Thursday, December 10, 2020

Musical Cast(e)

A review of Rae Linda Brown, The Heart of a Woman: the life and music of Florence B. Price (Guthrie Ramsey Jr, ed.) Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2020. (NB: the author died in 2017; the editor updated some of the information for publication).

book cover, portrait of a lighter-skinned Black woman

Music, the universal language! Yet how often is it clouded by assumptions, such as being divided into two worlds, one the product of grumpy old white Europeans, and the other dominated by young flash-in-the-pans who often trade pyrotechnics for talent? But like many others, this is a false dichotomy, and this book is an excellent example.

While listening to “Performance Today” one morning, I heard something unfamiliar but interesting--folksong settings by Florence Price. They reminded me of Beethoven’s similar settings, along with Bach’s appropriation of popular tunes in his works. Further commentary and a little research gave more information, and when I learned about this biography, it was a must-read.

Price, born in 1887, died in 1953. Her life spanned the rise of legal discrimination, some of the first tentative steps to end that system, and challenged a dual glass ceiling in music—women and color in the formal settings of orchestral music. And she reached into the realm of popular music with taste and style.

There are many parallels here to events found in Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: the origins of our discontents. For example, Brown refers to an early Jim Crow law, the Tillman Separate Coach Act of 1891 as “caste legislation” passed not out of sudden aversion, but in rejection of the social and political advances of middle-class blacks (29). It was an event that influenced Price's life.

For a young musician such as Price, discrimination was particularly acute, as most whites thought of themselves as cultured, while Blacks were presumed to lack culture and refinement—as well as the ability to gain it. But all the same, and partially motivated by such Jim Crow laws, Price moved from Arkansas to attend the New England Conservatory of Music in 1903. In her course of studies over three years, she did well. But she still faced racial discrimination, especially in obtaining housing.

At graduation, she returned to Little Rock. At that time, she faced continuing efforts to disenfranchise Blacks, as well as unequal pay. So she took a teaching position at Clark University, Atlanta. After a short time, she returned to Little Rock and married a lawyer, Thomas Price, who was active in legal challenges to discriminatory provisions. She also followed a typical path: she soon left full-time teaching to raise the couple’s children, but did continue private lessons, which gave the opportunity to compose exercises for her students.

In another Caste parallel, increasing racism through the 1920s, turning into outright terrorism from groups such as the KKK, prompted another departure. The family moved to Chicago in 1927. Chicago was seen as a promised land to many, especially musicians, being the center of jazz and the developing gospel movement. Here, Price continued to write songs, and also took up a pen name, “Vejay,” under which she wrote musicals and commercial jingles. But all was not well. Reflecting the experiences of many in the Depression, in 1931 she divorced her husband on grounds of abuse, and then remarried in six weeks. 

But there was breakthrough: in 1932, she completed her first symphony and won the Wanamaker Foundation prize in that category, along with another for her piano sonata. Part of the prize was that the symphony was played at the 1933 World's Fair by the Chicago Symphony under Frederick Stock.

By 1934, she was separated. In 1935 she travelled to Little Rock to play a benefit concert at Dunbar High School. In another parallel illustrating the events of Caste, the school’s previous building had been condemned. The school board authorized a new building but provided no funding. The Rosenwald Fund agreed to pay for a building on the condition that it would be used for vocational training only—leading to menial jobs, trapping its graduates in the caste system. The new building opened in 1930, by which time the curriculum included the liberal arts. In comparison, the (Central) Little Rock High School, built in 1927, had much larger facilities but was restricted to whites only.

After this, Price faded on the scene, apparently due to health problems. In the middle of planning a trip to Europe that would include promoting her music she died in Chicago on June 3, 1953. Much of her music was never published, and generally thought to be lost. But a 2009 discovery at at house in downstate St. Anne turned up more compositions, and some have also been found in Arkansas.

Price appears to have been a woman of her times, but one who also sought to reach beyond social limitations. Brown notes that she lacked the assurance and aggression which are often associated with men, characteristics that are viewed as necessary in professions to get ahead (often expressed as a man is confident, a woman is bossy). As well, race compounded that. Although she did well in Chicago, where the Chicago Defender referred to her as the dean of composers, exposure to other areas did not happen in her lifetime.

While that wider exposure did not happen during her lifetime, to some extent, the ready availability of recordings has begun to change that. And, as I was writing this, came news that the Philadelphia Orchestra has scheduled all of her symphonies for performance over the next seasons. These will be a welcome change for anyone interested in expanding their musical horizons.

Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library on the condition that I would return it within three weeks. I kept that promise. I also have an undergraduate minor in music, funded by a scholarship to Indiana University back in the days when the state recognized and encouraged learning to think.



Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Doorkins, The Book

Lisa Gutwein with Rowan Ambrose, illustrator, Doorkins the Cathedral Cat (London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2017) ISBN 978-1785923579 

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the memorial service for the resident cat of Southwark Cathedral, Doorkins Magnificat.

So having seen the movie, what does one do next? Read the book, of course. Our library had it in the Children’s Room, but they let me borrow and read it anyway.

Illustration style of a cat in front of a cathedral

It’s a short book, all of 40 pages. About half of it covers a week in the life of Doorkins—children visiting, posing in selfies, escorting a bride down the aisle, the inevitable meetings, the Queen stopping by, meeting with parishioners, and of course, getting hair on the bishop’s vestments. It’s all told with a fine dose of whimsy and wonderfully illustrated.

The other part of the book is a series of photographs of Doorkins at work around the cathedral. It's a charming series that reminds us of the value of rest. And that brings to my own thoughts, reinforced by Blaze snoozing on my lap, that it's time for a nap. But before I go, a reminder of the saying I quoted before: “she entered and we made her welcome. People concluded that if this little cat is welcome, maybe I am too.”

On this Thanksgiving week here in the States, one that began with Christ the King and the lesson of being kind and helpful to others from Matthew 25, let’s remember that, say deo gratias, and make everyone welcome.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

A caste for casts

 A review and reflections on my field: Caste: the origins of our discontents, Isabel Wilkerson. New York: Random House, 2020.

It often happens, that those who live at a later time are unable to grasp the point which the great undertakings or actions of this world had their origin…. all things… are at their beginnings so small and faint in outline that one cannot easily convince oneself that from them will grow matters of great moment. -- Matteo Ricci, Historia in Jonathan D. Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (New York: Penguin, 1985), 267. 

Caste opens with a story that illustrates Ricci’s statement: a 2016 heat wave in Siberia that melted the permafrost and unleashed toxic anthrax in a community. The spores had never died, but laid dormant, awaiting circumstances that would bring them to flourish. Wilkerson likens this to a building with a small defect in a beam that, over the years, imperceptibly weakens the entire structure. In all of these cases, an unnoticed and unintended flaw springs up to cause problems of “great moment.”

That small defect in the beam is caste, a human hierarchy that leaves in its wake social rigidity, power structures, stigma, and dehumanization. Caste facilitates but is not the same as racism, and is also a more inclusive explanation of the phenomena of exclusion, one that reaches beyond race. Often justified through religion and culture, caste becomes an underlying and often unconscious structure in our lives. In this book, Wilkerson examines three caste systems: India, Nazi Germany, and race in the United States.

Race, as I often explored in teaching, is a recent social construct (hey, so is disability—which we’ll come back to). It has no basis in biology, and originated from the transatlantic slave trade. The social construct of racism refers to dislike or disadvantaging a person or group because of the ascribed race. Caste is similar, but creates a hierarchical system of enforcement, one that tends to be impersonal and does not require personal dislike. Caste becomes a routine pattern, with unthinking expectations based on a perception of natural order.

The Indian system is well-known and oldest. The American system developed from the arrival of the first Africans in 1619. With a racial basis, it resulted in laws that defined and enforced distinctions, such as who could be enslaved for life and who could not, who could be Christian or not, or even who was regarded as having a soul or not. In this way, American slavery, which lasted until 1865, was not the same as that of the ancient world. In turn, the justifications behind this led to eugenics, which emerged full-blown in Nazi Germany, with distinctions and definitions derived from American standards.

The eight pillars of caste begin with divine will or order, which leads to inherited status. From this there is a need to control marriage, which guarantees purity within the dominant group. This is enforced through absolute standards, occupational hierarchy, dehumanization, and the use of terror, fear, and psychological degradation to reinforce status. A recent article about a discrimination lawsuit provides a perfect illustration of all of these.

The caste system creates and requires inequality. In turn, that generates dissent, rivalry, distrust and lack of empathy.  An excellent example is the story of Cotton Mather’s slave Onesimus, who in a 1721 epidemic shared an African vaccination against smallpox. Many would not use it, as they assumed nothing from an African slave would work, but it was, after many deaths, proven useful. Sometimes the results are violent, such as the 1921 Tulsa riots where a successful Black area was wiped out (this is one of several incidents graphically described in the book that illustrate the atrocities of the American racial legacy).

There are also sociological implications. Descriptive terms are applied, such as black and white, which are not at all true. I am pink and my neighbor is brown. But gradations are forgotten in caste systems, which pull people apart into categories, label and then reinforce the status consequences of those categories.

cover of Caste

After reading the book, I looked at some reviews. It wasn’t a shock to find a group who thought that it  is nonsense. It was no surprise to find that those reviewers seem to have a place of privilege in the system—and that they don’t seem to have thoroughly read the book. If they had, the story of Albert Einstein fleeing Germany, and his subsequent championing of Marian Anderson, the singer who could not stay in segregated hotels, might have hit home. Einstein stated that as a Jew, he could understand and empathize with how black people feel as the victims of discrimination. Einstein went on to take an active part in NAACP efforts to end lynching and promote civil rights. If you were unaware of that part of Einstein’s life, it’s a good illustration of the need for a full history.

I cannot claim to fully understand what Black people go through, any more than temporarily able-bodied people can claim to fully understand living with a disability. But like Einstein, I do share with other people who live with disabilities an understanding of how discrimination works and how it wastes human potential. We can all empathize and work with others to end that waste. In that regard, this book is not the final word on that needed full history, but it does provide a solid base for further work. 

In my own field, people with disabilities have long felt the described sanctions of caste. Divine authority is shown in claims of a condition being the results of someone’s sin or lack of faith. This leads to calls for submission to healers. There is also control of daily activities, whether from lack of accommodation or inability to pay the high price of suitable transportation. And the phrase “marriage equality” also rings with overtones of control as meager benefits are cut or genetic purity is pursued.

Thinking about those sanctions, Wilkerson brings up two points. First is that we are not personally responsible for what people who look like us did centuries ago—but we are responsible for what good or ill we do to people with us today. Theologically, we are all responsible for treating others as we would like others to treat us. Second, we don’t get to tell a person with a broken leg or a bullet wound that they are or are not in pain. We should listen to the cry of those who are suffering.  

Disabled people are also well aware of those who tell us what we need.  These would be the people who organize telethons portraying us as people to be pitied, adorn us with childish terms such as “special needs,” advocate against insurance coverage reform, call us an “inspiration” and urge “overcoming,” and otherwise put us in a system requiring that we are docile and submit to the system and don’t come up with ideas like “nothing about us without us.” Disabled people are also familiar with stratification structures that leave us behind. This book shows an important need not only in race, but for disabilities, and especially for those caught in the intersection of both.

 Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library, with a promise to return it within three weeks. That promise has been kept. 

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Doorkins Magnificat: Maybe I am welcome too

From time to time, I have been known to ask "where are the disaster theologians?" This question refers to the assorted preachers and politicians who are quick to interpret hurricanes or similar events as expressing divine judgment on America, usually for betrayal of their favorite non-biblically-based cause. The ability to find significance in such events is all the more curious for their way of overlooking other events, especially of the sort taken as signs and wonders in the books of the prophets.

Therefore, it is suitable that I acknowledge a convergence, and make some theological hay of it. October 29 is National Cat Day, and follows closely National Black Cat Day on 27 October. Hallowe'en with its inclusion of cats is only a couple of days away.

And linked to those is the cycle of creation. Archbishop James Ussher of Ireland is best-known for his chronology, worked out between 1650 and 1654, that set the first day of creation as the evening of 22 October 4004 BC. Although problematic in many respects, it is worth noting that his notion places us on this day in the midst of the arrival of animals and humans seeking companionship. So all of the signs and dates are upon us, even if slightly manufactured.

A cat sits in the aisle of a Gothic cathedral

Doorkins Magnificat, a resident of Southwark Cathedral in London, crossed the Rainbow Bridge on 30 September. Yesterday, she was remembered in a memorial service that celebrated creation, divine love, and, of course, cats and what their lives tell us about life; you can view the service here. I also invite you to read this story of her life and keep this line in mind: “She arrived, she entered and we made her welcome. People concluded that if this little cat is welcome, maybe I am too.” 

Well done, good and faithful follower. Rest in purrfect peace.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

"About Us"

About Us: Essays from the Disability Series of the New York Times, Peter Catapano and Rosemarie Garland-Thompson, editors. New York: Liveright Publishing, 2019. 

This book is diverse—as it ought to be, for disabilities are diverse—covering at least physical, neurological, intellectual, auditory, visual, congenital, acquired, and, to borrow a phrase from the (proper) translation of the ancient creed, “seen and unseen.” It collects 60 essays from a New York Times series of personal stories describing various aspects of living with a disability. 

The collection begins with a foreword that discusses eugenics, the pseudoscience that began with Francis Galton, and which, after some preliminaries in the United States, led to Hitler’s atrocities. While eugenics has generally been disavowed around the world, pockets still remain, and more dangerously, an unseen residue still infects many policies and attitudes (including in the United States, where a Supreme Court ruling favoring it still stands). 

Thus a valid claim that while disabled people lead “rich lives,” frequent limitations on work and other activities (which are not always valid, but socially constructed) lead to devaluation. One reason this happens is that one’s experience of living with a disability is very different from outside perceptions—again, “seen and unseen.” This is the reasoning of the familiar saying “nothing about us, without us” which is recalled in the title.

book cover

The diversity of the book makes a summary difficult. But there are several points which resonate with me and conversation partners. The first is the language that is used about conditions. There is less talk today of disability being a curse, tragedy, misfortune, or individual failure, but there is a lack of agreement on what terms to use. Perhaps as a more open body of history becomes part of our culture, and a wider, more diverse community flourishes, we will gain a better sense of cultural place and how to share. 

Among the most stigmatized conditions noted in the book is mental illness. Much of what passes for discussion these days presents a monolith of danger. The truth is that both sanity and mental illness lie on a spectrum, and, most people spend some time at various points on that line. 

Everyone is only an accident away from becoming disabled, and this proximity makes disability scary to most people. But rather than compassionate care, the response is often ableism. Ableism leads to categorization that devalues people. This is especially prevalent in the medical model of dealing with differences, where we become patients needing treatment rather than human beings with differences. 

Thus ableism is an important factor in disability life, and has recently been receiving the attention it deserves. As with racism and sexism (among others), when disability is not considered in planning and design, ableism is at work. When it’s not considered, we end up with haphazard routes, difficult-to-find elevators, inaccessible planning, and other situations that are reminiscent of separate doors for blacks during the Jim Crow era. It’s all in a day’s life for those who live with the ultimate American irony—bootstrapping by refusing to give in to a body that one cannot control, and that medicine offers little help with. It also brings to mind the Nazi T4 program, which preyed on these factors. As my friend Kenny Fries, a scholar of the program states, it brings us to address the value of life, and reaches beyond abstract affirmations to the reality of ableism while ignoring social and design problems. .

This creates a world in which we must be resourceful and adaptable as we await and strive for a world of universal design. The example of OXO is noted here—the company began with hacks of kitchen tools to accommodate arthritis. Will that gain a chapter in history, or be overlooked yet again—or written off to some other origin?

The question of theology is always “where is God in this?” So while this is not a theology book as such, all of the above bears on theological concerns. And there are explicit theological questions and allusions. “People with disabilities are the unexpected made flesh” (53), just as the Gospels portray the irony of an unexpected messiah. There are also, as most of us would expect, references to faith healing and prayer for cures. A good question is raised in many of these accounts—who needs healing, the person with a disability or the attitudes of society? When one reads the healing stories in the Gospels carefully, it is not the disabled person’s faith, but that of the social group gathered around him that brings change. Neither is that change imposed. Bartimaeus was first asked what he wanted, and his answer was listened to – once again, “nothing about us without us.” Yes, there are also stories of messages from God delivered by those who are not involved. As I commented here, God is perfectly capable of sharing her plans with us, leaving us to wonder why it seems that this information is never shared with those who are most directly involved. Is that the ultimate ableism?

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Holy envy, Batman!

A review and some thoughts: Barbara Brown Taylor, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others (HarperOne, 2019)

Choose as many answers as you like: If you do that or go to __, you’ll lose your faith:

Science class

That concert

College, especially at a state university

A United Methodist church

Marry that woman


Graduate school

In roughly chronological order, I have heard all of these, and have probably forgotten just as many. Somehow, just like that phrase “yet she persisted,” prevails, πιστις also persists—and may her tribe, including cousin σοφια, increase! 

An education is supposed to, by origin and definition, challenge and bring new horizons (ēdūcō "I lead out/away”). And when that leading out happens in the field of religion, it can be earth-shaking. Religions often describe encounters with the divine as producing so much change that people take on new names and, in the case of Moses, a new face. The prophets of ancient Israel spoke of bringing new hearts, minds, and even a new earth as their contemporaries in India spoke of finding freedom from the burdens of acquisition. A once-obscure Jewish rabbi spoke of bringing new life. Periodic renewal movements call us back to those ideals, removing the accretions of centuries of institutionalization and its power plays.

Although I often also teach history and anthropology, there is a strong element of religion in those fields—as anyone can observe, it has historically been a source of conflict, but it has also inspired some of the world’s great art. This is one reason this book resonated with me. Student and teacher alike finish a course with life turned over. 

Taylor posits three rules for talking about religion, which she derives from Krister Stendahl: ask its adherents about the religion, not its enemies; don’t compare your group's best to their worst; and leave room for holy envy (65).  To this she adds a corollary, derived from Robert Farr Capon’s Hunting the Divine Fox: Images and Mystery in Christian Faith (Seabury, 1974): understand that humans are finite, and that trying to understand God is similar to an oyster in a tide pool trying to understand a prima ballerina dancing on the shore. At best, we see those puzzling reflections that St. Paul wrote about. But humans are not fond of admitting that there are limits to our abilities. Thus, as Taylor puts it, as brilliant as our tide pool theologies may be, the brilliance of the ballerina exceeds them all (77). 

cover of Holy Envy: finding God in the faith of others

There are many other memorable points in this book. One is that very little of our religious talk is actually religious—but then, most Christian teaching is based on the lives of people who were strangers to religion. With so many outsiders in the story, why is “the other” so fearful? Is it because the Bible is too familiar to us, and we no longer read, see, and hear what is on the page? Being a student means learning, continually, not only what is there, but what is not known, especially when it’s about something we’ve been told or want it to say. Scripture has its own voice--sometimes more terrible than wonderful--but it has never failed to reward close attention (as I mention in a previous post). 

Technical and vocational education is absolutely necessary, but they do not lead us to understanding our past and its treasures, which in turn teach us how to lead a responsible and respectful social life. The study of religion (and other liberal arts) opens us to a wider world. We don’t need to fear that learning Spanish will cause us to lose our ability with English, she writes (210). Having taught some classical languages at times, I have found that this is true—understanding another language and the culture that goes with it will deepen your own language. You won't lose your faith, you'll gain a new aspect. You may lose the old box you kept God in, but will gain a new, more complete perspective. 

In the end, we need to ask, what is teaching about?--and one the other side, what is learning about? Teaching is dangerous, which is why authoritarians and dictators have, throughout history, sought to control it. Learning is the art of becoming unsettled and pursuing the truth of the divine enigma to awaken to new possibilities.

Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library, and promised to return it within three weeks. I fulfilled that promise. The check-out receipt also informed me that I've saved more than $250 this year by using the library, after deducting my share of taxes. This is a far better, and more informative statement that the nonsense that Kroger puts on our receipts about how much we've saved by shopping there--for one thing, compared to what? As with too many things in life, we spend a lot of time listening to meaningless numbers and too little thinking about what matters. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Searching for the scriptures

 Review and reflection: Karen Armstrong, The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019) 

The Bible is generally regarded as the most influential book in the world, and is consistently among the best-sellers. Whether that is for good or ill is less certain—it may sell well, but it doesn’t seem that all of the buyers read it, as this meme reminds us. And when it is read, disputes about how to understand it are nothing new, as church history tells us. Many forget the principle of starting from the larger view and moving on to the details, and get lost in the proverbial forest because of the trees. 

Armstrong takes a larger view in this book, first by including the other scriptures of the world, and linking them to historical developments. This method of surveying of Hebrew, Christian, Greek mythology and philosophy, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and Chinese writings produces fascinating insights and parallels. This approach views sacred texts not primarily as instruction manuals, but as prods to seek that which is behind our great questions. In this, she would seem to agree with the classic view that divine matters come to us as an enigma, understanding comes from seeking truth, imbued with a sense of wonder (Plutarch, De E Apud Delphos 384, 385). 

book cover -  Karen Armstrong
This quest to pursue an enigma engages both sides of our mind. Failure to understand this, along with the role of each of the two sides, leads to an imbalance that is literally killing us. It is multiplied when listening to those who cherry-pick completely non-representative passages from scriptures and use them to characterize their prejudices in a way that leads to increasing strife and misunderstanding. 

Regaining the balance of the two sides gets a lot of attention here, and to me, it’s the best part of the book. Neurology tells us that the truth behind Plato’s cave parable (Republic 514a-520a) is reasonably accurate: we don’t have direct contact with the world. What we do have are perspectives gained from our senses, which are only representations of reality. Our mind’s left side senses linear, scientific ideas, while the right side deals with relationships and a desire for justice, as well as unity. The right is also more attuned to “other” and “Other.” Armstrong maintains that the right side is where prophets, speaking poetically, expressed their scriptural insights, and that the prophets have been among the few to integrate that with the practical left side. However, in today’s world, a scientific mindset has upended the balance, and seeks to define (i.e., set limits to) the infinite, thereby containing it. 

Scripture, in all faiths, is a product of civilization, which is also a science (a body of knowledge which requires specialized skills and training), but it is also an art. As a sacred text, often divinely revealed, it is authoritative. But it is also something that lives in the right hemisphere of the brain, the land of music and poetry. It does not “mean” anything as such, but is meaning itself (just as, some theologians state, God is being itself)—and as Armstrong writes, like all religious language, it “must eventually segue into the silence that is an expression of awe, wonder and unknowing” (68). 

The origins of scriptures are not in writing, but in performance—singing, reading, acting, and liturgy, and thus it requires interpretation, the same as a musical score. It is not intended to confirm a stance, but to challenge and call for transformation. A note on writing: as Armstrong notes, while known in the ancient world, writing was unwieldy and used as a memory tool or for records. It was not intended for daily use or, and it was understood that one who studied the stories knew them by memory (Plato, Phaedrus 274c-275b). We can also note that this approach, evidenced by quoting the first lines of a passage, is found in the Gospels and Epistles. 

However, since the Enlightenment, especially in the West, everything, including scripture, is increasingly read with a scientific approach instead of a spirit of wonder and enigma. Its byproduct, the Reformation, celebrated the written word and sought clarity and definition.  Armstrong doesn’t note the irony of the “law of unintended consequences” here—the Reformation spawned not only this attitude, which has befuddled the meaning of scripture, but also set off demands for personal and political freedom which came to haunt religion and the governments that established churches supported. 

Armstrong concentrates on a shift from scripture as a prod to radical change to using it as proof-texts for what becomes an increasingly smaller view of the world. One of the casualties of this search is the insistence of Augustine (among others) that scripture taught only love of neighbor. She notes that the Chinese philosopher Fang Yizhi (1611–71) wrote that this misleading, mechanistic approach created a West that is “detailed in material investigation … [but] deficient in comprehending seminal forces” of the ineffable (390, Fang Yizhen, Wu li xiao, 1.25a, 1.6, 12a). As the doctrinally-centered approaches which this pursuit results in increase, there is a loss of transcendence, which leads to self-serving justifications that are cruel, divisive, and complacent. In this regard, Darby is little different from Qutb or many others today: scripture is read to confirm one’s views rather than to seek transformation. If more people read the scriptures with a seeking attitude, there would be a lot less disability exclusion and a lot more acceptance in a shared, inclusive journey. Scripture is incomplete when, as the United Church of Christ suggests, we place a period where God places a comma. 



Thursday, August 6, 2020

A theology of diversity

A review and reflections on Theodore Hiebert, The Beginning of Difference: Discovering Identity in God's Diverse World (Abingdon Press, 2019).

In the wake of the 30th anniversary of the ADA, as well as recent movements for racial justice, we have heard a lot about acceptance, accommodation, and diversity. Engagement of these ideas is more than toleration, and a crucial presumption of disability as well as racial equity. It’s also more than being an ally; it requires inclusion at an equal level for all. It also requires accommodation of difference without discriminating against some ability or trait that reflects a culture, whether ethnic, linguistic, or of a subgroup. And it requires understanding how these factors form identity for individuals and groups.

Often, such acceptance and understanding fails due to being unaware. How often has someone mentioned an access problem and the reply is “I never thought about that”? Although this is not the only cause, many times, generating awareness is a major step toward resolution. Thus, a critical factor is the response to difference when one becomes aware of it: is there acceptance, or is there an effort to impose one’s own norms on another? Does one honor differences, giving others dignity, or deny them, thereby seeking to eradicate, or worse, act as if they do not even exist? 

These are the questions which Hiebert raises in a study of Genesis and Acts. He begins by sharing his own growth in awareness of difference, and then considering how storylines in both books parallel actions of recognizing difference, seeking to understand the difference, and fostering respect for those who are different. The book is, as the title states, an exploration of the growth of identity through cultural factors in Genesis, and then how this growth is repeated in Acts. This, in turn, leads to reflections on how this understanding affects other factors--in our case, principally disabilities.
Cover of book: black with white title and author, and a small color wheel

Beginning with the Babel story, Hiebert follows through with Noah and his descendants, focusing on Abraham’s line. As a story of origins, Genesis is important for this quest, because exclusivist readings and questionable translations have led to misleading interpretations. Although his result is a radically different understanding, it is also a conservative one, for it “seeks to go back and recover the original views and values of biblical text” and to listen to what the writers of Genesis said, and then extend those understandings to today’s world (xxix-xxx).

Hiebert contends that Babel should be read as a story about reconstructing the world after the Flood. The Flood is an interruption of the story of humanity and a new beginning, but the first efforts of humans in this effort are not much different than the first. In response, God creates difference—but not as a punishment. This is often obscured by faulty translations and lexicography: the root problem faced by God is to confound empire building by royal figures who would impose their culture on others. God’s action is to “mix,” as one would ingredients for a cake, rather than “confuse” (20).  

Genesis then proceeds to tell the origin of the world’s family tree in a series of narratives about interaction of different cultures, by which the writer seeks to instruct us in how maintain an identity while also engaging others. Thus Abraham’s family teaches us how to respond to differences. The same plot repeats: conflict arises, rivalry drives a reaction, followed by a response of harm, then a path to survival. Yet while Cain and Abel told us about a failure to engage, we now see responses that bring about separate, diverse cultures. To the attentive reader, these stories also offer a critique of the rigidity of patriarchal structures and tell us of the conflict and consequences of this system, coupled with how an imaginative response of generosity leads to a realistic path forward.

Hiebert then turns to the Pentecost story, where he finds a parallel to Genesis: the first Christians, rooted in Judaism, move from a single culture, language, and place to reaches out for diversity as they go “to the ends of the earth.” But not only do those followers take this message, they adapt it to the receiving cultures. The linguistic diversity of Pentecost illustrates this adaptation as it validates the distinctive identity of other cultures. Then in Acts 10, after some prodding, Peter realizes a call to reach out to other cultures. This outreach offers a charter for the church, a charter which Hiebert calls on us to follow through by celebrating and living with difference. 

An outreach to cultures in general would certainly an outreach to people with disabilities. We can recall that “mixture” is a call for genuine inclusion. In disability and other ministries, this can be summed up in the phrase “ministry with.” This would gather people as partners and equals who would teach everyone with their own gifts. People with disabilities are not simply an unreached group to be objectified (as in the phrase “ministry to”). This approach is true for all: honor the culture, use that honor to respect and learn about God’s gift of diversity, and join as included partners.

Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library, and promised to return it in three weeks. The promise was fulfilled.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Why isn't this in history books?

Recently, I’ve seen a lot of memes detailing an obscure incident involving minorities, followed by something along the lines of “why isn’t this in the history books?” I’m not surprised. There isa problem here, but we also need to note the popularity of the line “don’t know much about history” and realize that we have both a book-content problem and a paying-attention-in-class problem.

For a starting point, let’s start with a quote that doesn’t often make history books—maybe because it’s in a theology book:
The actual history of every country is full of shabby and even shameful doings.  The heroic stories, if taken to be typical, give a false impression of it and are often themselves open to serious historical criticism. Hence a patriotism based on our glorious past is fair game for the debunker…. The image becomes dangerous in the precise degree to which it is mistaken, or substituted, for serious and systematic historical study (C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, HarperOne, Kindle edition, 32).
Textbooks are not “serious and systematic” historical study. They are a product designed to certain specifications, and those specifications often have more to do with general outlines than understanding how the field works. James Loewen’s writings about racial history and teaching provide a good source to understand this. Read his book Lies My Teacher Told Me and visit his website and pay attention. Loewen has also recently done an interview with Katie Couric that provides a good summary.

Reading a textbook tells you what someone else thinks is important. A frequent complaint is that books leave out important things. Indeed, they do. But there simply aren’t enough books, writers, or reading time to cover everything. The historian Barbara Tuchman commented of The Proud Tower that she could have written the book three times without repeating anything. This is simply something one has to be aware of--few of us have time to read everything!

Human nature is also a factor. Reinhold Niebuhr, for one (and most forcefully), argues that pride springing from the ability of self-transcendence is humanity’s original sin, and is what lies behind the story of the Fall in Genesis (The Nature and Destiny of Man, Scribner's, 1943). Pride works all kinds of mischief, and looks for hooks to hang its tenets on. After reading Loewen, you may come to understand better how this links to an often-repeated statement by Jim Wallis that racism is America’s original sin.

Aside from pride, we must also consider that history is not simply some set of facts that one pours into their head. In Practicing History, Barbara Tuchman gives an excellent look at how historical writing is done (and how it ought to be done), and concludes with:
If history were a science, we should be able to get a grip on her, learn her ways, establish her patterns, know what will happen tomorrow. Why is it that we cannot? The answer lies in what I call the Unknown Variable—namely, man…. History is the record of human behavior, the most fascinating subject of all, but illogical…
(Barbara Tuchman, Practicing History, New York: Ballantine, 1982, 147-148).
History is much more about understanding what sort of mistakes people make (along with, perhaps, the occasional good decision), reading and evaluating sources, and grappling with human nature so one can put together an understanding of what has happened across a span of time. If you have a favorite era, such as the Civil War, it’s fine to read within those bounds, but expanding your horizons will give greater insight. In this respect, Tuchman’s The March of Folly is an example of how an idea seems to keep recurring throughout history

As you consider these points, also keep in mind that any story has at least two sides. Someone who is trying to mislead will often push a false dichotomy—the notion that there are only two choices. In history, two sides is usually the starting point for a good count. And we turn again to Tuchman, who proposed a principle in A Distant Mirror that is often known as Tuchman’s Law: “the fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five-to-tenfold,” implying that bad news captures our attention more than good news, and is more likely to persist in memory and reporting.

Related to this, I’ll ask if you have seen the memes prattling about how slavery wasn’t all that bad, that others have been enslaved, and so forth? As is often the case, one needs to define the terms at hand. “Slavery” is not the same everywhere and at all times. An understanding of how American chattel slavery, based on race, and its pseudo-intellectual underpinnings is important to the current context. This is where the list you may have expected comes in: 
  • The New York Times 1619 project
  • Winthrop Jordan, White Over Black (a review with notes here)
  • Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (just what it says)
  • Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (an anthropological approach to history, looking at neglected factors in historical developments)
  • Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (a grass-roots view--keep this in mind when someone tells you it's terrible)
  • Since there's usually something about religion in here, church history has often been bowdlerized in the same ways. That may require more work, but this one is a good start.
Finally, it’s important to understand the limitations of humans (Niebuhr again), of historical record (Tuchman again), and that all of this is simply the best reconstruction we can offer. Trying to put yourself into a position of someone you read about is a good exercise, but before you do, look at these and remember that we’re not perfect:
and be better informed!

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Riding the ADA bus at 30

A series of recent discussions on the 30 anniversary of the ADA has led me to review and re-review a piece which I wrote for a now-defunct publication in 2013: Rachel Simon, Riding the Bus with my Sister: A True Life Journey (Tenth Anniversary Edition) (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2013).

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
I'm diffrent! I'm diffrent!”

In her opening pages, author Rachel Simon quotes these words spoken by her sister Beth “as if she were hurling a challenge . . . beyond the limits of the sky.” A challenge, for that's what we alway face. But I also wonder, might they be something else?

Could they be words of rejoicing, a celebration of finding oneself despite a lack of role models?

Might they reflect years of frustration with a world that congratulates a few who conform to a popular, comforting model that praises us for overcoming the obstacles placed in our way?

Could they be about a world that does not seem to understand what is really going on, one that does not care to understand, but is always ready to pronounce judgment?

Beyond the limits of the sky-- recalling the Psalms that long for justice, and asking where God is now?

Or might they be all of these at the same time?

The book tells the story of an older sister visiting her younger sister with a developmental disability. Beth spends her days riding the buses in her town, and the as the story unfolds with its details, so does the story of a life changed. The details of change range from Rachel's decision to make time to visit, to the problems of lodging, to the events on the bus, talking with Beth there and elsewhere, as well as the drivers and others. We ride along as each visit (about once a month) tells a different aspect of the story. The story of each month also provides the base for a time of anamnesis, remembering and reliving the events that brought the two sisters to be so close and yet so far apart.

As the story begins, there is a deep sense of not knowing, despite wide-ranging searches. Rachel is at a point in life where she should be satisfied, but that is not the case. Exploring this feeling, the present becomes a reminder of days when, after a series of medical tests on Beth, a doctor delivers the diagnosis “she's retarded.” It seems dismissive, as if she will never attain personhood, but the family fights back: Mommy says, “People used to hide mentally retarded kids in back rooms. We will always have her as one of the family.”

That Beth will be part of the family has consequences, of course, and they reach beyond Beth's life. Rachel recalls seeing her sister in the hall at school, with the other members of her “special” class, and writes of how she feels like shouting a hello, so that “everyone who knows me will spin around the see her and understand that these two separate worlds aren't two separate worlds at all.”

Some of the language may be shocking; as the author explains, that is part of the story and a deliberate choice. The story of Riding the Bus with my Sister is not only that of learning to accept self and others, but the story of the forces and ideas in the 1960s and 1970s that brought together those often separate worlds. Early legislation, such as the Rehabilitation Act, and then the Americans with Disabilities Act have opened doors for people with disabilities. I also grew up in a world of “special needs” and segregation. Change did not come overnight, and there is still a way to go, and some who ought to know better are still in the way, but we now claim the same world.

Changing the world did not end with the ADA. Remembrances and reflections show that however well-intentioned it is, legislation does not change hearts. Recounting a practical problem that surfaced frequently while riding the bus, Rachel recounts a conversation with Beth:  

            “They don't always want us in here.”
            “Us?” I ask. “Who do you mean?”
            She frowns, and opens a bathroom door.
            “Anybody who's not them,” she [Beth] says.

Another time, in a restaurant, where people are watching the pair (joined by Beth's friend Jesse), she remarks that there is “so much separateness in this almost empty room that I can't breathe.” Is difference a cause for separation, or can it be a cause for understanding that we are all different, a new challenge to be celebrated? This is all the pertinent as “I can't breathe” has gained added importance as a statement of the need for equity in all of human life.

book cover, a tree with the title in the bough, and a bus on a street

Language carries with it a raft of baggage, and separation in space becomes separation that reinforces difference. Decried by some as “political correctness,” a shift from identification by diagnosis to person-first language signifies a change from object to subject. No longer called a “retard,” the “person with a developmental disability” becomes a living being. As a person first, Beth and others are no longer separated from the world, but become someone who joins in our struggles—in my field, the difference between ministry to and ministry with.

As Rachel's attitude begins to embrace this change in language, she recalls her own past again. There's the sadness of a mother whose life becomes clouded by depression. In a day when no one spoke of such things, she left the family for a time. It is a reminder that we often create our own monsters by trying to avoid reality, to hide it away, and not allow it to be part of the family.

It is a tale that makes one think of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein as, instead of a series of letters to a sister, we join in a series of trips with a sister. These trips unmask the reality and call us to learn about humanity. Like Frankenstein's creature, Rachel Simon finds the world to be an inhospitable place to anyone who seems to be different. As one driver comments of the sisters, “you're both shocked at the intolerance in the world.” To that, he adds, “maybe it's the price you pay to be more human.” That realization leads Rachel and Beth to conflict, but it also leads them to change.

The subtitle of Frankenstein is The Modern Prometheus, reflecting on the Greek Titan who shared fire, making humanity come alive. After reading Simon's book, I am again reminded of Teilhard de Chardin's words that “the day will come when, after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire." The transformation could not be more complete in this book.May it be so in our lives.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Singing a world

Walter Brueggemann, A Glad Obedience: Why and What We Sing. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019.

The Psalms are a perennial favorite—even among those who don’t read the Bible. However, one must admit that some are more of a favorite than others. Many struggle with the implications of the final lines of 137, for example. Of course, many more of the collection offer hope and comfort, which accounts for their popularity. And the collection doesn’t hide from reality, thus the humanity of all befits what most regard as a hymnal for the Temple in Jerusalem.

In one of his typical short but thought-filled topical books, Walter Brueggemann offers insights into the lasting value of the Psalter. He is not unlike a classical prophet, addressing the people of his day to offer comfort, strength, and prods to improvement. His approach deconstructs social attitudes from a perspective that stands outside of political boundaries. In this book, he writes that singing is a way of celebrating our humanness as a gift of God (xvi). Further, anthropologically, we are engaged in “world construction” when we sing hymns, because the world that we sing about is rooted in yet very different from the one that  regularly stands before us (1).

cover of book, a row of organ pipes

As I write this, two trends are prominent in the news. First, a pandemic has closed most of our churches to public worship, and thus removed singing together from many lives (although there are some well-done technological solutions). So it seems appropriate to think about what singing in worship means to us. Second, we are becoming forcefully aware, often in a disturbing manner, of many levels and forms of discrimination in modern society—as well as how their persistence is abetted by often-unrecognized social structures.

As I wrote this, I remembered classes I’ve taken and taught that deal with music in worship, studies that contain significant portions about African-American communities. There is a sense of these roots, whether singing Psalms, the unique slave songs, or modern expressions, of the promise of a very different world. We come to understand, through music, that among these ancient songs are also protest songs, and that in protest there is hope. (Anyone wishing to learn more about the role of music in the Black church and it social role should look into Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans). These factors are all a good indicator that, as Brueggemann writes, we sing because life is given by, sustained by, and claimed by God. We sing because we refuse to have our lives be any less—or more—than that (2).

Singing is an act of resistance—whether protest songs, laments, spirituals, prayers, or others. The Psalter, whose Hebrew title םילהת means “praises,” includes all of these forms. The Psalms are also a gift. And they are a reminder, as we sing or recite them, that the impulse to value everything according to its monetary value, to make all of life a commodity to be bought, sold, or traded, is not new, and constant vigilance is required to affirm life first (14).

With these thoughts, Brueggemann moves through selections of the Psalter, where he finds many, diverse voices. This diversity is also why the Psalms endure through time and cultures. The constant is the divine pledge of דסֶחֶ (hesed, steadfast love), and this is a pledge of solidarity and fidelity to Creation (177).

And this leads to disability, especially the implications for social and medical models. Lives of disabled people are often compromised by judging them according to various notions of economic value, such as the ability to produce inside a discriminatory system, or the costs of care. This kind of thinking reached a peak in Nazi Germany with the Aktion T-4 program of mass murder. Today, while no one openly advocates such actions, disabled people join with other groups as assistance programs are routinely threatened with less-than-subsistence funds, insufficient health care, and restricted access in the name of economics. Filicide of disabled children often receives little or no attention or punishment. Correcting accessibility violations requires private lawsuits, and nearly 30 years after a law requiring access was passed, still brings opposition. Rather than accept diversity, solutions are often equally unrealistic and demeaning: (involuntarily) submit to prayer for healing, or some medical approaches that treat people as if they were machines, requiring enduring “a series of technological fixes” (195). We don’t need labels like “special needs,” we need the same acceptance that others expect and whether realizing it or not, regard as their privilege.

Welcome to Psalms of Praise (front), Psalm 150 (back)
Cover and back pages of the program book for presentation at First UCC, Xenia.
Computer technology has advanced since then.

I would like to thank William Crowder for working with me on a project, The Psalms of Praise, which we presented at his then-pastoral charge, First United Christian Church of Xenia OH, which provided an unparalleled opportunity to first gather my thoughts and reflections on the Psalms.

I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library, promising in return to return it within three weeks. I have fulfilled that promise.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Traveling with an atlas

Mark V. Hoffman and Robert A. Mullins, Atlas of the Biblical World. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2019.

It was in second grade, I think, that everyone in my class received a state map. We didn’t do much with it, but it was a fold-up wonder that opened a new world. Looking at it, I saw where we lived, places nearby that we sometimes traveled to, and places further off that sounded fascinating. Thus began an interest that developed as I pursued historical studies—learning how geography has had an integral role in shaping events, and growing in understanding how others live.

As I moved into a major of religious history, it seems natural to say that Bible atlases were along for the journey. More so than for many other books, one is needed here—its events take place in a generally unfamiliar land, there are often varying accounts of an event, as well as different names than other sources use, and other problems that challenge a reader. Bible publishers have responded with maps bound in with the text, but they are often dated and require flipping pages, so a stand-alone version that can sit next to one is a useful resource. Mine received a lot of use; I suspect I’m not alone in wearing out copies of the Oxford Bible Atlas just in time to buy a new edition.

While the Oxford atlas remains a good choice, this recent offering from Fortress provides worthy competition. In general, each page has a section outlining the text references, books or chapters and background on one leaf. Opposite that is a map illustrating the geography and movements involved. There are five sections that flow chronologically: Beginnings, The People of Israel in Canaan, A People Divided, Invasion and Occupation, and Jesus and the Emergence of Christianity.

I mention this organization to remember one of my seminary professors who remarked of one paper that simply being aware that the book of Jeremiah is not in chronological order is useful. The Hebrew Bible is organized by themes – Torah, Prophets, and Writings. While the role and places of the prophets are often missing here (which I see as the book’s greatest lack), the whole does a good job of helping make the storyline of the Hebrew Bible clear.

The Christian scriptures start with five books that are only vaguely in chronological order (like the Hebrew records, a trait that often frustrates modern western readers), and often alludes to events that are obscure. It then pries into someone else’s mail, often conjoining the letters and obscuring the background of events. Here the layout and background are again useful.

Overall this approach is helpful as the authors relate the biblical stories to other historical events, thus removing some of the “bubble.” It’s easy to forget about the wider world, one that is only tangentially mentioned most of the time. Another helpful feature is reference to archaeological findings and what they tell us about the story. Archaeology doesn’t “prove” the Bible, but it does tell us a lot about the background of the stories, and thus help us understand it. The section “Invasion and Occupation,” dealing mostly with the inter-testamental period (when much of the Apocrypha were composed) is particularly good in helping to understand the political movements which led to the tensions, situations, and parties of the Gospels.

cover of atlas

In summary, then, this a very effective tool for understanding. It’s not the most comprehensive, but that isn’t the goal. It’s factual, which means that some of the popular legends aren’t included, but that’s fine with me. Mark Twain wrote in the conclusion of his rollicking book The Innocents Abroad that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” It also is fatal to fakery (something Twain remarks on a lot in that book!) and expands horizons and knowledge. You may well find me online, looking at Google maps (especially with the new accessibility features, but stretching our boundaries also includes a good book of this sort.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The Devil of Details

One of the most challenging aspects of teaching history comes when students are half-listening (if they're listening at all) until a phrase passes their ears that produces a knee-jerk reaction. "Socialism" is one of these words. 

Some perspective on this term comes from the ostensible topic here, a book by Kenneth Barnes, Redeeming Capitalism (Eerdmans, 2018). Barnes outlines the history of economic systems, surveys both good and bad effects and developments, and suggests some theologically-based corrections to the way things are today (most of these center on restraining rampant greed). 

Along the way, he notes: "Since the end of World War II, and the beginning of the Cold War, one word above all others has been anathema to US politicians, socialism. Among the many reasons for this, perhaps the two most obvious are a general confusion about what socialism actually is and a widely-held conviction that socialist experiments in Europe and elsewhere have not been successful. Confusion over what socialism actually is may be traced to deliberate and, some might say, cynical attempts by its opponents to convolute Democratic socialism with it totalitarian Marxism" (83).

Eugene Debs campaign poster for socialist party, 1912

With the costs of being disabled, economic systems are always in the mind of people with disabilities. Hearing someone opine that wheelchairs are only around $300 (reality check: my last one came to $21,000, and we had to pay about $4000) should prove that. But economics, and Barnes, are also about what we value. Jesus of Nazareth stated that trying to serve both God and wealth would lead to cognitive dissonance (Matthew 6.24). The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas argued that those who would raise the price of an item because of its advantage to the recipient commit a sin of deceit (Summa Theologiae 2b.77.1,4). The Archbishop of Canterbury, announcing that John Swinton's Dementia: Living in the Memories of God was awarded the 2016 Michael Ramsey Prize, stated that the failure to value people as something other than economic units was "one of the most profound failures of our society." 

A recently-concluded round of campaign commercials and reading this article from History News Network brought Barnes, my wheels, Aquinas, and Swinton together for me. 

It also reminded me of repeated efforts to get students to pay attention to that place where the devil lives--details. Or could we say, it's a reminder of the need for understanding history and practicing careful discernment (a.k.a. critical reading) of what we read. In this case, "socialist" has a variety of meanings and distinctions. It also originated in a particular historical setting, and, as is usual in everything from religion to politics, not all who claim the label or oppose it are using it accurately.

Being able to sort this out is one of the purposes of education (especially if you wish to distinguish "education" from "training," which I'll probably get into sometime). Before we proceed, I'll add that another purpose of education is learning to express what you've found in a clear manner. When I was in grad school, one day one of my advisors and I had a great conversation about students who responded "that's not what I meant" about their papers. It may be (and we can often figure that out) but it is what you told us!

I've seen a lot of memes lately that mention "socialism" but clearly don't have any idea what it's about.This is why I dislike the memes that are so prevalent on Facebook. Beyond their general inaccuracy and one-sidedness, they don't invite discussion, their purpose seems to be reinforcing one's pre-existing notions without thinking. But then, thinking is what killed Socrates.

Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library and promised to return it within three weeks. I fulfilled that promise. 

Friday, May 29, 2020

White Over Black

In the light of recent events, I've been looking at some of the materials from when I taught history, and the background to that from grad school classes. One important book was Winthrop Jordan's White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Penguin, 1969). And I've referred to it in several social media posts--so rather than keep repeating myself, I decided that it would be better to share my notes here. Please keep in mind that these are notes and forgive the grammar and short phrases.

Also from class, this poster is a little reminder: racism isn't new, it didn't end with the Civil War, and it wasn't confined to the southern states. A review like this can only scratch the surface--the book is well worth reading. So here we go.

The two platforms: every radical in Congress voted for Negro suffrage, Geary said in a speech there can be no possible objection to Negro suffrage

Ch 1, First Impressions: Initial English Confrontations with Africans shortly after 1550 English voyagers first reached West Africa, they found the natives different in appearance, religion, manner of living. Color was most obvious and immediate. Black and white had long been opposites with emotional and moral impact in England, thus the Africans were under an immediate disadvantage. There was also scientific curiosity, especially with discovery of other colors as in North America. Soon clear to most that it was not from sun or climate. Naturalistic explanations were challenged by Biblical readings; a few allowed God’s curse on Ham to be of color. Religious difference was easier to categorize–heathen. They were also viewed as “savage” or failing to meet English ideas of civilization; this led to much debate over whether this was inherent and alterable. Adding to this was discovery of chimpanzee (orang-outang) at same time, whose human resemblance arose further curiosity; linked to black men by perceived sexual wantonness (3-43).
Ch 2, Unthinking Decision: Enslavement of Negroes in America to 1700 there's no evidence that slavery was part of first English settlements in America or even intended, but it grew: the first blacks arrived in Virginia in 1619, 1640-60 evidence of enslavement, after 1660 evident in statute books. Not enough evidence to explain how and why this came to be. The New World placed pressures on traditional controls. Plentiful land, scarcity of labor, need for cash crops developed three systems: free wage labor, temporary servitude (most common in early settlements), and slavery. Common law was well behind social practice; although servitude was not practiced and liberty valued, its ground remained. Slavery had persisted through history in Iberian peninsula, Portugese explorers had captured Negroes for slaves, and some were sent to American settlements by 1550. Although English were prejudiced for liberty, American social and economic conditions called for some form of bound labor. New England had less demand for labor, but as early as 1638 there were slaves, but restricted to “strangers” or justified as punishment for crime and war captivity. In VA and MD, tobacco became a cash crop, requiring cheap labor. First stage, 1619 arrival of Negroes, after 1640 evidence that some were in slavery, and matter of law after 1660. By 1640 some are serving for life and posterity–others recorded as limited indenture; but all are considered suitable for field work while whites are not; enslavement and discrimination rise together in mutual cause and effect. 1664, English took over Dutch colonies, whether Negroes were slaves is not clear, but slavery flourished in New York. In the Carolinas it was deliberately started as a colony from Barbados. English distinguished themselves from others, and distinguished among the non-English, allowing Scotch and Irish a closeness, but not equality, while not allowing slavery, even for Catholics. Indians and Negroes seemed radically different. Consistent factors in slavery are economics, inability to struggle against English; attitude–heathen and thus not Christian, civilized, changing from religion to nationality, then complexion (44-98).

Part 2, Provincial Decades 1700-1755
Ch 3, Anxious Oppressors: Freedom and Control in a Slave Society a period of growth without appreciable opposition, part of increasing diversity that included Scotch-Irish, Germans. Negro population varied, 25% NC, 30% MD, 40% VA, 60% SC, but spotty in north: 15% NY, 8% Boston, RI 3%, NJ and PA 8%. In plantation of the south, legal confusion over status, giving rise to slave codes detailing status, compensation, patrols, militia; fear of rebellion was constant. Free Negro considered dangerous as potential fomenter of revolt, 1741 NY case shows assumption they were “more Negro than free”. Growing pattern, widespread before Revolution, that all were barred from social participation, restricting residence, voting (101-135).

Ch 4, Fruits of Passion: The Dynamics of Interracial Sex began almost immediately, rivaled revolts as source of tension; colonists and travel writers show that every social rank engaged in concern; enough similarity to allow desire and gratification, enough difference to make public aversion. A few legal interracial marriages occurred, mostly in New England, mostly of Negro men and lower-class white women; but prohibited in all southern colonies and MA, PA. But concubines were openly taken in south. SC writings open about passionate advances of Negro women, justifying their infidelity. Negro men and white women became source of tension during revolt rumors, probably representing more a reaction to fear than reality. Tendency to lump all mulattoes together as Negro socially and legally, a denial that the condition existed (136-178).

Ch 5, The Souls of Men: The Negro’s Spiritual Nature Christianity was universal in asserting need to care for all souls, conversion of slaves a source of tension for it implied a sameness, reducing distinct status of white; coupled with persistent idea that a Christian should not hold another Christian in slavery (well before 1729, all southern and 2 northern colonies had laws that baptism did not necessitate manumission); fears that conversion fostered rebellion or at least discontent. To many, they seemed too ignorant to educate, or at least a great challenge. Those interested in conversion first asserted, in response to chief obstacle, that it would make for better slaves by encouraging obedience to masters. Revolution began to erode ideas of social subordination, but it took some time for them to be seen as inconsistent with slavery–aside from Quakers and Judge Samuel Sewall, who wrote one of the earliest anti-slavery tracts, 1700, following a few Puritans who saw failure to offer the gospel as a most serious offense. New England, with few Negroes and powerful clergy, tended to accept them in churches; in south clerical influence was weak despite Anglican establishment (bishop in London). Conversion was also viewed as outsider meddling, which struck a growing sensitive point in the colonies. Around 1740, Great Awakening, intensity of personal conviction, beckoned Negroes (179-215).

Ch 6, The Bodies of Men: The Negro’s Physical Nature from 15th century on, travels and discoveries led to new information, and various races gained attention. Color was an early grouping characteristic as scientific description became popular. Initial distinctions were clearly of types, with no hierarchy socially; to some the ideas of Chain of Being and discovery of Negroes and apes at same time placed the two in association; although there was a barrier between human and beast and the Negro was clearly man to all. Origin and cause of appearance of Negro and Indian were cause of discussion that mixed Bible, observation, and speculation. Notable that whites presumes Adam to have been white; blackness itself became sufficient cause for categorization, and was easily picked up under American slavery. There is little, if anything, to suggest that anyone saw internal differences beyond tropical disease and sometimes ability to labor in hot climates (216-265).

Part 3, The Revolutionary Era 1755-1783
Ch 7, Self-Scrutiny in the Revolutionary Era after Great Awakening, growing awareness of American position, sense of destiny, diversity; consciousness of prejudices and awareness of race issues. Quakers first to protest slavery, as result of self-examination after 1754 French war, pushed by John Woolman, oppressive to both owner and slave, is unscriptural and inhumane, based on color and selfishness. Discovery of prejudice a widespread occurrence after 1760: Samuel Hopkins, Benjamin Franklin; emerging arguments that emancipation would reform, inverting justification that ignorance was reason for enslavement, thus examples such as Phyllis Wheatley. Environmentalism typical of Revolutionary changes of thought, a naturalistic growth, linked to ideology of natural rights (secularized God found in nature, not Bible, God not a judge but legislator, rights as members of humanity). In all, new scrutiny of society from Revolution meant that placid, unheeding acceptance was no longer possible (269-311).

Part 4, Society and Thought 1783-1812
Ch 8, The Imperatives of Economic Interest and National Identity forming workable, lasting political union most pressing issue after Revolution. Sectional division was major problem; by 1790 clear that slavery would survive only in south; DE, VA, MD uncertain, with other divisions there was no bloc. 1790's expansion of cotton whetted existing use of slaves. Slavery was issue in Continental army, Northwest Territory, Constitutional Convention. 1790 Congress met petitions against slave trade, resulting in sharpened sectional interests, awareness of explosive nature whose divisiveness was masked by tenuous compromise. After 1800 less disturbance until 1819-20 Missouri Compromise debates, period marked by search for national identity. Most of this based on English modifications rather than fusion, so African element neglected (315-341).

Ch 9, The Limitations of Antislavery with Revolution, all states ended slave trade but only two ended slavery; but it was clear that principles required abolition, making it matter of when and how. First secular society was Society of the Relief of Free Negroes... 1775. Federal power gave a point of attack, thus 1794 a group of societies began to lobby Congress, but the energy fell away soon after. One reason for decline was success: abolition in most of north by 1804; southern reaction was to restrict manumission; with Britain cast off a decline of natural rights philosophy as relevant; unwillingness to meddle with private property. Quakers notable among Christians who continued concern and carried it after emancipation, paying back wages, etc., to give special attention for having wronged, establishing schools. Others stressed humanitarian treatment, which also tended to undercut pro-slavery arguments, stimulated by awareness of abuses. Growth of romantic sentimentality a symptom of retreat from rational engagement of issue, leading to new extravagance in rhetoric (342-374).

Ch 10, The Cancer of Revolution failed to provide spark for abolition, but did start other revolutions, first among slaves. 1804, Haiti (St. Domingo) far more violent and long-simmering. Many early refugees to VA in 1793, with reports of insurrection, other southern states barred entry from West Indies. Little surprise to Americans, who felt that everyone yearned for freedom, but also as revealed in discussions about governing Louisiana Purchase, not all are able. Difficult to determine American rebellions, as wildest rumors were believed, but actual events suppressed to quell further unrest; most were small, isolated incidents. 1800 genuine rebellion in SC under Gabriel; Federalists seized as Jeffersonian plot; followed by others, subsided 1802. Effect to reinforce codes, weaken abolition (375-402).

Ch 11, The Resulting Pattern of Separation Gabriel’s plot a prime force, but not the turning point of new mood reflected in fugitive laws, restrictions on meetings. Increasing restriction on free Negroes in south, whose numbers increased rapidly: firearms, court testimony, vagrancy, meeting slaves, taxes, voting. Segregation emerged as new wall of division; noticeable break in churches with Allen and Jones (403-426).

Part 5, Thought and Society 1783-1812
Ch 12, Thomas Jefferson, Self and Society writings important because many read and reacted. Hated slavery, but thought Negroes inferior, especially mentally, but “moral sense” was equal (although he struggled with both, finding moral lapses a result of environment, and noted several gifted mentally). Conscious of his own guilt in slaveholding, his Notes on the State of Virginia speak of “unhappy influence” of slavery upon masters (429-481).

Ch 13, The Negro Bound by the Chain of Being sees fusion of Christianity and Newton, with world of cohesiveness, energy, systematic order. Mankind seemed untidy in such schemes. By end of 18th century, Great Chain of Being was popular concept; Linnaean classification was separate means of order. Great Chain used to give Negro lower status in slavery arguments; any principle of order was attractive those who saw society in turmoil. Samuel Stanhope Smith 1787 first American study of race: difficulty of determining separate human species is evidence that such was never the case, based on Linnaeus to support Genesis. Charles White, comparative anatomy in argument for inferiority, also supported multiple human origins (482-511).

Ch 14, Erasing Nature’s Stamp of Color the trait which attracted most attention. Samuel Stanhope Smith, 1787 and 1810 essays, gradual alterations in appearance from heat, which thickened skin and released bile, unfavorable locations also degenerated into savagery, distilled prevalent thinking. From here, “no jump at all” to idea that God intended whiteness; also claimed to see lighter skin on Negroes in America, that it would eventually become white. Benjamin Rush, environmentalism, color from leprosy as a result of poor diet, could infect whites, so separation required until cure found. Henry Moss, a white Negro appeared in Philadelphia 1795, studied by Rush and student Charles Caldwell; all the while overlooking growing literature on albinism in all races and animals. Continuing effort and presumption was that some had turned black, seeking to uphold Genesis with white Adam (imago Dei); to most it was adaptation for hot climate. 1813 William Charles Wells suggested a natural selection of blackness as protective from heat. Lull 1793-1807, environmentalism came to end with new discoveries that marked end of lull. Samuel Latham Mitchill, 1806, as yet unknown generative agency that produces and sometimes alters color, passed on through generations as possibility (512-541).

Ch 15, Toward a White Man’s Country colonization, beginning 1790's in VA, movement to rid state (if not nation) of blacks, failed more from enormity of task than lack of desire. Underlying concerns: emancipation would result in racial intermixture, seen as effort to maintain white purity of a people on a mission. Jefferson’s Notes suggest colonization. Some northern voices suggested it to ensure full equality (its other side that the white man’s country was not theirs); but anti-slavery in general did not find attraction. William Thornton, 1788, incompatible people who belonged separately. Samuel Hopkins, a means to Christianize Africa. By 1806 the movement faded away; international conflict rendered removal impossible, anti-slavery was fading, realization of obstacles including lack of massive support (542-569).

Ch 16, Exodus VA 1806 restrictions on manumission, debate shows underlying agreement that it would betray the Revolution, denying freedom because of a few or restricting rights to private property; but the decision to pass admitted the failure founded in fear of increase of free Negroes, representatives of freedom which slaves sought; guilt leading to animosity (573-582).