Category Archives: History

The Word Is ‘Nemesis’: The Fight to Integrate the National Spelling Bee

Cynthia R. Greenlee | Longreads | June 2017 | 2,900 words ( 12 minutes)

In 1962, teenager George F. Jackson wrote a letter to President John F. Kennedy with an appeal: “I am a thirteen-year-old colored boy and I like to spell. Do you think you could help me and get the Lynchburg bee opened to all children?”

The long road to the National Spelling Bee has always begun with local contests, often sponsored by a local newspaper. Nine publications, organized by the Louisville, Kentucky Courier-Journal, banded together in 1925 to create the first National Bee in Washington, D.C.

Decades later, George Jackson was protesting the policies of the local newspaper that sponsored the Lynchburg, Virginia contest, which excluded black students from participating in the official local competition — the necessary step that might send a lucky, word-loving Lynchburg child to nationals. There was more at stake than a coveted all-expenses-paid trip to the capital, an expensive set of Encyclopedia Britannica, and a $1,000 cash prize. For local and national civil rights activists, keeping black children from the spoils of spelling fame was an extension of Jim Crow educational policies that should have ended, in theory, with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

While the Warren Court decided in 1954 that “separate but equal” would no longer be the law of the land, there were still “Negro” schools and white schools educating children across the South less than a decade later. A patchwork of local responses met the desegregation orders that followed the Supreme Court ruling, including deliberate foot-dragging, some real confusion about how to undo what years of white supremacy had wrought in the nation’s schools, and full-throated defiance to educational equity.

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They’re Good Mangoes, Mao

a stack of yellow mangoes

Why did China’s 1968 National Day parade include a float made to look like an enormous bowl of mangoes? Because of Mao’s mango madness. The fruit took on cult status after Mao re-gifted a box of mangoes sent from Pakistan — he didn’t like fruit — to factory workers who quelled a spate of youth violence in the spring of ’68. They became more than just fruit. They were a direct message from the Dear Leader. Collectors Weekly’s Ben Marks brings us the details.

After the People’s Liberation Army moved in to assume peacekeeping duties at Qinghua (they were always the true power behind the throne), the workers returned to their respective factories. Each of the eight factories that supplied workers to the Propaganda Teams received a Pakistani mango from the original case. If the workers were treated like heroes upon their return, the perishable mangoes were given the sort of deference usually reserved for religious relics and artifacts.

One factory preserved its mango in formaldehyde, another tried to stem the fruit’s decay by sealing it in wax before placing it on an altar so that factory workers could solemnly file by to pay their respects to this token from on high. When that mango began to rot through its porous wax shell, it was peeled and boiled in an enormous pot of water—each factory worker was permitted a teaspoon of the precious fruit’s sacred broth.

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American Dolchstoss

Trump in the factory

Shawn Hamilton | Longreads | May 2017 | 10 minutes (2,566 words)

 

When I was about 7 or 8 I had my first serious conversation with my mother about the future: what I wanted to be; how I wanted to get there; how things really “were.” The word “were” in this context was probably my first paradox. Things that “were” were infinitely complex, yet simple. They were understood with or without understanding. You had to know how things “were” before they made themselves known, or you would regret having made the acquaintance.

There were jobs that were “gone” as she described it. Jobs that paid well right out of high school were “gone.” Jobs with security were “gone.” Before those jobs had “gone,” they had been scarce for black folks in her experience anyway, but now they were accessible in theory but nonexistent in reality. Now the door that would have been closed because of Jim Crow was open, but in the case of certain jobs, it opened into an abyss: sort of like an economic trap door. She didn’t say it exactly that way, but that was the gist of it. Read more…

The Sun Never Sets on Oppression and Dominance, or Why You’re More Aztec Than You Think

Aztec priests ripped out people’s hearts daily as a sacrifice to the sun, and for Sam Kriss, the contemporary West might be a lot more like them that we think. In The Outline, he explores the Aztecs’ cosmology and their concept of the apocalypse en route to deciding that we’re actually their social and political heirs.

The Aztecs built an extraordinarily sophisticated state. Their capital, Tenochtitlan, whose ruins still poke haphazardly through Mexico City, might have been the largest city outside China when Europeans first made contact; it was bigger than Paris and Naples combined, and five times bigger than London. Stretching across the Mexican highlands, their empire had, in 150 years, conquered or achieved political dominance over very nearly their entire known world, bounded by impassable mountains to the west and stifling jungle to the east. Without any major enemies left to fight, they found new ways of securing captives for sacrifice: the “flower wars” were a permanent, ritual war against neighboring city-states, in which the armies would meet at an agreed place and fight to capture as many enemy soldiers as possible.

The Roman Empire could never defeat their eternal enemy in Persia, and the dynastic Egyptians were periodically overwhelmed by Semitic tribes to the north, but until the day the Spanish arrived the Aztec monarchs were presumptive kings of absolutely everything under the sun. The only really comparable situation is the one we live under now — the unlimited empire of liberal capitalism, a scurrying hive of private interests held together under an American military power without horizon. We have our own flower wars. The United States and Russia are fighting each other in Syria — never directly, but through their proxies, so that only Syrians suffer, just as they did in Afghanistan, and Latin America, and Vietnam, and Korea. Wars, like Reagan’s attack on Granada or Trump’s on a Syrian airbase, are fought for public consumption. There is a pathology of the end of the world: dominance, ritualization, reification, and massacre.

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The Lost Art of Getting Lost

Rope bridge, Ladakh, 1981

I have two pieces of major travel cred, neither particularly deserved. One is that I’ve been to all seven continents—in a turn of events I still don’t believe actually happened, a client sent me to Antarctica—and the other is that after traveling by train and hitchhiking, I walked over the Himalayas from Leh, in Ladakh, to Manali, in Himachal Pradesh. When people ask me how I came to make that trip, my answer is absurdly naive. I could not, at the time, cross the Khyber Pass as I had wanted, so I did this instead. My motivation was based in complete idiocy; I was very young, and lucky me, I lived to tell the tale.

This was in 1982, and because it was pre-internet, I had no idea I was part of the wandering population exploring what had been called the Hippie Trail: the overland route traveled by free spirits in the 60s and 70s that “wound through Europe via Yugoslavia and Greece (with a possible island side-trip) to Istanbul…a typical path went to Ankara, then through Iran to Tehran, to Kabul in Afghanistan, through the Khyber Pass to Peshawar and Lahore in Pakistan, and then on to Kashmir, Delhi and Goa in India.”

Today, you can fall into a k-hole of photos from that era—I have a wooden box full of them myself—buses and trains full of backpackers armed with little more than a guide book and a few choice phrases. One could met a handful of Westerners, hang out for a few days, trade information, and go along your way.

My current nostalgia is not for the travels themselves, but for a time when this kind of travel was possible, when one could imagine the porousness of borders, disappearing and reappearing weeks later in a post office phone booth in New Delhi or Cairo trying to call home to let your family know you were fine, and also, still alive.

My absurd travel résumé is why I always have time for the similar sentiments from other voices of this rootless era, and to understand their grief for its loss. Every era is a golden age of travel to those traveling in it. In the Financial Times, Charlie English delivers a eulogy for a geographic freedom that is now in short supply.

Everything was fine, of course: as foreign correspondents say, it always is until something happens. Without exception, the people I met were glad to see me, since I represented the outside world, which, Timbuktiens felt, had forgotten them. The famous little caravan town has always loved visitors, and until recently they were a considerable source of income. The highlight of the tourist season in the 2000s was the Festival in the Desert, a showcase of Malian and international music organised by Manny Ansar. Eight or nine hundred foreigners would come, Ansar told me, and spend money all over town: “They paid for travel, they paid in the restaurants, they paid for souvenirs, they rented camels, tents.” But the violence in the desert put a stop to that, and by the time of my visit Timbuktu was filled with unemployed tour guides, empty hotels, and its famous manuscript libraries were shut.

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Norma McCorvey Versus Jane Roe

Norma McCorvey | I Am Roe: My Life, Roe v Wade, and Freedom of Choice Harper Collins, 1994 | 19 minutes | 4,650 words

 

When journalist Andy Meisner met Norma McCorvey to work on her memoir, “she was cashing checks at the 7-Eleven” and living with her partner Connie Gonzalez in Dallas. The New York Times visited McCorvey before the book’s publication in the summer of 1994, and McCorvey showed the reporter the steel door they’d had installed after their house was shot at in 1989 — as well as her dream keeper, a closet full of prized coats, and a collection of clowns she had purchased for Gonzalez. “Once people read I Am Roe, I think they’ll understand where I’m coming from,” she told the Times. “I’m a simple woman with a ninth-grade education who wants women not to be harassed or condemned.”

A year later, McCorvey publicly converted to born-again Christianity — and later, to Roman Catholicism — and she would spent the next twenty years of her life campaigning furiously against the pro-choice movement and the abortion she never received. “Roe has been her life, but it’s no longer much of a living,” wrote Vanity Fair in 2013.

McCorvey died in Dallas of heart failure at the age of 69 on February 18, 2017. In her review of I Am Roe, Susan Cheever writes: Norma McCorvey is an angry shadow from the dark side of the American dream…That Jane Roe and Norma McCorvey are the same person is just another example of the randomness and absurdity of a politics marked by an unbridgeable gulf between myth and reality.”  I Am Roe is currently out of print, and this excerpt is courtesy of Harper Collins.

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How the Canadian Government Tried to “Remove the Indian From the Child”

Betty Ann Adam was three years old when she was taken from her mother in what is known as the “’60s Scoop,” a period spanning 30 years in which indigenous children in Canada were removed from their homes to be placed with white families as church-run residential schools were closing. “The government’s stated intention with the residential schools was to ‘remove the Indian from the child,’ by removing them from their parents and having them educated by white Christians” — another horrific, government-endorsed attempt at cultural genocide.

At the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, Betty Ann Adam recounts her abduction, her trials fitting into white society, and her trepidation — and eventual joy — at being reunited with her blood relatives.

I’m in a police car. It’s a hot summer day and the seat is burning my legs. The woman puts me on her lap. Next, I’m in an airplane looking down at tiny cars on the road. Finally, I’m at the farm where I find myself, without knowing why, living a new life.

I was part of the Sixties Scoop. I’m an indigenous woman who was raised as a foster child in a non-native home. My birth mother, Mary Jane Adam, attended Holy Angels Indian Residential School in Fort Chipewyan, Alta. She left the school in her teens but never returned to the reserve to live.

I realized my indigenous identity had felt like a shadow that followed me and that I had feared all my life. When I stopped running and turned to meet it, I saw a friend. I saw my family. I saw myself.

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The Tears and Tenacity of the Mothers of the Disappeared

During the ’70s and early ’80s, 30,000 people “disappeared” during Argentina’s Dirty War — some of them pregnant women who gave birth in detention centers, had their babies stolen, and were then killed. Delia’s daughter Stella was one of those women. Aided by other mothers and grandmothers, Delia never stopped looking for her lost grandson. Bridget Huber tells the story of Delia’s search in California Sunday magazine.

Delia counted the days until Stella’s due date. Then she started looking for Martín, too. A neighbor whose own son was missing told her that searching mothers were meeting in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. The first time Delia went, there were just a handful of mothers, but their numbers multiplied each week. The women made head scarves from cloth diapers they’d saved from their children’s infancy and embroidered them with their missing sons’ and daughters’ names; their white kerchiefs would come to symbolize the search. Public assemblies were forbidden, so the women would make counter­clockwise laps around the plaza, sometimes prodded along by soldiers’ gun barrels. (Within a year, three of the mothers would disappear.) In the plaza, Delia met other women who were looking for pregnant daughters or daughters-in-law. Soon they were meeting in parks and coffee shops. They’d bring props like knitting or birthday gifts to pass themselves off as harmless grandmothers on a social call. But really they were plotting investigations. The women made the rounds at candy stores and orphanages and spied on families that might have acquired a child under murky circumstances. They gathered evidence and stuck it in tin cans that they buried in their gardens.

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The Revolution Will Be Handmade!

At one time, women’s education included critical training in needle arts like sewing and knitting, which were “not only necessary skills but also political tools for the women involved in resisting authority.” At PBS, Corinne Segal reports on pussy hats and brain hats as just two examples in a long line of handmade symbols of women pitting themselves against the status quo. Then and now, knitting circles are perfect environments in which to sew the seeds of political and social discontent.

In October 2014, Sewell and Payne helped form the Yarn Mission, a knitting collective aimed at fighting racial injustice through community organizing and by supporting black creators’ work. The quiet setting of a knitting circle has helped them discuss difficult topics, Payne said. “A lot of times what we’re talking about is really traumatic,” she said. “It’s the only way I’m able to talk about a lot of the things that have happened in Ferguson and continue to happen in St. Louis.”

Recent marches such as the Women’s March on Jan. 21 and the March for Science on Saturday have brought knitting into the international spotlight and lured newcomers to a symbol of activism that dates back hundreds of years.

Academics and historians say that these new knitters are tapping into a long history of needle arts in the U.S. that is inextricably bound up in race, gender and class issues. Its recent popularity is only the latest chapter.

And during the movement for abolition, sewing circles continued to serve as a place for women to exchange ideas and talk about political work. The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper published by William Lloyd Garrison between 1831 and 1965, wrote on Dec. 3, 1847:

“Sewing Circles are among the best means for agitating and keeping alive the question of anti-slavery. … A friend in a neighboring town recently said to us, Our Sewing Circle is doing finely, and contributes very much to keep up the agitation of the subject. Some one of the members generally reads an anti-slavery book or paper to the others during the meeting, and thus some who don’t get a great deal of anti-slavery at home have an opportunity of hearing it at the circle.”

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Tell Me What Donut You Prefer, and I’ll Tell You Who You Are

freshly glazed donuts on a conveyer belt

Have you ever thought really hard about donuts? Like, 7,000 words hard? Keaton Lamle did, The Bitter Southerner published it, and it’s very much worth the reading — an extended meditation on food, America, capitalism, regional identity, and the future. Turns out we have a lot to learn from donuts.

Lamle, who can be forgiven for reserving his most effusive gushing for Krispy Kreme rather than Dunkin’ by the accident of his Southern birth, gets a bit more personal when reminiscing about the famous Krispy Kreme “Hot Now” sign. And I’ll give him that; a freshly-fried donut is a thing of beauty and joy forever.

They are very much not all over Atlanta, or Birmingham, or Charlotte. Despite expansion around the turn of the 21st century, you’ve still got to go out of your way to find Krispy Kreme stores. In fact, it’s almost like they find you. You’re driving down Atlanta’s magnolia-draped Ponce De Leon Avenue, and red, cursive neon, evocative of a ’50s downtown movie marquee, unexpectedly beckons. Majestic Ks that trail to the end of each word — somehow without connoting the South’s tortured history with such plosive consonants and alliterative acronyms — calling you to come.

The inevitable dilemma comes when you spot that anachronistic “Hot Now” neon sign ablaze. The promise you’ve made to yourself or spouse or kids: that if it’s hot, we stop. But shit, that’ll mean pulling a U-turn across three lanes of traffic. That’ll mean turning around and fighting to get in the parking lot. Is anybody in this car even hungry? Can’t we let it slide this one time? What inviolable principle are we even abiding by with this “it’s hot, we must stop” directive, anyway?

For me, the prospect of wearing the paper sailor’s hats on Instagram usually ends the argument.

You’ll still pry my Dunkin’ Donuts medium iced latte and Bavarian cream donut out of my cold, powdered-sugar-covered, New Jersey-born hands, but Lamle’s piece is piped full of food for thought. (Zing!)

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