Day: February 12, 2017


Rattle is one of the most presigious poetry magazines published in English; one of the things they do which I like is publish a weekly poem about something in the news, something timely – kind of like the Living Newspaper project.

The poem for this week is both one I particularly like and one written by a comrade of mine, Sonya Taaffe. Go read.

“An Obedience Experiment,” by Sonya Taaffe


Mary Bowser, Superspy

Day 12 of black history month, I want to applaud one of the best spies that ever worked for the USA – Mary Bowser. Bowser was a free black woman who moved back from Liberia when the Civil War broke out, and then got a job working in the Confederate White House, where everybody thought she was illiterate and generally uneducated. In fact, she was very educated and had a photographic memory, and she funnelled a huge amount of information directly to Ulysses Grant (via spymaster Elizabeth Van Lew, a quaker abolitionist and one of my favorite people in civil war history. You know how I am about spymasters.)

Although Bowser was a particularly accomplished and daring spy, who I think would have done remarkable work in any era and any situation, there were tons of other southern african americans feeding the north information during the Civil War, just as you’d guess. It’s baffling. I have read so many stories of Confederate military and political leaders having sensitive conversations right in front of black servants who were obviously not on the same side, and every time, it’s a head scratcher. It’s one of the things I mull over when I have trouble sleeping.

Like, I get that these were people who really liked having slaves and underpaid black servants, enough so to fight a war over it. But it seems like in order to have sensitive conversations while they were right in the room, refilling your drinks, you’d really have to convince yourself they had no internal lives. Or loved you loved you like your pet dog, even though you treated them inhumanely, like your pet dog (at a time when dogs were not fur babies). Or maybe it was just habit, like people forgetting to turn off cell phones in meetings?

Over the years of thinking about this puzzle (which are definitely not over, because among other things I like spy stories), it’s probably done more than anything else to help me remember that although anti-black racism in the US is sometimes about hate, it’s doesn’t have to be. It can be “not seeing race” in the sense that you don’t remember to count all the heads in the room. It’s often an assumption that dark faces are dumb or childlike or unable to feel pain completely. It’s one of the reasons the Confederacy lost resoundingly. And it’s a lesson some of us still haven’t learned.

You can read more about Bowser and Van Lew in today’s issue of the AV Club. Worth your time if you haven’t already heard a lot about them – and even if you have.

Sonya says: The best description I have ever encountered of the mindset that permitted people to converse in front of their slaves as though they had neither memory nor interiority was in context of classical Rome, but: “self-moving furniture.” Which elides a whole bunch of other uses of slaves, but gets across the assumption of useful non-humanity for me in a way that the more abstract “property” does not.

Rebecca says: In the book Black Like Me, a white guy disguised as a black guy describes being alone in a car with another white guy. The white guy divulges his secret sexual predilections because he has an ingrained sensibility that black men are sexual perverts and therefore this guy would understand his own perversity. I identified with that because people, especially 10 years ago, felt the same about lesbians and would tell me all sorts of things I didn’t care to know. I think it’s a related mindset to think that black people aren’t humans with the normal range of intelligence and emotions.

Incidentally, death row population disparities would support that. For both black people and lesbians (where it was brought up in the trial).

Golly, a Snollygoster

Courtesy of the magnificent Merriam-Webster twitter account, I have been introduced to the word “snollygoster,” which is disparaging 19th century American slang for a politician who chooses his positions opportunistically rather than sticking to principles.

Excitingly, wiktionary thinks the etymological origin is the Pennsylvania German “snallygaster – a mythical beast that preys on poultry and children.”

Also, there is supposedly a snallygaster that lives in Frederick County, Maryland, near Washington, DC, and it has a lizard body and metal bird beak and octopus tentacles. It sounds like a train whistle. Teddy Roosevelt (probably apocryphally) thought he might hunt it.

But he is some kind of fool, because the snallygaster’s natural enemy is the Dewayo, which sounds a lot like a werewolf. Alternately, Teddy Roosevelt was a secret werewolf, which actually explains a lot.

Look at this convincing photographic evidence. Oh, how our standards for fake news have fallen.

Joseph says: Doesn’t Teddy Roosevelt, Vampire Hunter just make a hell of a lot more sense than Abraham Lincoln?

Romie: Yes. Completely. In general, I’m surprised the Rough Riders haven’t been fictionalized into an action team (to the best of my knowledge).

End of a Life

This personal story about the writer’s experience with end-of-life care for her father reminds me of being with my grandmother when she died (at home, with pain management, after many years of treatment for cancer were ultimately unsuccessful, more than a decade before the affordable care act). I still miss her, all these years later.

A peaceful ending didn’t make her premature death less sad – but it did make death in general feel less frightening.

Debtors’ Prison

It’s our duty to jailbreak people out of poverty, not jail them because of it.

From “National Panel Advises Judges On People Who Can’t Pay Court Fees,” by Joseph Shapiro, on NPR:

One man in the NPR series was homeless and got caught in Georgia stealing a can of beer worth less than two dollars, but ended up being sentenced to a year in jail when he couldn’t pay fines and costs that ran more than $400 a month.

[…] To try to change practices that put poor people in jail because they can’t pay court fines and fees or bail, the Justice Department last year announced it was giving out assistance grants to state and local courts. Now the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators — the two groups that brought together judges, court personnel, lawyers, academics and advocates to come up with the new task force guidelines — will sponsor similar grants to educate officials, from mayors to judges “to assure that no citizen is denied access to the justice system based on race, culture, or lack of economic resources.”