George Orwell’s 1984 taught us that language—and who uses it—truly does matter. In the case of educating Texan youth about American history, language matters a great deal. McGraw-Hill Education’s current geography textbook, approved for Texas high schools, refers to African slaves as “workers” in a chapter on immigration patterns. Other linguistic sleights of hand include using the passive voice to obscure slave owner’s brutal treatment of slaves. It appears we have a Ministry of Truth at work after all, just like the one where Orwell’s ill-fated hero Winston Smith worked, rewriting history. The fact is especially disconcerting, as Texas is the largest consumer of textbooks.
From Steubenville to State College to Missoula, small towns often step into the spotlight where sex crimes are concerned. After the stark details get spun through the news cycle, the towns are left to themselves again, usually divided, impenitent, and often unable to determine what role the community itself played in perpetuating the violence or the criminalization of the victims. As a young woman involved in a small town scandal myself, I can testify to the communal damage that lasts long after journalists and reporters have moved on to the next big story.
It is mysterious and beautiful, literally a creature from a different world. Its body is ebony above and golden below, a serpent with aposematic paint. The edges of the opposing colors undulate down its side until the yellow becomes drips on the black, dorsally flattened tail. The exotic animal is a yellow bellied sea snake, Pelamis platura, which is normally found in warm, tropical waters. But due to a recent climatic vagary, the snake has found its way onto an Oxnard beach, miles up the coast from Los Angeles, hundreds of miles from the edge of its normal range. It is stunning, amazing, but how is the event chronicled?
I wrote The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks to challenge the limited stories and troubled uses of Parks and the movement. There was nothing natural or passive about what Rosa Parks did but rather something fiercely determined. It was not a singular act but part of her larger lifelong history of activism, a string of acts of bus resistance in the years preceding her stand, and a collective uprising following her arrest that led to a mass movement in Montgomery. To the end of her life, Parks believed the struggle for racial justice was not over and she continued to press for more change in the United States.
Some Tennessee lawmakers and parents are in a tizzy because they believe seventh-graders are spending too much time learning about Islam as part of social studies.
A Tennessee lawmaker leading the charge has spewed an all-too common refrain, saying the state's schools were leaning toward indoctrination because they emphasized learning about Islam more than about Christianity. The lawmaker last week upped the ante and proposed a bill prohibiting Tennessee public school courses from including "religious doctrine" until students are at least in 10th grade. What the lawmaker means by religious doctrine is fuzzy. But she's a part of a statewide movement of parents and groups taking aim at lessons on Islam. A Christian organization joined the fray by submitting a public records request to every school district in the state asking for curriculum that included Islam.
At last, Back to the Future Day is upon us. We’ve all been tallying the predictions in Robert Zemeckis’s science-fiction adventure comedy that came true and the ones that did not. Take, for example, the rejuvenation clinic that Doc visited in Back to the Future II. Today’s Botox treatments can’t compare to the full blood transfusion, hair repair, and spleen and colon replacement that extended Doc’s life by forty years. In the near future, however, life extension could be a reality. But at what cost? In his new book Our Grandchildren Redesigned: Life in the Bioengineered Society of the Near Future, award-winning historian Michael Bess speculates about the enhancements headed our way, beginning in the next half-century. As Bess lays out the benefits and consequences of our bioenhanced future, he starts many of the chapters with fictional vignettes meant to illustrate what life may be like in the near-future. In the book, he asks readers to consider the overarching implications that these advancements may have on our society.
In this short vignette Bess imagines the future of rejuvenation therapy.
What has been your relationship with environmental issues?
My mother took me to my first protest when I was six, against the Seabrook nuclear plant in New Hampshire in 1976. She also took me for walks in the local woods and taught me about trees. So I had a good grounding both in caring about nature and citizen activism, which has stayed with me throughout my life. At this point in history, the number one issue is climate change. If we don't address that, everything else will be beside the point.
What do you look for in books dealing with these issues?
Obviously, I hope the books I look for on environmental issues will move people to action. The way to bring people in is through stories. Having something new to add to the conversation is important as well, but I look for writing that can teach about the issues by engaging readers with good writing and compelling storytelling. Whether the book is about solar power, orcas, or farming, the information is grounded in stories of people, places, struggles, hope.
And sometimes, as in literary nature writing as opposed to issue-driven books, the writing is enough—creating something beautiful in the service of nature speaks to our human connection with the “natural” world and with each other.
Dan Wilkins, Director of Public Relations for the Ability Center of Greater Toledo, and Nicholas Hyndman, University of Toledo student double-majoring in Disability Studies and Business Administration. Photo credit: Kim E. Nielsen
“I’ve never been this excited about my education before,” my student said as we discussed his undergraduate B.A. degree in Disability Studies. Then he laughed at himself with astonishment. Because of his commitment to the topic, he also was working harder in his college coursework than he ever had before; and he’d never imagined that academic hard work and excitement could go together. This student, like all of our students, came to the University of Toledo’s Disability Studies Program seeking a future job (for himself) and justice (for all).
Lamentations and cries that the Republicans were at it again trying to suppress the black vote arose when the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency announced on September 30th that because of budget cuts it would close thirty-one part-time-county-owned satellite drivers’ license offices. Eight of these were in counties where seventy-five percent of the registered voters are black. Many are in rural communities with high poverty rates and little or no public transportation. In addition to protesting, active and determined organizing to obtain the required voter identification for the unregistered might be a useful strategy in countering Alabama Republicans’ move.
People often ask if it was hard for me, as a journalist, to write a memoir. It wasn’t. In many ways, the people I interviewed over the years for news stories—many of them immigrants, many of them poor—taught me to trust the power of personal stories. One of them was Alaaedien. He drove cabs in New York City, and one day, he picked up a man outside of Grand Central Station. The man was young, and he wanted Alaaedien to take him to upstate New York. The cab ride would cost almost a thousand dollars, Alaaedien explained. That was fine. The young man’s new girlfriend lived upstate. He would pay Alaaedien when they got there.
Alaaedien was thinking about his own girlfriend. She was in Egypt, and he wanted to bring her to New York. He wanted to marry her. A thousand dollars would help. He drove the young man upstate. Seven hours later, they pulled onto a residential street and the young man disappeared into a house. Alaaedien had gambled on the American Dream and lost, but that’s not how he looked at it. I tried to be a good man, he told me. In fact, he had even lent the young man fifteen dollars for food on that long drive north. I nodded and wrote it down, and when the story was published the next day in the Metro section of the New York Times, a reader called. She didn’t know Alaaedien, but she wanted to give him the thousand dollars he had lost on the cab fare.
Members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelsons
On Monday, October 5th, I had the privilege to join Helene Atwan, our director, and Tom Hallock, our associate publisher and director of sales and marketing, at Boston Symphony Hall for the Terezín Music Foundation’s 2015 Gala, “Liberation: A Concert Honoring the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of the Nazi Camps.” This celebration perfectly timed with the release of Liberation: New Works on Freedom from Internationally Renowned Poets, a poetry anthology edited and introduced by Mark Ludwig, the executive director of the Terezín Music Foundation.
The concert, featuring works by composers commissioned to set poems from the collection to music, began with a candle lighting to honor the liberators and survivors with members of the Hawthorne String Quartet beautifully playing in the background. The Boston Children’s Chorus performed two pieces, “The Day of Light,” composed by David Post and dedicated to Hanka Krasa, and “The Song About the Child,” composed by Sivan Eldar.
Portrait of Ada Lovelace by Alfred Edward Chalon, 1840
Today is the day to thank Ada Lovelace for the device you’re using right now to read this. Born Augusta Ada Gordon in 1815, she is recognized as the “first computer programmer.” In the early 1840s, Lovelace translated and expanded on an Italian article describing Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Her elaborate notes included a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers, largely recognized as the first computer code. Lovelace’s notes helped inspire Alan Turing’s work on the first modern computers one hundred years later.
While Ada Lovelace Day celebrates the achievements and contributions of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), science is still regarded as a boys’ club. Why is this? Even now in the twenty-first century, there should be more women in high ranking positions in the hard sciences. Novelist, essayist, and short story writer Eileen Pollack, who was one of the first two women to earn a Bachelor of Science in physics from Yale in 1978, takes a long hard look at this question in her new book The Only Woman in the Room.
The most frequent question readers ask about An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States is: "Why hasn't this book been written before?" I'm flattered by that question, because it's the one I ask about texts that deeply move me; at the same time the information, argument, or story is new to me, it seems that it was already hidden in the recesses of my brain or heart, a truth. I knew the story I wanted to tell when I set out to write the book, part of Beacon Press's ReVisioning American History series, but that didn't make it easier to transfer to paper. Writing and rewriting, I discovered the story, just as my readers do as they read it.
But why hasn't this book been written before? We believe we don't suffer censorship in the U.S., but we do. Rather than being mandated by the government, historians self-censor in response to institutionalized policing of the parameters of what's acceptable and what will be marginalized. William Burroughs's narrator in his 1984 novel, The Place of Dead Roads, observes that "people are not bribed to shut up about what they know. They are bribed not to find out...Now, Americans are told they should think. But just wait until your thinking is basically different...You will find out that you AREN'T supposed to think." This is particularly true in the writing of our history. It's not a free speech issue but one of asking questions that challenge the core of the scripted narrative. Historians are validated to the extent that they remain guardians of the United States origin myth.
As a teenager, I didn't pay much attention to posted signs. I was a strange kid—both very confident and very lost. My façade, my own sign posted for the world, was a lie and I knew it. But I believed if I could just be patient enough, a kind of secret door would eventually open to a new land, one that looked more or less the same as the old—same streets, same school, same annoying older brother—but would include a sense of orientation, which meant a sense of the world with my place in it. So, what interested me was the other kind of sign. The kind that might offer a portent of my life to come, or an insight into the way things really were.
There was one sign that was both kinds of sign, though I didn't know it at the time. It was posted on a high black chairlift tower, about two-thirds of the ride up Killington's Bear Mountain. As I remember it now, the wind is whipping, the chairlift pitches and bobs over Outer Limits, the steepest mogul run in the east. The edge of the yellow sign is crusted with rime. Huddled below an imposing black pine tree, there's a silhouette of a man, his knees drawn toward his chest. "These woods will be as cold and lonely tonight as they were two hundred years ago. Do not ski alone."
For years I dragged around poems in the pockets of my white coat, pressing them into the hands of unsuspecting medical students and residents. As an attending physician at a teaching hospital in New York City, my job was to supervise the medical students and residents. I had to ensure that our patients received good medical care and that our doctors in training were learning the ins and outs of inpatient and outpatient medicine.
But medical training is a stressful time. Conventional wisdom as well as a growing body of literature suggests it is a critical component of the hardening of character, contributing to burnout, cynicism, brusqueness, and all the unappetizing traits we’ve come to hate in doctors. The humanities were one of those things that was thought might smooth some of the rough edges of training, humanizing—as the word itself suggests—our otherwise brutish selves.
Edith Barksdale Sloan speaking at the first national conference of household workers, in 1971. (Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site, National Archives for Black Women’s History)
I’d been following the domestic workers movement here in Massachusetts as they campaigned to pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. In 2014, Massachusetts became the fourth state to approve the domestic workers bill of rights which guarantees basic work standards, such as meal and rest breaks, parental leave, protection from discrimination, sexual harassment, etc. I wanted to know more about the movement and this lead me to Premilla Nadasen, who was involved as an activist and historian.
I tend to gravitate towards stories of fierce activists and agitators on the margins, so naturally I was fascinated by the history Premilla unearthed in Household Workers Unite. The women she writes about—Dorothy Bolden, Geraldine Roberts, Josephine Hulett—were all brilliant organizers who responded to the challenges that were unique to their profession, challenges that were so severe that mainstream labor regarded them as “unorganizable.” For instance, domestic workers were isolated in the home, they could have any number of employers at any given time, and perhaps most problematic, their work was categorically disregarded as work. They were excluded from basic state and federal labor rights; and were, to quote Geraldine Roberts, “invisible workers.”
In response, they recruited other domestics on buses and street corners, made alliances with black freedom movements and women’s rights groups. They sought to professionalize the occupation through technical training programs.
Beacon Press author John J. McNeill died at the age of ninety on September 22, 2015 in Florida after a full and world-shaping life. He leaves literally thousands of survivors, people like myself whose lives were enriched, in some cases even saved, by his courageous and prophetic work as a gay religious pioneer.
John McNeill was a Jesuit priest who wrote the first substantive treatment of Catholicism and same-sex love in his 1976 book The Church and the Homosexual. It was originally granted the required Imprimi Potest, but that permission to print was shortly withdrawn by his religious superior when it became obvious that John had touched a nerve.
Contra Catholic teaching, John argued that homosexuality was part of the will of God. Far from being a threat to the family, he claimed that lesbian, gay and bisexual persons (transgender people were not in his view at that point) had new experiences to share about sex unconnected to procreation. He proposed that same-sex love, rather than alienating people from God, could instead bring them closer to God. So much for the Catholic teachings on Sodom and Gomorrah, of heterosex only, and that without condoms or other forms of contraception. He articulated post Vatican II moral theology with intellectual rigor and pastoral insight.
Drawing from the Nazi book burnings and Stalin’s campaign of political repression, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 depicts a dystopian future of compulsory book burning in the name of censorship. This future, to an extent, is a present-day reality. Look at the enduring push to ban books with “inappropriate content,” the standard no-no’s of everyday life: sexualities, four-letter words, violence, political and religious viewpoints, etc. As bleak as American society is in Bradbury’s novel, there is a ray of hope in the character of Clarisse McClellen, the inquisitive and nonconforming teenage girl who inspires fireman Guy Montag to question his blind faith in book burning. Our present-day Clarisse is the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, which reports the most common banned or challenged books. For this year’s Banned Books Week, we compiled a list of banned books enjoyed by Beacon authors and staff.
In 1988, Pope John Paul II beatified Junípero Serra, the first step to canonization. In the wake of the Red Power movement of the 1970s and the International Indigenous Movement that followed, there was a strong outcry from California Indigenous descendants of those who perished of overwork, starvation, and outright killing in the Franciscan missions that the hands-on Serra created. The Franciscans, not the Spanish state, were the actual first colonizers of California Indians, by forcibly relocating them from their traditional territories and villages to labor for the Franciscans in the missions, making the order wealthy from the products produced there. Indigenous peoples’ who are involved in UN human rights work raised a ruckus in the UN system, and friendly Human Rights NGOs and formerly colonized member-states and liberation movements lobbied the Vatican at the UN to not canonize a notorious colonizer. That was twenty-seven years ago, and Serra was not brought up for sainthood, such a notion being clearly unacceptable. Then, to the shock of the California descendants, in May 2015, the new and admired Pope Francis took Serra off the shelf where he was meant to stay, gathering dust, and announced canonization, trying to pass him off as a Latin American, or US American, apparently not having received the memo that the Spanish empire was overthrown by the Mexican people in a ten-year war to drive them out. California was a part of Mexico. One of the first acts of the independent Mexican government was to secularize society, sending the Franciscans packing, closing all the missions.
It’s almost that time of year again—and we don’t just mean Halloween. The eagerly anticipated fifth season of the American Horror Story anthology on the FX television channel is ready to air.
AHS is something of a guilty pleasure for the two of us, not least for its superb casts, vivid (if grotesque) blending of history with American popular culture, and wild, even haunting, flights of imagination that often touch on themes of dehumanization, prejudice, fairness, and justice.
The two of us aren’t alone. Many people love to be terrified out of their wits by fictional ghosts, psychopaths, and disturbed strangers who lurk in shadows at the dark end of the street—just so long as nobody really gets hurt and the story finally ends.