Saturday, December 26, 2015

Strength: Lesson #2

A tignon (pronounced tiyon) is a type of head-covering that closely resembles the gele of West Africa. It was worn (required by law) by women of African descent in Spanish controlled Louisiana beginning in 1786. During this era, the Spanish governor decreed that all women of color should cover their hair in order to refrain from an "excessive attention to dress" (they were attracting the "interests" of the local men) and to restore/ maintain the accepted class/ racial distinctions and prejudices.

This intended mark of inferiority came to have a very different effect...New Orleans historian Carolyn M. Long shares: 

"Instead of being considered a badge of dishonor, the tignon became a fashion statement. The bright reds, blues, and yellows of the scarves, and the imaginative wrapping techniques employed by their wearers, are said to have enhanced the beauty of the women of color."

Instead of accepting this racist "mark of inferiority", the women reinterpreted the law to enhance their beauty and protest against this demeaning "law".  I can't help to think that the strength seen in the Black Lives Matter movement has the "Spirit of the Tignon" in their declaration of pride and demand for justice...

As 2016 approaches, let's recognize and embrace inherent and unique beauty...even in those who some would call "our enemy"!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Strength: Lesson #1


In America and many other countries, strength is demonstrated through "superior" economic systems, "enlightened" educational reform, "advanced" military technology and the ability to injure/ kill with scientific this "warrior mentality" a sign of strength or ultimately a profound sign of weakness? 

For many Native Americans (there were over 500+ distinct/ diverse tribes), hair was seen as a symbol of spiritual health and strength. Many believed that the purity seen in babies/ young children could help preserve (symbolized through long hair) their spiritual strength and that this strength of spirit could be developed throughout their lifetime. Can you imagine what it must have felt like to have your hair cut against your will by the U.S. government "Department of Education"...aka Indian Boarding Schools?

As the New Year approaches, can we contemplate for just a moment...

How should we "show our strength" in 2016?

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Libby Prison's "Rat Hell"

Recently in class we discussed Col. Federico Cavada and his book Libby Life, which describes the time he spent in Libby Prison, one of the most notorious Confederate POW prisons in Richmond, Virginia. Prior to the Civil War, the Libby Building was used as a warehouse involved in providing supplies to the major shipping industries in the United States. Shortly after the start of the war, the building was confiscated by the Rebel Army and converted into a prison. The top 2 floors was where prisoners (usually around 1,000) were held and the 1st floor was the guard quarters. The prison was overcrowded, lacked proper sanitation, and rations (usually beef, bread, soup, potatoes, or cornbread) were in short supply. The guards did not pay too much attention to the prisoners since Libby Prison was considered impossible to escape from...

This brings us to the basement, which early on was used as a storage area and kitchen for the inmates. But, the basement became so badly infested with rats that it had to be abandoned and was given the name of "Rat Hell"!

In 1863, a group of Union officers began plans to escape. They removed a stove on the first floor and chipped their way into a chimney, creating a passage for access to the eastern basement where a tunnel could be dug from the the prison under the street to Kerr's Warehouse. There were 3 five-man digging crews, using a broken shovel and knives for tools. Most of the digging took place at night and in complete darkness...with packs of rats squealing and moving in, around, and on the men!

After several failed attempts and  weeks of digging, 109 men broke through (February 9, 1864) to the surface, coming out in a storage shed of Kerr's Warehouse. Their escape went undetected and the Confederates were not able to organize a search party for nearly 17 hours. This delay ultimately enabled 59 Union troops to escape back to the Federal Line. Of course, this escape caused much panic in all Confederate POW Prisons.  

Col. Federico Fernandez Cavada

Later, Federico Cavada joked in his book...

"...when our distracted little Commandant now comes into our rooms, he keeps his knees well together, it is necessary to be very cautious, some of us might slip out between his legs!"

Thursday, November 5, 2015

What is Africa?

 Dr. William Edward Burghardt DuBois

One of the greatest thinkers of the 20th Century, W.E.B. DuBois, was a master at posing and answering difficult questions.  He once asked (here is an excerpt) an interesting question as he pondered his humanity:

"As I turn to the east and face Africa I ask myself...What is Africa?  What is it between us that constitutes a tie which I can feel better than I can explain?"

I will leave it up to the reader of this post to dig into his answer (which I believe hints at unity, common history, social heritage, oppression/ exploitation/ violence, discrimination, segregation, insult, and systematic racism) to this question...

I am here suggesting additional questions to ponder:

What is Mexico?

What is Tibet?

What is Vietnam?

What is Nigeria?

What is El Salvador?

In other words, what is your "home" which you have no more to you?  Can this (America) be home?

I want to know your history...

I want to understand your pain...

I want to develop empathy...

I want to "stand in" your pride...

I want to know your message to the world...

I want to build this home together...

But, how could I do this by building a wall?


Monday, October 26, 2015

"Dred Scott" Today?

Recently in class, we discussed Dred Scott and his pursuit of freedom. Most people know the narrative...

Dred Scott was born into slavery in Virginia ca. 1799 and later his owner moved from Virginia, to Missouri, a slave state. He was then sold to Dr. John Emerson (who interestingly spent several years stationed at Ft. Snelling with Dred and Harriet Scott), a surgeon in the U.S. Army. Scott sued for his freedom based on the fact that he had been transported to and lived in free states/ territories and therefore should have been freed. 

The case then went to the U.S. Supreme Court...where they ruled that:

  • African Americans (slave or free) could never be U.S. citizens based on the Constitution.
  • White men were entitled to own property...which included chattel slavery.
  • The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional and that states did not have the power to decide slave or free state status.
  • All of the United States was open to the ownership of slaves in "free" or "slave" territories.

How is this any different in 2015? 

Four miles north of where Dred Scott is buried and over a century later Michael Brown was gunned down by police in Ferguson, Missouri...can you hear the echoes of the Dred Scott Case ringing in your ears?

We must ask...

Why has our society not come to regard or fully recognize African Americans, Native Americans,
other people of color, women, etc. as full citizens?

Why is there an irrational fear of African Americans, etc. in our society?

Why is it dangerous to Black, Brown, etc.?

Why do we need to patrol our streets in full military gear, tanks?

Why racial profiling, police brutality?

Why the school to prison pipeline?

Why the so-called "Drug War" manufactured to incarcerate our youth?


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Enslaved Inventors

Recently in class, we have been studying the insidious effects of the Industrial Revolution (new inventions and technology...especially the cotton gin, the idea of interchangeable parts, mass production, etc.) of the early 1800's on the exponential growth of slavery.

"McCormick's" Reaper

In 1858, the U.S. Attorney General (defending the U.S. Patent Act of 1793 and 1836 which barred slaves from obtaining patents because they were not U.S. citizens) - Jeremiah S. Black - said that because slaves were considered property, their ideas and inventions were the property of their masters. In other words, many slaves invented new technologies that are not credited in the so-called history books...

"Famous" Slave Inventors:

Sam- Sam and his father invented a comb that removed cotton seeds from cotton fiber.  Eli Whitney took this invention and developed a mechanized cotton gin.

Jo Anderson- Jo helped his master Cyrus McCormick create and build the famous reaper...Jo has been acknowledged by the McCormick family for his many contributions to the reaper.

Ned- Ned invented the cotton "plow and scraper" which led to his master to argue (in favor of slavery), "the master is the owner of the fruits of labor of the slave, both manual and intellectual...when did a free Negro ever invent anything?"

Benjamin Montgomery- Benjamin (belonging to the Jefferson Davis family) invented a ship propeller (that cut into the water at different angles) that would help river boats to navigate quicker in order to deliver products more quickly from his master's store.  Sadly, this propeller helped the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Benjamin Bradley- Benjamin worked in a printing office and at the age of 16 began collecting junk scrap metal, modeling it into a small ship. Eventually, he built/ tinkered with a working steam engine for his "ship"...and so the steam engine was born. Bradley eventually worked at the Annapolis Naval Academy, where he became a classroom assistant in the science department. At the Naval Academy, he developed a steam engine large enough to drive the first steam-powered warships in the 1840's.

Our next invention?!?

Friday, August 14, 2015

Green-Wood Cemetery #3

June 2015...

This is my last post about my visit to Green-Wood Cemetery.

As I visited the highest point in Brooklyn and site of the first official battle of the Revolutionary War, I was surprised to find the beautiful statue "Minerva" apparently waving/ saluting "her sister" Liberty nearly 4 miles away!


Minerva was the Roman goddess of Wisdom...which included music, poetry, medicine, and the arts.

In 1920, Charles M. Higgins, decided to build an altar on Battle Hill to memorialize the first major battle after the Declaration of Independence. He chose to adorn the hill with a statue of Minerva. He made sure that Minerva faced Lady Liberty (erected in 1886) and her upraised torch.

Too me...a wonderful reminder that much liberty must be accompanied with much wisdom and much wisdom must be accompanied with much liberty.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Green-Wood Cemetery #2

June 2015...

This is my second post about my visit to Green-Wood Cemetery.

The highest point (~220 feet) in Brooklyn, NY is found at Battle Hill in modern day Green-Wood Cemetery.  This is the location of the first battle of the Revolutionary War after the United States declared independence on July 4, 1776. This (The Battle of Long Island...which we lost) was also the largest battle of the entire war in terms of troop deployment and fighting. The fighting on Battle Hill was especially brutal, with the Americans inflicting the highest number of casualties against British troops of the entire battle...if you stand and study long enough you can imagine the British attacking and the Americans valiantly attempting to defend the high ground.

As General George Washington watched the bloodshed that day he cried in despair, "“Good God... What brave fellows I must this day lose!”

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Green-Wood Cemetery #1

Green - Wood Cemetery - Brooklyn, New York

June 2015...

I doubt that many people would find a cemetery to be an exciting place...but in my opinion, for a lover of history Green-Wood Cemetery is only surpassed by the likes of Arlington, Gettysburg, Andersonville, Pearl Harbor, and Normandy.

Green-Wood Cemetery occupies the highest elevation in Brooklyn (~200 feet) on nearly 500 acres and holds 600,000 bodies in a beautiful setting of rolling hills, mature trees, serene ponds, world class sculptures/ works of art, and spectacular architecture.

I will spend the next several posts chronicling my most memorable moments in Green-Wood...

"The Drummer Boy"

Clarence MacKenzie (Brooklyn's first casualty of the Civil War) was 12 years old when he marched off to the Civil War as a drummer boy with Brooklyn’s 13th Regiment. While camped/ resting in Annapolis, Maryland. Unfortunately, he was accidentally killed by a stray bullet fired by soldiers drilling nearby. Clarence is buried in "The Soldiers’ Lot" which Green-Wood donated specifically for Civil War Veterans. His grave is marked with a 10 foot tall “white bronze” monument inscribed: OUR DRUMMER BOY. The proud figure of the boy and his drum in uniform brought me to tears...

The Dead Drummer Boy

Midst tangled roots that lined the wild ravine
Where the fierce fight raged hottest through the day,
And where the dead in scattered heaps were seen,
Amid the darkling forest’s shade and sheen
Speechless in death he lay.

The settling sun, which glanced athwart the place
In slanting lines, like amber-tinted rain,
Fell sidewise on the drummer’s upturned face,
Where death had left his gory finger’s trace
In one bright crimson stain.

The silken fringes of his once bright eye
Lay like a shadow on his cheek so fair;
His lips were parted by a long-drawn sigh,
That with his soul had mounted to the sky
On some wild martial air.

No more his hand the fierce tattoo shall beat,
The shrill reveille, or the long roll’s call,
Or sound the charges, when, in smoke and heat
Of fiery onset, foe with foe shall meet,
And gallant men shall fall.

Yet may be in some happy home, that one,
A mother, reading from the list of dead,
Shall chance to view the name of her dead son,
And move her lips to say, “God’s will be done!”
And bow in grief her head.

But more than this what tongue shall tell his story?
Perhaps his boyish longings were for fame.
He lived, he died; and so memento mori.
Enough if on the page of War and Glory
Some had has writ his name.

Friday, June 5, 2015

"Ha det bra!"

When my grandmother said "goodbye" to us she would often use a Norwegian phrase...

"Ha det bra!" 

Which technically is not a means "Have it good!"  I am especially reminded of this today...the last day of school (a sad & happy day) for the year 2014-15.

In many Native American languages there is no word for "goodbye"...only "see you" or "see you soon". Can a word ever separate the learning, dialogue, and memories we've shared with each other in school this year?

I say "no!"

So since I am not really good at goodbyes, let's just say "Ha det bra!" and "Kill the Jellyfish!"

A Poem written by Mary Tallmountain...

“There Is No Word for Goodbye”

Sokoya, I said, looking through the net of wrinkles into wise black pools of her eyes.
What do you say in Athabascan when you leave each other?
What is the word for goodbye?

A shade of feeling rippled the wind-tanned skin.
Ah, nothing, she said, watching the river flash.

She looked at me close. We just say, Tlaa. That means, “see you.”
We never leave each other.

When does your mouth say goodbye to your heart?
She touched me light as a bluebell.
You forget when you leave us; you're so small then.

We don't use that word.
We always think you're coming back, but if you don't,
we'll see you some place else.
You understand.

There is no word for goodbye.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Duc Nguyen:Killing Agent Orange

Viet and Duc Nguyen ca. 1988

Viet and Duc Nguyen were born as conjoined twins (as a result of exposure to Agent Orange) in 1981 in the Central Higlands province of Kon Tum in Vietnam. Their family lived/ worked on a farm that had been sprayed with Dioxin, a "nuclear herbicide" often referred to as Agent Orange.

After, Viet and Duc were surgically separated in 1988, Duc's health thrived, he attended school, became a computer programmer, a teacher, and advocates for others who suffer from Agent Orange, disabilities, and other human tragedies. Unfortunately, Viet suffered from chronic and debilitating health issues and passed away in 2007.  Duc shares...

"When I lost my brother I was extremely sad, but now I feel like my brother
 is always beside me, and I know I must think positively."

The United States sprayed 12 million gallons of Dioxin on Vietnam in order to "help fight Communism" in the 1960's and 70's. It has been estimated that Agent Orange has caused millions of Vietnamese (and our own Vietnam Veterans) to suffer/ die from cancer, miscarriages, physical disabilities, birth defects, and myriads of other health issues.

Yet, we do not take responsibility for our "weapon of mass destruction".  Duc opines...

"I find it ironic that on one hand you put Saddam Hussein on trial for using biological warfare, 
but in another country where you sprayed chemicals for warfare, you neglect your responsibility.  
The United States must admit its responsibility and compensate the Agent Orange victims in Vietnam. It is your moral obligation...sooner or later, it has to be done!"

In spite of my anger, I find inspiration and hope in Viet and Duc's lives. 

sự bền chí

Making the most out of life, persevering, helping others, strengthening communities, fighting for accessibility, demanding justice, and loving peace...unfortunately, I pale in comparison to Duc. Let's not give up hope and become mired in our anger and bitterness...let's keep "killing jellyfish" and make this world a better place. I only wish our government and the multinational corporations would have the same motivation!

Duc Nguyen and Family

 "We have all had to let go of sad events and try to move forward positively...
I have to help these less fortunate than I and advocate for peace."

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The "Four" Spirits Sculpture

The Four Spirits:Birmingham, Alabama

The telling of history is not history unless it's true...

On September 15, 1963 (just a few weeks after the famous March on Washington/ "I Have A Dream" speech), one of the most horrific and deplorable moments in American history occurred at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

A KKK terrorist attack killed 4 young girls and permanently blinded Sarah Collins as they attended services that morning...but, just hours after the bombing 2 young boys (mostly forgotten by history books) also lost their lives. In the aftermath of the attack, hundreds of people poured into the city streets to mourn, comfort each other, protest the attack, etc. while gangs of white youth and adults taunted and harassed  them/ celebrated the bombing with chants like...

"Two, four, six, eight we don't want to integrate."

 Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware

During these very tense moments, Virgil Ware (shot in the chest while riding the handlebars of his brother's bike) and Johnny Robinson (shot in the back by police as they arrived to "disperse" the crowd) were killed in separate incidents Although the murders of Johnny and Virgil were largely overshadowed by the church bombing, they have not been forgotten. 

Finally after 50 years, the "Four Spirits Memorial" has made the history of September 15, 1963 complete!

Symbolism in the statue:

"A Love That Forgives" was the sermon title for church services that day.

Photographs of all six children are engraved on the side of the bench.

Denise reaching skyward with 6 doves/ the souls of their spirits being released to heaven.

Addie Mae lovingly adjusting the bow on Denise's dress.

Cynthia seated on the end of the bench reading/ pondering a book...opened to "The Stolen Child" by W.B. Yeats.

Carole looking back toward her friends as if to say, "we'd better get's time to go to church."

Maybe the empty space on the bench represents the lives of the living parents, siblings, relatives, friends, etc. who would never be the same...

Well, I don't know what will happen to me now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But, it really doesn't matter with me now...because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But, I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain...and I've looked over...and I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But, I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So, I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything...I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


Yesterday, I attended a brief Memorial Day service at the Korean War Memorial in St. Paul...there was a posting of the colors, a reading of the names (738) of Minnesotans who died/ MIA in the Korean War, a speaker (more on him later), the placing of a battle cross, a playing of taps, and a 21 gun salute.

The Battlefield Cross

The most memorable quote from the speakers speech was an oft-quoted epitaph...

"All gave some...some gave all."

I thought about this as I was standing there looking around at the men (and their families) who survived and also gave their tomorrow so we could have our today...and would like you to consider this phrase for those who serve our country...

"All gave...all."

Lest We Forget

A Korean War soldier searching for his fellow soldier...who is missing, but will never be forgotten.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Kissing Case:If We Weren't Colored

In 1958, James Thompson (9) and David Simpson (7) - both African-American - were accused and convicted of raping/ molesting a 5 year old white girl in Monroe, North Carolina. The case drew international attention...but since then, the story has been largely forgotten/ not told.

James shares...

"We were playing with some friends over in the white neighborhood, chasing spiders and wrestling and stuff like that and one of the kids suggested that one of the little white girls give us a kiss on the jaw...the girls gave me a peck on the cheek, and then kissed David on the cheek. So, we didn't think nothing of it. We were just little kids."

"They took us down in the bottom of the police station to a cell...they had us handcuffed...they beat us to our body...they punched us all in the stomach, and back and legs...we was hollering and screaming...they threatened to castrate us...we thought they was gonna kill us."

Things weren't much better back at home (Jame's sister Brenda shares):

"You could see them burning crosses right there in the front yard...and mom would go out in the morning and sweep bullets off of the front porch."

Is Jim Crow dead?

Over 50 years later, the effects of this harmless kiss (the boys were never the same) can be seen in the destruction of childhood hopes and dreams.

James laments...

"I still feel the hurt and pain...and nobody never said 'hey, look, I'm sorry what happened to y'all. It was wrong.'"

"I wonder if this hadn't happened to me, you know, what could I have turned out to be? Could I have been a doctor? Could I have went off to some college, or some great school?"

"It just destroyed our life."

Monday, May 11, 2015

Not mañana!

Sal Castro was a social studies teacher in East L.A. who helped organize the 1968 student walkouts against unequal education/ racial conditions in the Los Angeles Public School District. He was very outspoken in regard to culturally relevant curriculum...tracking of Mexican students into vocational education...Civil Rights...what it takes to be a teacher...and what it takes to be a student.

Maestro Sal Castro

To be a good teacher:

"You start with the love of kids and know that you are going to go to the wall for them to make sure they're successful. Teaching is a fight...I was already (in 1963) thinking fight rather than my teaching (I was willing to lose my job to stand up for what is right)."

"I expected my students to achieve. There was no reason why they couldn't. I had high expectations of them and they were going to do it. I constantly and positively motivated them."

You must be willing to say: "You're going to do term projects just like the kids do in college...because you're going to college...and you're going to go to the library and do research on a topic in history and you're going to get it done...I want you to do well on exams...I want you to take notes and you're going to learn how to take good notes..."

"Nothing says you can't do it. You aren't going to tell me you can't do it because you are going to do it!"

To be a good student:

A good student must have the attitude:

"Today...Not mañana!"