Wednesday, August 31, 2005

New Orleans: looking forward, looking inward

Talking about New Orleans today, our town manager Cal Horton, who knows a thing or two about the workings of cities, speculated that it might just never come back. I don't know, though. I'm betting on the Big Easy. Cities are resilient. "Although cities have been destroyed throughout history--sacked, shaken, burned, bombed, flooded, starved, irradiated, and poisoned--they have, in almost every case, risen again like mythic phoenix," write Lawrence Vale and Thomas Campanella. Curiously, "the rate of resilience seems to have increased since 1800 even though the mechanisms for destruction have multiplied."

But that will take time. Now is another story. Yesterday's story was that martial law had been declared in and around the city. Today's correction is that martial law is not, technically, possible under Louisiana law, though it is certainly possible to declare a state of emergency.

Ah, the phrases that come so easily, the metaphors we live by. I wonder why?

Intelligent design

Shakespeare, a Catholic in an oppressively Protestant culture, wrote in code, claims scholar Clare Asquith.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Radicalism in nice clothing

In the first of a number of events planned to go along with UNC's summer reading program featuring Blood Done Sign My Name, Tim Tyson gave a moving speech last night to a large and receptive crowd. Paul took good notes. His central point, here as throughout his work, is that the difference between Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokley Carmichael was one of degree, not kind. "King's strategies," Tyson said, "were rooted in a realistic assessment of political power in the United States and around the world. He knew where the levers of power lay and had a plan that addressed itself to that situation." King's brand of coercive nonviolent direct action laid the groundwork for the Black Power movement (whether the movement would credit his influence or not). Another point Tyson stressed is that King's roots were distinctly southern, that the way he combined Gandhian strategic nonviolence with the central message of the major institution uniting blacks in the South--the church--was a master stroke.

Tyson is smart and clear; he is also engaging and endearing, in the best southern way. Readers of the book, and perhaps many others by now, know that the story of the murder of Henry Marrow is deeply personal: Tyson was in Oxford and he was very young, the ideologically confused son of a liberal white Methodist preacher. A chance, galvanizing event became the story that motivated his scholarship and his career.

Someone last night asked him why he decided to write the book as part "coming of age" memoir, part straight-up history. Now, other than the very good reason that it could not have been any other way (as he realized after he wrote it in the other way for his master's thesis), I think that Tyson's rhetorical strategy was his master stroke. A southerner speaking to and of his own, he is able to tell the complicated, painful story of race from the inside out. As we learn about his family, generations of liberal white preachers, curiously but interestingly out of step with their own time, we begin to listen to his voice as that of our very conscience:

We cannot address the place we find ourselves because we will not acknowledge the road that brought us here. Our failure to confront the historical truth about how African Americans finally won their freedom presents a major obstacle to genuine racial reconciliation. . . .

The work we face is to transcend our history and move toward higher ground. To find that higher ground, we must recognize, as Dr. King tried to teach us, that we are "caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny."

All of that is true and powerfully expressed, and if we can manage to live up to this challenge, it will be a grand achievement. But now I'm brought finally to my point: why isn't there controversy about this UNC book choice? Is it because we are charmed by the conspiratorial voice of a master southern storyteller, our brother confessor? Is it because we are much closer now to being that multicultural society that King longed to see? Is it because our college students, thank goodness, are too young to really imagine the reality of Jim Crow? (Tyson remarked that this generation is completely beyond the taboo of interracial relationships that marked his own generation so deeply.) Is the focus so much on skin color that we're ignoring the other issues that Tyson wants to raise?

Another question last night was, Now what do we do to achieve a more just society? Tyson's ready answer focused on the public schools. He said that every time he visits a school that is in bad repair, the ceiling and the walls falling apart, he can count on looking at "a sea of brown and black faces." And vice versa. He called for equal funding, not just the minimal funding that the state of North Carolina can't even figure out under Leandro. "These children did not choose where they were born, and they're all our children, and if we don't do right by them we'll all suffer." Make no mistake: that is a radical position.

Two years ago, the choice of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (not) Getting By in America as UNC's summer reading sparked angry charges of "liberal bias." In hardly a rousing defense, "University officials maintained that choosing the book does not mean they advocate the opinions voiced by the author but that they are trying to encourage students to examine the subject critically and draw their own conclusions." Ehrenreich was left pretty much on her own to defend charges of "anti-Christian bigotry."

W.E.B. DuBois famously said, in 1903, that "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." In the twenty-first century, it is class. Tim Tyson wants us to understand this, but he's such a good southern interlocutor, with such a good story to tell, that I fear he's not being heard.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Not the worst

I was relieved to learn that my aunt and uncle, who have ridden out many a hurricane, departed New Orleans for Fort Worth yesterday morning.

"The worst is not/So long as we can say 'This is the worst,'" says Edgar in the last moments of King Lear.

It's plenty bad in New Orleans and environs. But wasn't a Category 5 direct hit.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

West House web site

West House

Contrary to popular belief, the campaign to save West House on UNC's campus is not dead. The West House Coalition's discussions with the university administration are ongoing. Please take a look at the coalition's web site and consider signing the petition to lend your support.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

A long way, baby

Eighty-five years and one day after the franchise, I get this invitation:

American Women's Conference

At this once in a life conference you will learn how to:

1. Use the 7 keys to build lasting relationships at home and on the job.
2. Apply the 21 secrets of self-discipline to always look and feel young.
3. Be recognized and rewarded for your efforts.
4. Buy Real Estate for 31%-48% below market value.
5. Rapidly expand your circle of influence.
6. Develop opportunities for networking.
7. Use the top money-making secrets millionaires are using.
8. Improve the quality of your life and the lives of your loved ones.
9. Use the essential principles of highly successful women.

A hard-won right

From Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman's Party, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Yesterday was the 85th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. The Library of Congress has photos of dozens of women who were arrested and imprisoned to gain the right to vote.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Going home again and again

Thomas Wolfe grew up in Asheville in a boarding house run by his mother called the "Old Kentucky Home." In Look Homeward Angel he described it as a "big cheaply constructed frame house of eighteen or twenty drafty, high-ceilinged rooms." His mother added electricity and plumbing and more rooms. She was said to be a "driver of hard bargains."

Like mother, like son.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

UNC summer reading: controversy in all the wrong places

Not only is D.G. Martin "looking for racial progress in all the wrong places," as Eric Muller observes: he's looking for controversy in all the wrong places, and he's been looking a long time now. His latest column is a virtual repeat of one he published in January--except for the addition of the passage that Eric finds so objectionable, the part where he implies a comparison between the old "solid South" (and its rude come-uppance) and Israel. Compare the two for yourself. What accounts for the gratuitous addition? Was it just something that came to him because of recent events in Gaza?

I don't know. But I do know that the second column comes after Martin has interviewed Tim Tyson, author of Blood Done Sign My Name, on UNC-TV. That interview, in turn, was clearly framed by Martin's initial reaction to the book, as he expressed it in January:

Tyson challenges our thinking. The story he tells shows, whether we like it or not, that it was violent, as much or more as [sic] non-violent, activity that led to changes in Oxford.

This part of our history is going to be hard for some of us to confront, especially at a time when we are committed to a war on terrorism and terrorists, however good the terrorists' long-term objectives may seem to them.

There's a big leap being made here, as well as a couple of disturbing suggestions. The leap is that all political violence is somehow the same (whether it involves bloodshed or not). The truly troubling suggestions are that such violence is at times a necessary means to a desirable end; and that the world will ever be thus.

Martin's interview with Tyson is worth watching. Tyson recounts the riot that broke out after the murder of the young black man Henry Marrow: the torching of $10 million worth of warehoused tobacco in downtown Oxford, followed by a hard-hitting economic boycott. The African Americans were convinced (rightly as it turned out) that the murderers would walk, and they were registering their feelings in the only language that had a hope of being heard: economic coercion. Especially interesting is this exchange:

MARTIN: These people made history. What you've taught us in your book is that they made history by doing a lot of property damage, by being what we might call terrorists, in the sense that they were throwing fire bombs, things like that. You came to believe, it's not fair to say that you came to believe these people were heroes, but you certainly persuaded me that they were essential to accomplishing the objectives, that that's been a hard lesson to accept.

TYSON: Well, that's a hard lesson to accept, but the truth is that power responds to power, and gasoline's very cheap and so are matches. Martin Luther King said a riot is the language of the unheard, and if you let pools of social misery accumulate in the system and you oppress them, you can expect this. You call them terrorists: if you let pools of misery gather in Beirut, Lebanon, where people have no hope, where their children cannot go past where they are, where they have no hope of advancement, and they look up at TV and they see the glitter of American opulence, bad things are gonna happen, that's all I'm saying. I'm not saying it's right, and I want to be clear that I don't advocate violence or admire it; in fact, I think violence creates chasms between people that are often hard to bridge. The violence of slavery and segregation and lynching has created that too, and we had problems, but I will say that it happened.

"History," Tyson continued, "doesn't always happen in morally pristine ways that we can look back on and be comfortable. But I think it's essential that we look back in a clear-eyed way and say, This is what we've been through. Now: where do we want to go?"

For Martin, the violence was "essential." For Tyson, "it happened." Although I don't think he is naive enough to claim that it won't happen again and again given the right circumstances, he does not hold it out as a historical inevitability, surely not as a necessity. And for anyone who has read the book--which, as far as I can tell, is every book club in the region--there's a lot more going on than the fire-bombing. This brings us to the other non-controversy surrounding the book.

On how Blood Done Sign My Name has been received in Oxford, Tyson said to Martin,

It's broken what people felt was an unhealthy silence. There are really a lot of black and white people having interracial reading groups and prayer groups and working together and trying to make something redemptive, which is just the greatest thing that I could have dreamed about this. . . . The distinctive thing is not the trouble we had there. . . . The distinctive thing about Oxford is that they are turning to try to find a redemptive path out of that trouble together, and that's remarkable.

The committee charged with selecting the UNC summer reading almost caved in to fears that the book would be too highly charged, but they listened to Reg Hildebrand, who insisted that the conversation was "worth the risk."

Yesterday on The State of Things, Bill Ferris was asked about the role of African Americans today in shaping the story of the South. "It's central," he said. "One of the exciting new chapters of southern studies is the field of contested memory, which Fitz Brundage has pioneered. The idea is, whose memory are we going to honor, the white or the black? We increasingly have civil war trails that parallel civil rights trails." He spoke of "a kind of diversification of memory, not only black and white but ethnic memory, Jewish, Irish, Hispanics: these are many threads that shape in a quiltlike way what we think of as southern culture."

Contrary to Martin's suspicion that "People who might otherwise object to the book will probably keep quiet, knowing that they might be labeled 'racists' if they speak up," my sense is that people--and remember, we're talking mainly about Carolina freshmen--are hungry for the truth. The discussions that will take place in small groups on campus on Monday are as good an introduction as I can think of to a world in which, as Tyson believes, there is "special promise. We're having a larger migration than has ever happened before from north to south, black folks, brown folks, the demographics are changing, and if we find a way to move forward together, it's going to be wonderful."

UPDATE 8/29: Tim Tyson responds in the comments below, and he also responds to Eric's subsequent post. Says Ed Cone: "The most interesting debate of the week in North Carolina is happening on a Chapel Hill weblog."

Urban space and the "sittability" factor

Twenty-five years ago, William H. Whyte published a landmark book on the design of public urban space: The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. It was based on a study of New York City. Turns out it's very important to have many choices of places to sit.

Ideally, sitting should be physically comfortable--benches with backrests, well-contoured chairs. It's more important, however, that it be socially comfortable. This means choice: sitting up front, in back, to the side, in the sun, in the shade, in groups, off alone.

Choice should be built into the basic design. Even though benches and chairs can be added, the best course is to maximize the sittability of inherent features. This means making ledges so they are sittable, or making other flat surfaces do double duty as table tops or seats. There are almost always such opportunities. Because the elevation changes somewhat on most building sites, there are bound to be several levels of flat space. It's no more trouble to make them sittable than not to.

It takes real work to create a lousy place. . . .

But it can be done!

Whoa there!

My mother, a professional Texan, is going to burst out of her body brace when she reads this: Cowboys may well have come from the Carolinas.

Carolina also became the preeminent cattle country in the English empire, as the Carolinians pioneered many practices later perfected on a grand scale in the American West, including cattle branding, annual roundups, cow pens, and cattle drives from the interior to the market in Charles Town. Many owners entrusted the roaming cattle to the care of black slaves, who had previous experience as herdsmen in Africa. In Carolina the black herdsmen became known as "cowboys"—apparently the origin of that famous term.

Makes sense when you think about the longleaf pine savannahs before their sad destruction: "Human exploitation of the longleaf forest began in the 18th century, when settlers loosed millions of grazing cattle and foraging hogs beneath the canopy," writes Lawrence Early in Looking for Longleaf.

Further than that, I sayeth not.

Monday, August 22, 2005

A public apology

Shortly after Airport Road was renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, one of the new street signs was vandalized. Recently Mayor Kevin Foy received the following letter:

Michael Clay
817 Klyce Street Apt. D
Eden, NC 27288

August 10, 2005

Dear Mayor Foy:

My name is Michael Clay and I am writing you this letter to apologize on behalf of myself and my former roommate Brandon Pegram. On May 10, 2005, we were out celebrating our last night together as students in Chapel Hill, a night in which we both made wrong decisions that caused personal embarrassment and pain among the entire community. We were residents of 142 E. Longview Street and after one last night on the town with all of our roommates and friends, we decided to take the Longview and Martin Luther King Blvd. street signs as souvenirs of our place of residence during our time in Chapel Hill.

While I know it may be extremely difficult to understand our motivation, I hope that by the end of this letter that it will be clear that our actions were not racially motivated and we are both sincerely sorry for any pain that our actions caused the community.

While I understand that I cannot erase any pain that resulted from that day, it is my dire hope that my apology will not fall onto hardened hearts and our actions that day will be seen as what they were; two college kids who went about remembeering their time in Chapel Hill the wrong way. To us, both of those street signs represented a memory of our time living at the corner of Longview and MLK Blvd, but to the community, the MLK Blvd street sign represented something more. When we attempted to take those memories for ourselves, we were actually robbing the community of a symbol of change and a source of hope. Our goal was never to do anything to hurt the community, but our stupidity and lack of consideration did just that. I understand that there were those who opposed the name change and I am saddened that my actions have been misconstrued into a form of racially motivated opposition. I am sorry that I was responsible for a decision that broke the law, but more importantly, I am sorry that my actions hurt the entire community. Thank you for your time and once again I am truly sorry for any pain that my actions have caused.


Michael Clay

Name that nostril

I know two for sure (but that's all). How about you?

Destiny calls their name

I love the name "Terry Teachout." For a critic, what instant authority! For years I've meant to keep a list of hyperappropriate names, like Elaine Scarry, author of The Body In Pain, Marshall Brain, author of How Stuff Works, John Cloud, historian for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or my friend Betty Twiggs, landscape architect. One from yesterday's Times is over the top: Louise Mirrer, owner of a house of mirrors.

He's been there, done that

In May, Michael Bérubé said:

You know, I bet “About Last Night” would be a really good name for a blog about art, music, and cultural events of one kind or another.

Michael, meet Terry Teachout.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Texas two-step; or, telling the dancer from the dance

I don't understand why Ed Cone's perfectly sensible take on Cindy Sheehan provoked so much vitriol in his comments. All he did was to scoop Frank Rich.

"The Prevention of Literature"

George Orwell on the fate of literature under totalitarianism (1946).

In our age, the idea of intellectual liberty is under attack from two directions. On the one side are its theoretical enemies, the apologists of totalitarianism, and on the other its immediate, practical enemies, monopoly and bureaucracy. Any writer or journalist who wants to retain his integrity finds himself thwarted by the general drift of society rather than by active persecution. The sort of things that are working against him are the concentration of the press in the hands of a few rich men, the grip of monopoly on radio and the films, the unwillingness of the public to spend money on books. . . .

Of course, print will continue to be used, and it is interesting to speculate what kinds of reading matter would survive in a rigidly totalitarian society. Newspapers will presumably continue until television technique reaches a higher level, but apart from newspapers it is doubtful even now whether the great mass of people in the industrialized countries feel the need for any kind of literature. They are unwilling, at any rate, to spend anywhere near as much on reading matter as they spend on several other recreations. . . .

It would probably not be beyond human ingenuity to write books by machinery. But a sort of mechanizing process can already be seen at work in the film and radio, in publicity and propaganda, and in the lower reaches of journalism. The Disney films, for instance, are produced by what is essentially a factory process, the work being done partly mechanically and partly by teams of artists who have to subordinate their individual style. Radio features are commonly written by tired hacks to whom the subject and the manner of treatment are dictated beforehand: even so, what they write is merely a kind of raw material to be chopped into shape by producers and censors. . . .

But however it may be with the physical sciences, or with music, painting and architecture, it is — as I have tried to show — certain that literature is doomed if liberty of thought perishes. Not only is it doomed in any country which retains a totalitarian structure; but any writer who adopts the totalitarian outlook, who finds excuses for persecution and the falsification of reality, thereby destroys himself as a writer. There is no way out of this. No tirades against ‘individualism’ and the ‘ivory tower’, no pious platitudes to the effect that ‘true individuality is only attained through identification with the community’, can get over the fact that a bought mind is a spoiled mind. Unless spontaneity enters at some point or another, literary creation is impossible, and language itself becomes something totally different from what it is now, we may learn to separate literary creation from intellectual honesty. At present we know only that the imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Adventures with Eustace Tilly

You'll find Target in The New Yorker, but you won't find The New Yorker in Target.

The goodliest land

The world does not possess any where a more quiet, peaceable, honest and frugal population, than the people of this State. Notwithstanding the devastation, ruin and demoralization of the late civil war, our people are rapidly returning to their old customs and labors. A more law-abiding people cannot be found. Foreigners and strangers who come among us to engage in the industrial and business professions of life and to pursue the arts of peace, are everywhere hailed with joy, and the aim and desire of our people generally, is to promote peace and quietude, enterprise and prosperity among all classes, and to encourage and support wise laws and a good government, which give the greatest security and protection to life, labor and property.

From a publication of the North Carolina Land Company (1869), "established . . . for the purpose of aiding in the transportation and location of Northern and European settlers coming to North Carolina, and for the sale of lands of all descriptions . . ."

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Atlanta: Handling the panhandlers

Maybe you've heard that Atlanta just passed some kind of ban on panhandling in its downtown area. Most of the stories start out something like this:

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin says she expects to sign a measure to ban aggressive panhandling in parts of downtown Atlanta by week’s end.

Or this:

The measure was pushed by business owners who say the area is awash in aggressive beggars . . .

Who wouldn't favor outlawing obnoxious, unruly panhandling? The trouble is, that's not what it's about. Laws already exist, even in Atlanta, to handle aggressive panhandling, fraudulent solicitation, public drunkenness, and other types of street misbehavior.

The Atlanta ordinance (.pdf from Aug. 15 City Council agenda) prohibits--among other things--all panhandling in a large central area designated the "Tourist Triangle." The Tourist Triangle includes a new state aquarium funded by Bernie Marcus, the founder of Home Depot. At the 11th hour it was augmented to include the area near the MLK Center "after some critics said the original proposal was neglecting tourist areas of interest to blacks." In many ways the ordinance resembles Chapel Hill's nighttime panhandling ban, which I opposed.

Let's call a spade a spade. This is an ordinance designed to get panhandlers out of sight. The preamble to the ordinance couldn't be more clear about it, actually:

WHEREAS, the City of Atlanta wants to protect and enhance the City’s attractions to citizens, tourists and visitors; and

WHEREAS, the City of Atlanta wants to continue to attract businesses to, and retain the current businesses in, Downtown Atlanta; and

WHEREAS, commercial solicitation causes a sense of fear and intimidation, particularly at night or in confined areas; and

. . .

WHEREAS, commercial solicitation in Downtown Atlanta impacts tourism and retail and causes a decrease in generated revenues to the City and its business community; and

WHEREAS, commercial solicitation has a negative impact on the retention of businesses in Downtown Atlanta and discourages businesses from locating in Downtown Atlanta; and

WHEREAS, commercial solicitation in Downtown Atlanta contributes to the negative perceptions of the City of Atlanta, which discourages tourism and retail and contributes to the lack of enjoyment of public places; and

WHEREAS, commercial solicitation throughout Downtown Atlanta is a common presence and disturbance to residents and businesses;

WHEREAS, commercial solicitation drives customers away from businesses in Downtown Atlanta, therefore affecting business transactions and threatening potential economic growth . . .

Panhandling has been recognized as a form of speech. In Loper v. New York City (1993), the 2nd Circuit held that beggars were engaging in protected speech, going on to note that “[e]ven without particularized speech, . . . the presence of an unkempt and disheveled person holding out his or her hand or a cup to receive a donation itself conveys a message of need for support and assistance.” And a sidewalk is a "quintessential public forum." So, restrictions on first amendment rights on downtown sidewalks are subject to "the highest scrutiny." The city "must show that its regulation is necessary to serve a compelling state interest and that it is narrowly drawn to achieve that end."

Until recently, the "compelling state interest" that cities claimed was public safety. Ordinances restricting aggressive panhandling are designed to keep the peace, and by definition--since they focus on behavior--they don't impinge on the panhandlers' speech rights. So they are usually upheld. On the other hand, bans that reach beyond aggressive behavior can be stricken down if the court perceives them as broader than necessary for the given "state interest" of public safety.

In 1993, the City of Fort Lauderdale tried something different. It banned panhandling along a 5-mile strip of beachfront development, claiming as its "compelling state interest" not public safety but the protection of the recreational tourist trade. The argument was persuasive in the 11th Circuit: "Without second-guessing that judgment, which lies well within the City's discretion, we cannot conclude that banning begging in this limited beach area burdens 'substantially more speech than is necessary to further the government's legitimate interest.'" The city has a legitimate intertest in protecting its tourist trade, panhandlers are bad for said trade, therefore all is well. We don't know whether the court would have liked to second-guess the city's judgment, but it doesn't matter. The courts give a wide berth to city leaders.

Protestors of the Atlanta ordinance have vowed to appeal. But--this was not lost on the city--Atlanta too is in the 11th Circuit. The Atlanta ordinance is modeled on Fort Lauderdale's. Indeed, the preamble, jarringly out of synch with the PR spin, reads more like an argument to the court.

Meanwhile, here's the news from Fort Lauderdale:

A dozen years later, the sun-bleached city, with its palm trees and house-sized yachts, still attracts hordes of homeless people who hope for an easier life — and, presumably, still pose a threat to tourism.

Yet the panhandling ban goes unenforced.

In recent interviews, it was clear that many didn't even know of its existence, including police officers and those who work with the homeless.

"I'm not really sure we have a panhandling ban," said Laura Hansen, a leading advocate for the homeless in Broward County, which contains Fort Lauderdale.

Although the city fought in court for six years to keep the ban — battling all the way to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta — it ultimately proved of little use as a tool to control beggars and homeless people, said Scott Walker, the assistant city attorney in charge of prosecuting nuisance crimes.

Walker found that traditional laws, such as prohibitions on trespassing, were more helpful for controlling the homeless population. "I don't really go out of my way to enforce panhandling anymore," he said.

Panhandlers, beggars, whatever you call them--and whether they are homeless or not--are a serious problem in our communities. But fearfully legislating them out of sight is not the solution.

I'm Brave New World

by Aldous Huxley

With an uncanny ability for predicting the future, you are a true psychic. You can see how the world will change and illuminate the fears of future generations. In the world to come, you see the influence of the media, genetic science, drugs, and class warfare. And while all this might make you happy, you claim the right to be unhappy. While pregnancy might seem painful, test tube babies scare you most. You are obsessed with the word "pneumatic."

I would quibble with the last point. I haven't particularly thought about pneumantics since reading Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (which I recommend).

You too can take the Book Quiz at the Blue Pyramid.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Arms and the mom

Cindy Sheehan and her supporters were gathered in a Sunday morning prayer service. The owner of the adjoining land was annoyed. He had to let off a little steam about it.

The McLennan County Sheriff's Department said Mattlage had broken no laws. A man has a right to fire a gun on his own property, the authorities said, as long as he didn't point it at anyone or issue any threats.

Only in Texas.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Oil in due time

"[W]hy aren't high prices bringing new supplies to the market?" asks the Economist.

Patience, says the President.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Poets bare breasts; radio waves tremble

One of the surprises of being in East Texas was to her Garrison Keillor's voice on the radio at odd times of the day, of the week, talking about literature. The area NPR station carries The Writer's Almanac. It's Keillor the English major straight up. It's a treat, a break from the bad news.

A couple of weeks ago (via Romenesko), WKUY in Lexington pulled the plug.

WUKY managers decided to stop carrying the Almanac after a recent spate of language advisories, although they were tracking the content for about a year, [station manager] Godell said.

The warnings, issued by the program’s production company, came about Curse of the Cat Woman by Edward Field, which contained violent themes and the word “breast”; Thinking About the Past by Donald Justice, which also used the word “breast”; and Reunion by Amber Coverdale, which contained the phrase “get high.”

This is paranoid self-censorship, something we've seen in these parts before. But within two weeks, in response to criticism the station reversed itself. "The FCC says any potential complaint has to be measured against community standards," Godell said. "I've now learned what Central Kentucky's standards are."

Friday, August 12, 2005

Where credit is due

You loved North by Northwest, but can you remember how it opened? That and other credit sequences for the great movies of second half of the 20th century were created by Saul Bass. I especially like the way West Side Story moves from sound bars to the sand bar called Manhattan. If only it had the audio.

Via Kottke.

What's in a name?

Branding the university for fun and profit.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Field trip: Carrollton, Mississippi

On my way home from Texas I took a detour north of Jackson to Carrollton, Miss. I wanted to see the little town that has preoccupied my imagination for so long.


The courthouse where, in 1886, more than a dozen black men were gunned down in cold blood still stands. At the time of what quickly became known as the Carrollton Massacre, it was less than 10 years old. According to a WPA history, the prior courthouse had been burned in 1875 by a Republican out of anger that the Democrats had "redeemed" the state from the political control of the Republicans, part of the infamous "Mississippi Plan": "Our great triumph [at the polls] compensated us for the loss of our principal edifice." (The next year, Carroll County residents contributed to the delivery of the state in the presidential election to Samuel Tilden.)

Local journalist Susie James wrote up a nice summary of what happened. Reduced to essentials: A white man, James Liddell, an attorney and newspaper editor from nearby Greenwood, ran into the brothers Brown (black Indian "half-breeds" with a reputation for trouble), molasses was spilled, "a fracas" ensued. The Brown brothers were thrown in jail. But before they could be tried (a lynch mob would have made quick work of them, but they plucked the wrong prisoner), they had the nerve to file charges against Mr. Liddell. This, when you get down to it, was their great offense.

On March 17, 1886, the trial commenced. The black men in pursuit of justice were not even given a prosecutor. Only their black friends were on hand to watch, for the whites had been warned away. They knew that the trial would not get very far before a particularly severe kind of order would be imposed on the court.

Courthouse entry

Minutes into the trial, a cloud of men on horseback arrived from the west (the direction of Greenwood). From all four doors of the beautiful, symmetrical courthouse they entered: 50-100 white men "armed with every conceivable fiream," according to the New Orleans Picayune. They bounded up the stairs to the courtroom. Although it was said in the regional white press that the black men were armed and that the intruders shot in "self-defense," there is conflicting evidence on whether any of the blacks had guns. No white men suffered injury.

With the entrance to the courtroom blocked by the assailants, some of the black men took the only exit they could find: the windows.

From New Orleans Times Democrat,
March 19, 1886

Some escaped that way with their lives; others were not so lucky. From the Picayune:

There was a general stampede of those who would escape the missiles of the crowd, thinking to reach the window, thirty feet high, and jump to safety; but alas! The crowd around the courthouse, all being strangers, supposed each man trying to escape one of the Browns.

One man, Amos Matthews, who plunged through the eastern window, nearest the jury room, when equidistant in and out had the whole left side of his head blown off by one or more loads of buckshot, or a Winchester rifle, thus falling, breast on the window-sill, dead, and his brains streaming to the ground thirty or forty feet below, where it remained to-day. His wound was found to be as long as an ordinary man’s arm, and the weight of the blood striking the ground was heard across the street. It fell with such force and in such quantity, quite two gallons, that it spattered two or three feet up on the courthouse wall.

Peyton Hemingway, a confederate in all the plot and one of the leading backers of the Browns, jumped from the second story of the courthouse, and running toward Mrs. Aldure, had twenty-five to forty shots fired at him, but only received one slight wound and escaped.

A young negro jumped from the second story jury-room, striking the ground without injury and ran away with several guns turned on him, only one shot striking him anywhere, and that in half of his shoe sole.

Exactly how many died is not known. Susie James puts it at 23, higher than contemporary accounts, but possibly closer to right. One of her sources was Mildred Cain, granddaughter of Jake Cain, a survivor. ("They didn't want us to hate," she said.)

Carrollton is in the bluff hills region of Mississippi, right next to the fertile plantation-land Delta. Many more blacks lived in Carroll County than whites. Keeping them from gaining political power was what this game was all about: a couple of uppity blacks, yes, but more than that. At least, that's how the black and northern Republican press saw it. "The colored voters are duly intimidated by the wholesale slaughter of their fellows. And the solidity of the South is strengthened by the cement of innocent blood."

Newspaper editorials of the time (the Jackson Clarion for one) suggest that this horrific event was too much even for the white estsablishment. Since the overthrow of Reconstruction, keeping blacks from the voting booth had been accomplished by an uneasy, steadily escalating combination of fraud and violence. “[I]t is no secret . . . that we have been preserving the ascendancy of the white people by revolutionary means,” wrote one contemporary. “No man can be in favor of perpetuating the election methods which have prevailed in Mississippi since 1875 who is not a moral idiot.”

There had to be a better way. And so a way was found. In 1890 a new state constitution was adopted, one with a trick: you had to demonstrate your "understanding" of the constitution through an easily manipulated literacy test. This now infamous strategy, picked up by states across the South, was the brainchild of Carrollton's own Sen. J.Z. George. (George's son was rumored to have taken part in the massacre.)

You'll find no hint of the Carrollton Massacre on the courthouse square. There's a nice plaque commemorating the restoration of the courtroom in 1990-91. My visit happened to be on a Saturday morning, which was too bad, because the courthouse offices were closed. Indeed, the square itself was like a ghost town. I would have asked to see the courtroom. And I would have not been surprised to be refused: I'm told that such a thing has happened.

According to the Picayune, "Balls were lodged in all the walls, ceiling, doors, window sash, piercing the glass, mutilating the benches, etc." Amazingly, the damage was not fully repaired until that early 1990s renovation. From her childhood, Elizabeth remembers bullet holes in the walls. But she could get no explanation. All she could discover was that something terribly wrong happened to some black men a long time ago--an uncle told her it was unfortunate but necessary. Relevant issues of the Carrollton Conservative can't be found.

Newspaper office

In 1999, Carrollton was listed by the Mississippi Heritage Trust as one of the state's most endangered historic places.

A quintessential nineteenth century town, Carrollton survives relatively intact with a courthouse square surrounded by beautiful homes and downtown buildings. Carrollton could be to Mississippi what Salem is to North Carolina and Williamsburg is to Virginia. One of two county seats in Carroll County, drastic measures will be necessary to save this amazingly special Mississippi town.

Some progress has been made. They've enacted a historic preservation ordinance. They kept a Dollar General Store out of the historic area. They're renovating the old Town Hall. But whether this renewed sense of history will be expansive enough to include the Carrollton Massacre is very much an open question.

In his Turn in the South, V.S. Naipaul detected a distinctly southern sense of the past "as a wound." He felt it in the old plantations around Charleston, "many of them still with physical mementoes of the old days, the houses, the dependencies, the oak avenues. The past of which the more-black-than-white city now spoke, the past of slavery and the Civil War." Fitz Brundage pushes the notion: "ongoing contests over the meaning of that history will ensure that the southern past remains an open wound."

Now I still have to imagine the inside of that courtroom. In my mind's eye it is bright, well polished, smoothly plastered. Old wounds are sealed over. Or so it would seem.

UPDATE: Here's my article, "Spencer's Voice at the Back Door and the Legacy of Reconstruction" (.pdf), from the Winter/Spring 2005-06 issue of the Mississippi Quarterly (Vol. 59 Nos. 1-2), which was published in summer 2007.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Home again, running to catch up

When I left my mother on Friday she had gained "room independence," meaning she can right herself out of bed (assuming her brace is on) and get in her wheelchair and tool around. Though I have always been confident she's going to make it, I could tell that this made a real positive difference for her. She still has a long way to go. I'm sorry I couldn't stay longer, but I know she is in good hands. My brother deserves special thanks for his part in helping out.

While I was down there, I developed a bad habit of staying up very late watching cable TV, which I'm not used to. And I got practically no exercise. How nice, then, to find Jacob Stein's latest column in the stack of mail on my desk--just before I went to the gym for the first time in three weeks.

For years when I awakened in the morning I had the feeling that this may be the day I was to receive a unique thought, an epiphany that would tell me what life is all about. I felt the long-awaited event would occur if only I remained in bed and induced the proper state of wakeful repose.

One day I did receive the epiphany. It was that I was one of those destined to use the same feeble flicker of light that guides the generality of the populace.

When this happened I decided to get out of bed and start moving around. I was influenced in my decision by a physician with a staggering array of legal problems involving himself and his family. I asked him how he gathered the strength to get out of bed in the morning. He said he felt terrible every morning, but he knew it was only because his endocrine system worked at a low level while he slept. That, he said, explains early morning depression. He knew it would disappear once he was hopping around the office and seeing patients.

Impressed by the common sense of this theory, I decided to get up and drive over to American University and run around the track. What the physician said was true. No matter how bad it is, things change for the better after a run, no matter how slow the run is. . . .

Friday, August 05, 2005

Secrets of the newspaper business

A letter in the May 2005 issue of Publishers Auxiliary:

I'm collecting typographical errors that have appeared in newspapers and would appreciate receiving any and all kinds of them.

I'm more interested in the deliberate typo than in the accidental ones. Most typos, I believe, were not intentional. They were caused when a person simply hit a wrong key and the error was missed by a proofreader or editor.

It's the typo that was intentionally made that intrigues me: mistakes made deliberately in the letterpress days by an operator who wanted to have a little fun. Aware of this danger, experienced editors learned carefully to watch for certain words, such as public, which is easily converted to pubic ("local singer making her first pubic appearance"); the critical distinction between lie and lay; and the awful possibilities of dropping the "r" out of shirt, to name just a few.

Any contribution would be appreciated.

Robert M. Shaw
6216 Oriole Lane
Edina, MN 55436

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Farther along Martin Luther King

I don't remember whether Jonathan Tilove and Michael Falco made it as far into northeast Texas as Tyler as they traveled along Martin Luther King, but if they had, they would have found an MLK Boulevard much like most of the others. Tyler's MLK Boulevard is no Airport Road. But like the others, it embodies the hopes and dreams of many--in this case, it seems, as many Hispanics as African Americans.


Baptist church
Iglesia Bautista/Broadway Baptist Church

Baptist church

Baptist church
Primera Iglesia Faro Pentecostal Unida

I'd like to be in Durham tomorrow night to see this film, which I learned about from Erica Rothman.

Wednesday, August 3, 7 p.m.
"MLK Boulevard: The Concrete Dream" (60 min)
Marco Williams: Writer/Director/Producer
Center for Documentary Studies Auditorium

In the United States, there are more than 680 boulevards, avenues,
streets, drives, and lanes in towns, counties, and cities named in
honor of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. In fact,
there are more streets named for King than for any other American,
except for presidents Lincoln and Washington (even more than for JFK or FDR). Why?

"MLK Boulevard: The Concrete Dream" (2003) takes the viewer on a
journey to thirty of these locations, from Eugene to Muncie, from
Atlanta to Memphis, seeking to determine whether these streets
recognize an African American icon or commemorate an America hero.

Winner of the National Association of Black Journalists 2004 Salute to
Excellence Award: First Place, Discovery Times Broadcast

Filmmaker and film educator Marco Williams is a guest instructor at
this summer's Documentary Video Institute at the Center for
Documentary Studies at Duke University (July 30 - August 6).
Williams is a member of the faculty in the Undergraduate Film and
Television Department at New York University. Prior to joining NYU, he taught in the School of Filmmaking at the North Carolina School of the Arts. He has also been a Visiting Lecturer at Duke University, teaching a video production course exploring diversity on campus. He teaches screenwriting, documentary, fiction, and television production.

Williams is co-director and co-producer of the award-winning and nationally acclaimed seminal documentary "Two Towns of Jasper," winner of the Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award in 2002. The film, a feature-length documentary about the 1998 racially motivated murder of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, was broadcast on P.O.V. on PBS, featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show and on Nightline with Ted Kopple.

For more information about Center for Documentary Studies Institutes and other learning opportunities, check the Web at

Barbie talk


Whatever Wilma is saying to Barbie down in Winona, I'm more interested in Barbie's response. Here we have a pretty good rendering of the original Barbie, the one with the "strong, fierce, vampish face." What this Barbie has seen has left her wise beyond her apparent years.

"Go climb trees," she said. "You don't want to be like me, pinched and pointed and curled."

"Don't envy me my ornaments, Barbie said. Forget matching luggage, the sports car, and Ken. Travel light, little sister, why gild a lily? Try white ankle socks and some sensible shoes."

"Don't you mention my martyred hair. I denounce this lacquered, preternatural lid.  Wear goofy bangs, get a crewcut, devolve."

"And spread out, Barbie said. Why go through life shaped like a railroad spike? Use your elbows, make shade, take up space."

"I'm sad, Barbie said, sad and smiling, smiling and sad. I'm a mental-health squeeze play, don't try this at home."

"It's too late for me, but you, you're still young, play Hamlet, bet the farm, tell the truth."

From Laura Costas, "Experience," in Mondo Barbie.

Road to recovery

My mother is getting steadily better. The feeding tube is history. She's up doing therapy morning and night. But if you've ever known anyone who had back surgery, you know it'll be a long slow road to recovery. When she comes home in probably a couple of weeks, here are a few of the things she might see along the way.

Wilma & Barbie
City block, off Hwy. 155, Winona, Tex.

Faith Baptist Church, Hwy. 155, Gilmer.

Barton's vineyard, S. Montgomery St., Gilmer.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Jesus in the schools: Texas skirmish

Ed Cone cites news of the recent inroads of the Greensboro-based National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools into the school system at Odessa (Ector County), a Bushcountry oil town in West Texas where more than 50 percent of the 26,000 students are Hispanic.

As I've said before, this organization is dangerous.

They rely on such august authority as the Creation Evidence Museum. If you're ever in the neighborhood of Glen Rose, Tex., perhaps to see the real evidence of dinosaurs walking the earth, check it out.

Elsewhere in Texas somebody has their number. Dr. Mark Chancey, professor of biblical studies at SMU, has published a study of the Greensboro group. "Dr. Chancey’s report shows how the curriculum advocates a narrow sectarian perspective taught with materials plagued by shoddy research, blatant errors and discredited or poorly cited sources." But alas, he's merely an academic.