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Wonderfully, Fearlessly, Hopefully Impossible August 5, 2020

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[This is the post for Tuesday, August 4, 2020.]

 

“Nothing in the world is single;

In one spirit meet and mingle.

   Why not I with thine?—

   All things by a law divine

In one spirit meet and mingle.

   Why not I with thine?—”

 

– quoted from “Love’s Philosophy” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Everything overlaps. We all share common threads. So, even without the Muhammad Ali quote (from 8/2), you could create a Venn diagram based on the first three “impossible” posts and figure out who I might highlight next as an “impossible person.” A Venn diagram is, of course, a set or logic model that shows the overlapping relations between finite collections. They are used in set theory, probability, logic, statistics, computer science, and other math modalities. These diagrams were developed by John Venn, who was born today (August 4th) in 1834. While he came from a long line of church evangelicals, including his namesake and grandfather, it was not impossible for him to choose a field of study outside of the church. That being said, two years after he obtained his mathematics degree from Gonville and Caius College (the fourth oldest and the wealthiest college at University of Cambridge), Venn became an Angelican priest and actually served in the church. It was after his first church appointment, while working as an intercollegiate lecturer at Cambridge, that Venn developed the diagrams.

If you create sets based on the biographies of Maria Mitchell and Rabbi Regina Jonas, you might think that to make my impossible someone would have to be a woman who was the first woman to do something in a profession normally associated with men. You might even think that that someone had to be virtually unknown to the masses. But, then you have to add James Baldwin into the mix. Now, with the third set, you can broaden the definition to include any human who does something outside of society’s expectations – especially, if their achievements make it possible for others to follow in their footsteps and/or do something previously viewed as impossible.

I have heard that it is impossible to make a Venn diagram out of four circles – and I’ll admit that I probably wouldn’t do a very good job of explaining (mathematically) why it is considered impossible – but you can use ellipses. So, when you add in the fact that John Venn was a suffragist who also encouraged woman to run for office, you might think he makes my list. But, he doesn’t. Neither does Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was born today in 1792. Instead, today’s “impossible people” are a musician, a president, and a duchess.

“Some of you young folks been sayin’ to me, ‘Eh, Pops, what do you mean, what a wonderful world? How ’bout all them wars all over the place? You call them wonderful? And how ’bout hunger and pollution? That ain’t so wonderful, either.’ But how ’bout listenin’ to old Pops for a minute? Seems to me it ain’t the world that’s so bad but what we’re doing to it, and all I’m saying is: see what a wonderful world it would be if only we’d give it a chance. Love, baby – love. That’s the secret. Yeeeaaahhh. If lots more of us loved each other, we’d solve lots more problems.”

 

– Louis Armstrong (introducing “What a Wonderful World” in a 1970 recording)

The wonderful Louis Armstrong was born today (August 4th) in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1901. Known as “Satchmo,” “Satch,” “Pops,” “Dipper,” and “Louie,” he came by his most famous nickname because people said the way he puffed out his cheeks when he played the trumpet made him look like he had a mouth full of coins. Some biographers even say that, as a child, he played for pennies and would actually use his mouth as his satchel. For five decades he carved a place for himself in the world as a trumpeter, a composer, a singer, and an actor. His career also spanned different genres of jazz and in 2017 he was inducted into the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame. Some might say that it should have been impossible for him to play the way he played given the way he breathed into his mouth. Others might think that, as a talented African-American entertainer, there was nothing impossible about his success. Yet, when you look at the history of music in America, you find that there was a time (cough, cough) when African-American music often crossed over into the popular culture – but, it did so without the African-American musicians. Louis Armstrong established himself without publicizing (or politicizing) his race and, therefore, his music entered a room before his skin color.

Louis Armstrong wore a Star of David pendant for most of his life, in honor of the Jewish family that “adopted” him as a child and bought him his first trumpet. He wrote in his memoir about seeing his “adopted family” experiencing discrimination and said that the way they lived taught him how to live with determination. Yet, his determination to live and be judged by his art rather than his skin color, led him to receive a lot of criticism from other prominent Black entertainers and activist. Part of the criticism stemmed from the fact that he played for segregated audiences and wouldn’t use his social power and echelon to press for civil rights. However, he did criticize President Dwight D. Eisenhower for his lack of response to the Little Rock desegregation crisis – even going so far as to cancel a State Department sponsored tour to the Soviet Union and state that he would not represent a government that mistreated his people.

“While I could say Pennsylvania and Ohio, and continue this proverbial two-step, I instead give them what they’re after: ‘My dad is Caucasian and my mom is African American. I’m half black and half white.’ To describe something as being black and white means it is clearly defined. Yet when your ethnicity is black and white, the dichotomy is not that clear. In fact, it creates a grey area. Being biracial paints a blurred line that is equal parts staggering and illuminating. When I was asked by ELLE to share my story, I’ll be honest, I was scared. It’s easy to talk about which make-up I prefer, my favourite scene I’ve filmed, the rigmarole of ‘a day in the life’ and how much green juice I consume before a requisite Pilates class. And while I have dipped my toes into this on thetig.com, sharing small vignettes of my experiences as a biracial woman, today I am choosing to be braver, to go a bit deeper, and to share a much larger picture of that with you.”

 

– quoted from “Meghan Markle: I’m More Than An ‘Other’” by Meghan Markle (published in Elle Magazine, July 2015)

1957 may have been when the FBI started a file on Louis Armstrong. So, you can definitely add that – FBI files – to the Venn diagram of impossible people; because the FBI definitely has files on President Barack Obama (born today in 1961, in Honolulu, Hawai’i) and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex (née Markle) (born today in 1981, in Los Angeles, California). President Obama served two terms as the 44th President of the United States and was the first African-American president (as well as the first openly biracial president). The Duchess of Sussex is not only a “commoner,” she is a biracial American woman who not only married into the British Royal family, she also did the doubly impossible by stepping away from the royal life. Both President Obama and the Duchess of Sussex worked as philanthropists before and after “holding” their very public offices. They have been known to feed the hungry and inspire people to hope.

“Hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It’s not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it. Hope is the belief that destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by the men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.”

 

– quoted from (then Senator) Barack Obama’s address after the Iowa Caucus speech (January 3, 2008)

 

Hoping

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Yes, We Say “Happy Juneteenth!” June 19, 2020

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“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere”

– “General Order No. 3” read by General Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas on June Nineteenth, 1865

“Just outside the Oval Office hangs a painting depicting the night of December 31, 1862. In it, African-American men, women, and children crowd around a single pocket watch, waiting for the clock to strike midnight and the Emancipation Proclamation to take effect. As the slaves huddle anxiously in the dimly lit room, we can sense how even two more minutes seems like an eternity to wait for one’s freedom. But the slaves of Galveston, Texas, had to wait more than two years after Lincoln’s decree and two months after Appomattox to receive word that they were free at last.

Today we commemorate the anniversary of that delayed but welcome news.”

– President Barack Obama’s “Statement by the President on the Observance of Juneteenth” (2016)

Today is Juneteenth – and for me, it’s personal.

Over the years, as I’ve taught yoga on June 19th and shared the story of this day’s significance I’ve been surprised at the number of people – including some  Black Americans – who didn’t know about Juneteenth. Coming from Texas, I thought everybody (outside of the State of Alabama) celebrated Juneteenth. Buddy, was I wrong! Here it is 2020 and some folks – even some who, theoretically, have commemorated the date – are just now hearing about it.

By now, as it has been in the news this week and will be all over the news today, you have heard some version of the story. My version involves a proclamation, a painting, a bill, a slew of presidents and legislators, the State of Alabama, and me. Here’s the short version with a little back story:

  • On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act. The act essentially ended slavery in the capital city (although it did not apply to fugitive slaves who had escaped from Maryland) and set aside over $100,100,000 as compensation for the 3,185 people who were freed.
    • You can read my post on the Emancipation Act here. There’s also a playlist on YouTube and Spotify that works for today.
  • Five months later (on September 22, 1862), President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, with an effective date of January 1, 1863. Remember, the proclamation only freed slaves in the Confederate States of America that were still in rebellion. It did not apply to slaves in the so-called “border states” (Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, and the parts of Virginia that would become West Virginia), which were not in rebellion, or Confederate States that were under Union control (Tennessee, lower Louisiana, and Southeast Virginia).
    • In reference to the painting mentioned in the aforementioned quote, can you imagine being one of those people, watching the clock, anticipating a new year and a brand new start? Can you imagine being free when you and generations of your ancestors had been enslaved? Can you imagine what it would feel like to look forward to living what had previously been a myth or fairy tale?
    • Now, imagine the clock struck midnight – twice – and you were still a slave. How do you feel now?
  • On June 18, 1865, General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas with 2,000 federal troops. The next morning, today, June 19th, he stood on the balcony of Ashton Villa and read General Order #3. “Juneteenth” is a portmanteau of June Nineteenth and this announcement is what people are celebrating today. (Although, some people call it “Emancipation Day.”)
    • Juneteenth is recognized as a state holiday or a special day of observance in 46 states. One of the exceptions is Alabama, which (last time I checked – in other words, as of today) has three official state holidays honoring the Confederacy. Yes, you read and understood that correctly: In the State of Alabama, Robert E. Lee Day (third Monday in January), Confederate Memorial Day (fourth Monday in April), and Jefferson Davis Day (first Monday in June) are paid holidays.

There were no cell phones or internet in 1865, but people had ways of communicating across the country and it is unlikely that no one in Texas, or other Southern states, had heard about the Emancipation Proclamation. Galveston was a major port in 1865. So, even if no rumors had drifted down from the Union, also unlikely, rumors could have easily come from other “international” sources. In all probability, slave owners and their slaves were aware that slavery had been abolished. There are all kinds of theories and conspiracies about what took so long, but that’s another story for another day. Bottom line, part of the reason General Granger came with troops was because he was prepared to meet resistance and needed to enforce all aspects of the general order.

General Granger and the federal troops were not only meant to ensure slaves were freed, but also to ensure the newly freed would keep living in their slave quarters and doing the same work. Sure, they would now (in theory) work for wages; however, the wages would be set by those who had kept them in bondage. To add insult to injury, those same “employers” would also now be “landlords” – and there was nothing keeping the employer/landlord from charging more for rent and board than they would pay in wages (which is exactly what they did).  Furthermore, the federal troops intended to enforce the last part of the order: “[The freedmen] are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

Now, I personally have a problem with that last part, because I think – and believe most people would agree – that if you had worked all your life, you deserved a day off. If you and everyone you knew had always been forced to wake up, eat, sleep, even defecate according to someone else’s schedule, it seems like it would be reasonable to have a day or two where you did absolutely nothing – or everything – according to your own whim and desires. But, the general order made it illegal to do nothing and also illegal to seek asylum or refuge at a place people typically went for protection. (Remember, there were no police departments as we have them today.)

People still had impromptu celebrations back in 1865 and in subsequent years. However, segregation and Jim Crow laws made it challenging to have such celebrations. One of the big challenges was that it was illegal for Black people to congregate in public parks. To get around the law, communities of color would pool their money together to purchase land, essentially creating their own parks. If you have ever been to an “Emancipation Park,” there’s a good chance you were standing on hallowed ground: land purchased by former slaves and their descendants specifically to celebrate freedom.

But, there is more to the story. (Since I’m keeping it short-ish and sweet, I’ll leave out the rest of the bad news and get to more of the sweet stuff.)

  • Fast forward ninety-eight years and a day,* to June 20, 1963, when United States Representative Emanuel Celler (D-NY) introduced H. R. 7152 in the House of Representatives. This legislation had originally been proposed by President John F. Kennedy and would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It would pass (with amendment) in the Senate on Juneteenth 1964 – exactly ninety-nine years after General Granger read General Order #3 in Galveston. The amendment would be agreed upon shortly thereafter, on another fateful date (July 2nd), and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The law outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It specifically prohibits “unequal application of voter registration requirements, racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodations.” This is not to say that such discrimination ceased to exist. It simply made such discrimination unconstitutional.
    • Additional, amendments, acts, and laws would be proposed and/or approved over the years in order to ensure constitutional rights continue to be upheld.

“There were ‘things’ to be done. Nobody asked me what I meant by ‘things.’ I couldn’t have defined them if I had tried. ‘Things’ had to do with the study of music (this was a family interest), the books I read, and the dreams of travel, and the glimpses of elegance I caught on Fifth Avenue. But ‘things’ had also to do with the way people were hurt and how, because they were hurt, they were angry and quarreled and were jealous of one another.”

 

– from You Never Leave Brooklyn: The Autobiography of Emanuel Celler by Emanuel Celler, U. S. Representative (D-NY)

That’s more or less where I normally end the story. But, this year, there’s a footnote. Because, this week (specifically on June 15th), 155 years after General Granger arrived on Galveston Island and 56 years after the Civil Rights Act became law, the United States Supreme Court upheld a portion of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII) as it relates to sexual orientation and gender identity. In a 6 -3 decision, the highest court in the country affirmed that it is unconstitutional for an employer to fire someone for being gay or transgender. That right there, my friends, is a civil rights victory that I plan to celebrate – even though it doesn’t directly affect me. (Not sure exactly where Representative Celler would stand on this verdict, but as a champion of immigration rights I think he would have loved the DACA decision that came yesterday!)

“Everything you do, every thought you have, every word you say creates a memory that you will hold in your body. It’s imprinted on you and affects you in subtle ways – ways you are not always aware of. With that in mind, be very conscious and selective.”

 

– Phylicia Rashād, née Ayers-Allen (born in Houston, Texas today in 1948)

 

“Memory is the story. Our memories are what make us.”

 

– Tobias Wolff (born in Birmingham, Alabama today in 1945)

So, that’s the story of Juneteenth – and for me, it’s personal.

You may think it’s personal because I’m a Black woman from Texas. But the story of Juneteenth is particularly personal to me because I’m BOI, Born on Island – yes, Galveston Island. I was born mere minutes from the balcony of the Ashton Villa. It’s part of my story.

Today, I’m taking a personal day. It’s going to be as much reflection as celebration, with a little bit of remembering thrown in for good measure. At some points along the way I will give thanks. I may go down the rabbit hole again trying to find out if there’s anything named for General Gordon Granger other than a “fort” that’s really a park. Or maybe I’ll just spend my lunch break fantasizing about Fort Rucker (or Fort Hood) becoming Fort Granger…or even Fort Emanuel Celler (remind me to tell you his fascinating story some day)! You can wish me a Happy Juneteenth, but I probably won’t respond until tomorrow.

*NOTE: An extra day is noteworthy, because, historically, it provides a legal marker for the completion of a year. In European feudal societies, a serf who escaped and was absent from their place of servitude for a year and a day, was legally recognized as free and granted certain rights and privileges – just as former slaves in America were granted certain rights on July 28, 1868, with the ratification of the 14th Amendment. Additionally, in a variety of ancient traditions – from the pagan Celts to the Vodou practicing Haitians – a year and a day is a sacred period, a period of time connected to an honorable duty that transcends lifetimes and generations.

Amber Answers (Juneteenth Questions)

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