Let me explain why. Continue reading The Island Ponies & The Real Mustangs

That N-Word. I’m Going to Say It. Right Now. It’s time.

Negro.

There. I said it.

You were expecting that other N-word? The unspeakable?

Nope. But it’s timely to take note of this one.

Over time, words change meaning & status. Ninety-one years ago, on March 7, 1930, Negro became a thing. Or rather, a proper noun.

Such changes are often mysterious.  Supreme Court rulings don’t make them. Congress doesn’t pass on them. They don’t come down from Sinai on stone tablets.

Though in the case of Negro, almost.

How do I know Negro arrived today in 1930? Easy:
The New York Times told me so.

There was a lot going on in 1930. The “Great” Depression had thrown millions out of work. Its impact fed labor unrest and political radicalism, some violent. Herbert Hoover was under siege in the White House. In India, the British Empire was too.

In the U. S. that year, there was a sudden increase in lynchings, which had previously been in decline: 21 were recorded, and 20  of the victims were black.  Late that year 26 southern white women created the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, which they kept segregated because, “only white women could persuade other white women” to join them . . . .”

Withal, the Times nevertheless took a moment to update its style book.

The notice is right there, in the March 7 issue, on page 20. In the fifth column of a six-column layout, halfway down. Not exactly a ticker tape parade with elaborate floats and ranks of blaring trumpets. But official enough.

The notice continues: “certain popular and social traditions have resisted this tendency. Races have their capitalized distinction, as have nationalities, sects and cults, tribes and clans. It therefore seems reasonable that a people who had once a proud designation, such as Ethiopians, reaching back into the dawn of history, having come up out of the slavery to which men of English speech subjected them, should now have such recognition as the lifting of the name from the lower case into the upper can give them. Major

Of course, there’s a back story here.

Pauli Murray, who is just now gaining some long overdue recognition for her amazing career and life, was then a militant advocate of the change. She wrote later:

I was born during the era when “Colored” was the prevalent usage, along with the ignominious lowercase “negro,” which I passionately hated because the absence of capitalization conveyed the status of a thing and not a person.

During my  college days in the early 1930s I routinely went through my textbooks, using a fountain pen to change the small n to capital N wherever I  encountered the  term “negro.”

Pauli Murray (1910-1985), from a public mural in her hometown of Durham NC.

My generation of activists was part of a long struggle  to  elevate the designation to its  capitalized  form, so that “Negro” became a mark  of dignity  and  respect.

The Times didn’t notice or heed Murray, who in 1930, was an unknown, impoverished, but brilliant student at Hunter College. But the paper did notice the man who was regarded (by elite whites) as the official spokesman of “his people”. That was Major:

All this is very high-minded; but I suspect there is more to the back story. Consider:

In those days, black voters were few, especially in the South, but in a national election they were not irrelevant. In 1928, Moton had supported Republican Herbert Hoover for president; most black voters, remembering Lincoln and emancipation, were Republicans.

Hoover had promised to include more blacks in his administration, and in particular to bring aid to black flood refugees trapped in a levee camp after disastrous 1927 floods in Mississippi. But once elected, Hoover double-crossed Moton and the refugees.

Moton got even, though. In 1932 he switched parties and backed Franklin Roosevelt, who beat Hoover decisively. Moton’s biographer asserts his switch marked the beginning of a move by back voters en masse into the Democratic camp, where they remain pillars today.

The Times had long backed Democratic presidential candidates. Was their openness to Moton’s request part of the courtship that drew him away from the old GOP allegiance?

In any event the Times was ready  to do what Moton recommended:

Pauli Murray was among those who was gratified:

“That struggle was finally won when textbook writers and newspapers adopted uppercase “Negro” in the late 1930s, and official government publications followed suit in the middle and late 1940s.”

“Negro”with a capital N had a pretty good run, about thirty years. Another “Negro leader” who considered it an advance was Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who proudly used it until his death in 1968.

Not only that, even many white southern politicians, including the notorious George Wallace of Alabama, learned (with obvious effort) to pronounce “Knee-grow” clearly enough to make linguistic space between it and the cognate slurs they had been repeating for decades.

But as we said at the beginning, language and usages change, and not by any orderly or fair, process. By the time Dr. King was buried, “Negro” was under pressure, not from segregationists, but from a new generation of militants for whom it was a term for fuddy-duddies and an over-the-hill black establishment.

One of the many targets of this younger impatient militance was a now older militant, who had overcome many obstacles to make it through law school, and then do outstanding work on the historic 1954 Brown school desegregation case, and raised pioneering hell on many other issues (too many to do justice to here), who was now teaching civil rights courses at Brandeis University, Pauli Murray:

Symbolic of the heightened racial consciousness that invaded the class­ room was an exchange with one of the . . . students which threatened to disrupt my class on my first day of teaching. I was outlining the content of the course when a young man interrupted me with the question, “Why do you keep saying ‘Knee-grows’ when you’re talking about black peo­ple?”

The young man’s querulous inquiry caught me off guard. I was having my usual first-day jitters, meeting a strange class in a new setting, and in a combative manner embarrassed me. I explained that “Negro” was a legitimate usage, a proper noun adopted by scholars and official government publications, and was preferred by many people, including me.

The young militant was unmoved. Pauli Murray stuck to her convictions, but she was clearly on the losing side of that usage struggle. She died in 1985, content, it’s reported, but not for that reason. And she was preserved thereby from reading releases like this one, from January 2008:

UNCF Adopts New Brand Identity, Without the Word ‘Negro’

In its new logo unveiled Thursday, the United Negro College Fund has dropped its full name, opting to go as UNCF as part of a branding strategy that conveys the organization as a contemporary and progressive advocate of Blacks in higher education while also maintaining its heritage.

During the four-year effort to update its logo, UNCF officials heard suggestions that it change its name, Dr. Michael Lomax, UNCF president and CEO, said during a press conference at Spelman College to announce the new brand identity.

“One of the issues in the full name, African-Americans don’t view themselves as Negros,” Lomax said, recounting a conversation in which editors and writers at VIBE magazine told him the name is not “speaking to the hip-hop generation.”

“For most young people, it is a barrier,” Lomax said. “We’ve found the happy medium.”

About the only consolation Pauli Murray and the other champions of “Negro with a Capital N” can take is that history shows that the wheel of language usage keeps on turning, so who knows if or when it might be back.

Oh, and by the way, it’s good thing the Times acknowledged it was late to the “Negro” party, even in 1930.

The issue shows elsewhere that the paper was hardly a pioneer. Indeed, the Times didn’t hire a Negro/Black/African American reporter until 1966. His name was Thomas Johnson.

Do You Speak legislativ-ese? Me Neither.

Waiting for Spring in Washington, 2021.

Quote of the Weekend: Here’s the part of the COVID Relief Bill we’ve all been waiting for (in case you nodded off listening to it being read aloud in the Senate):

“subsection (a)(1) of such section 314 shall be applied by substituting ‘91 percent’ for ‘89 percent’” and “without regard to requirements in sections 658E(c)(3)(E) or 658G of such Act (42 U.S.C. 9858c(c)(3), 9858e).”


Those are actual excerpts from the Covid relief bill.

Ok, I’m kidding. Continue reading Do You Speak legislativ-ese? Me Neither.