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Requiem for a Nun

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September 11th, 2019

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    Jeff Sessions speaking at an immigration policy speech hosted by Donald Trump in Phoenix, Arizona, photo by Gage Skidmore


    Donald Trump’s former Attorney General Jeff Sessions may have gained some sympathy from the constant attacks he suffered from the president after he recused himself from Robert Mueller’s special investigation. But that should not excuse Sessions from the judgment of historians as they evaluate his leadership of the Justice Department from January 2017 to November 2018. Sessions was  arguably the most abusive and disgraceful Attorney General in history.


    Sessions previously served as an Alabama Republican Senator since 1997 and he had an extremely conservative voting record. Even before he was a senator, a Republican-controlled Senate refused to appoint Sessions to a  Federal District Court judgeship in 1986.  This was only the second time in a half century that a federal appointee to the federal judiciary had been rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee for elevation to the federal bench.  


    He was accused at that time of racially insensitive behavior toward people of color.  He limited voting rights, prosecuted people of color for petty and insignificant reasons, and used inappropriate language against African Americans.  As a result, Sessions was opposed by his own state’s Democratic Senator, Howell Heflin, whom he succeeded in the Senate, and two Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and Charles Mathias of Maryland, insured that his nomination would not be approved. 


    In his last few years as a Senator, Stephen Miller served as Sessions’ communications director. Miller is now the most prominent promoter of Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies and he honed these views while working for Sessions. Session’s hostility to people from Hispanic backgrounds emerged in a major way in 2009 when he was critical of Barack Obama’s nomination of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, of Puerto Rican descent, to the high court. Sessions criticized Sotomayor for stating that “empathy” was an important quality for a judge to possess.


    To political observers, therefore, it was not surprising that the Alabama Senator was the first member of that body to endorse and campaign for Donald Trump as early as August 2015.  His loyalty and commitment to Trump was very significant, helping to lead to his appointment as Attorney General.  Sessions also came to the Trump cabinet with a strong opposition to gay rights, abortion, stem cell research, gun control, and the legalization of marijuana. 


    The nomination of Sessions to be Attorney General was opposed by civil rights groups and more than 1,400 law school professors, but the support of Maine Senator Susan Collins, a moderate, gave him the boost needed to win the support of the Republican controlled Senate Judiciary Committee, and a final vote of confirmation of 52-47.  As Attorney General for nearly 22 months, it was not surprising that he continued his long held, hard line views on so many legal matters in office.


    Sessions promoted mass incarceration by advocating  mandatory sentencing, reversing the efforts of Eric Holder, Attorney General under Barack Obama, to curb harsh sentencing practices.  He signed an order promoting civil asset forfeiture, allowing law enforcement to seize the property of those suspected but not charged with crimes.  He also took a hard stand against illegal immigration, including attempting to cut funding to sanctuary cities, which provided cover and safety for undocumented immigrants.  Most controversial was his advocacy of separation of children from their parents who came to the border from Central American nations, a very divisive and controversial policy embraced by Donald Trump.


    There was no concern shown for the emotional damage visited upon children, including infants and the very young, who were carelessly assigned to different centers all over the nation. Because few records were maintained, the locations of many children’s parents were lost.  These migrant children have been living in horrid conditions as documented by journalists and cable news channels.  Sadly, at least seven children have already died in such horrific conditions.


    Sessions also took a tough stand against medical marijuana.  He refused to consider protections for transgender people which has led to more persecution and violence against such individuals.  He continued his insensitivity to civil rights violations  against racial minorities, women, and the disabled.  He rejected protection of immigrant women who were escaping from gang violence and domestic abuse, who had during the Obama Administration been offered asylum in the United States. Finally, he fully endorsed the Muslim travel bans initiated by President Trump. 


    Despite his strong support for much of Trump’s agenda, Sessions resigned in November 2018 after an unrelenting slew of Trump attacks on Twitter.   What permanently damaged the Trump-Sessions relationship was the revelation that Sessions had two meetings with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the 2016 Presidential campaign. Although Sessions originally denied this, when the truth came to light, Sessions recused  himself from the resultant investigation of ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. This led to the most unusual situation of a cabinet officer being pilloried on a regular basis by his President, even though on other issues, particularly immigration, he was fully supportive of the Trump agenda.


    Donald Trump failed to show proper appreciation of the dedication of Jeff Sessions to his agenda of racism and discrimination. Unfortunately, Sessions’ ideas and policies live on through Trump adviser Stephen Miller, who still impacts the policies of Donald Trump on a daily basis. Sadly, William Barr, the successor as Attorney General, has not backed away from the hardline policies that Sessions and Trump have constantly promoted, undermining the image and reputation of the Department of Justice.


  • I was a little boy when the movie The Rainmaker, starring Burt Lancaster and Katherine Hepburn, debuted in 1956. I saw it in a tiny summer movie house on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It had not rained on Cape Cod for weeks and people were desperately praying for it. When the movie about a professed ‘rainmaker’ ended, everybody piled out of the theater to discover that it was pouring- I mean pouring- rain. Dozens of people, ecstatic, raising their arms to the heavens, jumped around amid the wet torrent of raindrops shouting “rain!” “rain!”


    I remembered that moment all of my life.


    So, it was with eager anticipation that, after more than 50 years, I saw N. Richard Nash’s play The Rainmaker last weekend at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey at Drew University, Madison, New Jersey. Would the old magic of the charlatan rainmaker still be there? Would the powerful grip of the old film still drown its audience in emotion?


    It sure does. The Rainmaker, after a slow and bumpy start, succeeds as an emotional and downright wonderful drama about a crooked rainmaker, Starbuck, who arrives at the home of a young woman, Lizzy Curry, single with no prospects of a relationship, who is on the road to becoming an Old Maid. She lives with her dad and brothers in the Midwest of the early 1950s in the middle of a long drought that has terrorized the farm population there.


    The Curry family is distraught over the lack of rain, but more upset over daughter Lizzy’s romantic emptiness. Her shadow relationship with a local deputy sheriff, File, seems to have fallen apart and there is no one else. She is berated by brother Noah in front of the whole family. He tells her that she is “plain” and will never get married, something she fears herself. The verbal lashing is so brutal that several members of the audience gasped and some yelled out “stop it, stop it.” 


    Her other brother and Dad are very encouraging, but heartbroken that she is, indeed, on her way to spinsterhod hood, or will be, as Lizzie laments, the “old aunt who brings gifts to nieces and nephews so that they’ll like her.”


    And then along comes the gregarious, raucous and thoroughly lovable swindler, Starbuck, who, for a price, guarantees them, and the dried up-town, rain at last.


    It is quickly evident that Starbuck is as slick as a bar of soap. He is the President of the Flim Flam man society, if there ever was one. Lizzy likes him, though, even though she sees right through him. The family likes him too, because he is honest in his duplicity and he is nice to Lizzy.


    There is a romance and Lizzy falls for Starbuck, but knows that he is going to leave her and continue wandering through America, charming as many people as he can, alleviating them of their life savings. What about File, though, who is suddenly back in the picture when the police start to chase Starbuck? And her other brother and father, who previously supported her no matter what?


    The Rainmaker is not just a story about a charlatan and his hatful of promises. It is about a plain, simple girl whose brother tells her she has no merit and is ugly.


    No merit? Not attractive?  Starbuck sets her straight when he informs her, and the audience, that ‘all women are beautiful.”


    Starbuck knows that and so do we all. The play is about Lizzy’s understanding of that, and everybody else’s, too.


    Director Bonnie J.  Monte does a splendid job of making a 1950s play relevant again. She keeps the action of the rainmaker story moving along nicely while at the same time – and this is tough – keeps alive the story of Lizzy and her feelings. She makes Starbuck into a lovable flim flam man, somebody you know is all bad but see as all good. He is, in a way, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby – a criminal who is more honest than all of the “honest” people around him.


    Director Monte gets sterling work from her cast of talented actors.  Mark Elliot Wilson is the steadfast and loving dad, H.C. Curry.  Benjamin Eakeley does well as Noah Curry, the horrid brother (who, by the way, has no woman of his own. Wonder why?).  Isaac Hickox-Young plays brother Jim. Nick Plakias is deputy sheriff File. Monette Magrath is the adorable Lizzy and Anthony Marble is dazzling snake oil salesman Starbuck. They are two very gifted performers and they are the heart of this terrific play.


    Most people think the play is set in the dust bowl of the 1930s in Oklahoma, Texas and other midwestern states. It is not. Nash set his story in the drought that swept through Texas, Oklahoma and other Midwest states from 1950 to 1957. During those seven years, Texas only received 50% of its normal rainfall. The number of farms fell by 98,000.  Texas’ rural population declined from one third if the state’s to less than one fourth.  The number of Texans who worked on farms  from 1950 to 1957 fell from  29 % of state workers to just 12% and the price of beef fell by 67%.


    How would this story turn out after the play is over? I think that File and Lizzy would marry and have a daughter who was gorgeous. A person would pass them on the street, look at the daughter and say to her “you are so beautiful. You look just like your mother.”


    PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Sets:  Bonnie J. Monte, Sound:  Seven L. Becket, Costumes: Hugh Hanson, Lighting: Matthew J. Weisgable, Fight Consultant: Doug West.  The play is Directed by Ms. Monte. The play closed Sunday but will be presented again several times this fall and winter across the country.

  • Roundup Top 10

    HNN Tip: You can read more about topics in which you’re interested by clicking on the tags featured directly underneath the title of any article you click on.


    Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.

    by Nikole Hannah-Jones

    Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, we might not be a democracy at all.



    The Hopefulness and Hopelessness of 1619

    by Ibram X. Kendi

    Marking the 400-year African American struggle to survive and to be free of racism.



    Trump’s tweets about ‘disloyal’ Jews are laced with centuries of antisemitism

    by Emma Goldberg

    There’s a sordid history to charges of Jewish dual loyalty in the US – and that history is alive and well.



    My 60 Years of Disappointment With Fidel Castro

    by Enrique Krauze

    Latin American, with few exceptions, they have refused to see the historical failure of the Cuban Revolution and the oppressive and impoverishing domination of their patriarch.



    Why trying to distinguish between useful and dangerous immigrants always backfires

    by Faith Hillis

    Today’s “good” immigrant can turn into tomorrow’s radical dissident.



    What 1969 Retrospectives Get Wrong About Baby Boomers and the Sixties

    by Louis Menand

    Apart from being alive, baby boomers had almost nothing to do with the nineteen-sixties.



    It Takes Black Women in the U.S. 20 Months to Earn What White Men Make in a Year. Here’s the History Behind That Wage Gap

    by Andrea Flynn

    In order to understand the present day race and gender wage gaps we must first look to slavery and the Jim Crow era that followed.



    White evangelicals once admitted they were wrong about Nixon. Will Trump come next?

    by Anja-Maria Bassimir and Elesha J. Coffman

    White evangelicals voted 84 percent for Richard Nixon in 1972 and 80 percent for Donald Trump in 2016. And many of the leaders stood by Nixon as scandals swirled around him, just as they have with Trump.



    The history of “German Angst” could serve as a lesson for today’s democratic societies

    by Frank Biess

    The Federal Republic is a remarkable democratic success story and the only such story in German history.



    The Forgotten Story of Operation Anvil

    by Cameron Zinsou

    In August 1944, the United States executed a gigantic assault on southern France. Why does no one remember it?


  • The racing presidents


    According to the most recent standings (kept in fastidious detail by, Theodore Roosevelt’s lead over George Washington is now eight.  Thomas Jefferson sits nine wins back.  Abraham Lincoln, plagued by a series of poor decisions and stumbles (literally), resides in the cellar.   




    I am, of course, talking about Teddy, the big-headed baseball mascot, Roosevelt.  In the middle of the fourth inning at Washington Nationals’ home baseball games, presidential mascots race around the field to the cheers of the District’s baseball patrons.  The tradition began in 2006.  Usually Roosevelt faces Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln in the no-holds-barred race. Occasionally there are guest competitors.  For a few years, the Nationals even introduced lesser presidents (Taft, then Coolidge, then Hoover) into the contest.  This trio of interlopers, however, has been retired to the team’s spring training complex in Florida.  Now it’s just the Mt. Rushmore quartet, battling it out at every home game—from the frigid first games of April, through the swampy heat of the summer, into the crisp evenings of September.        


    This presidential mascot race might just been another stadium promotion except for the fact that from 2006 to 2012, TR never won.  Like never. He lost 525 consecutive races. Even when Jayson Werth tried to help, TR never crossed the line first.  


    Ah, what a glorious era of historical karma!    


    All this losing became made the race a thing in DC.  During the last few months of the 2012 season, pressure mounted to let Teddy win at least once.  Ken Burns, ESPN’s E:60, and the late Senator John McCain all got involved. An amusing and witty seven minute documentary outlining a “vast left wing conspiracy” meant to keep Teddy from ever winning debuted.  The Wall Street Journal put the story on the front page, with a ubiquitous Hedcut picture of Teddy the mascot.  


    While some poor saps may have actually felt sorry for Teddy, I hope that no historian in good standing with the AHA or OAH was among them.  After all, it was Theodore Roosevelt who shunned baseball first.    


    Baseball’s Great Roosevelt Chase


    Theodore Roosevelt romped to reelection (well just election technically, but that’s a different story) in 1904.  He won nearly 60 percent of the popular vote.  He had become the nation’s first “celebrity president,” connecting with Americans in a new and power way.  Recognizing good press when they saw it, baseball’s leaders tried hitch their train to the popular President’s steam engine.    


    They used simple juxtaposition first.  TR and baseball.  Baseball and TR.  In the 1905 Spalding’s Official Base Ball Guide, which featured a provocative essay on baseball’s origins (Was it possible the game was not uniquely American?), trotted out the Rough Rider angle. “Wellington said that ‘the battle of Waterloo was won on the cricket fields of England,” Spalding’s explained.  “President Roosevelt is credited with a somewhat similar statement that ‘the battle of San Juan Hill was won on the base ball and foot ball fields of America.” 


    The next year’s publication of the popular guide shifted tactics slightly.  Baseball was in fact an embodiment of Roosevelt’s “Square Deal.” “When two contesting nines enter upon a match game of Base Ball, they do so with the implied understanding that the struggle between them is to be one in which their respective degrees of skill in handling the bat and ball are alone to be brought into play.”  Roosevelt’s “Square Deal,” which had become a “new National Phrase,” was essentially the “Love of Fair Play” that had always been inherent in baseball.


    Golden Tickets!


    Roosevelt did not attend a single baseball game during his first term in office.  Nor in 1904 or 1905.  So, in 1906 the American League’s Ban Johnson tried a new approach to get Roosevelt out to the ballpark in the District.  “The management has issued a golden pass to President Roosevelt, who may desire to see what a real, strenuous, bold athlete looks like,” the Sporting Life reported in 1906.  “Mr. Roosevelt is the first man of the land,” the article continued, “if he sees fit, may adjourn the Senate and both houses and take the whole bunch to the game!” 


    The golden ticket was just what it sounded like.  A ticket laced with gold that allowed the President free entry into any American League game held at the District’s ballpark.  And he could bring as many friends as he wanted.  


    The 1906 season came and went; Roosevelt never used his golden pass.  


    Undeterred, supporters of baseball tried again as the 1907 season dawned.  Although Roosevelt was not particularly susceptible to peer pressure, the Sporting Life and other baseball-friendly dailies mounted a campaign that portrayed Roosevelt as a politician, perhaps the only politician, out of step with overwhelming political support for the game of baseball.  


    “Chief Justice Harlan, of the Nation’s Highest Court, Plays Base Ball and makes a Home Run in His 74th Year,” trumpeted one headline.  “Far from distracting from the dignity of the distinguished incumbent of the Supreme Court seat, the ability of Harlan as a hitter will add to it. That home run is a human touch, a specimen of Americanism that will go far toward popularizing the venerable judge.” Then, just so its readers would not miss the point, the writer posed a rhetorical, shaming question: “How Theodore Roosevelt, who instinctively seems to know how to do the thing that pleases the people, came to overlook the diamond and its opportunities is a mystery.”    


    The pursuit was getting embarrassing for baseball.  


    Maybe another, even more golden, ticket would do the trick.  The National Association of Professional Base Ball Leagues, which eventually become baseball’s minor leagues, decided to step up the pressure on Roosevelt significantly.  Rather than just awarding the President a pass to one particular league, for a given season, the NAPBBL invited the President to attend baseball games forever. 


    The pass presented to Roosevelt on May 16, 1907 at the White House transcended almost every conceivable baseball boundary.  The “President’s Pass” covered thirty six leagues and 256 cities; it gave Roosevelt “life membership in the National Association of Professional Base Ball Leagues, with the privilege of admission to all the games played by the clubs composing the association.”  The honorary pass was made of solid gold.  


    And it could do things. The ticket “doubles in two on gold hinges to fold, so that it may be carried in the vest pocket.”  The ticket had an engraved picture of the President and the date of presentation, May 16, 1907, on its front.  “The photograph of President Roosevelt is beautifully enameled on the fold.  The rim is intertwined with delicate chase work.  This remarkable card was engraved by Mr. Arthur L. Bradley… It is pronounced by all who have seen it to be a fine piece of artistic workmanship.”  


    Roosevelt never used it. 


    Why Teddy, Why?


    As Roosevelt left the White House, the Washington Post finally gave up.  “With all of his love of outdoor life and sports,” the Post reported in 1909, “Mr. Roosevelt did not go with the ball grounds during his seven years in the White House.”    




    “I don’t think that I should be afraid of anything except a baseball coming at me in the dark,” Theodore Roosevelt once said.  Readers with a psychological bent can dig deep here, in terms of what Roosevelt was trying to say.  But there is a simple explanation as well: Theodore Roosevelt had very poor eyesight. Without the aid of corrective spectacles until his teenage years, Roosevelt never had much of a chance as a young ballplayer.    


    But why Roosevelt rejected baseball as adult, as a fan, we don’t really know.  Roosevelt’s oldest daughter Alice once summed it up as a matter of toughness.  


    “Father and all us regarded baseball as a mollycoddle game.  Tennis, football, lacrosse, boxing, polo, yes – they are violent, which appealed to us.  But baseball? Father wouldn’t watch it, not even at Harvard.” 


    To lose out to tennis on the mollycoddle scale; that hurts.


    And Now Teddy is Winning?!


    The Nationals caved in 2012.  The club let TR break through, in a rather fraudulent manner, on the last day of the regular season.  Roosevelt won.  What a mistake.  


    Now, fast forward 7 years, Teddy the mascot is not only winning occasionally, he is leading the season long tally at Nationals’ park.  And the Nats, while surging after the All-Star break, are stuck in second place. 


    So what should the Nats do as they try to chase down the NL East leading Atlanta Braves?  While Juan Soto is working hard to make Nats fans forget Bryce Harper and the team’s bullpen might just be getting its act together, I’d suggest the Washington Nationals get their history back in order. Don’t let TR, a noted baseball curmudgeon, win anymore.  No mas! Get right with baseball history and perhaps, just maybe, the Nationals will find themselves playing playoff baseball again this October.  



    For more on Teddy Roosevelt and sports, read Ryan Swanson’s latest book: 


  • A plaque in Virginia commemorates the arrival of “twenty and odd” African in 1619



    Scholars of the African diaspora speculate that between 1525 and 1866, more than 12.5 million people were stolen from the African continent and transported to the New World. Of those that traveled, only 10.7 million survived the treacherous and excruciating journey known as the Middle Passage. Spain and Portugal were the initial European powers to engage in the horrific yet profitable trade, but others soon joined suit, including Great Britain, whose colonists settled in large numbers on the North American mainland beginning in 1607. The arrival of the first Africans in the New World in 1619 marked the beginning of the English slave trade. 


    According to historian Tim Hashaw, the first Africans in the colonies came from Angola and were initially captured by Portuguese raiders in a series of skirmishes against the Kongo and Ndongo Kingdoms located near West Central Africa. In the summer of 1619, Portuguese raiders marched the captives some 200 miles towards the coast, to the slave port of Luanda. Disease, thirst, and hunger killed many. 350 remaining captives were put on board the Portuguese slave vessel San Juan Bautista which had the initial destination of Vera Cruz, on the coast of modern day Mexico. 


    Upon arrival to the Gulf of Mexico, two British privateers, the White Lion and the Treasurer attacked the slaver. Hoping to find a merchant vessel fat with gold stocks, they settled for the human cargo and took possession of approximately 60 Africans on board. The two ships, flying with Dutch colors,  set sail for the English colonies on the American mainland, and The White Lion arrived at Point Comfort in modern day Hampton, Virginia, towards the end of August 1619. The majority of the men and women were immediately sold into bondage to wealthy planters, distributed across the colony. Among the buyers were Governor Sir George Yeardley, and powerful merchant Abraham Piersey. According to scholar Kwando Mbiassi Kinshasa, among the Africans were a man and a woman known as Antoney and Isabella whose baby became the first documented African baptized in English North America - a child known as William Tucker. 


    A few days after the arrival of the White Lion, the Treasurer arrived to port at Point Comfort, and possibly sold an additional 7 to 9 Africans. Among them a young woman named Angela, who was purchased by Lieutenant William Pierce, a wealthy tobacco planter and burgess representing Jamestown. In an interview for the Washington Post, historian James Horn, president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation said, “That is a chilling aspect of the slave trade. People are being treated like livestock. The capability of women to have children was in slavers’ minds. To survive a journey like that, my own sense is she was young and possibly very young. Where there is no evidence, it is fair to speculate.”


    When the ship arrived to the Jamestown colony, John Rolfe, the former husband of Pocahontas, simply described it as “a ship brought nothing but 20. and odd Negroes.” A census conducted in 1625 revealed a total of 23 Africans living in Virginia, a number which increased to approximately 800 only 40 years later. The Africans who arrived in 1619 represented the first in a long succession of slaves transported to the Americas. It wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Procclamation in 1863, 244 years later that slavery was officially outlawed in the United States of America. By then, over 4 million African Americans lived in bondage. 


    Although 1619 remains a historic marker, overemphasizing the date or dismissing the long and complicated history of slavery in the Americas would be a mistake. The date may very well serve as the marker of the beginning of African slave possessions but Africans were present on the continent long before this date. For example, in 1526, several enslaved Africans were part of a Spanish expedition in modern day South Carolina, rebelling against their captors and helping to prevent the founding of a colonial settlement in the region. According to some scholars, there is also evidence that there were numerous African slaves present on the fleet of Sir Francis Drake when he arrived to Roanoake Island in 1586. 


    While 1619 marks the de facto beginning of African slavery in the British colonies in North America, it also misguides the fact that free Africans and African slaves were a vibrant and important part of the “New World,” long before 1619. Historians such as John Thornton have shown that the Atlantic slave trade was a transnational endeavor, and was already well established long before the arrival to Jamestown. Michael Guasco, writing Smithsonian Magazine, noted, “As early as May 1616, blacks from the West Indies were already at work in Bermuda providing expert knowledge about the cultivation of tobacco. There is also suggestive evidence that scores of Africans plundered from the Spanish were aboard a fleet under the command of Sir Francis Drake when he arrived at Roanoke Island in 1586.” Guasco argues that highlighting the 1619 date effectively erases the memory of many more African peoples than it memorializes. Scholar Eric Hershthal argues that the date “suggests a certain timelessness to anti-black prejudice, when in fact racism developed over time, and was as much a consequence of slavery as it was a cause of it.” 


    Still, the year 1619 is significant. In 1619, the English settlers in Britain’s new overseas colonies faced a test. Would they reject the European standard of African forced servitude, or incorporate it into their newfound society? They were relative newcomers to African slavery but embraced it wholeheartedly, and set off a historical chain of events which still reverbarates in American society where freedom and equality are still unattainable for many. 

“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

James Baldwin
The Price of the Ticket