Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger: The Inconvenient Truth

He told the inconvenient truth...
Pete Seeger, one of the quintessential protest singers/ songwriters of the modern era, died yesterday in New York City.  He will always be remembered as a banjo-playing singer who vociferously opposed the Vietnam War, multinational corporations, "those in power" and strongly supported The Civil Rights Movement, The Counterculture Movement, labor unions, migrant workers, international disarmament, and environmental causes.

His most famous songs include..."If I Had a Hammer"...

Peter, Paul, and Mary singing Seeger's Hammer at The March on Washington

"Turn, Turn, Turn"...

The Byrds perform Seeger's Turn! Turn! Turn!

"Where Have All the Flowers Gone"...
When will we ever learn...poignant Seeger.

I personally love "Take It From Dr. King"...
We too can learn to sing!

His songs make me remember...hope...cry...want to kill jellyfish every time.

"Be wary of great leaders...
hope that there are many, many small leaders."
                                   - Pete Seeger


Friday, January 24, 2014

12 Years A Slave

For several years (before most people ever heard of Solomon Northup) our classes have been reading, analyzing, discussing, and writing about their reactions to excerpts from Solomon Northup's "12 Years a Slave"....Solomon Northup was a Free Black New Yorker who was kidnapped and sold into slavery (1841-1853) on several Louisiana plantations. “12 Years a Slave” is definitely a book/ movie that bears reading/watching because it honestly tells the story of the dehumanizing and brutal sin of slavery...

But more profoundly, the story allows us to deeply question how the present reflects the past...why race is still an issue that weakens the "Dream of America"...consider silence/ apathy/ ignorance as a "form of survival"...understand who the true heroes of America really are...

Early in the book (page 77), Solomon writes:

 "Could it be possible that I was thousands of miles from home—that I had been driven through the streets like a dumb beast— that I had been chained and beaten without mercy—that I was even then herded with a drove of slaves, a slave myself? Were the events of the last few weeks realities indeed?—or was I passing only through the dismal phases of a long, protracted dream? It was no illusion. My cup of sorrow was full to overflowing. Then I lifted up my hands to God, and in the still watches of the night, surrounded by the sleeping forms of my companions, begged for mercy on the poor, forsaken captive. To the Almighty Father of us all—the freeman and the slave—I poured forth the supplications of a broken spirit, imploring strength from on high to bear up against the burden of my troubles, until the morning light aroused the slumberers, ushering in another day of bondage."

Solomon's story (and the majority of the movie) seems to be dedicated to prove that his spirit and the spirit of the other slaves (who had never experienced freedom) could never be broken...and that his true freedom was found through the slaves (especially Patsey) who would never refuse to give up hope.

 Page 260...
"Patsey's life, especially after her whipping, was one long dream of liberty. Far away, to her fancy an immeasurable distance, she knew there was a land of freedom. A thousand times she had heard that somewhere in the distant North there were no slaves—no masters. In her imagination it was an enchanted region, the Paradise of the earth. To dwell where the black man may work for himself—live in his own cabin—till his own soil, was a blissful dream of Patsey's—a dream, alas! the fulfillment of which she can never realize."

In my opinion, Patsey (and the millions of slaves whose names we will never know) is the true hero of this story. She is continually brutalized...but never defeated. After being forced to whip Patsey, Solomon breaks his fiddle, and seems to hear and understand (while singing "Roll Jordan Roll) for the first time, the true meaning of the slaves' indomitable spirit...the light of freedom in the darkness of slavery.

This is truly a book and movie for the ages.

Watch "Roll Jordan Roll" Clip (1:56)

Monday, January 20, 2014

MLK Day 2014: The MLK Blues


Recently in class we have been studying (and confronting) the origins of Blues, Ragtime, and Jazz music...during our investigation we listened to this thought provoking quote:

"The Blues is about sculpting meaning (and freedom) out of a 
situation that seems to defy your being able to find meaning in it..."

Blues music must have feeling...it must come from way down deep...it must be one's very soul singing out.

This leads me to ask myself...am I using my life to sing out?  

Can my life sound like Buddy Bolden's coronet...Louis Armstrong's scat...the style of Duke Ellington or virtuosity of Ella Fitzgerald...can we really do "the common things in life in an uncommon way" to help sculpt meaning in this world... 

Listen to Wynton Marsalis play the "Buddy Bolden Blues"

January 15, 1929 - April 4, 1968
Mountaintop Speech Excerpt - April 3, 1968

Isn't this what Dr. King (and generations of others) did?  

His dream for freedom and justice came from way down deep... 

He cried for us to confront our past...present...and future...

He called us to sculpt meaning and dreams out of a situation that defied meaning...

Can we avoid the great task of Killing the Jellyfish?!?
MLK Day 2014...Dream.


Thursday, January 16, 2014

Triangle Shirtwaist Yesterday & Today:Cries of the Heart

Today in class we studied the relationship between Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" (an attempt to educate Americans about the plight of poor American workers) and The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911...one of the deadliest workplace disasters in the history of the United States. The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers. Most of the victims were young immigrant girls who lived in tenement housing on the lower east side of Manhattan. Our class discussion evoked many thoughts about "the cries of young immigrant girls" in 1911 and of the condition of sweatshop workers in the United States and around the world...

Cries of the Heart- Memories of Immigrant Girls

"I used to creep up on the roof of the tenement and talk out my heart to the stars and the sky. Why were we cramped into the crowded darkness? Why are we wasting with want?
Where is America?"
"I liked music. I liked lectures. I wanted to learn things;
I wanted to learn everything.
The only thing is, the time; I needed time."
At the turn of the century, New York City's garment district employed over 100,000 workers. In 1948, over 350,000 worked in the NYC garment factories. Today there are approximately 200,000 garment workers employed in The United States of America, mostly in California and New York. Today, most garment workers are also immigrant women (mostly Asian and Latino) and shockingly 50% of all garment factories in the United States have serious violations which classify them as sweatshops!

According to Marissa Nunico (Director of The Garment Worker Center)...

“the notion that we still don’t have sweatshops in the United States is simply not true...
it’s important that people are aware of the conditions that exist like poor ventilation and just terrible safety violations.”

Locking workers into the factory (just like Triangle Shirtwaist) during operating hours is still a major safety violation! Another common practice (where many workers are "illegal" and don't speak English) is wage theft.  This is the practice of violating minimum wage or overtime pay laws. For example, according to the United States Department of Labor...

90% of garment workers in Los Angeles do not receive overtime pay, even when they work more than 40 hours, 67% are paid less than minimum wage, and 98% work in environments with serious health and safety violations.

What would Upton Sinclair say?!?

Watch a clip from "Made in L.A."

Sunday, January 12, 2014

A Black Statue of Liberty?

Recently in class, while we were studying the construction of the Statue of Liberty several of my students asked some interesting questions...these questions show that at the very least the youth of today occassionally browse the internet for historical information, urban legends, conspiracy theories, alternative history, etc...following are 3 of the best questions with my best answers (based on primary sources and a 2 year inquiry conducted by Dr. Rebecca M. Joseph and the United States National Park Service).

Broken chains at Liberty's feet
Question 1: "Was the Statue of Liberty built to celebrate the contributions of African-American soldiers during the Civil War?"
Answer: No, primary source evidence can not be found to support this claim.  However, the designers of the statue were abolitionists who strongly opposed slavery and did recognize the importance of the Union victory. They intended the statue to represent a much broader celebration of liberty and Franco-American friendship...

They wanted the Statue of Liberty to symbolize:
a) The ideals of liberty emboddied in the Declaration of Independence (1776).
b) The ideals of liberty emboddied in victory over slavery in The Civil War (1865).
c) A continued pursuit of freedom in both France and America as the United States approached it's centennial celebration (1876).
Bartholdi's "Egypt" 

Question 2: "Was the original design for the Statue of Liberty based on a black woman...I heard the design changed because white Americans (especially Southerners) would not accept an African-American Liberty?"
Answer: Yes, the statue's design evolved from Bartholdi's 1869 plan (and admiration for the monuments of Egypt) to build a colossal monument (based on Egyptian women as models) in Egypt to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal...this plan was rejected by Egyptian officials. Many elements of his "Egypt" can clearly be seen in his "Liberty".  It is also true that Bartholdi's early design included Lady Liberty holding a broken shackle and chain in her left hand and broken chains at her feet. This design was changed to tablets inscribed "July IV, MDCCLXXVI” (July 4, 1776) not to appease racists, but to emphasize a broader vision (1776, 1865, 1876, future hope) of liberty for all of humanity.

"The Statue of Immigrants?"
Question 3: "Was the Statue of Liberty always considered a symbol of welcoming European immigrants?"
Answer: No, the interpretation of the statue as a monument to American immigrants is a twentieth-century phenomenon. Liberty (1871-1886), in her early years was almost universally discussed in relation to the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and abolition of slavery. The more popular view as the statue symbolizing immigration began with the exhibition of Emma Lazarus' poem "The New Colossus" in 1903 and as Nativists/ the United States government attempted to Americanize immigrant families/ sell World War I War Bonds. The "immigrant interpretation" gained even greater momentum as Americans prepared for WWII. The symbolic use of the Statue of Liberty in these endeavors contributed greatly to the predominant (yet incorrect) understanding that the statue's original purpose was to welcome and symbolize the many contributions of immigrants. It seems simple...The Statue of Liberty symbolizes liberty!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Poetry in Motion

The First Hennepin Avenue Bridge-1855
"A Favorite Place for Skating"
In his 1904 book "Personal Recollections and Observations of a Pioneer Resident", Frank O'Brien tells many stories about his life growing up in the Great Northwest (Minneapolis)...the following excerpt is one of my favorites. 

"Fire and Ice"
The Winter of 1860-61

It seems to me that the winters in those early times were of much longer duration than now; when they came there was no fooling, but they attended strictly to business, so that lumbermen and skaters alike knew what to depend upon...The favorite place for skating was on the river, from the suspension bridge, now the steel arch bridge, up the (Mississippi) river and around Nicollet Island to the East Side Channel. When the snow would cover up the skating grounds, a committee made up from the boys of St. Anthony would set to work and have it shoveled off, thus giving us a pleasure resort unequalled in the western country...If it was a very cold night or afternoon, the girls would be obliged to pull on woolen socks over their skating shoes to keep their feet from freezing while on the way from their homes to the skating grounds, and the boys would put on an extra pair of woolen socks...

The greatest fun on the ice was in the evening, when a huge bonfire was made, that sent a glow of warmth to a great distance, furnished illumination for the vast piece of glassy surface, and enveloped the entire surroundings in clouds of smoke...

Quite frequently during the winter we would have the brass band on the ice to discourse music for the many beautiful waltzes, the memory of which from this distance of time, is refreshing, indeed.

Watch Kim Yuna..."Poetry in Motion" (start at 1:25)