Saturday, March 31, 2012

Barack Obama and the Black Hat

Note:  Probably the most popular post ever on this blog in its early days on LiveJournal was posted during the 2008 Presidential Primary season.  Yet it was only tangentially about politics.  It was about…cowboy hats.  The reason for the popularity was the many links to great photos of old time movie and TV cowboys.  I seldom include many links any more in posts—it’s too much work and I have grown lazy.  But check them out here.  

The other day I spied a photo of Barack Obama campaigning in Texas in a cowboy hat.  Like most tall, thin men, he looked good in one.  Of course that didn’t stop a lot good natured—and some decidedly not good natured—mockery around the web.  

Obama was just trying on the quaint native peasant costume, a time honored tradition among politicians.  A particularly famous photo of Calvin Coolidge in a Sioux war bonnet comes to mind.  Obama didn’t let the brouhaha that erupted after old photos wearing a white turban and tribal robes in Kenya dissuade him from going Texan.

Cowboy hats carry with them a lot a symbolism.  Maybe even more than some suspect.  Put George W. in one and you get the immediate queasy feeling that he just snuck his daddy’s guns out of the closet and is off to see what he can shoot in the brush.  Ronald Regan instantly invoked the folksy hero of B Westerns (think Cattle Queen of Montana) and the host of low budget TV oaters (Death Valley Days.)  The homespun cowpoke image helped voters overcome misgivings about his conservative economic policy and hawkish foreign policy.  Lyndon Johnson’s familiar Open Road Stetson reinforced the image of a Texas wheeler-dealer—think ruthless cattle baron or an oil wildcatter with an eye out for the main chance.

What got my attention was Obama’s choice of a black hat.  It seemed symbolic of his breaking free of many of the old constrains and preconceptions that have separated Americans in to hostile camps.  Let me tell you why.

Way back when I was a boy in Cheyenne, Wyoming, I used to run home from school every day to watch Pete Smythe, Mayor of fictional East Tin Cup, Colorado on Denver’s KOA-TV introduce old two reel Westerns—Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, Tim McCoy, Ken Maynard, Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, Wild Bill Elliott  A great deal of my moral development came from absorbing these films and the wisdom ol’ Pete dispensed in his introductions.  I remember with perfect clarity the day Pete explained the Rule of the Hat--“Good guys wear white hats.  Bad guys wear black ones.”  I was skeptical at first.  But film after film showed me it was true.  The hero almost invariably wore a big white hat.

Oh, there were rare exceptions.  Bill Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy was decked out in black from his 10 Gallon Hat to his boots—but he balanced that by riding the whitest horse in the oaters.  Later on TV Hugh O’Brien as Wyatt Earp would wear a black hat.  But he wasn’t really a cowboy—he was a lawman.  And he was outfitted in the long black frock coat, brocaded vest, and string tie that that had been the trademarks of the saloon keeper villains of the old two reelers.  I didn’t realize it when I was watching that show at the time, but the costume was a hint at the real Earp’s somewhat shady reputation as a faro dealer and part time pimp.

More recently, black cowboy hats have come into vogue among those who fancy themselves rebels and outsiders—think NASCAR’S late Dale Earnhardt or country music bad boys like Waylon Jennings or Hank Williams, JrBut these are just good guys pretending to be bad.  The black hat works because it is ironic and because in the back of our minds we still associate a black hat with a bad guy.

As a Black man running for President he has already smashed stereo types and expectations.  As an already iconic Good Guy himself and the oracle of Hope and empowerment (Yes We Can!) he can don a black hat and casually demolish another.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Refuting Bullshit Once Again in the Letters to the Editor

Not only did immigrant children learn in public schools, but those parents most successful at leaning English and becoming citizens studied at night in those same public schools like this one in Red Hook, New Jersey.

Yesterday the Northwest Herald, paper of record for McHenry County, ran one of those letters that set my teeth to aching.  After years of battling right wing disinformation and propaganda in those columns, I largely have given up wasting my breath.  But every once in a while, I just can’t help myself.

This is the letter published on Thursday, March 29, that set me off:

Lulled Americans
To the Editor:
When asked, a polling expert said recently, “Americans who are polled are stupid,” not once, but five times, a clear attitude regarding the public. In follow-ups, a caller was told, America’s “fourth estate,” the media, always has felt the public were “stupid.”
Sadly, this is very true. But long ago, and until a public education system, it was a sacred trust, to teach, to inform, to stir to action the quiet masses.
A Polish, Italian, Slovakian, Middle Eastern, African immigrant, came as “your poor and huddled masses.” Alone, afraid, but determined to be American. With no money, few friends, no education, on a city street, the paper-boy’s call, “Extra! Extra!,” made the immigrant look to see, but not read “Lincoln Shot!,” “Titanic Sinks,” “Japan Attacks Pearl Harbor.” The immigrant raced home with the news, and the words would teach English slowly, day after day.
If a man strives, works, hungers to know, to learn, to understand, and is educated, speaking out, and sharing with those around him, and the newspaper reporter, fulfills the purpose for this “Fourth Estate,” to spread the word ...
The story has not changed, but the population has. Now, most Americans, most reporters, are “educated” in public schools and universities, where, instead of struggling to learn, are spoon-fed and indoctrinated to all think a certain way, without the loneliness, the fear, the need to survive.
Yes, we truly are “stupid,” but only because we Americans are lulled into believing the struggle is over.
Tom Doepker
Bull Valley

This is the response I just e-mailed the editors.
To the Editor:

Tom Doepker of Bull Valley recently wrote attacking public education, of all things, for making the American public “stupid.”  He dishes up the now familiar right wing attack on public education in spades.  Specifically he conjures a world where immigrants fresh off the boat educated themselves by reading newspapers that were not yet ruined by being written by hapless saps with public and university educations.  In his rich fantasy these immigrants all pulled themselves up by their own boot straps and happily assimilated in no time thanks to piecing out words from a tabloid at the kitchen table after a 12 hour shift. 

Of course there is lots of research that shows this view—how can we put it charitably—is an utter fabrication.  In fact most immigrants found it very difficult to master English, even years after arriving.  Relatively few became fluent or functionally literate in their new language.  They continued to use their native tongue at home and in their communities.  They read newspapers printed in their native languages, and worshiped in churches that preached in it.

But their children, the second generation, did master English, became fluent and literate—largely by attending the very public schools the Doepker despises.  Just as new immigrant children do today.

But that doesn’t conform to the tidy world view that has been packaged for him by the media he “trusts”—the ones who confirm and inflame his prejudices.

Patrick Murfin,
Crystal Lake.

Patrick Murfin to Pair His Words With Blues Artist’s Music

Patrick Murfin has been a fixture on the McHenry County scene for almost three decades as a social justice activist.  Some might call him a gadfly.  Others take a dimmer view. 

He is also a writer and published poet who will read his work as part of Social Gospel in Words and Music, a program at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 5603 Bull Valley Road in McHenry on Friday, April 6 at 7 PM

Joining Murfin on the program will be Memphis based bluesman and roots music guitarist Andy CohenTogether the two will explore social justice issues through the arts.

Murfin may be best known as the long time host of the Diversity Day Festival which ran annually for 14 years in Woodstock Square.  He has also been out front in opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as a spokesperson for the McHenry County Peace Group, as an advocate for immigrant rights, and most recently for organizing support for Occupy Chicago.  The Unitarian Universalist Congregation has long been a base for his activism.

In 2004 Skinner House Books of Boston published his collection of poetry, We Build Temples in the Heart.  He is a self described eclectic blogger at Heretic, Rebel, a Thing to Flout where he mixes posts of “opinion, history, poetry and general bloviating.”  He also contributes autobiographical sketches to The Third City blog and labor history writing to another on-line journal, Working Class Heroes.

“I will include work from the book,” Murfin said, “but there will also be a good deal new material that has never been publicly read.”

The McHenry performance, sponsored by the UU Congregation’s Social Justice Committee, will benefit the Interfaith Committee for Detained Immigrants post release program, which provides assistance to those released from Federal custody after it has been determined that they were not in violation.

A $10 donation will be asked at the door and a free will collection will also be made.  A reception for the artists will follow the performance.  Cohen’s CDs and Murfin’s collection of poetry, We Build Temples in the Heart will be available.

For more information call Patrick Murfin at 815 814-5645 or visit .

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Adrienne Rich—A Great Voice is Stilled

The news of Adrienne Rich’s death spread like wildfire across my Facebook news feed last night.  Obits, bios, quick reminiscences of brief encounters, and simple wails of grief were posted, mostly by women but also from men who dare to admit that they read and love poetry.

She was 82 when she died yesterday in California, a long way from the life of privilege and learning into which she was born in Baltimore on May 16, 1929.   

Her father was a noted professor of medicine at prestigious Johns Hopkins and her mother had been a concert pianist.  He was a secular Jew, she a lady like Southern Protestant.  Adrienne and her sisters were raised, not very intensively as nominal Christians.

Both parents cherished learning.  Before she was of kindergarten age Adrienne was reading from their vast library, mostly English poets.  Not trusting their bright children to drab public education, Adrienne and her sister were educated at home in that library until the fourth grade.  In her later years she was sent to a fine girl’s school, Roland Park Country School, which she later credited with providing “fine role models of single women who were intellectually impassioned.”

The progression to Radcliff College for her undergraduate degree was a natural one and she continued to flourish in the all women environment.  She also took classes, mostly in poetry, at very male Harvard.  Her very first collection of poetry, A Change of World, was written as an undergraduate, selected by none other than W.H. Auden for publication as the Yale Younger Poets Award winner.  Auden wrote a thoughtful introduction lauding her technical competence, craftsmanship and “…elegance and simple and precise phrasing.”

Thus impressively launched on a noteworthy literary careers she traveled to Europe on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952.  Part way into the year she abandoned formal study to linger in Italy.

On returning to the United States in 1953 Rich married Harvard economist Alfred H. Conrad and settled into the life of an academic wife in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Her first child, David was born in 1955, the same years as her second collection, The Diamond Cutters and Other Poems, earned praise and garnered awards.  Two more sons were born and she struggled to balance the demands of marriage, motherhood, and writing.  She felt a failure at all of it.

Despite continuing to publish successfully, Adrienne could have been the model of the kind of accomplished, highly educated woman stifled by conventional domesticity that Betty Friedan wrote about in Feminine Mystique.

The themes began to emerge more forcefully in her poetry.  She abandoned the carefully crafted lines of metered rhyme which characterized her earlier work and began to work in blank verse.  The poems became more frankly autobiographical. Snapshots of a Daughter-In-Law in 1963 delved into that struggle followed in 1966 with Necessities of Life.

Now both a recognized literary superstar and open feminist, Rich’s career began to eclipse that of her husband.  He moved with her to New York City when she accepted a post at Swarthmore.  She latter also taught in the Graduate School of Columbia University, and a free style “open university” at the City Colleges of New York.  During this period she became deeply and publicly involved not only in the feminist movement, but in opposition to the Vietnam War, and moved in increasingly leftist circles.  She hosted events for the Black Panthers and was a noteworthy signatory of the Writers and Editors War Tax Protest pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest to the war.

Her poems were now overtly political.  The publication of Leaflets, an examination of the turmoil of the 1960’s, secured Rich’s place as a leading radical voice.

But all of this placed a strain on her marriage.   He husband felt she was literally losing her mind and moved out.  He was quite wrong.  She hadn’t lost her mind, but had decided to become the quintessential class traitor.  Three months after the separation Alfred Conrad shot and killed himself.  It was a naturally traumatic event to Rich and her children.

Ye the accolades and award continued to pile up. There was the Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize from Poetry Magazine, the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, another Guggenheim Fellowship, and various prestigious academic appointments.

She reached perhaps the pinnacle of her literary career with the publication in 1973 of Diving into the Wreck.  This was the most intensely personal work yet, anguished and angry yet clear of thought and expression.  She was picked to share the National Book Award in Poetry with Allan Ginsberg in 1974, but declined to accept it as an individual. Instead she made national headlines by going to the podium with Alice Walker and Audre Lorde to accept the award on behalf of all women writers.

Rich’s life and work changed dramatically in 1976 when she began her life long relationship with Jamaican-born novelist and editor Michelle Cliff.  She would later say that her lesbianism was both the natural fulfillment of desires and yearning suppressed since girl’s school and a political statement.  Her writing began to express this new life, both philosophically in works like Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, her first significant prose work, and lyrically in frankly erotic poetry, the pamphlet Twenty-One Love Poems.

She has continued to hold important teaching posts at Rutgers, Scripps College of San Jose State University, and Cornell.  She dedicated more time to essays, literary criticism, and political theory, publishing several well received books.

Rich and Cliff settled in California and co-edited an important Lesbian journal, Sinister Wisdom in 1981.  She published three more books of poetry in the 1980 and garnered more literary awards-- the Ruth Paul Lilly Poetry Prize in 1986, the Elmer Holmes Bobst Award in Arts and Letters from NYU, and the National Poetry Association Award for Distinguished Service to the Art of Poetry both in 1989.

A revived interest in her Jewish identity and what it means to be a leftist Jew led her to found. Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Our Friends in 1990.

An Atlas of the Difficult World, published in 1991, won the Los Angeles Times Book Award in Poetry, and the Lenore Marshall/Nation Award, Commonwealth Award in Literature as well as the Poet’s Prize in 1993.  In 1994 she became a MacArthur Foundation “genius award” winner.  All the while she served in mentoring positions to women writers around the world.

In 1997 Rich made headlines by publicly snubbing the National Medal of Arts in protest to a House of Representatives vote to end the National Endowment for the Arts and policies of the Clinton Administration. She told reporters “I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration...[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.”

In the new century Rich was slowed by advancing rheumatoid arthritis but continued to speak out publicly, especially against the looming war in Iraq.  

She was named a chancellor of the board of the Academy of American Poets in 2004  That decade she produced four more collections of poetry, the last being Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-2010 and three more collections of essays.

In 2006 she was awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters followed in 2010 with the Lifetime Recognition Award from the Griffin Poetry Prize

That’s more than enough official honors for anyone.  But Adrienne Rich’s legacy cannot be measured in plaques, certificates, and engraved bowls.  It is in the hearts of all of the readers whose lives she touched and enriched, all the students she nurtured, all of the writers she encouraged.

What Kind of Times Are These

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don't be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won't tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything?  Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it's necessary
to talk about trees.

Adrienne Rich

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Mother Church of African Americans

Teams haul an old blacksmith shop to land owned by Richard Allen to become the Mother Church of African Americans.

Note:  A version of this was first posted on this blog in 2010.  It has been greatly expanded with corrections in this post due to the much appreciated input from the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, Ph.D., 52nd Pastor of Mother Bethel.

On March 28, 1796 the Bethel Methodist Episcopal Church opened in Philadelphia.  It was the first American church organized by and for African Americans. 

In 1787 Richard Allen and other free blacks were worshiping at the city’s St. George Church.  After angry parishioners literally dragged praying blacks from their knees, a small group withdrew determined to found their own congregation where they could worship safely and without interference.  

Allen had been born a slave to a wealthy Quaker family in 1716.  As a child he was sold with a brother to another Quaker, Stokely Sturgis.  He was well treated by the family and encouraged to read and write.  At the age of 17 he received permission to worship at the Methodist Episcopal Church.  Impressed that the young man’s work habits were not, as the prevailing opinion of the time would have it, ruined by Christianity, Sturgis allowed Allen to invite the charismatic Methodist preacher Freeborn Garretson onto his property to preach to his slaves.  The master was so impressed, he converted to Methodism himself.  

Garretson, like many other Methodists, believed slavery was wrong and convinced Sturgis to allow Allen to buy his freedom.  Working on his own time in addition to his service to the Quaker family, Allen saved up $2000 dollars in devalued Continental currency and bought his freedom.  

By 1783 the new freeman was touring Pennsylvania and neighboring Delaware counties as an informal missionary preacher.  In 1784 Allen attended the Christmas Conference at which American Methodists formally separated themselves from the Anglican Church

He joined St. George’s in Philadelphia in1786 and was asked to, was licensed to preach, and allowed to organize early morning prayer services for other free blacks.  As the group of worshipers grew, so did the discomfort among white members.  Black members were to be segregated in a newly built balcony. Shortly after its completion, Allen, his regular confidant and supporter Absalom Jones, and other Blacks knelt to pray at Sunday services on the main floor as had been their custom when white members insisted that they vacate for the balcony and began physically dragging Jones to his feet.  After prayers Allen and Jones and their supporter left promising never to return. After the 1787 scuffle the free blacks determined to find a location for their own church.  

They raised money for a lot on Sixth Street near Lombard the same year and purchased it in Allen’s name. Universalist Dr. Benjamin Rush, the founder of the first American abolitionist society, was among the first and most generous of Donors.  Even President George Washington, probably at the urging of Rush, a friend and signer of the Declaration of Independence, made a contribution.  The property was the first real estate owned by blacks in the United States.  

A former blacksmith shop was purchased and hauled by oxen to the lot.  Members went to work repairing and improving the structure.  

The congregation however split about affiliation.  A group led by Jones preferred to join the Episcopal Church.  Allen steadfastly believed that the simplicity of Methodist worship was more suitable for Blacks.  The parting was largely amicable.  Jones went on to become the country’s first Black ordained Episcopal Priest and founded St. Thomas parish.

Both infant congregations began the slow process of raising funds for permanent church building.  The devastating Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793 suspended those efforts.  Both Allen and Jones worked heroically at the side of Dr. Rush nursing the critically ill and dying.  When an account of the emergency was published neglecting to mention either man or the services of their communities, they wrote a pamphlet which forced a revision in the account.  The pamphlet was the first thing copyrighted by Blacks in this country.

The converted blacksmith shop was consecrated as a church by sympathetic Methodist Bishop Francis Ausbury and named Bethel on this date in 1796.  Although licensed to preach Allan was not ordained until 1799 when he was made a Deacon, becoming the first Black man ordained as a Methodist in the United States.   

But even as the church grew to more than 450 members early in the 19th Century, most Sunday services were still conducted by white ministers from St. George’s.  Over time the relations between the two churches grew strained and St. George’s even tried to seize the keys and force the deed into the hands of the Methodist Episcopal Church name.  On at least one occasion angry parishioners jammed the church aisles to prevent a white minister from taking the pulpit.

In 1816 Allen and other Black Preachers from Pennsylvania Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey met to form a new denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  Allen was elected Bishop. The sympathetic and supportive Bishop Ausbury returned for his consecration 

The new denomination spread under Allen’s guidance and was for many years the largest black religious body.  Allen and his friend Jones continued to collaborate for the benefit to the Black community, most famously banding together to protest the establishment of the American Colonization Society (ACS) in 1817.  Backed by many white liberals, the ACS sought to raise money to “repatriate” blacks to Africa, a place totally alien to American born Blacks.

Allen died on March 26, 1831almost exactly 35 years to the day of the consecration of the blacksmith shop church.  By then Bethel was in a fine new building which could seat hundreds.  Allen was entombed there.  Over time, two more church buildings were erected at the same original site, but Allen’s tomb, including members of his family, remains on the property.

In Philadelphia Allen’s church is known as Mother Bethel.  The current handsome stone building was dedicated in 1889 and underwent a restoration in 1991.  You can see it for yourself.  The current address is 419 Richard Allen Ave.