Friday, December 2, 2016

Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It

Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It by James Climent is an utterly fascinating story about the unintended consequences of the “slave” republic established the American Colonization Society, which supported the settlement of freed slaves to Africa.

Climent presents us with a tragedy from the very beginning of Liberia’s founding in 1847.  Former slaves establish a colony in Africa, under the best intentions of both the white people who financially supported the colony, and the slaves who settled it.  Yet the settler class, who were often multi-racial, ruled the country to the exclusion of the native Africans.  Liberia was two countries, one in which native Africans were ruled by arrogant and at times corrupt official in the capital, Monrovia.

A bloody civil war erupted in the late twentieth century, essentially ending the reign of Americo-Liberians.  But their legacy remains: Liberia is still a much divided country and poor country, trying to recover from its searing legacy.

Climent presents a fascinating story of this alternate America known to few Americans. Our story is also their story.  This book should be mandatory reading.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Ineffable Name of God

I must admit, I enjoy Abraham Joshua Heschel’s ideas far more than his writing.  Generally, his writing lacks thrust and drive.  When you see interviews of Heschel, you can understand his appeal among his students and associates: he had a vibrant, persuasive personality.  Without the man behind them Heschel’s writing get a bit repetitious… even… blasphemy… boring.

These early poems have a certain vibrancy to them, and the original Yiddish next to the translations, for those able, adds an element of solidity.  Despite the title, these poems run the range of topics; there are strictly religious poems, secular poems, and ones in between.  Of course, the secular poems can be interpreted as religious, especially those devoted to the imaginary woman.

That said, some are right on religiously non-dual, such as “The Most Precious Word” were we find these lines: “I’ll make every word a name for You! / I’ll call you: Forest! Night! Ach! Yes! / And collect moments, / weave a bit of eternity, a gift for You.”

Here Heschel plays with themes he will fully exploit later.  And he does so in a more compact, condensed form.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Zen Rake

I know that rake 
A mocking tool
It notes my hurt
Without a word
Keeps a register
Of all my fears
And wishes me ill

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Oto Benga

When I attended shul on Friday night, our rabbi, who grew up in Apartheid South Africa, called Trump’s victory an reassertion of a white supremacist state.  One gentlemen, from out of town, collared the rabbi afterward to vocally disagree.

Perhaps that wayward man should read Pamela Newkirk’s Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Oto Benga.  Newkirk documents how anthropologists and scientists exploited an African “pygmy” taken or stolen from the Congo. Oto Benga was displayed at the turn of the century at the St. Louis World Fair, and eventually in the monkey house of the Bronx Zoo, where he was forced to “attend” to the primates.

Voices at the time, especially African-American clergy, protested, but it was a hard and bitter struggle to wrestle Oto Benga from the control of his captors.  That his life ended in ended in tragedy is hardly a surprise, given the harrowing experiences he had in the Congo and America, and the violent dislocations he suffered.

Ota Benga was not considered fully human by most of white America. This was not an abnormal view in early twentieth century. Pseudo-scientific race theories were gaining currency, and Africans, and particular Africans of Oto Benga’s tribe, with their short stature and distinctively sharpened teeth, were considered a lower form of human being.

Outward forms of American racism may have changed in a hundred years, but the underlying premise remain.  The man in the shul should read this book and read it well.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Ease my suffering with a tall tale

The young woman that we found on the side of the road, unresponsive, last summer, has died.  I made a few efforts to contact her, get her some help, friended her on FB, and then nothing. On the side of the road she said she was eighteen.  Now at nineteen she is gone.
Below are her words. I read here a powerful and emerging voice, struggling to write about unrestrained emotions.  I read here the voice of a writer negotiating the rough terrain of expression at a very deep, painful level.  At nineteen, a difficult task.  But I hear that voice in these poems and entries. They are powerful, particularly the entry from July.  She would have been a powerful writer. So, her words:

August 16:
You woke up today, I'm so happy. You got out of bed, I'm proud of you. You made it through another day, let's celebrate!
You may not always be able to beat your demons, maybe one day they might even win the war. But the point is, you fought.

People seem to think there's intelligence underneath. Please believe when I say that although I might not be completely stupid, I am not very smart either.  I say and do the things I do simply because I can. There is nothing underlying that, no deep thoughts, no brilliant ideas

August 6:
I've come to realize how many people will never mean the same to me as they once did. I'm not sure if I should applaud them, be indifferent, or break down in tears.

August 4:
Whenever someone leaves, grab their arm with a solemn expression. Bow your head and whisper, "you might not make it back"

August 3:
I'm done. 
I'm done with pretending, I'm done with truth. 
I'm done with hope, I'm done with fear.
I'm done with life, I'm done with death.
I'm done with love, I'm done with hatred. 
I'm done with dreams, I'm done with reality.
I'm done with humanity, I'm done with people.
This is not a suicide note, this is fact.
I'm just done.

August 1:
That secret you almost shared.
Those tears you almost cried.
The scars you almost revealed.
Those emotions you almost showed.
The words you almost spoke.
They killed you and you almost didn't feel it.

July 27:
Tell me a lie. Comfort me with a falsehood. Ease my suffering with a tall tale. Help me get over you with empty words. Change my mind with fables. Let me move on with fairytales. Hold me in the embrace of deception. Send me forth into a world of myths. Show me that nothing and no one is what they seem. Because the only truth you will find, is that everyone lies.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World by Steven Berlin is an utterly absorbing book which details the cholera outbreak in London’s Soho district in 1854.

The book follows the investigations of Dr. John Snow, a local physician and the local Soho Anglican priest, Henry Whitehead. Together they provided convincing evidence that the outbreak of cholera was due to contamination of the Broad Street water pump and ushered in the modern science of epidemiology.

The book has many merits.  Berlin understands that the discovery of the cause of the epidemic was a crossroad in medicine, urban planning, demographic studies, municipal and public policy. The outbreak and the discovery of its source made large scale urban living, without massive outbreaks of deadly disease, possible. 

So although the title contains the hyperbole of so many recent non-fiction books, the case examined here really does deserve credit for ushering in the modern field of health care and its related policies and the most salient feature of modern living - mega cities.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Scoured : a poem

Ghost trees scrubbed
Scoured by swags of snow
Already I feel numb to this
Why and how
Of season’s cycles
The brown the gray the blue
Circle back to bleached
And I strive and scrape
Exhausted of bounded life
Burnished by dull cold.