January 2009 Archives

Some Old Words


Matt Yglesias yesterday:

After the end of the Civil War there were, for a time, various African-American members of congress elected from the Reconstruction-era South. But then came the "redeemer" governments using a combination of a terrorist violence and state coercion to institute an apartheid system and for a while black elected officials departed from the federal government. On January 21, 1901 George Henry White, the last of these Reconstruction-era members of congress, said:
This, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the Negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress but let me say Phoenix-like he will rise up some day and come again. These parting words are on behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised and bleeding, but God-fearing people. . . . The only apology I have for the earnestness with which I have spoken is that I am pleading for the life, the liberty, the future happiness, and manhood suffrage for one-eighth of the entire population of the United States.

No African-Americans served in the United States Congress for the next 28 years, until the Chicago South Side elected Oscar Stanton DePriest in 1928 (the Illinois 1st Congressional District has been represented by African-Americans ever since, and happens to be President Obama's home district as well. Incidentally, it was my home district for five years, too.) By contrast, no Southern state would elect an African-American to federal office until 1973.

Obviously we've now seen many African-Americans in the highest offices: many Congressional Representatives, a handful of Senators, and for one day now, President Obama.

To close the inauguration, civil rights leader and Reverend Joseph Lowery gave a moving benediction. Here's a transcript. The ending drew a few laughs from the crowd:

Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around ... when yellow will be mellow ... when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. That all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen.

But it also generated some confused and startled reactions, too, especially from younger and white listeners. Naturally, some of the usual conservative suspects have been clutching their pearls in outrage over the presence of such "inappropriate" and "divisive" language, but you can safely ignore them. More commonly there seems to have been a somewhat widespread "that was cool, that was weird, where in the world did that come from?" type of response. And actually, I didn't know offhand -- I'd definitely heard something similar before, probably in a civil rights context, but darned if I could remember where!

The internets settled pretty quickly on what was I guess the most readily Google-friendly answer, and it's not a bad one (see e.g. this Kos diary). They claim it derives from great Chicago Blues artist Big Bill Broonzy's Black, Brown, and White:

they says, "If you was white, should be all right,
if you was brown, stick around,
but as you's black, hmm brother, get back, get back, get back"

It's a deep little song, and while this was undoubtedly unpopular in the late 40s, it doesn't quite scan as the source Lowery is working from, though. Two extra colors, for one thing, and I feel like I remember hearing something close to those lines about red and yellow before. With a bit more digging, I turned up this mention of a much older rhyme, which led me to this blog post's links. Quoting from Lalita Amos:

Reverend Lowery deftly reworded a very old and very terrible rhyme that is widely-known in the Black community, which went:

“If you’re white, you’re alright
If you’re brown, stick around
If you’re yellow (a reference to light-complexioned Black people, generally of mixed race, who were percieved more favorably), you’re mellow
But if you’re black, get back."

One source even claims this goes all the way back to the plantation era, which sounds plausible. The rhyme alludes to the social heirarchy in many black communities, in some cases persisting to the present day, which assigns higher rank to fairer skinned families, privileging in effect those with white ancestors -- in practice, historically, the result of sexual abuse of slaves or native blacks respectively by slaveowners or colonial masters -- but also relevant to the larger world as lighter skinned blacks were nominally closer to being able to pass for white and join the social stratum of the masters. This particular stratification has broken down considerably or even reversed in some cases in America, as by now a couple of generations have grown up with no memory of Jim Crow, while legal and social bans on interracial families have steadily eroded. However, Lowery remembers this very well, and given the consternation from some quarters during the campaign about whether Obama is too African or maybe not black enough, it's actually quite relevant, and worthwhile to subtly reject that.

But that's only half of what he was talking about, I think. Because in his repurposing -- and I still could swear I've heard it used this way before -- much of his audience took yellow not to mean blacks who can almost pass for white, but to mean East Asians. (Which was the source of some of the cognitive dissonance; since nobody actually calls them "yellow" anymore, it sounds both offensive and anachronistic.) And so forth. Given the demographics of that crowd on the Mall, plenty of people there knew the old rhyme and class system it represented, but to a large segment listening it sounds instead like an oddly phrased but broadly inclusive call for justice among all the ethnicities in America, which aligns nicely with the post-racial rhetoric that has featured prominently this past year, and the big-tent tendencies of the Democratic party in general. I don't imagine that was unintentional, either.


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It seems that this year, Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday has been somewhat folded into the general festivities surrounding Obama's inauguration. By itself, that really isn't a travesty, as the Reverend would certainly have hailed the occasion as an historic step forward. However, as I've mentioned before, Dr. King's vision has been thoroughly sanitized and defanged over the years. Matt Yglesias wrote this morning,

We’ve by no means conquered bias and prejudice or overcome the lingering scars of the major injustices of the past, but on the level of message nowadays you don’t see anyone within a thousand miles of mainstream politics denying the desirability of racial equality.

On violence, we’re in another world entirely. By the standards of today’s discourse, King would be considered deeply unserious. Serious people understand that if you think something is important, the serious way to go about expressing that is by voicing support for having other people go kill other people. Doubts about the ethics of such action are loathesome moral equivalence and doubts about their wisdom demonstrate naïveté.

Indeed, this much more than the fight for racial equality is what made him problematic in the eyes of the established order. Via Phoenix Woman at FDL, not two months before he was killed King said this:

They have twenty-megaton bombs in Russia right now that can destroy a city as big as New York in three seconds, with everybody wiped away, and every building. And we can do the same thing to Russia and China.

But this is why we are drifting. And we are drifting there because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. “I must be first.? “I must be supreme.? “Our nation must rule the world.? (Preach it) And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I’m going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.

God didn’t call America to do what she’s doing in the world now. (Preach it, preach it) God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.

But nobody hears those speeches very often. Today a CNN poll reported that 69% of African Americans feel that Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream has been fulfilled. That's not quite right, I think. King would be celebrating tomorrow, no question about it. But that mountaintop he saw? I think it was more than a little bit higher.

100 Hours

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It's just worth noting that, as of 7 AM this morning (CST), we entered the final 100 hours of the Bush regime.

I should have thought to load up on fireworks. But I probably have some leftovers lying around.

The photo I wanted to take yesterday -- it would have looked something like this, but you have to imagine the clear sky, steam, tracks, and snow, since I took this photo back in September, from a different bridge, in quite different weather. But still...

Minneapolis skyline from the Dinkytown pedestrian bridge, September 2008. As I recall, I was being accosted by Mormons at the time. They always travel in pairs; one of them seemed sincerely interested in astronomy, while the other one hung back and looked exceedingly bored. I was so charmed that I completely forgot to mess with their heads. Much.

Painting a picture

Let me paint a picture for you.

Looking over the rail of a bridge on a winter evening, in the foreground snow-bound rails wind away behind trees. The middle distance is underlined by the blue smear of a highway bridge's lights spanning the unseen frozen river, and obscured by clouds billowing horizontally from riverside power plants. These clouds drape lazily across the skyline glittering sharply in the background below a dusky blue sky punctuated by a setting Venus.

This is a photo I'd like to have taken, but I didn't bother packing my camera today. I've found that the batteries freeze up below -5ˆF or so, which was roughly the high temperature today. A secondary concern, of course, was the fact that I'd have to stand around on a bridge for a while, in subzero weather with my heavy gloves off, while setting up for a low-light shot. Brr.

New Year

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Welcome to 2009, which is, among other things, the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, the International Year of Astronomy (Galileoscope!), and the year that George Bush goes home. I'll go out on a limb and predict that it will NOT be the year that CMB B-modes are convincingly detected, but that it will be the year that someone announces the discovery of an Earth-analogue planet orbiting another star. In July it may be worth your while to make that trip to Shanghai that you've been putting off, as you'll be able to see the longest total solar eclipse of the 21st century from there. Russian academic Igor Panarin predicts that fall 2009 will bring the start of the second American Civil War (as a result of which, Russia will finally reclaim Alaska)! Fasten your seatbelts: the year's off to a rocky start, but there's hope n' change in the air.

In keeping with tradition, let's take a look at how EGAD fared in 2008. Last year, I published 58 posts, or a little more than half as many as in 2007 -- this is largely because I effectively took the summer off from blogging, and then again managed to blog very little this fall while doing instrument integration in New York. About two thirds of those were either Narrative or Politics postings, and almost a fifth dealt with the 2008 Scavenger Hunt. Remarkably, given the light posting schedule, EGAD's traffic almost doubled to 30,251 hits last year. A huge fraction of that traffic volume is directed via Google image search at my old (and rather abortive) Map of the Week project; overall I think my blog archives have become a not-insignificant internet resource on the geography of southern Israel and the Sinai. My traffic ticked up almost 50% in December, but the increase came almost entirely in the week following Christmas, peaking on the 29th at over four times the usual rate. More evidence for the above assertion, since this is obviously correlated to the latest convulsion in Gaza. However, this makes it a bit difficult to establish just how many regular readers I have these days. Probably about a dozen. Hi there.

Also, it should be noted that EGAD's author got married in 2008, which is pretty significant to him, and is even relevant to the blog insofar as it helps explain some of the lack of posts this year.

And following along with the usual meme, here we have the first and last sentence-or-so of each month of 2008:


First: I suppose global warming can mostly be said to be rendering Minnesota more habitable.
Last:I probably looked like a steamship trundling down the street.


First: Overhead from another lab in passing: "If I'm going to vote for a 70-year-old dude, it'd better be Dr. Love."
Last: I mean handy for perfectly selfish reasons: I probably won't have to miss the ScavHunt, and won't be flying in from the field for my sister's wedding.


First: So it's been an entire month since I posted here. Huh.
Last: In particular, there's an obscure provision of the farm subsidy rules, jealously protected by the California growers in particular, that effectively bans planting fruits and vegetables on land that used to be used to grow staple crops like corn or cotton. Which is, basically, all farmland around here. Funny, that.


First: Like Kate Sheppard, I've been pleased to notice that, on the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, there has been some attention given to his unfinished and deeply radical vision.
Last: Good accompanying reading: around the time I took this picture, I spent an entire evening engrossed by Wikipedia's List of Notable Trees.


First: Okay, every few years I try this, and it rarely works as well as I'd like, but let's give it another shot.
Last:: Heavens, I don't think we embalmed him at all!


First and last: Oh right, I have a blog. I knew I was forgetting something.


...EGAD mostly took the summer off, so there were no posts in July.


First: It appears that my last content-ful post was back in May; it now being August, I'm retroactively declaring that EGAD observes summer vacation this year.
Last: Not sure yet what the extent of my involvement in that mess will be.


First: If you've ever gotten into a discussion about nuclear weapons with a physicist, at some point it was probably remarked upon at some point that non-proliferation is hard, because at the end of the day, once a country has the requisite weapons-grade fuel, a few grad students could likely build one.
Last: I really hope the rest realized the vulnerability of that peninsula and are safely elsewhere, but I worry that we might never know how many were swept right out to sea.


First: It would seem that I am just bad at blogging this year.
Last: On the other hand, like a smoldering coalseam or root fire, bringing all this out in the open and exposing it to fresh air may be the only way it will ever burn itself out for good.


First: ...it's Dia de los Muertos?
Last: In addition to keeping me in a job -- yay for science funding -- it's that curiosity (about how nature works, sure, but also curiosity about ourselves, about our neighbors, about the future) and the harvest of creativity it inspires that will keep that bleak winter at bay.


First: So when I got to New York a couple of months ago, it mostly looked like this:
Last: Anyway, I'm here for about a week, then I traipse off to Texas with Elena for Christmas.

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