Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Who was Audubon's mother?

Not a bird-brain question. From a fascinating article about the annual bird count, the Carolina parakeet, and more:

On the very first page of his memoir, Audubon describes the death of a parrot as if it were a murder. It is an extraordinarily strange but meaningful story. According to Audubon, his mother, a highborn Louisiana lady living in St. Domingue, kept a number of parrots as well as several pet monkeys. One morning, one of the parrots asked for breakfast, and a monkey, offended for some reason, stood up and killed the bird. Little Audubon was so traumatized by this primal scene that he recalled it, he writes, thousands of times, noting that it was responsible for his lifelong love of birds.

One of the things that makes the story disturbing is that Audubon was creating a sort of racial parable with his tale -- his mother, he later tells the reader, was killed by blacks in the slave revolt that turned St. Domingue into Haiti; his story, therefore, feels like a weird racial parable in which his mother is somehow the delicate bird and the black slaves are the killer primates. But Audubon was lying -- his mother wasn't killed in St. Domingue; she died in childbirth and was a chambermaid. Audubon was fabricating a story to hide his illegitimacy. Which is something I believe many of us do in relationship to nature -- hide our origins. Darwin, after all, has made monkeys of us all. Racism is merely the crudest attempt to force a single group to bear the burden of our shared animal natures.

As it turns out, nobody really knows who his mother was--or his father.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Homelessness marathon tonight

Please tune in to WCOM-FM, 103.5, Carrboro's community radio station, tonight starting at 7 p.m. for our local version of the 11th annual Homelessness Marathon, a nationwide event this year coordinated by a Nashville station. During the 8-9 p.m. hour, I'll be on with Carrboro mayor Mark Chilton to talk about the local government response through our Ten-Year Plan and otherwise. Other guests will include Lorrie Tucker and Chris Moran of the IFC as well as two IFC clients. At 10 p.m., over to Nashville and more stories of the lives and lessons of the homeless among us.

Organized by Audrey Layden, who wrote beautifully about it in Sunday's Chapel Hill News.

We welcome your phone calls. Live streaming.

Here's a video clip from the 2004 homelessness marathon in Cleveland.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


For five years in a row now, I've documented my earliest daffodil--always in January, with last year's in December! It's a variety called "early sensation" after all, but they were starting to come insanely early.

This year, no "early sensations" on the scene yet. The first to burst open is this heirloom variety that was in the yard when we got here. Maybe it's the drought?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

"To Europe"

In London a young artist said to me, "How wonderful it must be for an American traveling in Europe the first time; you can never be a part of it, so none of the pain is yours, you will never have to endure it--yes, for you there is only the beauty."

Not understanding what he meant, I resented this; but later, after some months in France and Italy, I saw that he was right: I was not a part of Europe, I never would be. Safe, I could leave when I wanted to, and for me there was only the honeyed, hallowed air of beauty. But it was not so wonderful as the young man had imagined; it was desperate to feel that one could never be part of moments so moving, that always one would be isolated from this landscape and these people; and then gradually I realized I did not have to be a part of it: rather, it could be a part of me. The sudden garden, opera night, wild children snatching flowers and running up a darkening street, a wreath for the dead and nuns in noon light, music from the piazza, a Paris pianola and fireworks on La Grande Nuit, the heart-shaking surprise of mountain visions and water views (lakes like green wine in the chalice of volcanoes, the Mediterranean flickering at the bottoms of cliffs), forsaken far-off towers falling in twilight and candles igniting the jeweled corpse of St. Zeno of Verona--all a part of me, elements for the making of my own perspective.

--from "To Europe" (1948), in Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote (2007)

Friday, February 15, 2008

Show and no show

Last night, Paul and I had a great time at the opening night of Deep Dish Theater's timely and snappy production of "State of the Union."

Tonight, we tried to go to the ArtsCenter to see the Hidden Voices production of "Because We're Still Here (And Moving)," but we were among those turned away from the full house. Tomorrow we'll see if they're able to put on another performance.

There is an odd connection between the two. Jeri Lynn Schulke, who plays Mary Matthews (the Katharine Hepburn figure in the movie), has starred in a Hidden Voices production. In December 2006, she played Regina Walters in "Rewind," a dramatization of the true story of Walters' evolution from a junior-high cheerleader to a second-degree murderer through her reformation and spiritual healing.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A local apology

With the recent republication of John Ehle's 1965 book The Free Men, a moving chronicle of the civil rights protests that stood "liberal" Chapel Hill on its end in 1963-64, an important, yet little known, chapter in Chapel Hill's history has come to light again. This time last year, UNC's Wilson Library manuscripts division did its own part to acknowledge these events by mounting a fine documentary exhibit and hosting a series of panel discussions. I had the privilege of introducing and moderating a discussion that included Quinton Baker, Karen Parker, and Braxton Foushee, all of whom were students who participated in the demonstrations.


It was very clear to me why Tim West, who heads the manuscripts division, asked me to moderate this session. At the heart of the protest was the refusal of my predecessors on the Chapel Hill Town Council to pass a local public accommodations ordinance. Here's some of what I said at that panel back in January 2007:

I’ve been here almost 20 years. Yet it wasn’t until the NAACP presented us with a request to rename Airport Road for Martin Luther King Jr., three years ago, that I began to get any sense of what had happened here in the early 1960s. We had to learn all over again, from folks like Dan Pollitt who is here, and Joe Straley who is no longer here, that King spoke here in 1960, in the wake of the Greensboro sit-ins. In the end, we celebrated the name change on May 8, 2005, the 45th anniversary of King’s visit. But getting to that point was not an easy road.When it was the will of the Council in 2004, after three public hearings on the topic, not to vote to change the name of the road but instead to set up a citizen committee to talk about it, that’s when I learned that for some with better memories, it was déjà vu all over again. This is precisely what the Board of Aldermen (as they were then called) did in January 1964, rather than pass a local public accommodations ordinance. That was the second time they had said no to the ordinance, while Franklin Street roiled with demonstrations. Elected leaders did not lead.

The successes of the 1960-61 protests by Lincoln High students and graduates, including Braxton, at Colonial Drug and other places including the bus station and the two segregated movie houses set the stage for the demonstrations of 1963 and 1964. In this period, according to Dan Pollitt, who as a law professor was very much involved, Chapel Hill “joined the ever-increasing number of southern communities to experience an effort at racial integration by tactics variously called ‘creative disorder,’ ‘scofflaw Christianity,’ and ‘insurrection and rebellion.'”

Particularly over the long months of December 1963, January, February, March, and April 1964, university administrators “shut their eyes to the problem with a position of neutrality,” and the board of aldermen, as I’ve mentioned, ducked responsibility, while the demonstrators kept the pressure up. With the exception of the Daily Tar Heel, the local press tried its best to ignore what was right in front of them, except when they condemned it, which they did in their editorials often and with great stridency. The Chapel Hill Weekly, under Orville Campbell’s leadership, started out with some sympathy to the demonstrators but quickly joined forces with the opposing business interest. So did The News of Orange County, edited by Roland Giduz, who was also on the Chapel Hill Board of Aldermen; and so did the radio station, owned by the mayor, Sandy McClamroch. Then as now, people wondered how an episode like this could have happened in the “southern part of Heaven.”

Roland Giduz, to his immense credit, has apologized. "We should have led the way," wrote the Old Codger Blogger last month.

Today, the official Martin Luther King Jr. Day, set me to thinking again about the purpose of this observance. It seems to me that it is to further the elimination of racial discrimination and bring about natural racial integration.

I harken back to the 1960s in Chapel Hill when the local Board of Aldermen debated enactment of a public accommodations ordinance. That local law would have prohibited racial discrimination in local business service. After many months of deliberation the ordinance failed. The proposal brought on a lengthy trial of conscience throughout the community. As a member of the Town Board I sided with the majority that did not support this ordinance on legal grounds.

Those legal grounds were the fact that municipal governments had no authority to pass laws except those specifically authorized for them. It all became a moot question on July 4, 1964 when the national civil rights law took effect.

Although I believe such authority might yet be illegal, I would support enactment of this local law as I look back on it today. I’d do so on practical grounds, as much as for the fact that I heartily supported then and now the elimination of racial discrimination.The population of Chapel Hill back then would have generally accepted that first public accommodations law to be enacted by a town.

I believe we (the Town Board) erred in not passing that ordinance despite its questionable legality. We (the Board majority) didn’t see the forest for the trees. That is to say, we focused on trying to persuade individual businesses to drop their racial barriers, when the bigger picture was to eliminate all discrimination.

Forty-five years later, does a change of heart matter? I think it does. The very fact of a public apology for an institutional wrong shows that the terms of the debate have shifted. In a new book on the subject, The Politics of Official Apologies, Melissa Nobles argues that, at the highest levels, apologies "help change the terms and meanings of national membership." (Thanks to Al Brophy at Legal History Blog for the tip.)

Thank you, Roland.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

D. J. Spooky weekend

Congratulations to Paul for getting a UNC appearance for D.J. Spooky yesterday afternoon to tag along with Spooky's Duke date this evening. I missed yesterday, but tonight we all enjoyed the performance at Duke.

Kirk Ross captured a nice video of composer T.J. Anderson's comments Friday afternoon.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

New titles in African American studies

Via Legal History Blog, many great-sounding new books in African American studies.

I'm pleased to add that my entry on Meshack Roberts is one of the thousands of biographies included in the African American National Biography.

UPDATE 2/14: Editors Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Higginbotham talk about their ambitious work in creating the African American National Biography on Talk of the Nation.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Welcome life support for Graham house

A month ago, the Town of Chapel Hill condemned the house at 115 Battle Lane, capping a long, sad, frustrating saga for the house that once belonged to UNC president Edward Kidder Graham.

Tomorrow, Preservation North Carolina and the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill will announce the following:

The goal of Preservation North Carolina and the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill is to protect the state’s diverse built heritage and its natural sites. The two organizations will hold a press conference in front of the Edward Kidder Graham house in Chapel Hill on Tuesday, February 5 to discuss the details of the house being listed for sale and their efforts to find a buyer interested in rehabilitating the house. The 100 year-old house garnered its renowned status because it was built by Edward Kidder Graham, UNC-Chapel Hill’s ninth president. During his short tenure, Graham led a campaign to expand the school to all young men across North Carolina.

Preservation Society of Chapel Hill has been working for several years to preserve the house and has recently partnered with Preservation North Carolina to market the historic property to sympathetic buyers.

Speaking at the press conference will be Cathleen Turner, regional director, Preservation NC Piedmont Office and Todd Dickinson, Dickinson Restorations, Inc., Hillsborough. Dickinson will be on hand to discuss rehabilitating the house. Despite the daunting rehab work, the groups are confident there will be a great amount of interest in preserving this property.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

The landscape of property law

Over at Legal History Blog, Al Brophy has been weighing in with some interesting posts on such topics as the property law implications of the behavior of art collectors in the 19th century. The story he tells here has happened more than once. It has also happened in latter times that famous works of art--works that ought to be publicly displayed for the world to appreciate--have been bought by private collectors for their own private enjoyment.

Al likes to say he is "Al from Alabama" (School of Law), but beginning in fall 2008 he'll be the less lyrical "Al from North Carolina" as he joins the UNC Law School's faculty. AL's loss is definitely our gain.