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Requiem for a Nun

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From the History News Network 

  •  

    On the 20th day of Brumaire during the Second Year of the revolutionary order, a spectacle was held inside the newly consecrated Temple of Reason. Upon the altar of what had once been the magnificent cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris at the very heart of the greatest city in Christendom, the religious statues were stripped away (some decapitated like the heads of the overthrown order) and the whole building was turned over to a festival for what the most-radical of Jacobins called the “Cult of Reason.” In the hopes that this atheistic faith-of-no-faith would become the state-sponsored religion of the new regime, the revolutionaries staged their own observance, with young girls in tri-colored sashes performing a type of Morris dance about a statue of the Goddess Reason.  Such was just another occurrence among the competing factions of the Revolution, and which saw the dechristianization of France, including not just the iconoclasm of smashed stain-glass and white-washed images, but the execution of perhaps 30,000 priests. Less than a decade laterMass would once again be celebrated upon Notre-Dame’s altar. 

    Within the shadow of its spire – which as of today no longer stands – the great Renaissance essayist Montaigne would have walked. By the massive rose window which filtered natural light into the ring of cobalt blue and emerald green, solar yellow and fire red, Rene Descartes may have contemplated his Cogito. By its gothic flying buttresses and underneath its simultaneously playful and disquieting gargoyles the novelist Victor Hugo both celebrated her stone walls and arches while advocating for her 19th century restoration. In 1323 the scholastic theologian John of Jandun would write of the cathedral that she “deservedly shines out, like the sun among stars.” And through it all, over a millennium of Parisian history, the cathedral stood guard from its island in the Seine.  Which is not to say that the cathedral hadn’t been destroyed before, and that it wouldn’t be destroyed again. Notre-Dame withstood the Wars of Religion which burnt across France during the sixteenth-century and Hitler’s orders to leave not a stone of Paris standing when the Nazis retreated at the end of the Second World War, and yet the cathedral endured. Since the twelfth-century Notre-Dame has survived, and while we watch with broken hearts as her spire collapses into the burning vaulted roof during this mournful Holy Week, we must remember that Notre-Dame will still be standing tomorrow. 

    Sorrow for the destruction of something so beautiful, so perfect, must not obscure from us what a cathedral is. A cathedral is more than the granite which composes her edifice, more than the marble which lines the nave. More than the Stations of the Cross and the statues; more than the Crucifix which punctuates the altar. A cathedral is all of that, but it is also an idea; an idea of that which is more perfect than this fallen world of ours. More mysterious, and more powerful, and more beautiful. When we see push notificationsalerting us to the fire of this April 15th, when we see that tower which points to the very concept of God collapsing above her nave, it can feel as if civilization itself is burning. As if watching the Library of Alexandria be immolated on Facebook live, or reading the live tweeting of the dissolution of the monasteries. In this age of uncertainty, of rage, of horror, and of violence; of the decline of democracy and the heating of the planet; it can feel as if Notre-Dame’s fire is as if watching the very world itself be engulfed. Which is why it’s so important to remember what a cathedral is, what Notre-Dame is. 

    Skeptics can reduce that which is associated with the phrase “High Church” to an issue of mere aesthetics, as if in our post-Reformation, post-secular world the repose of a cathedral is simply a mood or a temper and not a profound comment in its own right. An allegiance to the sacredness of silence, of the holiness of light refracted onto a cold stone floor. Minimalism makes its own offers and promises, and requires its own supplication, and the power of simplicity and thrift should not be dismissed. But a cathedral makes its own demands – a cathedral is beautiful. The intricacy of a medieval cathedral is not simply an occasion for art historians to chart the manner in which the romanesque evolved into the gothic, or for engineers to explicate the ingenuity of the flying buttress. Notre-Dame isn’t simply a symbol of Paris, nor a landmark by which a tourist can situate themselves. A cathedral is larger than the crowds which line up to take selfies in front of it; a cathedral more significant than the gift shops and food trucks which line the winding cobble-stoned streets that lead up to it. A cathedral is an argument about both God, but also humanity and the beauty which we’re sometimes capable of. 

    Tomorrow the world will be less beautiful than it was this morning, and this is in a world which has precious little beauty that it should be able to give up. That Notre-Dame should be burning this April evening is a calamity, a horror. It is the loss of something that is the common treasury of humanity, which belongs not entirely to the people of France, nor only to those whom are Roman Catholics, but which rather sings of those yearnings of all women and men, living in a world not of our own creation but trying to console each other with a bit of beauty, a bit of the sacred. To find that meaning in the cathedral’s silence, in that movement of light and shadow upon the weathered wooden pews and the softness of the grey walls. The 17th century English poet George Herbert wrote of “A broken ALTAR… Made of a heart and cemented with tears,” as indeed may describe the crowds gathering along the Seine and singing hymns to our burning cathedral this spring night. Herbert’s poem is an apt explanation of what a cathedral is. A cathedral is a person. Her spine is the nave, and the transept her arms; the window her face, and the spire her head – the altar a heart. And though a cathedral is as physical as our finite bodies, threatened by incendiary and crowds, by entropy and fire, its soul is just as eternal. 

    If there is something to remember, it’s that in the era before steel and reinforced concrete an anonymous mason would begin work with his brothers on a cathedral that his children would most likely never see completed. Perhaps his grandchildren would never live under its full height either. To work on a cathedral was a leap into a faith that we can scarcely imagine in our era, to work towards a future you’d never see, and yet to embrace that which is greater, more sublime, more perfect that you are. Our attitude of disposable consumerism and exploitive capitalism makes such an ideology a foreign country to us, yet if we’re to solve any of those problems that face us today – from climate change to the restoration of democracy – it must be with the faithful heart of a medieval mason who toils with the knowledge that a spire will rise above Paris – again. 

  • ACT UP Protestors in New York

     

     

    In his State of the Union address on February 5th, 2019, President Donald Trump surprisingly included a plan to eliminate HIV/AIDS in his budget: “My budget will ask Democrats and Republicans to make the needed commitment to eliminate the HIV epidemic in the United States within 10 years. Together, we will defeat AIDS in America.”  The inclusion of HIV/AIDS in his address came as a surprise to many because one of President Trump’s first actions upon arriving at the White House was firing all 16 members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.

    Though President Trump reinstated this council 15 months later, his initial actions were indicative of his longer record on HIV/AIDS. The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP)–New York held many direct-action protests, including one at Trump Tower in October 1989. Roughly 100 protestors gathered to protest the 6.2 million-dollars in tax abatements Trump received to build the mixed-use, high-rise property at a time when those stricken with AIDS were increasingly vulnerable to homelessness. Protestors saw Trump Tower as a symbol of corporate greed and argued that state monies could have been used to build more housing facilities for those impacted by AIDS.  

    Creative writer, activist, and scholar Sarah Schulman has written that the rise in sudden deaths of gay men during the early era of AIDS hastened gentrification in New York City—their absences from rent-controlled apartments and their partners’ lack of access to inheritance claims accelerated the conversion of these apartments to market-rate rents. The early AIDS crisis facilitated changes in the constitution and character of New York City neighborhoods, linking it to larger trends in gentrification that have shifted the racial demographics of inner cities from ethnically and class diverse to more homogenous, middle-class, and increasingly white enclaves. 

    Trump’s plan to end AIDS within this decade also came as a surprise given his abandonment of his mentor Roy Cohn after rumors spread publicly that Cohn was dying of AIDS.  It was Cohn’s ruthless business tactics and genius maneuverings around legal loopholes that helped Trump secure the tax abatements to build Trump Tower. Cohn had cut his teeth in politics as Senator John McCarthy’s chief counsel during the Army-McCarthy Hearings in 1954.  Cohn became a power broker in local New York City and federal politics, and in 1971 represented Trump when he was accused of violating the Fair Housing Act in 39 of his properties. Trump’s organization was accused of quoting different rental terms and conditions and asserting false claims of “no vacancy” to African Americans looking to rent apartments in his Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island properties. Under Cohn’s direction the Trumps countersued the government for $100 million dollars for defamation, and were able to settle the lawsuit against the Trump corporation by agreeing to stipulations that would prevent further discrimination, thereby not having to admit guilt.

     

     

     

    Trump’s record on AIDS and racial and sexual discrimination make his 10-year plan even more surprising since the face of the U.S. AIDS epidemic is primarily black and Latina/o, especially gay, bisexual, and transgender blacks and Latina/os. In January 2019, the Black AIDS Institute (BAI), a Los Angeles-based, national HIV/AIDS think tank focused on black people, expressed their dismay when the Trump Administration proposed a change in “protected class status” under Medicare, which has allowed people living with HIV to access better medical care. In their response to his State of the Union address, BAI questioned President Trump’s intentions, since he has repeatedly sought to cut the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, better known as PEPFAR, a multi-million-dollar initiative which has been credited with saving 17 million lives around the world. Moreover, they indicted the President for his racist and homophobic rhetoric, which has fueled an increase in violence against black and LGBTQ communities. One of the suggestions BAI made to move Trump’s plan from words to action was to center leadership from communities most impacted by HIV.

    Some of the earliest leadership from communities impacted by HIV/AIDS emerged from black lesbian and gay artists and activists during the early era of AIDS. Beginning in the late 1970s, black lesbian and gay arts and activist movements—which political scientist Cathy Cohen has identified as the first stage of AIDS prevention efforts in black communities—centered collectivity, self-determination, creativity, and radical love as central to their political practice. They saw the elimination of racism, homophobia, and economic inequality as essential to the elimination of AIDS in black communities. In 1986, Philadelphia based, black gay journalist, creative writer and activist Joseph Beam published the editorial “Caring for Each Other” in Black/Out magazine, the official publication of the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays. The essay is a meditation on placing community responsibility ahead of reliance on the state. Beam believed that the state had never been concerned about the lives of black people. State apathy, he argued, extended to black gay men and IV drug users dying of AIDS, stating that “it would be a fatal mistake if we were to relinquish our responsibility for AIDS in the black community to such an external mechanism.”  

    Indeed, Trump’s proposal to end AIDS by targeting geographic and demographic “hot spots” in seven states, 48 counties, Washington, D.C., and San Juan, Puerto Rico, comes as part of a budget plan that would eliminate funding for global AIDS programs, slash expenditures on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while transferring the management of Medicaid through block grants to states, comprising an overall cut to spending on health and human services. This plan proposes to end health inequalities at the local level while threatening to reproduce broader social inequalities at the state, national, and global levels. 

    Though Trump’s plan of action challenges Beam’s narrative of state apathy by continuing the contradictory record of state action that began with President Ronald Reagan when AIDS first appeared, Beam’s caution suggests that our efforts to end HIVAIDS in poor communities and communities of color across the globe must not depend solely on federal or state bureaucracies. Instead, this history suggests that plans to eliminate HIV/AIDS must be centered on community care and responsibility, and political action aimed at transforming the conditions of structural inequality that President Trump has perpetuated throughout his career.

  •  

    With the 2020 presidential election around the corner, both parties appear headed, once again, for a train wreck on health care.  While scores of Democrats in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail advocate a single-payer health care system for all Americans immediately, other Democrats embrace the idea of universal coverage as the ultimate goal, but believe it should be achieved incrementally.  To some this seems like a repeat ofthe late 1970s when Democrats allowed the perfect to become the enemy of the good, and nothing was done on health care—for another 30 years. Meanwhile the unrelenting opposition of Republicans to the Affordable Care Act suggests that the GOP has no serious interest in offering an affordable health care plan. The voters punished them for it last year.  “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” George Santayana famously said, offering an immutable truth that should be imbedded in the mind of every member of Congress.  

     

    Health care coverage in the United States has had a compelling but sometimes fraught history that is essential to understand before it is reconsidered. Theodore Roosevelt first proposed national health care in his 1912 platform but he lost that election. Subsequent Democratic presidents including Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John Kennedy supported the idea but it was Lyndon Johnson who achieved Medicare for seniors with the Medicare Act of 1965.  At last every American 65 and over became eligible for federal health insurance regardless of income or medical history; it also included coverage for low-income Americans in the form of Medicaid. It was a landmark achievement, made possible by a unique moment in history and the tenacity of Democratic presidents in keeping the Republican Roosevelt’s 1912 idea alive. 

     

    The next Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, was in step with his predecessors as he wanted to extend health care to all Americans, but the economic conditions of that time werevery different from 1965.  While both houses of Congress were Democratic in 1977-78, inflation was out of control and the economy as a whole was weak, straining the resources of the federal budget.  Carter had been a progressive governor of Georgia but a fiscal realist; he believed the country couldn’t afford such an enormous cost at that time without serious economic consequences.            

     

    While Carter embraced universal coverage as the ultimate goal, he believed it should be achieved incrementally, not only for affordability but also for feasibility. An incremental approach, Carter contended, would aid the federal government’s ability to digest and administer such a huge and complex new system. Additionally, proposing a stepped approach would make it more likely to attract bipartisan support, which he believed was important for its long-term sustainability. 

     

    Not everyone agreed. Eight years after Johnson’s Great Society was enacted, there were still pent-up demands among congressional Democrats for new federal spending.  Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) was the most vocal spokesman, and he was also, many suspected, planning to challenge Carter for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1980, using national health care as a defining issue.   

     

    In 1977 Carter’s White House reached out to Kennedy to find a middle ground.  It became clear early on that there was a significant difference between the two camps. Over many months, the two parties tried to compromise, but the talks eventually faltered over the specific phasing-in of Carter’s proposal. The unbridgeable gaps were fully revealed at the final meeting between Carter, Kennedy, and their staffs in the Oval Office on July 28, 1978,.  When they first appeared, Carter, according to one participant, told Kennedy, “It will doom health care if we split … I have no other place to turn if I can’t turn to you … I must emphasize fiscal responsibility if we are to have a chance.”  Kennedy left the White House and soon announced he couldn’t support whatever the Administration offered on health care and he would write his own comprehensive bill, which he unveiled on May 19, 1979.  

     

    A month later, Carter delivered a message to Congress calling for catastrophic coverage for all Americans so that  families who incurred severe and costly injuries or illnesses would not be financially destroyed. He also called for “comprehensive” coverage of 16 million low income Americans (Medicaid). It was a thoughtful, generous and responsible proposal, and it won significant early support on Capitol Hill, not least because many Democrats saw it as an essential step toward universal coverage.

     

    In the previous fall of 1978, Kennedy had addressed the Democrats’ mid-term convention in Kansas City and threw down the gauntlet to Carter: “There are some who say we cannot afford national health insurance …But the truth is, we cannot afford not to have national health insurance.”  Tensions between the two men, already high, came to a boil when Kennedy formally announced his candidacy for president on Nov. 7, 1979. With no major issues dividing the candidates – save for the timing but not the goal of universal coverage – Kennedy’s campaign got off to a faltering start.  It was apparent he needed strong support from the more liberal trade unionsand some unions did sign on with Kennedy, including the United auto Workers, which had been a long-time supporter of national health care. The UAW’s  leadership pledged it would use its clout to see the plan enacted. Even after Carter captured sufficient delegates to win the nomination following a brutal series of primaries, the UAW would notback down from its all-or-nothing position. Neither would Kennedy. 

     

    The hard-fought contest took its toll on both candidates and, tragically, on the issue of health care. In short, the dynamics of the 1980 primary campaign inevitably precluded the kind of legislative process that might have enabled universal catastrophic coverage to become law.  An important opportunity was lost; the American people would have to wait another 30 yearsfor major health care reform. 

     

    It finally arrived in 2009 when President Barack Obama unveiled the Affordable Care Act as his highest legislative priority. The ACA or, as it became known, Obamacare, bore a striking resemblance to Carter’s proposal three decades before. New to the presidency, Obama’s leadership was sometimes hesitant and he failed to articulate a strong and consistent public case for his proposal, an omission that made passage more difficult. At a joint session of Congress in September 2009, the president read an endorsement from Senator Kennedy, written before he had died the month before. Obama rallied the congressional Democrats and, with the indispensable help of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, ACA finally became law in 2010.  It was an historic achievement, representing the most significant regulatory overhaul and expansion of coverage since 1965. 

     

    With few Republicans supporting Obamacare, GOP leaders made its repeal their rallying cry for nearly a decade. Yet, they failed even when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and the White House.  With Democrats now in control of the House of Representatives, the ACA finally appears secure–except that President Trump’s Justice Department is trying to overturn the ACA altogether.  

     

    Republican control of the Senate and White House makes it a prohibitive time to attempt any major expansion of health care.  There is nonetheless an opportunity for Democrats – and hopefully Republicans – to prepare for the future by working together during the next two years to fix and strengthen the ACA so that it actually delivers the care it is meant to deliver.  They should also come together to significantly reduce the cost of medications, for which there is an undeniable bipartisan public mandate. Who knows where this could lead?  If led by serious people on both sides, it could yield yet more success stories like criminal justice reform and conservation of public lands.  Whatever it is, it’s better than polarized stalemate.

     

    Thus, if the ultimate goal is to expand affordable health care to every American, history offers important lessons. It tells Democrats that in the next two years they must be politically savvy, and in some instances, uncharacteristically restrained, if they want to be poised to offer a viable form of expanded health care in 2021. They must be honest that 2021 is the first time a plan realistically can be considered.  Before then, they must avoid the public perception of “over-reach,” a political deadly sin that costs politicians who appear to offer grand proposals that are hugely expensive, complex and unwieldy. “Medicare for All” comes to mind as something many people already see as over-reach. Voters have finely attuned antennae, and most can tell when they’re being played by a slogan.  

     

    On the other hand, Americans will respond favorably to reasoned proposals even for aspirational goals,as they did in 2018. They will do so again if a plan is couched in language they can understand, such as supporting a proposal for 2020 that offers “affordable health care for every American regardless of income or existing conditions.” At the same time, liberal Democrats should resist the siren song of ideological purity and embrace insteada pragmatism that will assure ultimate success.  The run-up to 2020 will be better than the 1970s unless Democrats take their eye off the ultimate goal and again allow a deep division within the party to preclude the outcome most Americans seek.

     

    As for Republicans, history tells them that if they want to help shape America’s health care of the future, they should 1) accept the legitimacy, if not every detail, of the ACA,which is, after all, a direct philosophical descendant of the thinking of the conservative Heritage Foundation, as well as the first cousin of Republican governor Mitt Romney’s plan for Massachusetts, and  2) abandon their blind opposition to any expansion of health care. They should engage in a constructive and serious conversation with Democrats so that by 2021 we will have something approaching a national consensus on how to care for our health. 

  •  

    I stand with Ilhan Omar. As a historian of Reconstruction, I must. 

     

    Omar embodies the best of Reconstruction-era reformers. She articulates a robust and inclusive vision of civil rights. She is a vocal advocate for the dispossessed and an outspoken opponent of racism and bigotry. She opposes Donald Trump’s nativist and Islamophobic “Muslim ban” and supports paid family leave and raising the minimum wage. In fact, she even co-sponsored the “Never Forget the Heroes Bill” that would permanently authorize the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund.

     

    I did not run for Congress to be silent. I did not run for Congress to sit on the sidelines. I ran because I believed it was time to restore moral clarity and courage to Congress. To fight and to defend our democracy.

    — Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) April 13, 2019

     

    That last part might come as a surprise to those who know Omar primarily from the wave of race-baiting unleashed by conservative politicians, press, and agitators. Indeed, the president himself has repeatedly Tweeted lies about Omar paired with images of the 9/11 attacks obviously designed to make Omar out to be a terrorist. 

     

    WE WILL NEVER FORGET! pic.twitter.com/VxrGFRFeJM

    — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 12, 2019

     

    But we should recall that this has been a Republican strategy for quite some time now. The Republican Party of West Virginia implied that Omar was a terrorist last month, suggesting that Americans, by electing a Muslim, had “forgotten” the 9/11 attack. Again, this wasn’t some far-Right website. It was the WV state Republican Party. 

     

    Nor is Omar the first woman of color to be targeted by Trump. Last year, Trump launched similar attacks against California Congresswoman Maxine Waters. These and other racist and Islamophobic attacks on Omar and Waters have inspired death threats against both women.  

     

    As a scholar of Reconstruction, this recent surge in racist propaganda has me worried. It is precisely the tactic that conservatives used to subvert Reconstruction-era reforms. They publicly targeted politicians in their newspapers and incited violence as a tool to regain political power after having been defeated during the Rebellion.

     

    I wrote about an eerily similar campaign of terror against Victor Eugène Macarty, an Afro-Creole politician recently for the Journal of African American History. Like Omar, Macarty was an outspoken advocate for equality. He had attended the voting rights convention on July 30, 1866 at the Mechanics Institute in New Orleans when it was attacked by police. He escaped death by hiding under the porch while New Orleans police officers, at the head of an angry mob of whites drummed up by the local press, attacked members of the convention and mangled their corpses.

     

    I became interested in Macarty while researching his time as a member of the Orleans Parish School Board as part of a project examining the impact of racial science on state institutions after slavery. But the more I read about Macarty—who was singled out by the white-supremacist New Orleans Bulletin as “extremely offensive to the white people of this city”—the more I became intrigued by his story. During an era when the white press was reluctant event to print the names of African Americans, the Anglo papers in New Orleans routinely targeted Macarty, almost begging readers to attack him. They did.

     

    After he confronted a white woman fired from her teaching position for supporting the White League—a white supremacist terrorist organization—the Bulletin repeatedly called for Macarty’s head. When the woman’s brothers attacked and left him for dead on September 16, 1875, the paper cheered the outcome and warned that the other Black school board members should “rememb[er] the fate of Macarty.” His attackers pleaded guilty and were “sentenced to each pay a fine of Ten Cents or one minute in the Parish Prison.” The court system in New Orleans functioned as an institution of racial control, letting Macarty’s attackers off the hook while signaling to African Americans that they would find no justice before the law. The continued media campaign and threats against Macarty played an outsized role in his political life and eventually led him to leave the city.

     

    Macarty was not alone as a victim of media-initiated racist attacks. The white press regularly named targets for white vigilantism. White elites pioneered this form of racist terrorism after emancipation as a means of controlling African Americans and subverting working-class politics.

     

    The consequences of the media campaign against Macarty should give us pause as the president and large portions of our national media engage in blatant race-baiting against Ilhan Omar and Maxine Waters. Indeed, it is hardly a coincidence that following this highly public, racist coverage, both Omarand Waters received death threats. As an activist and citizen, it is terrifying to see the resurgence of this Reconstruction-era tactic of racial oppression today.

     

    What frustrates me as a scholar is that we’ve created a historiographic landscape in which African American contributions to American history are overlooked. We too often take a teleological approach to Reconstruction and spend too little time allowing ourselves to be surprised by the profound commitment to equality made by many of the era’s reformers. This act of intentional mis-remembering strengthens the foundation of white supremacy in our country. As we’re seeing right now, that’s incredibly dangerous. 

     

    Macarty was a revolutionary figure about whom little was known until my recent article, despite his having brought the first lawsuit against segregated seating in federal court in 1869. In fact, the same few lines had been written and rewritten about Macarty since James Trotter’s 1880 Music and Some Highly Musical People, published the year before Macarty’s death. 

     

    We need to better remember the stories of African American reformers and visionaries to counterbalance a field that remains plagued by Lost Cause categories, periodization, and imagery. We need to know more about those who led prior movements for equality. We need to celebrate their martyrs and understand the cause we inherit from them. And perhaps most crucially at this moment, we must become intensely aware of the tactics that their white supremacist opponents used to subvert equality.

     

    Biography helps us accomplish these ends and we should pursue it vigorously and unapologetically. My friends and family are consistently surprised when they learn about my research into Macarty and his contemporaries. This cannot be the case, at least not if we hope to live in a society that values justice and equality.  

     

    Biography is a key pillar of historical instruction from grade school through high school. It helps students recognize themselves in historical figures large and small. Well-executed biographies allow them to better understand the debates of the past and relate them to those of the present. They also enable students to approach the past with humility and to see that our forebears grappled with many of the same issues we face today. This is one of the central “lessons of history” and among the most important that we can offer. 

     

    Further, biographical approaches to historical actors not only show African American resistance to white supremacy, but also avoid flattening African Americans into vehicles of resistance. Indeed, the view that African American liberty implies a rejection of (white) authority is a core belief of white supremacists. By telling the stories of African American men and women as whole persons, we can combat this racist lie.

     

    In researching Macarty, I realized the need for more African American biographies in Louisiana and, I suspect, throughout the 19th-century U.S. At least in south Louisiana, I came across many prominent African Americans about whom little or nothing is known. Take T.M.J. Clark, who after having been enslaved, taught himself to read and became the president of the State Insane Asylum. Or John Gair, who helped write the Louisiana Constitution of 1868 and survived numerous threats and an assassination attempt before being gunned down while in police custody in 1875. Our histories have either completely ignored these radicals or, in cases where they’ve been mentioned in passing, gotten them almost entirely wrong.

     

    Moreover, like Macarty, Gair and Clark were subjected to race-baiting coverage in the media that effectively ended their careers. The white press slandered and vilified both men and each of them suffered brutal attacks by white supremacist vigilantes. Like Macarty, Gair and Clark demanded equality. It was the cause for which Gair was martyred and Clark forced to flee for his life, a permanent exile from his hometown.

     

    This wave of media-inspired white supremacist violence effectively ended Reconstruction. No one was ever held accountable for the massacre of voting rights activists in New Orleans in 1866. Macarty’s attackers, after nearly beating him to death, faced no consequences. And though Gair was assassinated while in police custody in 1875, none of his attackers were ever charged. It was this failure to hold the race-baiting press, politicians, and vigilantes responsible that undermined any semblance of equality for more than 100 years. 

     

    Politicians like Macarty, Gair, and Clark took incredible risks and made enormous sacrifices to fight for equality 150 years ago. Their contemporaries failed to hold their attackers responsible. We cannot make that same mistake.

     

     

     

  •  

    Oklahoma!, one of the great musicals of show business history, often loses its own history amid all of those gorgeous Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein songs. The play is a straight forward, and yet very complex, story of ranch hands and their women on farms in the bustling Oklahoma territory in 1906, just before Oklahoma became the 46th state. The simplicity and beauty of that life is the basis for the marvelous, new and different version of the play, that opened last week in New York at the Circle in the Square Theater at 1633 Broadway.

    The play starts with ranch hand Curly, played superbly by the multi-talented Damon Daunno, a cowboy star in the Oklahoma territory who is desperately infatuated with farm girl Laurey. He stands up and, with a gorgeous voice, sings one of the signature songs in the musical, Oh, What A Beautiful Morning. It kicks off a play that is full of new romances, busted romances, patched up romances, a lot of violence, dark conversations, threats and a wild and wooly battle for the middle of America in a very divided country (sound familiar?). It is the men vs. the women, the good vs. the bad and the cowboys vs. the ranchers, all scrambling for a piece of the Oklahoma territory just after the turn of the century, in 1906, and all of the promises and dreams within it.

    This new version is pretty much the same as all the other plays and movies (the 1955 film version won three Oscars) and yet, at the same time, it is distinctly different. The others were grand sprawling sagas with lots of props, such as the time-honored surrey with the fringe on top, farmhouses and barns. There are none of them in this new play, majestically directed by Daniel Fish. All the director gives the audience here is an empty stage with chairs, some spectators on the periphery, a small orchestra (all happily wearing cowboy boots) placed carefully in a shallow pit and that luscious music that drifts through the air and soothes the hearts of everyone in the theater.

    The story (Hammerstein also wrote the book) develops nicely. Curly wants to take Laurey to the local dance but she had already promised to go with Jud Fry, a menacing, malevolent cowboy whom nobody likes. She only did it, she tells friends, to spite Curly. This sets off a battle between Curly, Jud and Laurey, in addition to the fight between cowboy Will Parker and traveling salesman Ali Hakim for the hand of the boisterous cowgirl Ado Annie. There is a lot of back and forth and the plot is told with the wonderful songs as well as dialogue. Those tunes include Oh, What a Beautiful Morning, The Surry with the Fringe on the Top, People Will Say We’re in Love, Kansas City, I Can’t Say No, and the rousing, burn-down-the-barn title song, Oklahoma!

    Even though this is a barebones show, it has some marvelous special effects. At one point, Curly and Jud are arguing over Laurey with some pretty dangerous and threatening dialogue. Curly even suggests that Jud Hang himself. The whole scene is presented in the dark, so that you only hear their voices of the two men. Part of that confrontation is a huge, haunting, slightly out of focus film of Jud talking. It fills the stage wall.

    Many of the conversations in the story are done with dark lighting and stirring music to add a sense of foreboding to the drama. There is some gunplay, pretty authentic for the era. An anti-gun theme is evident around the walls of the theater, where over a hundred rifles and standing in wall racks, ready to be fired at any moment if there is trouble somewhere in the territory of Oklahoma.

    The story of the land and the people battling over it, the tale of yet another new frontier in U.S. history, is absorbing and the same story that developed in every other U.S. territory, whether it was Arizona, Alaska or Oklahoma. The play tells the tale of an America that, out there in the cornfields, is bursting at the seams. And, at the same time, it tells the story of Oklahoma, ranchers, cowboys and city folk.

    In the play you learn about all the hard work the cowmen and ranchers put into make their ranches successful, the social customs of Oklahoma, and the mid-west, in 1906, the dances, the dating, the generational battles, and marvel of country folks for city folks, told so well in the tune Kansas City.

    Amid all of this history is the story of the young people, helped and guided by the older ones, as they try to find their place in Oklahoma, America, and the world. It is a nicely told saga told within all of those memorable tunes.

    Stetsons off to director Fish for not just re-staging, but re-inventing this classic musical. He used all of his genius to create a sensational new play out of an equally sensational old one. He gets significant help from a gifted groups of actors, including Daunno as Curly, Mary Testa as Aunt Eller, who holds the chaotic life of the prairie together through all of its storms,  Rebecca Naomi Jones, a fine singer and whirling dervish of a dancer as Laurey, James Davis as the stoic, hunkered down Will Parker, Ali Stroker as his beloved girlfriend Ado Annie, Patrick Vail as the villain Jud Fry,  Anthony Cason as Cord Elam, and Will Brill as salesman Ali Hakim.

    The play started its musical journey in 1931 as Lynn Riggs’s Green Grow the Lilacs. It wound up with Rodgers and Hammerstein, who in 1943 made it into their very first, of many, shows. In 1944 it won a Pulitzer Prize. The play was a huge commercial hit and ran on Broadway for nearly seven years. Revivals of it over the years have won numerous Tony Awards. The 1955 movie, starring Gordon Macrae, Shirley Jones and Rod Steiger, garnered three Oscars.

    The folks connected to the original play really should have taken some time to give people in the audience a little history about sprawling, ever green and inviting Oklahoma that was so central to the show. The big push for statehood started in the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush, in which 50,000 energetic settlers raced across the territory’s plains in wagons, carriages and on horseback to claim two million acres of free land, a race into history sanctioned by the U.S. government as a way to populate the huge piece of Midwestern landscape.  As the new settlers developed it, the need for statehood grew. Ironically, after the success of the play, the state of Oklahoma named the title song of the musical as it’s official state song.

    I’m sure they voted for it on a beautiful morning at the start of a beautiful day.

    PRODUCTION: The play is produced by Leve Forward, Eva Price, Abigail Disney, others. Scenic Design:  Lara Jellinek, Costumes: Terese Wadden, Lighting: Scott Zielinski, Sound: Drew Levy, Choreography: John Heginbotham. The play is directed by Daniel Fish. It has an open-ended run.

       

“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