Visitors discover an exhibition in the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, in Warsaw. The museum officially opened last week.
I remember the confusion I felt when I visited my family’s town, Radomsko, on my first trip to Poland in the fall of 2000. What was I looking for? I had no idea. I didn’t know anybody there. My relationship to the town, where my mother’s family had lived for over a hundred years, had been obscured by time, emigration, and trauma.
In the Radomsko Regional Museum, located in the lovely historic town hall, I accompanied a guide past collections of pottery shards from archeological digs, displays of nineteenth-century butter churns, exhibits of roof thatching and farm implements.
There were photos of Radomsko citizens deported to Siberia under Russian rule, infantry helmets from the First World War, and gruesome pictures of Polish partisans from the town, standing in front of pits before their execution by German soldiers. Where was any mention of the town’s Jewish citizens, nearly 55% of the town before World War II, almost all of whom perished under the German occupation?
When Francine and David Wheeler lost their son Ben in the Sandy Hook tragedy nearly two years ago, one book they turned to for guidance was Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Speaking with Oprah Winfrey last year, David Wheeler said he connected with Frankl’s message because “so much of what he writes resonates with me . . . . Because man’s salvation—and he means that not only in the religious sense, but actual survival—is found in and through love.” The Wheelers were able to take that spirit of love, and turn it into force that nurtured them through immense grief. It is a story as powerful as it is familiar to followers of Frankl’s teachings.
Fifty-five years after the original US publication of Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl’s timeless wisdom has helped generations of readers cope with hardship and overcome adversity, and his life-affirming vision continues to resonate today. In 1991, the book was listed by the Library of Congress as one of the top ten most influential books in the US, while more recently, Amazon listed it as one of its 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime. Writing in The Atlantic, Emily Esfahani Smith notes that Frankl, an Austrian Jew who survived a prolonged ordeal in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps, devised wisdom there, “in the middle of unimaginable human suffering, [that] is just as relevant now as it was then.”
Boston’s first Italian American mayor, Thomas M. Menino, addresses a crowd at Faneuil Hall. (Courtesy of Pam Donnaruma and the Post-Gazette)
It was with great sadness that we received the news today of Mayor Tom Menino’s passing. An enormously popular public servant, Menino was not only Boston’s first Italian American mayor but would become its longest-serving mayor in history. To remember him, we’d like to present the following passage from The Boston Italians, Stephen Puleo’s tribute to the vibrant Italian American citizens of Boston who, like Menino, transformed the city around them. First published in 2007, some of Puleo’s facts might seem dated, even poignant in hindsight, but we think it captures the spirit of Mayor Menino, a man who ushered Boston from the troubles of the last century and into the promise of the new millenium.
An enormous mural in Mayor Tom Menino’s outer office virtually covers one wall and beckons visitors to study its details. Painted by Menino’s cousin, the scene depicts the mayor’s grandfather sitting in his Italian village, awaiting passage to America. Across a wide body of water that dominates the painting is the skyline of an American city, its shores a two-week voyage away in real life but just a few inches away on the canvas. The mayor describes the painting with pride; it is, he says, the beginning of the Menino story in the United States. Without Thomas Menino’s monumental decision to leave Grottaminarda, Avellino, and travel to a strange country, his grandson would never have had an opportunity to make his own special history in Boston. Thomas Menino settled in Boston’s Hyde Park section, at the far western corner of the city, a neighborhood his grandson still cherishes and lives in today, and from which he built the political base that has enabled him to lead the city for more than a dozen years.
One thing I had noticed about the academic study of religion is that scholars invariably study their own. I do not just mean that Mormons write books about Mormons or Catholics about Catholics. It goes deeper than that: mainline Protestants typically observe people much like themselves, as do Orthodox Jews. My membership in none of the above, it turned out, had given me something of an academic advantage. I may have lacked the insights that come from lifelong involvement with one particular faith. But in return I was widely viewed as someone writing about religion with no particular axe to grind. When a referee was needed, there I was. Those I studied generally treated me as an outsider but also as one making a special effort to understand them. Far from feeling excluded from their world, I felt, if anything, a bit wary about the warm embrace they offered.
Yet the fact that I had spent so much time among deeply religious Christians made me increasingly aware of two ways in which my differences with them were insurmountable: I was Jewish by background and nonreligious by conviction. For me, the two had always been intertwined. My parents were not themselves religious, nor for that matter strongly committed to any ideology. (I recall my father telling me that when he grew up, everyone he knew was either a socialist, a communist, or a Zionist, but that he had managed to avoid all such identification.) Nonetheless my parents felt Jewish enough to arrange a bar mitzvah for me, and so without much conviction on their part or mine, I did my religious duty at the age of thirteen. That has pretty much been it. I do at times read the Old Testament—the prophets in particular appeal to me—but I cannot say that the angry God pictured therein is one I find especially attractive. It is not just that I have a hard time envisioning God creating the world and then meddling with it when we human beings displease him. The religious side of Judaism is as much about practice as it is about belief, and even in this realm I feel no urge to honor the tradition by following rules that at best seem arbitrary and at worst absurd. Although I know my share of rabbis, and even though I admire their learning and commitments to social justice, I cannot bring myself to regularly attend the synagogues of any of American Judaism’s major branches. The only times I enter a shul are when I am invited to speak in one. I study religion but do not practice it, not even the one in which I was ostensibly raised.
BOSTON, MA September 12, 1974: A large crowd gathers in South Boston's Columbus Park to protest federal court-ordered busing of black students to all-white neighborhood schools. A prominent sign at right reads 'Whites Have Rights' while militant anti-busing members of the 'South Boston Information Center'—an anti-busing organization—are visible wearing white caps among the crowd.
This year, in the 40th anniversary of the explosion that was Boston busing, it’s time to be clear: busing wasn’t just about black and white. It was also about green—who had some in their pockets, and who didn’t.
Busing was the best thing that ever happened to Whitey Bulger.
In the years leading up to the 1974 busing plan, my neighborhood—South Boston—was perceived as the bastion of white supremacy and privilege in Boston. After all, some of the city’s most powerful politicians were from South Boston, and the most egregious symbol of white supremacy in Boston, school committee member (later city councilor) Louise Day Hicks, was a resident of the affluent and beautiful shoreline of South Boston’s City Point. Although the reasoning behind the State Board of Education’s busing plan will forever remain a mystery, I have had to presume that this was the motivation for a plan that—disastrously—included busing students from predominantly black Roxbury to Irish-American South Boston and vice versa, even though both groups were desperately poor with desperately underfunded schools.
Historian and activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz wrote a letterto President Obama requesting that the US end its celebration of Christopher Columbus, a symbol of colonization and genocide for Native American nations and communities. Tell the world that we should honor the many contributions of Indigenous People instead of the conquest of one man. Sign the petitionon WhiteHouse.gov to add your voice!
“Our nation was born in genocide. . . . We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. . .” —Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dear President Obama:
“Columbus Day” was made a federal holiday in 1934, when Native American nations and communities had little voice to protest the celebration of the onset of colonization and genocide in the Western Hemisphere. In the era of global decolonization of the second half of the 20th century, Native Americans remained colonized. Columbus Day is a metaphor and painful symbol of that traumatic past, although the United States did not become an independent republic until nearly three centuries after Columbus’s first voyage. None of Columbus’s voyages touched the continental territory now claimed by the US. Yet, the United States soon affirmed that a 15th century Papal Bull, known as the “Doctrine of Discovery,” applied to the Indigenous nations of North America. This remains US law in claiming that Native nations are “domestic, dependent nations” with no inherent rights to the land.
Cornel West’s Black Prophetic Fire is both a new look at six revolutionary African American leaders and a rousing call for more “fire” in what West calls the Black prophetic tradition, a reframing of the social order in terms of radical justice. As Dr. West writes in the introduction,
The deep hope shot through this dialogue is that Black prophetic fire never dies, that the Black prophetic tradition forever flourishes, and that a new wave of young brothers and sisters of all colors see and feel that it is a beautiful thing to be on fire for justice and that there is no greater joy than inspiring and empowering others—especially the least of these, the precious and priceless wretched of the earth!
It’s that time of the year again, a time when readers, writers, and publishers everywhere are reminded of the fragility of free speech, even within a country that purportedly protects it. Though this will be the 32nd year of the annual freedom to read celebration, the reality is that book banning is still distressingly common. “It takes guts to take a stand against censorship,” free speech activist Chris Finan recently remarked in response to the banning of Emily M. Danforth’s teen novel The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Finan is president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and author of From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America, the first comprehensive history of free speech in America for general readers, and a book that should be required reading for Banned Books Week.
Senator Maria Cantwell’s proposed bill to strip the NFL of their nonprofit status is the latest strike in the ongoing effort to pressure the Washington Redskins to change their mascot. Canwtell joins a growingchorus of opponents to the disparaging name. Back in January, the National Congress of American Indians created a powerful PSA that outlined the issue in just a few words: “Native Americans call themselves many things. The one thing they don’t...” The ad ends with a close-up image of the Washington Redskins logo. The implication is clear.
During the late seventeenth century, Anglo settlers in New England began the routine practice of scalp hunting and what military historian John Grenier identifies as “ranging”—the use of settler-ranger forces. By that time, the non-Indigenous population of the English colony in North America had increased sixfold, to more than 150,000, which meant that settlers were intruding on more of the Indigenous homelands.
Viktor Frankl, the psychotherapist and author of the hugely influential book Man’s Search for Meaning, died seventeen years ago this week.
Frankl had already begun to establish himself as a prominent neurologist and psychiatrist in Vienna—heir to the legacies of Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler—when the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938. For a time, Frankl was able to maintain his practice as the anti-Semitic climate continued to grow in Austria. But in September 1942, he and his wife and parents were arrested and deported to Theresienstadt, the “model ghetto” and concentration camp where Frankl’s father would later perish. That would begin a tragic odyssey for Frankl, who was transferred with his wife and mother to Auschwitz in 1944. Only Frankl would survive.
One hundred and seventy-five years ago today, La Amistad and its crew of former slaves was captured off the coast of Long Island and towed to New London, Connecticut, where the story of the slaves’ revolt and subsequent trial for piracy and murder immediately became the sensation of the popular press, and a cause célèbre for abolitionists and other sympathizers. In this excerpt adapted from Outlaws of the Atlantic, historian Marcus Rediker takes us back to the first days of the ship’s capture, when the idea of “black pirates” would ignite the imagination of early America and take these fifty-three Africans on a journey from the holds of a slave ship to the halls of the Supreme Court and beyond.
The story began with a sensational headline: “A Suspicious Sail—a Pirate.” The New York Morning Herald announced on August 24, 1839, that a pilot boat had spotted a mystery ship about twenty-five miles off the coast of New York. On deck were “a number of negroes, twenty five or thirty, . . . almost or quite naked; some were wrapped in blankets, and one had on a white coat.” They were a “strange crew,” all the stranger for brandishing machetes, pistols, and muskets. One sailor “had a belt of dollars round his waist; another called the captain, had a gold watch. They could speak no English, but appeared to talk in the negro language.” Black pirates, armed and flush with plunder, were cruising the coast of Long Island.
The vessel itself was in eerie disrepair: “Long grass was growing upon her bottom, and her sails were much torn, as if she had been driving about at the mercy of the gale, with her sails set and no one at the helm.” Here, declared the Morning Herald, was the “Flying Dutchman,” the ghost ship that wandered the seas endlessly as a portent of doom. Indeed, doom seemed already to have struck the vessel, which once upon a time had been a slave ship: “It was supposed that the prisoners had risen upon the captain and his assistants and captured her.” Having murdered the master and crew, those aboard could not navigate the vessel. They “are now drifting about bound for no particular port.”
I had long been fascinated by the history of Haiti, especially its profound revolutionary self-emancipation based on the greatest slave revolt in modern history (1791-1804). The small island nation also boasts one of the world’s greatest folk art traditions—it has more painters per capita than any other place on earth. They paint sheer wonder, as André Breton, leader of Europe’s surrealist movement, discovered when he arrived in Haiti in 1945. When he saw the paintings of the vodou houngan Hector Hyppolite, he remarked that by these astonishing works he recognized his own as failures.
As we celebrate the 238th birthday of the United States on July 4, 2014, one question remains as important today as it was when we declared our independence. What causes some citizens to be patriotic and others to become traitors?
Periodically this question arises during Congressional inquiries and in the press when a particular American is revealed as a potential or active domestic terrorist. Equally disturbing are reports about citizens who have emigrated to foreign countries to join anti-American organizations bent on producing death and destruction from afar.
The reasons for betrayal are complex and often highly personal, but one common thread seems to be the traitor’s long-standing inability to embrace the values of American society. With that in mind, I researched the lives of two late-eighteenth century couples who reacted to the ideals of the American Revolution in vastly different ways.
As Father’s Day approaches, I’ve been thinking of books I’d recommend to my own father. I have fond memories from childhood of sitting with my father while he watched “his shows,” the science and nature and history programming on public televison channels that my other siblings would spurn as too educational to be entertaining. My father, a former Navyman who’d traveled the world in his youth, loved pointing out places he had been to, and I loved discovering a sense of the world through his eyes. Later, after we moved to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, we would go on hikes together and stand at the summits, taking in the vastness. Or we would go fishing together, which seemed mainly an excuse to sit in inflatable rafts and read, or listen as nature filled in the quietness between us. I don’t know if I inherited my curiosity of the world from him, or if I was drawn to that part of him that intersected with my own sensibilities. In a way, it doesn't matter. It’s the commonality one cherishes.
Here are five titles that, like my father, share a deep interest in the world, or that tell the story of fatherhood itself, with all its memories and complexities and sometime revelations. If your father is anything like mine, I’m sure he would take any of these books, find a quiet place to sit, and then read every word.
On November 30, Melissa Harris-Perry honored my biography of Rosa Parks, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, by including it amongst a group of ground-breaking Black feminist texts and histories on her “Black Feminism Syllabus.” This recognition came on the 58th anniversary of Rosa Parks' bus arrest and the public marking of the day, including the RNC's unfortunate tweet celebrating “Rosa Parks’ bold stand and her role in ending racism.” The RNC’s tweet spoke to what has been a theme at the heart of much Parks memorialization across the political spectrum—the honoring of her is regularly accompanied by a element of national self congratulation. Her stand is often now commemorated as a way to mark how far we’ve come in the successful movement to end Jim Crow segregation and racism.
What my book sought to do was rescue Rosa Parks from the narrow pedestal she exists upon. This national sainthood has paradoxically diminished the scope and importance of her political work and functions, across the political spectrum, to make us feel good about ourselves as a nation. It misses the lifelong activist who worked against injustice in both the North and South and paid a heavy price for her political work but kept struggling to address contemporary racial and social inequalities until her death in 2005. It misses her global vision and how she was treated as un-American for great stretches of her life by many Americans for these political activities. And finally, it misses that a real honoring of her legacy requires us to do the same hard, tedious, scary work of pressing against the injustices of our time, both nationally and internationally, because she firmly believed the movement was not over.
Rosa Parks greets Nelson and Winnie Mandela after his release from prison in 1990
In the second part of our literary examination of JFK's legacy, we begin with a look at the hopes that the next generation brought to JFK's candidacy, and how those hopes—combined with the pressures of the campaign and the mounting conflict in Vietnam—led to the impromptu "definition" of the Peace Corps during an unplanned campaign stop at the University of Michigan. Later, Claire Conner takes us to Dallas on the morning of November 22, 1963, where she as a curious young woman—and daughter of the national spokesman for the ultraconservative John Birch Society—had gone to see the presidental motorcade, only to witness anguish and paranoia in the aftermath of JFK's assassination.
There is perhaps no modern President whose legacy resonates in the public consciousness as much as John F. Kennedy's. It was, in a sense, the first modern presidency: The first to be televised—from its historic inauguration to those shocking final moments in Dallas fifty years ago today—and the first to truly grapple with the maelstrom of social unrest that would lead eventually to the posthumous passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, just months after his death. In this first of two posts on JFK's legacy, we reach into some of our recent books for look at the Kennedy administration's complex and evolving relationship with race and the Civil Rights Movement, starting with the struggle between the Kennedy's Secretary of the Interior Stewart Lee Udall and Washington Redskins owner George Marshall over the integration of his team, and ending with an on-the-ground accounting of the 1963 March on Washington for Civil Rights, and JFK's meeting with the major civil rights leaders of the time.
out for the distressing double-header, I saw the Polish film Aftermath the
same weekend as 12 Years a Slave. Both films were an opportunity to view how
a filmmaker handled a country’s national shame through the art of storytelling. Aftermath, is a fictional film inspired by Jan Gross’s book Neighbors, about the Jedwabne pogrom, a 1941 massacre of a
Polish village’s Jewish population by their Catholic neighbors. It’s just been released in the US. 12 Years, based on the diary of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and pressed into bondage in the American South, brings to
Technicolor luridness the hideous cruelties of the slave trade.
are deeply disturbing and both films necessitate a revising of a national
self-image. For Poles, that involves admitting that they were not always the
victims in World War II; on some occasions, they were perpetrators. Americans must countenance
that our country’s literal foundations were built on the blasphemy of human
The first thing that hooked me on the manuscript of Steve Puleo’s Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 (published 10 years ago this month) was the molasses. How could it not? I’d heard a bit about the molasses flood before, which is to say that I knew there had been a deadly wave of molasses, and that it had taken place in the North End. But I’m not a native Bostonian. I was surprised, then, to discover that no one had ever written a full-length account of the disaster. It’s such a dramatic and quirky bit of history; it’s irresistible.
What surprised me even more, however, was the full story Steve uncovered. The flood itself was a terrible tragedy, and Steve has a great sense of drama; he knows how to build narrative tension. Dark Tide dives deep into the specifics of why the molasses flood was so fast and so powerful, bringing to life the many people and animals who died terribly when the tank burst. (The death of fireman George Layhe, pinned beneath the collapsed firehouse, until he finally ran out of the strength to keep his head above the molasses and drowned, stays with me still.)