Last night I finished watching the new PBS documentary “The Black Church.” Over these past several evenings I watched each of the four one-hour installments over four nights. I got into something of a routine where when each episode concluded I would email a friend who was also watching and we would compare notes, if you will, with our impressions. I can’t recommend the film highly enough. One of the things I like the most about Henry Louis Gates as a documentarian is the way he listens without judgment and lets the interviewee tell their story. One need not agree with everyone all of the time, or even any of the time, to respectfully let them have their say. The Black Church, like all human institutions, is a flawed—one might say fallen—institution whose stirring triumphs exist within the complexities and ambiguities inherent in human existence. Gates and his team capture that. It is hard to image an America without the Black Church and everything it has given over the centuries not just to its followers but to the country as a whole.
Last night the same friend sent me this article asking if I had heard of the recent opening in Nashville of the National Museum of African American Music. Almost twenty-five years ago now this same friend and I took in a great exhibit about jazz at the African American Museum of Dallas. I had not seen the opening of this new museum, or even heard of its creation. With the pandemic still very much on this is a tough time for a museum to open. Hopefully it can weather these crazy times until the world opens up again. I would love to visit this place some day.
(image/photographers Carl Van Vechten via Library of Congress)
I did a Trader Joe’s run this morning, which meant a rare pandemic subway ride with full shower and scrubbing when I arrived home. Now I’m settling in to work on a small project that hopefully will find a home this spring or summer. I know the image quality is not that great but I wanted to share the above scene that took place in Brooklyn seventy-five years ago today. My colleague and I spend a lot of time in our class about the history and evolution of New York City discussing the housing shortage in the five boroughs in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. As the caption notes the retrofitted quonset huts were converted into temporary housing as millions of GIs came home from Europe and the Pacific. In other civilian uses Quonset huts were used for schools as well, including Queens College. The corrugated aluminum structures were a newish invention in the early 1940s and massed produced for military use, especially in the Pacific. I would go more into the history of how they came to be used for housing but because others already have will not here today. In the image below we see the earliest period of the Baby Boom. A few years after this families would begin moving into new housing subdivisions such as Levittown. It is easy–in some circles seemingly obligatory–to ridicule the rise of postwar suburbia, but one cannot blame young families for wanting their little patch of space after having gone through the Depression and depravities of World War II.
≈ Comments Off on Lincoln’s Birthday, pandemic edition
It is hard–incredible–to believe that the Lincoln bicentennial was twelve years ago. That year too marked the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, which in our house at least marked the start of the Civil War sesquicentennial. My own institution, as far as I can tell, is one of the few remaining that closes for Lincoln’s Birthday. Usually I would take this day to go to a museum–last year it it the Metropolitan. February is conducive to such indoor pursuits, but with the pandemic still on I avoided any subway commuting and used the day for groceries and laundry. I also spent a good part of the day proceeding with Ty Seidule’s “Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause.” Seidule, a retired brigadier general and professor emeritus at West Point, grew up in Alexandria, Virgina where his father taught at a prestigious high school where many of the high-ranking administrators over the decades were Confederate officers, and then the sons and grandsons of such. Robert E. Lee’s own descendants attended the school–and took classes with General Seidule’s father. He then went on for his undergraduate work to Washington and Lee University. I am about a quarter of a way through the book, which is part memoir and part history. In it Seidule traces the role of Robert E. Lee and the Lost Cause in his own life and intellectual development. I cannot imagine the courage it took to look back at every assumption from his life, family history, and community, question what he discovered, and then share what he learned with the reader. It is a humbling read.
Seidule has been in the news a lot lately. For one thing he is currently on the book tour circuit discussing his new work. Then this morning Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin appointed Seidule and three others to the committee whose task it will be to choose those figures for whom to rename military bases and other installations currently named after Confederate figures. Intentional or not, it is nonetheless fitting that the announcement came on Lincoln’s birthday. These are emotionally fraught issues in an emotionally fraught time. It will be interesting to see what the committee does and how the process plays out in the coming months.
I was texting someone earlier today about William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” to ask if he had ever read that large tome. Shirer published his classic history of Nazi Germany in 1960, fifteen short years after the war’s end. The scholarship on the Second World War has inevitably moved on in the six decades since the book’s publication. That’s how it works. You could make a strong case—I would—that the history of the war has not truly been written yet; so much of what we know, or think we know, about the conflict has been filtered through the prism of the events came afterward. Governments and individuals have been using and misusing the history and memory of the war for three quarters of a century now. As I was telling my friend though, despite the inevitable changes in historiography over the past six decades Shirer brought an immediacy to his narrative that cannot be replicated by today’s scholars. Born in 1904, the American journalist moved to Europe in the 1920s to work as a correspondent and to write in the romantic vein of contemporaries like Fitzgerald and Hemingway. It is telling that all three writers were from the American Midwest. In the 1930s Shirer found himself in Germany, where he witnessed, well, the rise of the Third Reich. Among other things Shirer attended one of Hitler’s mass rallies at Nuremberg in 1934 and was in Berlin for the 1936 Olympics. He worked in other European and world capitals as well. It helped that Shirer spoke German, Italian, and French. After the texting back-and-forth with my friend, I ordered a copy of the book online.
I am determined to learn the history and memory of both the war and the Holocaust over the next two years as some colleagues and I move forward on the project I mentioned the other day. I know a fair amount about the 1930s-40s but am working now in a more methodical manner. Shirer’s work began a new phase in Americans’ understanding of the war. In the decade and a half since Hitler’s suicide Europe was rebuilding itself and Americans in their postwar prosperity were in a period of willful forgetting. Essentially everyone was trying to move on and forget. Shirer’s book and the contemporaneous capture, trial, and execution of Otto Adolf Eichmann in the early 1960s began to refocus people’s attention on the terrible events of just two decades ago. “Rise and Fall” won the National Book Award and was a Book of the Month Club selections at a time when that meant more than it does today. In other popular culture of the time the Twilight Zone episode “Deaths-Head Revisited,” about a camp commandant returning to Dachau years after the liberation, premiered on November 10, 1961.
I mention all this because today is the 76th anniversary of the start of the Yalta Conference, the gathering of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin in the Crimea where the three made plans for what the postwar world might look like. Needless to say the three had contrasting visions. I have always been struck at how poor Roosevelt looks; he was failing quickly and would be dead less than ten weeks later. The conference ran from February 4-11, 1945. By the time of V-E Day that spring Truman would be in the White House.
(images/top, National Archives; bottom, Library of Congress)
Although we do not have a view of the Flatiron where we are here in Brooklyn, the view from our window is very much the same this February morning as it was 115+ winters ago. Wherever you are, stay safe and warm.
I was reading the social media feed of an email acquaintance a few days ago, a prolific and well-regarded historian of the Civil War Era, who noted that he was starting to believe that the memory and historiography of post-Civil War Reconstruction seem to be supplanting our remembrance of the actual fighting that occurred between 1861-65. That is becoming my sense as well. How could it not given events of the past several years? We have seen the same phenomenon with the popular memory of the Second World War over the past three quarters of a century. Battles make for riveting narratives filled with interesting characters behaving shamefully or courageously, often at the same time. War’s aftermath however is always complicated and, in comparison to tales of the battlefield, almost always unheroic. No one wants to study shabby compromises. I can’t help but think of all these things this January 27th, International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
I don’t wish to go too much into the details at the moment because it’s still a ways off, but some colleagues and I are working on a project related to the Shoah that will come to fruition sometime in the future. Specifically our project covers the American response to the war and Holocaust before, during, and after the conflict. It’s a fascinating topic and we intend to cover it thoroughly. The historical memory of the Holocaust began before the war ended: on April 12, 1945–four weeks prior to what became V-E Day–Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower, Omar N. Bradley, George S. Patton and Troy H. Middleton toured the Ohrdruf labor and concentration camp. Benjamin Runkle wrote a piece for Tablet magazine two years ago about Eisenhower’s role in not just ensuring the documentation of the liberation of the camps, but his work–mistakes and all–in accommodating displaced persons after the war’s end. The 75th anniversary of the Second World War’s end was last spring. That was only part of the story; as in post-1865 America, post-1945 Europe was hardly at peace. These next few years are an opportunity to examine what came immediately after Germany’s surrender, in all its complexity.
(image/photographer, William Newhouse; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park)
People have been texting and emailing over the course of the day with the news and their thoughts on the passing today of Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron. I don’t know what I have to say about his career and life that others have not said already, so I won’t go in to them too deeply. Still I felt it necessary to take a few minutes and recognize the man and everything he represented, and I don’t mean merely on the playing field.
One of my most vivid memories as a baseball fan was watching him hit number 715 off Al Downing, the Dodger pitcher destined to become a trivia question. There is a great recording of Frank Sinatra doing a live show in New York City and mentioning to the audience from the stage that Aaron had broken Babe Ruth’s record. Sinatra even mention Downing by name. Like most people, I had no idea what the man was forced to endure. I remember being excited in the late 1990s when players like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds were breaking home run records seemingly every year. In September 1998 a friend and I visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and there in the front entranceway was McGwire and Sosa’s memorabilia. Did we happily pose for pictures in front of it all? Of course we did.
My friend and I were hardly alone in our excitement. Most Americans got caught up in it. Looking back with twenty plus years of hindsight it all seems so tawdry, and I don’t just mean because many players of the era were/are alleged to have taken performance enhancing steroids. I know that previous eras had their own similar scandals which, as with steroids, were often hushed up by people in position to do something about it. In the 1950s-70s that usually meant the amphetamines, or “greenies” as players called them, that some used to get through the grind that is a major league season. All that said, there was something obscene about so many players hitting so many home runs day in and day out as they were in the late 90s and early 2000s.
I love the photograph directly above of Aaron’s Braves uniform juxtaposed with that of Sadaharu Oh, the slugger who for the Yomiuri Giants in Nippon Professional Baseball hit more home runs than any other professional player. Football is America’s passion and soccer has always been the world’s leading sport. Basketball has come into it own over the past several decades on the international level–long gone are the days when the Americans could assume the Olympic gold medal. One however should never underestimate baseball’s cultural reach. Today one of baseball’s greatest and most dignified men has left us. It’s all very difficult to process.
(images: White House staff photographers, NARA; Motokoka, Wikimedia Commons)
This past Monday I read with sadness of the passing of Reggie Foster. The name may not be familiar to many, but Reginald Foster was one of the great Latinist of the past half century. Father Foster was born in Milwaukee in 1939 and died of COVID in an assisted living facility in the early morning hours of Christmas day in that same city. For decades this Carmelite monk had translated anything that came into the Office of Latin Letters of the Vatican Secretariat of State, toiling at a bare desk in a modest space for four decades stretching from 1969-2009. Foster—or Reggie as he was known to generations of Latin enthusiasts—was much more than that. A man of great intellectual capacity with a strong body constitution and an incredible capacity for work, for years he also taught as many as ten classes each academic year at the Pontifical Gregorian University to all levels of learners. His students included the lowest beginners to the most advanced trying to take that final step to mastery.
I myself had not known who Father Foster was until this past fall. Early this year, for reasons still unknown to me, I felt an urge and urgency to begin studying Latin. I started in earnest in early summer and when the busy fall semester began I found the time by studying from 6:00 – 7:30 am each morning before I began the workday. Foster’s name and life’s work came to my knowledge around September when I read Ann Patty’s poignant memoir “Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin.” After reading that book I began the inevitable deeper dive into Foster, including a JSTOR search where I found several pieces of longform journalism about the man. Apparently someone is well along the way on a biography at the current moment.
What made Foster so respected and admired was his commitment to the language itself. He had little patience for anyone who saw Latin as a means of “self-improvement,” improving SAT scores, or any faddish motives that diminished the language itself. That’s why people came from around the world to study under him. Foster’s students admired and respected the man greatly, but his bosses at the Vatican and at the Gregorian University often found the outspoken priest difficult to rein in. The university let him go eventually because, well . . . he was telling students not pay for the courses. When anyone showed up he was always happy to have them if they took the work seriously. He spoke often and loudly also when he saw things in the Vatican that he believed were silly, ridiculous, or just plain wrong. His superiors did not like that, but he was just too good at his job as a Latin translator to let go. If an encyclical or other document had to go out quickly for release, and with assurance that there would be mistakes, the task inevitably fell to Father Foster. The final denouement came when he gave an outspoken on-camera interview to Bill Maher—standing in front of the Vatican—that appeared in Maher’s 2008 documentary “Religulous.” None of that meant Foster had lost his Faith, his love for the Vatican, or for the Discalced Carmelite itself. Far from it. He almost certainly would have gotten fired, but because he was so close to retirement his bosses let it go and he held on for the few months he remaining.
Foster returned to Milwaukee after his many decades in Rome. Health issues eventually confined him to a wheelchair and the retirement facility. Still he continued teaching classes, again almost always for free, to anyone who took the work seriously. There are many lessons to take from the life and experience of Reginald Thomas Foster: his belief in committing to and mastering difficult tasks is one of them; his work ethic and intellectual rigor are others. He found beauty in simple things and led an ascetic life dedicated to the search for truth and meaning. Though I never met him, I’m glad I learned who he was while he still alive. What is more, I will try in my own modest way to live up to his ideals.