Bikers

Bikers

In 1897, twenty Black U.S. cavalrymen, dubbed “buffalo soldiers” by Native American tribes in the West, mounted their bicycles—yes, bicycles (no gears)—and rode nineteen hundred miles to St. Louis, where their arrival in Forest Park was roundly cheered. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “All semblance of color has left their shirts; their natty blue coats couldn’t be sold for dust rags in a second-hand clothing store.”

The forty-one-day journey included long stretches of mud and swamps, violent rain, deserts, snowstorms, carrying bicycles over mountains, wearing nets on their faces because of swarms of mosquitoes, freezing, heat exhaustion, wild animals, and, in many places drinking polluted water. Many of them were sick the entire journey. Yet they made it.

Also on the journey was an Army surgeon, a reporter, and of course, a white commanding officer. There would always be white commanding officers, from the Wild West through both world wars. (President Harry Truman desegregated the Armed Forces just before the Koran War.) Why? Why were Black soldiers in history always scrutinized by white commanders?

Alton’s James Killion Jr., in his WWII letters home to his mother, wrote about such supervision. He oversaw German and Russian prisoners, a few miles from the D-Day invasion. Always, a white officer oversaw him. Always, Mr. Killion was looking over his shoulder, acutely aware that no matter how efficient he was someone was watching him. The Tuskegee Airmen (I worked on the National Tuskegee Airmen Oral History Project) experienced the same thing. Benjamin O. Davis was their Black commander, but Noel Parish, a white officer scrutinized him. Why?

The Buffalo Soldier bikes: donated by the Spalding company. The bikes weighed thirty-two pounds. Another twenty-eight pounds of gear was added, strapped in frames, or tied to handlebars. A two-day supply of food, meaning every third day they had to hunt, forage, and buy staples like eggs from local farmers. A bike mechanic rode along for obvious reasons.

A young Black man named Erick Cedeno (his Instagram handle is @bicycle_nomad) followed the 25th Infantry Buffalo Soldier route solo, arriving in St. Louis a week ago on the 125th anniversary of the adventure. A large crowd greeted his arrival. Huzzah!

The Army’s bike experiment was to see if bicycles could supplant horses (food, water, etc.). The experiment ended in St. Louis. (Fighting units in future world wars would have 25th Infantry units called Buffalo Soldiers few of which would see combat because Southern generals maintained that Blacks were mentally and physically inferior to whites.)

But again: Why? Why Black men on bikes? Or, why not?

The answer lies in the word experiment. “The Tuskegee Experiment,” 1932-1972, in which four hundred Alabama Black sharecroppers, infected with syphilis (they didn’t know it) went untreated so that white doctors could observe them. One hundred of those experiments died.

The Black women experiment. In 1840, a white gynecologist, James Marion Sims in Montgomery experimented on enslaved women. No anesthesia was used because the doctor was convinced that Black women didn’t feel pain. Nazi monster Dr. Joseph Mengele was intrigued by Dr. Sim’s experiment, employing many of the same methods on Jewish women (Adolph Hitler was an admirer of slavery in the South).

The Tuskegee Airmen experiment. Those brave men were never intended to fly missions in WWII. They were set up for photo ops and positive news stories. Eleanor Roosevelt and Black lawyer Truman Gibson (I interviewed him) conspired to get the Airmen into the war.

The how to kill a Black man when he doesn’t want to die experiment, in Belleville, Illinois.

New York Times, June 8, 1903

Belleville, Illinois, June 7. This has been the most exciting day Belleville  has known in years, as the result of the lynching last night of David J. Wyatt, the East St. Louis school teacher, who fatally shot Charles Hertel, Superintendent of Schools of St. Claire County, at 6 o’clock Saturday evening.

The mob hanged Wyatt to a telephone pole in the public square. Even while his body was jerking in the throes of death from the strangulation, members of the mob began building a fire at the foot of the pole. The flames flared up and licked at the feet of the victim, but this did not satisfy the mob, and another larger fire was started.

When it had begun burning briskly, the negro, still half alive, was cut down, and, after being covered with coal oil, was cast into the fire. Moans of pain were heard from the half-dead victim of the mob, and these served further to infuriate his torturers. They fell upon him with clubs and knives and cut and beat the burning body almost to pieces, and not until every sign of life had departed did they desist and allow the flames to devour the body.

As the fire lighted up the scene the members of the mob stood around the funeral pyre hurling more fagots of wood into the flames and denouncing the negro for the shooting. Not until the body had been reduced to ashes did the mob depart.

Fully 10,000 strangers visited the public square and viewed the site of the lynching.

Crowds came from all sections of Southern Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and Kentucky. Only the charred telephone pole and bits of unconsumed flesh of the unfortunate Wyatt remained for their view.

Almost every citizen of Belleville visited the scene of the lynching today, and not one word was heard against the action of the mob in compelling Wyatt to expiate his terrible crime. No action has been taken by Acting Gov. Northcott to apprehend the lynchers.

 

Why weren’t twenty white cavalry soldiers recruited for the bicycle experiment? Why didn’t white settlers mine lead (Galena) and salt (Southern Illinois) instead of Haitian slaves? Inhaled lead particles led to multiple diseases. Salt scoured the skin and caused high blood pressure. Who better to do the work than non-humans? Bike riding in the Wild West? I can imagine some “Injun fighter” friend of the late last stander George Armstrong Custer: Hey, we’ve got twenty expendable Black soldiers out there; let them take the risks.

Today, we honor the experimented upon. I doubt that the Tuskegee airmen or the Buffalo Soldiers took a moment’s time to ponder the why. They did shit, and the Army and now the nation is finally honoring Black people. Truman Gibson told me that Tuskegee Airmen were not civil rights minded. Rather, they knew they were as capable as any white pilot in history; they were Americans, and they would do their duty even as white American lynched some, red-lined some, wouldn’t allow some into restaurants and movie theaters.

Actions have changed. People of many colors marched with King, and King got Lyndon Johnson (“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket.”) to sign the Civil Rights Act.

Counterpoint: In June, in line at the grocery store, a white husband and wife behind me: Husband: Juneteenth. What about us white people? Wife: Yep. Why don’t white people have a “teenth?” Madam, sir, your and my great-great-great grandparents have had a “teenth” since 1619. A woman in line in front of me at a restaurant listens to a man talking about being a bounty hunter in St. Louis. She turns to me and says, “How do you tell them apart?” Haw-haw-haw! The owner of a local oil change place tells a customer that Blacks have ruined St. Louis. The customer responds by “shooting” an imaginary gun, and the men laugh. Racism is as alive today as it was in the seventeenth century. But today we wouldn’t dare reinstitute slavery or experiment on people because of color. Right? Right, Steve Bannon and the Supremes and the White Pirates? Any of us who stays silent—any of us. . . is compliant. Silence is action, as punish able a crime as lynching.

“All semblance of color has left their shirts.” But not their skin. Remember the Buffalo soldiers.

 

 

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The Brave

The Brave

At the top of LaVista hill, Mulligan the dog (sixty pounds of part Pitbull, part Shepherd, full handsome) pulling his leash, was tugging his mistress along a row of newly planted trees. He stopped at each tree, raised his right hind leg, and marked his territory. He saw me—we meet a lot—and bumped against me, which is his way.

Suddenly I thought of Walter Matthau. In one of my all-time favorite films, he played a gum chewing sheriff in a New Mexico town, who several times a day looked out his office window and watched a dog (we don’t see the mutt) water its territory, and he smiles and says (paraphrasing), “That’s right. Now cross the street to the hydrant on the other side. . . That’s right. . . Now go on down past the diner. . . atta boy.” There was a comic music theme (Jerry Goldsmith of China Town fame was the composer) each time the dog passed by.

In the 1963 Lonely Are the Brave, Kirk Douglas plays Jack Burns, a cowboy railing against the modern world. He rides his horse Whiskey across the stunning Sandia Mountains (filmed in black and white) in New Mexico. If the pair encounter a barbed wire fence, Jack cuts it, and they go on. Jack stops at a ranch of his closest friend, Paul, and his wife Jerry (Gena Rowlands), learning that Paul is in jail. We learn that Jack and Jerry have always been in love.

Intercut into the action is a semitrailer truck barreling along a mountain highway (Carol O’Connor is the driver), carrying a load of toilets. Also intercut is the mellow sheriff, watching out his window and grinning at the dog who daily pees on every hydrant on the block. These are two good men drawn into a tragedy.

Jack goes to a bar in town, intending to get in a fist fight and taken to jail so he can be with help Paul escape. A one-armed man challenges Jack, who agrees to use one arm, and the one-armed man easily whips him. Jack punches the cop who arrives on the scene, and he is jailed and routinely beaten by a sadistic deputy sheriff (George Kennedy). He plots an escape; Paul will not go along.

Jack breaks out of jail and hikes back to Jerry’s house. He tells Jerry he can make it over the steep mountains if only she will give him a kiss. It is one of the greatest kisses in movie history. He saddles Whiskey, and they head toward a forbidding mountain, persued by the sheriff (he’s rooting for the cowboy to get away) and the evil deputy.

The truckload of toilets, the evil deputy, and Jack and Whiskey will meet. I will never forget watching the movie as a kid and sobbing.

The brave. Kirk Douglass. He had defied the House on Un-American Activities (HUAC) blacklist and secretly hired his friend the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to write his previous film, Spartacus. Then Douglas broke the blacklist again by openly hiring Trumbo to write Lonely Are the Brave. Dalton Trumbo. Johnny got His Gun. A member of The Hollywood Ten, who were convicted and jailed for refusing to testify before HUAC.

Fast forward to the January 6 witnesses, notably Cassidy Hutchinson, Wanda Moss, and her mother Ruby Freeman, whose courage in the face of death threats was astounding. Add Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger. They are unlikely heroes who found themselves in yet another right wing conspiracy.

All of this came to me because I saw my dog pal Mulligan watering the LaVista Park trees, and I walked four miles farther and began to think about heroes.

Jack the cowboy, the nonconformist dies rather than be tamed. But that was stirring fiction, but real Kirk Douglas risked everything. In real life, some heroes of the Battle of Trump will have to die to end our national nightmare. A gunman will appear out of a crowd, and those in the crowd will learn what kind of people they are. The lawmen at Uvalde learned that they have no business serving and protecting because they are afraid. Josh Hawley ran. Ted Cruz would shit himself if confronted. We never know until we are confronted how we will react.

Who will be sacrificed? Women at the steps of the Supreme Court? More Black shooting victims? More children? How many deaths until MAGA is devoured by maggots?

On the walk back to my car, I caught up with Mulligan and his owner. Just to see him lifted my spirits, a moment of respite. He bumped me, and I told his owner about Walter Matthau. We parted. And I stopped and watched three piliated woodpeckers hammer at trees and a lone bluebird chasing butterflies. My blood pressure dropped, my heart rate slowed, my soaked in sweat body simmered in the rising heat.

We are called to defend democracy. Will you? Will I? We’ll know soon.

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Rapture

Rapture 

Black lives do not matter, which explains why its opposite has become a rallying cry. All lives matter, obvious as that statement may be is not pertinent to what’s going on in this rapidly insane country of ours.

To those of us whites who feel compelled to say we are not responsible for historic events, we missed the point. No, we alive today didn’t land at Plymouth Rock and begin the slaughter of First Peoples (the real story of Thanksgiving). We weren’t in the American Revolution which, by the way, was as much about the right of the founding fathers to own slaves as it was about freedom. We didn’t fight alongside Andrew Jackson who brutally tortured and killed native women and children, to teach their men a lesson.

We didn’t segregate the Armed Forces in the pre-Korean wars. (Southern officers, descendants of Confederate traitors, controlled the commands of the armed services and inserted their own prejudices in the bargain.) We didn’t participate in the mass lynching of Black people during Reconstruction.

But those horrifying things happened. We learned history for a grade, but we didn’t learn from it and make ourselves better. The history taught in my hometown of Alton mentioned not a word about our segregated schools from 1895 to 1952. Not a word about cross burnings or restaurants refusing service to Blacks, about only allowing Black mothers to give birth in our hospital basements, about the movie The Birth of a Nation drawing thirty thousand cheering whites to the Hippodrome movie house on Broadway and the Alton Evening Telegraph declaring that the film was a true depiction of history.

And soon, our modern children won’t have factual history. It will be banned by white supremacists taking over school boards, so their innocent white children won’t be triggered by the truth. Black children? Sorry about that.

“Never again”: the most solemn oath of post-World War II. Are you kidding? We forgot immediately. In a mere hundred thousand years, we went from spears to AK-47s. In the twentieth century alone, we slaughtered two hundred million people in the name of God, superiority, and morality.

St. Francis of Assisi went along for the Crusades, witnessed the horrific slaughter of the “infidels,” and joined those infidels out of love. Martin Luther King Jr. knew he was going to be sacrificed, and he greeted death with open arms. How old fashioned. How against the grain, of the inevitable march of humanity.

The most egregious of “gifts” our white ancestors left to us was racism. After the human migration out of Africa (all people on earth come from tribes of African ancestors), evolution led to changing body characteristics, including losing the dark skin pigment of the original people and, adapting to climate, becoming “white.”

Those white people had also accidentally, coincidentally landed in the most desirable climate for large production of food, and for mineral resources, leading to the Bronze Age and guns which would allow small conquering forces to wipe out vast armies of opponents armed with bows and arrows.

Enter Columbus, the Vikings, the Crusaders, the British Empire, and the good old US of A, all enslavers, all founded on the notion that non-whites were savages. These Europeans wiped out millions of indigenous people in the Old, and New, worlds.

What we white people did do, what we white people do now, is live complacently and spout slogans. “Get over it.” “I don’t want to hear it.” “My people didn’t do that.” By being in denial, we perpetuate and regurgitate the unfounded prejudices and the staggering ignorance of ten thousand years ago. We charge white police forces with protecting our whiteness. And by proclaiming bigotry as a moral force in the national pulpits, we have ceded the tenants of all religions, of philosophy, of reason.

Now fundamental Christians are proclaiming the “end of days,” rather than taking responsibility for willful human self-destruction on a massive scale. Now fundamental Christians are throwing up their hands, importing red bulls to Israel and artificially attempting to bring about the end of the world. Bad news: there will be no Rapture.

We are godless. God left the building a million and a half years ago.

We can deny all we want. Ignore the fact that the poorest whites of our clans were born privileged, and now we don’t want to give up our “inheritance.” And we sure as hell don’t really want brotherhood, to become brothers with our original, Edenic selves, the mothers and fathers of us all. Why?

We hate ourselves. Have a nice day, and don’t forget to recycle.

 

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Fakely I’m Amazed

Fakely I’m Amazed

A few years ago, a friend of mine’s new, pushy wife came with him to a summer camp where he and I worked. She happened to be walking on the road when a newspaper reporter, coming to do a feature on the camp, stopped his car and asked if he was in the right place. She introduced herself as the publicity person for the camp, and she became the story, pissing off a lot of instructors. I asked her why she did that.

“You are what you say you are,” she answered.

“So, if I say I’m a doctor, I’m a doctor?”

She walked away.

I was reminded of that when a recent Facebook post showed some TikTok bits featuring nurses. Each one was shot in a video, stepping outside their hospitals, and crying for patients who had just died from Covid. It was touching. But weird. One nurse, someone with a cellphone camera—OK. But multiple nurses? Each video featuring a sobby pop soundtrack? (Nothing like pop music to stir the emotions.) Also, each nurse wore form-fitting scrubs, not the baggy kind we all have seen in hospitals. One of the nurses collapsed on the ground, legs spread, revealing underwear and more. Like I said, weird.

Turns out, each crying jag had been set up, filmed, and a soundtrack added by the nurses themselves. In other words, they were nurse performers. Their “you are what you say you are” was acting. The videos went viral—of course. Who doesn’t want to watch a nurse in her most painful moment, crying for a lost patient?

Me, that’s who. And what of the family members who lost loved ones to the pandemic only to see their loved one’s nurse staging her grief for thousands of viewers?

TikTok. When I first heard that new word, I watched a few videos and was repelled by narcissists staging everything from “accidents,” to reading bad poetry they had written, to kids acting sexy. What’s the harm? It is the inspiration for the current crop of teen shooters. This in my mind was the ultimate internet consequence: Look at me, look at me—even if I have to kill someone for attention!

Now people stage fake grief. Now people stage violence. Now some teens film themselves beating old people. Ho-ho-ho! Now every jackass in the world can now compete for subscribers. We transform from real to fake. We make fantasy come alive—badly. We exploit. We’re not loved enough so we stage emotions to compensate.

The master of this is Donald Trump, a narcissist posing as a rich man, a president, a TV star, a stud. In reality, he’s a rapist, a thief, a sexual predator of his own daughter. Yet he’s enabled by Deutsche Bank and fascist monsters from Erdogan to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman across the world.

The fake revolution WILL be televised.

I’m a doctor.

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Black Boys

Black Boys

I was artist-in-residence at Washington Irving School for over a decade. At a school assembly circa 1990, my friend Roy Chappell, one of the first Tuskegee Airmen in history, sat on the stage and talked to my kids. Roy told about the racism he endured in Alabama and in the war (from white soldiers).

An African American boy raised his hand and said, “Why’d you let those white people treat you like that? I’d of killed them. I wouldn’t be no slave, either.” Roy doubled over with laughter. “Son,” Roy said, “you have no idea.”

Boys are cocky. Inner city boys in particular. It’s a defense mechanism, and it can drive a fearful parent to drink and a teacher to distraction. A good teacher will patiently guide his or her students through factual history, not the myths of white historians, of founding of this country. Speaking from long experience, theater is an excellent way to enhance the learning experience. My life was profoundly changed as were the lives of many of my students.

Another cocky Chicago Black kid named Emmett learned a different kind of lesson in August 1955. His family had sent him to the delta town of Money, Mississippi to stay with relatives and get a respite from the city. (Martyr George Jackson, Letters from Soledad, also a cocky Chicago kid, would spend his summers with aunties who lived in and around Mt. Vernon, Illinois, my birthplace. My grandmother called him Georgie.)

One day, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till and his cousin walked into a white-owned country store to get snacks. The store clerk, a twenty-one-year-old woman named Carolyn Bryant was noticed by Emmett, and according to the cousin, he whistled at Ms. Bryant. Cocky city kid flirting with a Mississippi cute white lady in her store, what could be the harm?

Several nights later Emmett was kidnapped from his great-grandfather’s house by two men, tortured, and shot in the head, and his body was dumped in the Tallahatchie River. Carolyn Bryant’s husband Roy and another man were arrested and brought to trial. They were found not guilty by an all-white jury. (The killers admitted to the crime in a 1956 Look magazine interview, for which they received four thousand dollars, but authorities still did not arrest them. Both are now deceased.)

Emmett’s mutilated body lay in an open casket in a church in Chicago. His mother insisted that the body be displayed as it had been found in the river. Thousands of mourners walked by the once cocky Black boy’s body. It was a national news story, and it influenced the civil rights movement. In 2007, the Justice Department once again took up the Till murder case, to no avail.

Until now, only thoughts and prayers were being uttered for cocky Black boys. It was announced Wednesday that a forgotten folder in a discarded box of old records in the Laflore County, Mississippi courthouse, was dug out by researchers of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, and documentary filmmaker Keith Beauchamp. In the folder was a warrant for the arrest of Carolyn Bryant. The warrant was announced in 1955, but a sheriff, claiming he didn’t want to bother Mrs. Bryant, a mother of two kids, stuck the warrant in a box and stashed it away.

That warrant, according to authorities is valid today. The researchers feel that accumulated evidence gathered over decades would now indict eighty-seven-year-old Carolyn Bryant Donham (she remarried), alive and living in North Carolina.

“Serve it and charge her,” said Terri Watts, a relative of Emmett.

Germany and Israel over the years have arrested elderly Nazis and jailed or assassinated them. Emmet Till’s story is being swept out of history classes by the far-right Republican push to deny history. Teacher are being threatened and so are school districts. Nazis are among us.

Will the law now “bother” little old Mrs. Donham?

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Shirley You Jest

Shirley You Jest

I recall the thrill when I first read Shirley Jackson’s masterful 1948 story “The Lottery,” and the shock (I was a kid) of the story’s end. I’ve reread it several times and I’ve come to appreciate the allegory of conformity and ritual taken to its logical conclusion, hallmarks of nineteen fifties America. Huge numbers of unwashed readers back then, failing to recognize story as allegory, were outraged.

But now, seventy-four years later, I think there may be prophecy in the story’s pages. Less skilled, dystopian if not allegorical (and certainly realistic in the current political climate), are the popular “Purge” movies. I only saw the first one (starring Ethan Hawke), on HBO, but one was enough.

And then I got an idea. Marry “The Lottery” and “The Purge” (do you, Lottery, take thee, Purge), both annual feasts of slaughter. H. Rap Brown (“violence is as American as cherry pie”) is the minister. Hold a national lottery each year, in which say, a million unlucky winners are rounded up in a field on a new national holiday.

No Black on Black (white fantasy) duels, antisemitism, gun nut “kill them all and let God decide”—no. Children. Parents may opt to be killed with their kids, but no pardons. The winners are all races, creeds, political persuasions, etc. No passes for politicians or Supreme Court Justices. The 34th Amendment (The Greenie, celebrated on Green Day) ensures true death equality.

The million (losers? winners?) are surrounded by that year’s mass shooters armed with automatic rifles and handguns and hand grenades, and shot to death. Once the million are dead, the shooters kill each other in grudge matches.

Any other shooting of any kind on any other day, will be punishable by life with no chance of parole and forced to watch the same Dr. Laura’s and Dr. Phil’s programs over and over until death. Firearms for personal use are treated the same way as driver’s licenses, with written and performance tests. For inside the home use only. No guns in cars because whitey is afraid of Black people, no running out on one’s lawn and shooting one’s neighbor. Penalty (no bargaining or pleading): No trial. Automatic ten years in jail.

Consider the advantages of The Greenie. A million people a year shot to death in a controlled environment. Good for the environment! Good for population control! That year’s mass shooters all dead! Dead children make up for the ban on abortions! After all, shooting is abortion!

You’re welcome.

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Cycles

Cycles

I once sat next to Illinois House speaker Mike Madigan, at an Illinois Arts Council retreat in Galena. He was sitting on a park bench, clad in a madras shirt and Bermuda shorts. I had just finished a run. Madigan waved me over, and I joined him. It was regular guy stuff, and he asked me a lot of questions. And he laughed a lot.

Compare that to the media images of glaring, suited-up Speaker Mike Madigan, looking like the Godfather and running the state with absolute power. He has fallen—finally. But how to reconcile those two images, Shakespearian actor versus guy in Bermuda shorts with knobby knees?

Democrats, when they are in power, are as corrupt as are Republicans. It goes in cycles. But right now, we’re in a Republican cycle, and however its representatives present at home, Bermuda shorts, etc., they are almost gleefully willing to lend support to a coup. They would retain power as part of a coup rather than stand up and denounce right-wing extremism.

So, what can we do now?

Vote every one of those fiends out. Bad Dems will follow, but this is now.

There is no constitutional quota on the number of justices of the Supreme Court. Several times in U.S. history, there have been more judges than the current nine. Technically, there could be 20 judges. Democrats, were they willing to play hardball, could add at least two more judges and make the sitting judges look on with trepidation. Or: Impeach the liars, Amy Coney Island Barrett, Bret “Boofer” Canvenaugh.

Biden couldn’t play hardball when he was middle-aged. He is not tough enough, nor is he smart enough, to be the next Democratic president. He must not run. We must do everything in our power to support a hardball player. Jon Stewart would be an excellent choice as would Al Franken. If showbiz personalities bother you, consider that terrible actor Ronald Reagan and the hijinks he got us into. Co-chair of the January 6 committee, Benny Thompson, is fatherly and smart and brave. Tammy Duckworth is brave and smart, and a soldier. No far-left person, at this time, can win. Swallow your bitterness and get real. Or: Live in a totalitarian country. Promote women only candidates, but don’t kid yourself that women are the answer. Biden must go—voluntarily or pushed by a broom. Or show him on TV firing an AK-47.

Stop using bad phrasing. Defund the police is stupid. Refund, retrain the police. Caucasian: There is no such animal—unless you come from the Caucasus Mountains. Etc.

Be brave. Stop sharing food photos and step out your door and join the kids. The last few days have stirred a hornet’s nest of women speaking out—rightfully so. But the day before the Roe fracas, the Supreme Court enabled gunowners to conceal carry. We are not safe when citizens carry guns to church, the grocery store, to a neighbor dispute. The horrifying Uvalde incident got the masses to express outrage. But not so much the killing of those Black folks in New York the week before. The shooting death of children is no more tragic than the shooting death of a grandmother.

Read. Read the “1619 Report.” You will be shocked by its reality as opposed to the treacle of conservatives who denounce it having not read it, unwilling to consider the actual facts of the founding of this country. Read Toni Morrison and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cormac McCarthy and Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin and Kurt Vonnegut and Isabel Wilkerson and Harriet Jacobs.

Here in Alton, nostalgia and tourism are all the rage. Which leaves no room for the truth of Woolworth’s and Kresge’s and the Grand Theatre, all of which discriminated against Blacks, and the KKK using Western Military Academy as its clubhouse, and a 1950 cross burning on Rock Springs golf course which drove a Black family out of town. Even most of the local claims about the Underground Railroad are historically inaccurate.

It is the last gasp of Whitey, and it’s a good thing. That gasp is fueling all the above. A writer colleague of mine in California, a liberal who skillfully took on his local establishment, suddenly realized he was white, and he began writing that he was a minority, and he turned dark, and he is lost.

We are all about to be lost, if we sit on our hands and cluck our tongues and click on the “I care” and the “tear” emojis. These are not actions. Pol Pot was a man of action. Donald Trump would endorse him if he were running for the Senate.

Take no action. Show no empathy. Stay silent. Watch the fire.

 

 

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Bloomsday

Bloomsday

Leo Bloom, a nondescript, middle-aged man, wanders his city of Dublin on June 16, 1904. He confronts friends, enemies, shopkeepers and bartenders, vendors and grifters. He journeys from eight a.m. to two a.m. the next morning. Hard on his mind is the fact that his wife Molly is having an affair, his male sex drive, and pending war. Every unconscious thought in his head is recorded in stream of internal soliloquy. James Joyce, through Bloom, is performing Irish jazz, his subconscious his instrument.

Three literary artifices dominate the book: Modernism, in which writers across the globe are experimenting with stream of consciousness; mythic storytelling, in the guise of Homer’s “Ulysses;” and attention to the common man as a tragic figure, as in the works of playwrights Eugene O’Neil, Arthur Miller, and novelist John Updike.

One hundred sixteen years ago, the book dubbed the greatest literary work of the twentieth century was published. James Joyce told his wife Nora that the work would confound critics for a century. “Ulysses” still confounds critics and is scarcely read by readers much less the general public who think that smart means “smart phone.”

James Augustine Joyce was born in Dublin, Ireland to a hard drinking father and an enabling mother. It was apparent early on that the son was a genius. His father published his boy’s first poem when the boy was ten. Joyce possessed a serious eye for detail, so much so that it was said, after the publication of “Ulysses,” that if Dublin were bombed in a war (World War I is the looming backdrop for all of this), it could be rebuilt based on Joyce’s detailed descriptions of the city.

Joyce was educated in a time when that word meant something, unlike our time when “well educated” means “well trained,” and graduate degrees come as prizes in cereal boxes. He spoke 17 languages, snatches of many of those appearing in “Ulysses,” one of many off-putting stylistic gifts, to the reading public of the time, to us. He was the beneficiary of a patron who for years paid his family’s living expenses. His subject was Dublin and the surrounding countryside. Said James Joyce, “In the particular is contained the universal.”

“Ulysses” was published serially in Europe. The first thousand copies of the novel were burned—guess where!— in the United States, for obscenity. Conservative censors and ministers and priests and capitalist patriarchs, who knew what was right for all of us, sensed the danger in the book and sought to exterminate it.

I first read “Ulysses” when I was in my teens. Curiosity almost killed the cat. I had no study guide, so I passed over the parts written in other languages. I hadn’t yet read Homer’s “Ulysses,” so I missed the myth part. Still, the power, the raw power of the words, of the men speaking the words, of the artist who wrote the words, electrified me. I started reading the chapters aloud, slowly making sense of the narrative.

Today, Bloomsday will be celebrated across the world, mostly by actors who will read the entire book in 18-hour marathons. And audiences will picnic and drink and laugh and reflect. There will be scholarly events—scholars come hard on after writers write, after all—but “Ulysses” belongs to us, working men and women, hard live-ers and drinkers and lapsed religionists and sinners and devout Catholics and cuckolds and quirky folk.

Asterisk: James Joyce’s secretary, young Samuel Beckett, read the tea leaves and realized that the wordy Modernist movement had sailed. He built a new literary ship, and the scholars (of course!) dubbed it Absurdism. There isn’t a person alive who, consciously or unconsciously, isn’t waiting for Godot. I was a fly on the wall at an event in Chicago where Edward Albee was talking to a group of people. “I called Art Miller,” Albee said, “and I said Art, let’s fly to the Soviet Union and meet some dissident poets. And Art said, “‘Let’s stop in Paris and meet up with Sam.’” Gods talking about gods.

I nearly peed myself.

Happy Bloomsday.

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Dr. Gene

Dr. Gene

Moliere’s wonderful play, The Doctor in Spite of Himself, is a comedy about a conman who poses as a doctor in a small village. He is called in to examine an ailing, comely lass, the family watching as the bawdy “doc” fondles the beauty, and hilarity ensues. A parent asks if the girl will live. The “doctor” replies (paraphrasing), “Some would say yes, and some would say no. As for me, I say yes and no.”

I mention this because today on my walk, I stopped and watched a gorgeous prairie king snake, light grey and ringed with brown splotches, maybe three feet long, sunning itself. A granddad and grandson came along, and I pointed to the king snake, and the boy was thrilled, and we all introduced ourselves. And I told them about the different snakes which live around here.

The grandfather said, “So, you’re a biologist? Dr. Baldwin, is it?”

I assured them I was just Genehouse, a modest and unassuming nobody. And we all went on our ways.

I used to visit Alton two or three times a year, when I lived in Chicago. I’d stay with friends and spend my days in the woods, hunting for Indian artifacts. On one such day, it was hot and muggy, and I left my secret hunting ground early. I put some arrowheads I had found on the passenger seat and drove to the small riverside village of Elsah, just to look around. The nineteenth century houses are national historic landmarks. Tom Sawyer might emerge from Aunt Polly’s cottage and whitewash her fence.

I passed by historic Principia College, recalling that there had been an amazing discovery on the campus as, a few months ago, a workman working a bulldozer for a water line uncovered a skull and tusks of a wooly mammoth. The rest of the bones had been excavated, a full skeleton, and were in a laboratory being cleaned and assembled.

On impulse, I drove up to the security gate, and a friendly security guy asked if he could help me. I cheerfully said yes, I’d like to see the wooly mammoth. You and everybody else, the man told me. The campus was closed for summer, and the college (I knew this) was a private school, and I would not be allowed to visit.

C’est la vie. I put the car in reverse.

Then the guy spotted the arrowheads on my car seat. Did you find those? Yes. Around here? A few miles from here. Can I see some ID?

I handed the guard my driver’s license. He asked, “Do you have a university affiliation?” I answered yes; I was in a master’s degree program at DePaul University.

The guard fetched a walkie talkie and paged Dr. So-and-So. “Yes ma’am,” he said, “I have a Dr. Baldwin here at the entrance. He’s an archaeologist.”

As my friend Charlie Baird would exclaim, “Kiss Miss Mitchell.” I had instantly become Dr. Ewing “Gene” Baldwin from DePaul University. I had a split second to correct the man, or confirm I was indeed Dr. Gene. I did not correct him, I was now acting in a play, something I knew a little about.

“He’d like to see the wooly mammoth,” the guard said on his walkie talkie.

Five minutes later, a golf cart drove up with Dr. So-and-So at the wheel, and she greeted me and escorted me to the laboratory, where I was able to see the disassembled mammoth. We talked about prehistoric critters and the evidence that Native Americans had lived on this very spot, perhaps twelve thousand years ago. I gave the good doctor two arrowheads. It was jolly. Until I started getting nervous, me, the doctor in spite of himself.

And then Dr. So-and-So said, “Dr. Baldwin, would you care to come back to Principia this fall and do some archaeology lectures?”

Reader, what was I to do? I said yes, I’d be delighted to lecture, here is my card (which read nothing about DePaul University). We shook hands, and Dr. So-and-So drove me back to the gate, and she said she’d be in touch. Was I qualified to deliver college lectures on archaeology? Some would say yes, and some would say no. As for me, I say yes and no.

Besides, I knew Dr. So-and-So would google me as soon as I drove off. The jig—the gig—would be up. Acting over, no curtain call, no fall lectures to comely coeds, but it was my best performance, and I drove away a happy man, having seen a 20,000-year-old wooly mammoth.

As the French would say (I forgot to tell you, I’m now Dr. Gene, professor of romance languages at the Sorbonne), C’est la vie.

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The Pale, A Biography

The Pale, A Biography

One in three Republicans believe that white people (The Pales) are deliberately being replaced by people of color (The Everybody Elses), via immigration and those godless rainbow-colored liberals. In fact, in the United States, The Pales’ birth rates began slowing a decade ago. In Texas, the Everybody Elses will soon be the majority. Immigration, a conservative code word for colored people and “replacement theory,” is a smokescreen for The Pale supremacy.

Since the Pales are so tender and sensitive (I say this as a card-carrying member of The Pale; I’ve got the skin cancer to prove it), I am trying to be gentle. The Pales believe they popped up in Europe—period. Pop! When in fact, their earliest ancestors (300,000 years ago) were Africans.

What is your origin? I am Scottish, Irish, and Welsh . . . and African. You are _______ . . . and African. How do we know this? Mitochondrial DNA, which allows (minus names of family groups, Baldwin et al) scientists (The Smarts, a subgroup of The Everybody Elses) to trace the entire of humanity to Africa.

We are but one species, The Pales and the Everybody Elses are functions of melanin—think tanning. The Pales-Once-Black African tribe migrated to Europe and, no longer needing melanin to ward off the equatorial sun, their color faded. The Reds-once Black-once Asian ultimately migrated to the last unpopulated place on the planet, the Americas.

“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” The Pale President Lyndon Johnson

The word “race” first occurs journals written in England in the 16th century by sailors. English sailors, The Pails, had navigated their way to Africa and observed the inhabitants, part of the Everybody Elses, and they pronounced them “savages,” and they raped and pillaged them because that is what one does with savages. Savage became the defining word for any people or person of color who was not a Brit.

Interestingly, every culture of Africans developed origin stories strikingly similar: So-and- so begat so-and-so and they were miserable sinners until the Jesus the Buddha the Yahweh the Earth Mother came along and those lights in the sky were pictures which backed up the origin stories.

“I will never be out(n-word)ed again!” Governor George Wallace

Then those damn The Smarts (composed of The Everybody Elses and The Pales) explained the lights (stars), the origin of the lights, the origin of life on Earth, and there are less and less mysteries, and more and more miserable are The Pales with their adherence to myths of superiority (aka African superiority which is ironic), as they suspect they are losing their “culture,” also ironic.

Back in vogue is a novel, “The Turner Diaries,” from 1978 (a vomit of words which ends in a race war where The Pales, due to their superiority win). and suddenly The Pales like wife beater Eric Greitens, and baby who got his sucker taken away, Tucker Carlson, and Wisconsin cheese that went bad, Ron Johnson, though they either long ago stopped reading non-fiction (where one might find Science), or read it and are serial liars or dumbasses, proclaimed THE TRUTH.

But! They aren’t brave enough stand at the podium and shout “I’m as white as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore! The Everybody Elses are going to eat your liver with fava beans and a nice chianti!” Instead, they use code that doesn’t take a Navaho code talker to understand. “Replacement Theory.” “Immigration.” Aka “nigger.” Aka “Mexicans.” (And let’s not forget those world order Jews and those Asians stealing our scholarships.)

And there is even a superhero: White Jesus. That painted, iconic image of White Jesus, hanging next to the organ in thousands of churches and the little children see that and they are prepped for membership in The Pale. (I saw the image as a kid, and I knew Jesus was white. I did not know he was the most misunderstood philosopher of his time or that he would be parodied in modern times as a right-wing nut job.)

It’s not that all The Pales are bad. But even the not-bad ones cluck their tongues and sit at home and watch the TV, talk to the TV as in “Oh no, another mass shooting of The Everybody Elses, how terrible,” thus empowering demagogues to run amuck, even to kill. The Pale Preachers lack the courage to denounce hate from their podiums. The Pale generally don’t attend events where the Everybody Elses are celebrating. The Pales, generally, are clucking chickens.

The novelist Saul Bellow, when asked if he knew of any literature but Western literature, smugly remarked that he would be happy to read a novel by a Zulu writer. To which a writer responded, “You are the poet of the Zulus.” Saul Bellow, see (he didn’t see), like you like me, was African.

 

 

 

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