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October 2012

September 2012

"End of an Era" Is Such A Cliche

But sometimes it's applicable. As of Monday, there will no longer be a daily newspaper in Mobile. I'll miss it, though it's been in very visible decline for several years, seeming to shrink in size and in depth of coverage almost from one day to the next.

When I moved to Mobile in 1990, the paper came out in slightly different morning and evening versions. And it was a pretty terrible paper. Then sometime around the mid-1990s new management came in, and it went from being the worst major newspaper in Alabama to being the best. The company made a huge investment in a new facility, including a press that cost a jillion dollars, and I think did very well for a while. Then the effects of the Internet began to take their toll. I think at this point the routine of reading a daily newspaper is something that's associated with "older," if not just plain old, people. Like me. 

There are those with knowledge of the industry and of this paper in particular who say the fundamental problem was mismanagement. I don't know about that, but I'm going to miss it. I think almost as much as I'll miss reading it I'll miss the sense of continuity, of participating in something that has been a feature of American life for over a hundred and fifty years. As a person of conservative temperament it saddens me to see traditions like this fade away.

The Clientele: Rain

Weekend Music

The strange thing about the mid-'60s English sound of The Clientele is that you think they sound a lot like somebody but you can't figure out exactly who. At least that's the way they affect me.


I've written about them before, in 2007 and 2008. About this album, in fact. Although I have a couple of others, I haven't gotten to know them as well. 

A Walk With Heather King

Heather King is the author of several memoirs, which I have not read but plan to, and of some shorter things which I have read and liked very much. Here is a video in which she walks to Mass in her Los Angeles neighborhood, talking as she goes about the place and about being Catholic. It's half an hour long, but it's worth it. The most interesting part for me begins about halfway through. (Thanks to Janet for telling me about it.)

W.E.B. Du Bois Would Have Loved This

Yes, as I was saying, our racial problems are serious. But this scene is a nice reminder of how much things have improved. It could not have taken place fifty years ago. 

Alan Sealls is a local meteorologist whom I call the prince of weathermen--he's tremendously knowledgeable, and has this infectious enthusiasm for the subject. You can tell he is just utterly fascinated by it, and he makes you feel that way. I rarely see him on TV, but he's one of a rotating series of weather commentators in the local paper, and I always read his pieces, because there's always something interesting in them beyond the forecast.

Wallander (3)

Bah. Psycho Christian death cult. Obviously I'm prejudiced, but I didn't think it was a very good story even apart from the annoying specifics. 

The episode is called "Before the Frost," and is based on a novel of the same name. Aside from compliments to the actors and photographers, I really have only one good thing to say about it: there are several moments that struck me as subversive of the general Christians-are-so-crazy motif. For instance, being pro-life is mentioned as one of the weird and scary aspects of the Christians. But there is a scene in which people are awed and deeply moved by an ultrasound view of an unborn baby. Whether these were intentional or not, who knows? though my guess is not. 

If this had been the first episode of the season, I probably wouldn't have watched more.

Sunday Night Journal — September 23, 2012

W.E.B. Du Bois: The Souls of Black Folk

Some months ago I saw a copy of this priced at fifty cents or dollar at a used book sale, thought "I really should read that sometime," and bought it. Well, I was right about that, more or less: I should have read it a long time ago. But better late than never. 

I'll go straight to my conclusion: anyone who cares about the race problem in America should read this book, for the illumination of both our past and our present. And that's especially true for Southerners, and not only white Southerners. I don't know exactly what I expected from it; I think I had no more than a vague idea that its treatment of the question was considered to be particularly insightful. Well, it is.

Du Bois was of a free black New England family, and he had the education of a 19th century New Englander: the classics, and Harvard. I'm pressed for time this evening, so will leave you in the capable hands of Wikipedia for further biographical information. What's more important for a discussion of the book is the sensibility, and the tools for expressing it, that this background gave him. It's worth reading simply as a work of American literature. The prose style is elaborately poetical, to the point of being florid, full of classical references and extended rhapsodical passages in the 19th century manner. Applied to a lesser subject, it might be considered overblown and sentimental. But it comes across to me more as Whitmanesque, because the matter is so important and the passion of the work so strong. Here, by way of illustration, are the first two paragraphs:

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

And yet, being a problem is a strange experience,—peculiar even for one who has never been anything else, save perhaps in babyhood and in Europe. It is in the early days of rollicking boyhood that the revelation first bursts upon one, all in a day, as it were. I remember well when the shadow swept across me. I was a little thing, away up in the hills of New England, where the dark Housatonic winds between Hoosac and Taghkanic to the sea. In a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys' and girls' heads to buy gorgeous visiting-cards—ten cents a package—and exchange. The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card,—refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows. That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads. Alas, with the years all this fine contempt began to fade; for the words I longed for, and all their dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not mine. But they should not keep these prizes, I said; some, all, I would wrest from them. Just how I would do it I could never decide: by reading law, by healing the sick, by telling the wonderful tales that swam in my head,—some way. With other black boys the strife was not so fiercely sunny: their youth shrunk into tasteless sycophancy, or into silent hatred of the pale world about them and mocking distrust of everything white; or wasted itself in a bitter cry, Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house? The shades of the prison-house closed round about us all: walls strait and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of night who must plod darkly on in resignation, or beat unavailing palms against the stone, or steadily, half hopelessly, watch the streak of blue above.

 There is a fair amount of anger here, which is hardly surprising. What is surprising is the breadth of vision and sympathy. I suppose I expected, more or less, a diatribe. But it really isn't that. It is a genuine and, I think, successful attempt to see the situation steadily, and see it whole, to paraphrase Matthew Arnold. The book appeared in 1903, and anger about the slavery of the recent past, and the segregation and oppression of the present are what I would have expected. I did not expect that anger at whites, and especially at the South, would sit alongside genuine sympathy, and a serious attempt to understand what motives beyond sheer brutality and avarice would make them cling to the legal segregation of the races. And I did not expect that natural sympathy with blacks would sit alongside an honest assessment of their failings.

There are no simple caricatures in the book: no devilish white and saintly Negro (that's the term Du Bois uses, and it's very difficult not to follow him in discussing the book.) Du Bois sees real human beings on all sides. Of course he spends more time and sympathy on the subjects of his book, who are moreover his own people. But he does not idealize them. He confronts fairly the charges of laziness, shiftlessness, ignorance, and so forth laid against them by the white world, and makes no attempt to pretend that these don't exist. 

As the 20th century rolled on, Du Bois became a pretty strong sympathizer with Communism, though never actually joining the party until very late in his life. This tempts one to dismiss him, but that would be a serious mistake. He did not attack racial oppression because he saw it as a useful tactic for discrediting capitalism, but because he knew all too well what that oppression really meant and how entrenched it was, and had begun to despair that it would ever change within the existing institutions of American life. He died in 1963, at the age of 93, not quite having lived to see the passage of the legislation that killed legal segregation.

One could wish for more here; one could wish Du Bois had been more informed by Christian tradition and more shaped by Christian spirituality, instead of having an apparently pretty conventional New England skepticism, perhaps somewhere between Unitarianism and atheism, though, like many of his time, he was still heavily and unconsciously influenced by Christian habits of mind and speech. He might have seen more deeply, and further, that education and the "elevation," as he puts it, of the African-American population alone would not be easy, nor sufficient to dissolve the barriers between the races; that is to say, he might have been less hopeful of human nature, and more of supernatural charity. But as a socio-cultural observer he is more than sufficient, and most of what he says is still very relevant:

It is not enough for the Negroes to declare that color-prejudice is the sole cause of their social condition, nor for the white South to reply that their social condition is the main cause of prejudice. They both act as reciprocal cause and effect, and a change in neither will alone bring the desired effect. Both must change, or neither can improve to any great extent. 

Du Bois believed that progress for the Negro was mainly a matter of education, of bringing down the barriers that shut him out from opportunity and from "white," i.e. Euro-American, culture. From our vantage point a hundred years on, there is a good deal of pathos in this. What would he have thought of the situation now, when segregation has been in its grave for almost fifty years, yet the educational level of so many blacks has actually declined? And what would he have thought of the catastrophic decline in marriage which followed those longed-for legal victories, when he blamed slavery and segregation for the difficulty of maintaining marriage in the black community, though the percentage of intact black families was then, if his suggestions are correct, actually higher than it now is? What would he think of the predominance of violent and obscene rap as the most visible representative of black culture?

There is hardly a week that goes by here, and in most places in the United States where there is a large black population, that the local news does not include at least one story about a black man (or, all too frequently, a boy of 16 or 17 or even younger) shooting someone, hardly a day without news of some lesser crime. Usually the victim in the shooting is another black man, but sometimes it isn't: there is the young white engineer who was shot dead when he had no money for the robbers who broke into his house, and the white woman who was gunned down in the street because she shouted at a speeding car to slow down. The inevitable result is more fear and prejudice on the one side, more resentment and frustration on the other. Would all this not have broken the heart of W.E.B. Du Bois? 

But maybe that's too gloomy a picture. After all, much progress has been made, and if the black community has not been elevated as Du Bois hoped, it must be admitted that the white community has descended: in the lower socio-economic levels there, the same pathologies exist. 

In any case the words that come near the end of the book remain as true and significant as they were when they were written.

Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. Here we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song--soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire twohundred yearsl earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit. Around us the history of the land has centered for thrice a hundred years; out of the nation's heart we have called all that was best to throttle and subdue all that was worst; fire and blood, prayer and sacrifice, have billowed over this people, and they have found peace only in the altars of the God of Right. Nor has our givt of the Spirit been merely passive. Actively we have woven ourselves with the very warp and woof of this nathion--we fought their battles, shared their sorrow, mingled our blood with theirs, and generation after generation have pleaded with a headstrong, careless people to despise not Justice, Mercy, and Truth, lest the nation be smitten with a curse. Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warning have been given to this nation in blood brotherhood. Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is not this work and striving? Would America have been America without her Negro people?

No, of course, she certainly would not have been. And no one who really loves this America that actually exists can wish it otherwise.

(The entire text of The Souls of Black Folk can be found online at Project Gutenberg.)

Peter Gabriel: Mercy Street

Weekend Music

I have a real find for you this week, if you don't already know the song. And if you know the song but not the video, you still have a treat coming. 

I'm still listening to one of my CDs full of random mp3s, and this song, as performed by Iain Matthews, came up the other day. I had heard it first on a mixtape sent to me by Daniel Nichols quite a few years ago, and really liked it. But I remember thinking at the time that it seemed a bit familiar, and later on when I ran across the fact that it was a Peter Gabriel song, I thought I might have heard it when I borrowed the Gabriel album So from a co-worker. For whatever reason the album didn't make much of an impression on me, but it's apparently regarded as a classic, so I ought to give it a try.

But I'm wandering--anyway, listening to the Matthews version the other day,  I decided to look up the Gabriel original, which I like even better. Moreover, there is this beautiful video. The sound level is very low so you may need to turn up your speakers.


I also discovered that the song is dedicated to Anne Sexton. That makes some of its details, like the insitutional corridors of grey and green juxtaposed with the suburbs, make more sense. Sexton, if you don't recognize the name, was a poet who wrote about her experiences with mental illness and general misery. She committed suicide in 1974, and her posthumous volume of poems was called 45 Mercy Street. No doubt someone familiar with her work would recognize many allusions or quotations in this song.

I never read her very much, partly because I just wasn't much drawn to then-contemporary poetry, especially the sort of confessional-feminine work that hers seemed to be (never cared much for Sylvia Plath, either), and partly because she was something of a feminist poster child for the horrors of male oppression. But this song makes me wonder if I should take another look at her. 

Wallander (2)

I watched the second episode of season 3, The Dogs of Riga, a couple of nights ago. I think I liked the first one a little better. This one shared the atmosphere of the other, but is more gruesome and has more action and suspense--several people are tortured and murdered in a rather horrible way, and Wallander is in danger of the same. The torture is not shown, but its after-effects are, and just the idea is disturbing enough. Same grim atmosphere. The plot involves post-Soviet corruption in Latvia, though I don't recall any mention of dogs.

Beth is right: Kenneth Branagh has hardly any lips. I guess that had registered on me as a tight-lipped expression, but I guess it's permanent.