Towards an Honest History

I always think the name is "Crispus Attucks Finch" then say, no, no that can't be right.

Pictured: American History

We’re getting a new Smithsonian here in Washington, DC.  They broke ground on the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in 2012, and in 2015 it’s supposed to be completed.  And while I’m sure it will be a great museum, with many worthwhile and fascinating exhibits, I don’t think that it should be.

The problem with an African-American History and Culture museum is that it is going to stand separately from the American History museum, but these are not separate things.  African-American history is history, and it is at best a mistake and and worst a lie to pretend that it is otherwise.

The American History museum looks at scholarly history and important moments in our nations’s history; it looks at “slices of life” Americans of different generations, socio-economic classes, and regions; it includes exhibits on pop culture, sports, and more highbrow culture as we.. In every one of those categories, there is no such thing as “American History” that is separate from “African-American History.”

The history of the founding of our country includes the history of the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans, which is why we have a large African-American population.  It also includes freemen like Crispus Attucks, the first to die in the Boston Massacre.  Are we going to exclude him from the American History museum?  Can we even begin to talk about the Civil War, a pretty big deal in our nation’s history, without talking about African American history?  How can we have exhibits on American  culture without having exhibits on the birth of jazz?  The Harlem Renaissance?  Porgy and Bess?  Even if we sprint up to the present, in the American History museum now there’s an exhibit on Gabby Douglas.  Where does that go now?

I understand and am sympathetic to the need to have a special class/month/organization to highlight and support marginalized groups.  Our society tends to highlight and support the work of white, Christian guys with money and we sometimes need to have a special, concerted focus on other groups (women, racial or religious minorities, LGBT, etc.)  I’m not at all against that as a way to begin evening things out.  But this museum is run by the same people–they’re both part of the Smithsonian.  Surely any tendency to under-represent African-American history in the regular American history museum could be corrected by putting whatever exhibits are going in the new building in the existing one?  Perhaps making it larger, or even rotating out some of the exhibits about us white people.

The museum’s mission and vision state that this is an opportunity for those that care about African-American culture to have a place to really deeply explore that, but it also says that “equally important is the opportunity to help all American see just how central African American history is for all of us. …. Additionally, the museum will use African American culture as a means to help all American see how their stories, their histories and their cultures are shaped and informed international considerations….”  See, it’s those missions I think the museum is failing at by not including these exhibits in the ones for “all Americans.”  And let’s face it, the people who really need to see how central African American history is to our shared history and culture are not going to go to this museum.  But they might accidentally see the exhibits at the American History one.

There might be very good arguments for this museum that this white girl is missing, and I’d be very interested to learn what they are.  But right now, this just seems like a mistake, and separating things that should not be separate.*

*Since you asked, yes, I also feel this way about the National Museum for the Women in the Arts.  Since you’re the same institution, maybe just put some of that art in the main museum so everyone gets to see how awesome women artists are?  Sound good?

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Dad is Fat

Dad is Fat, Jim Gaffigan
Dad is Fat Book CoverI noticed that I got a few followers from my review of Queen Leona.  Thank you!  This will be a slightly less intellectual review.

My thoughts when starting to blog again this year were that it would make me start to write again, which I very much want to do, and would be good practice in starting–and finishing–small pieces.  My other thought was to catalog and review the books I’ve read this year.  This is a project I’ve considered for the past few years, but have never quite been able to follow up on.  I blame the kids.  I have a few from this year already to get through, and will continue to write reviews as I read throughout the year.  Many of these will be pretentious tomes like philosophy classics, and books by Eco.  But some not.  This one is not.

I’m a very big fan of Jim Gaffigan.  Although, really, who isn’t?  His “Hot Pockets” bit is the stuff of legend after all.  If you haven’t seen it, you should watch.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  Anyway, it’s funny, right?  And that’s why my husband got me this book for Christmas

This is a perfectly cromulant book as these things go.  It pulls heavily from his most recent comedy special, Mr. Universe, and focuses on the trials and tribulations of raising five (!!) kids in Manhattan.  The title of the book comes from the first sentence that one of his children wrote.  The book has some parts that made me chuckle out loud, but mostly it just passed the time.  It’s a very easy read, so it’s not as if it’s a major commitment to finish the book, it’s just not particularly engaging.

The problem with it is something I’ve noticed in other books by stand-up comedians, such as Lewis Black.  They’re just used to writing for a different medium.  The brief essays in the book would have been better being turned into stand up bits and jokes, and in fact the book is much funnier if you are familiar enough with Gaffigan to pretend he’s saying all of this instead of having it written.  The bits are very short, which does make the book convenient to read a few pages of at a time while you’re nursing a baby, which is mostly how I read it.  But it’s nothing too special.  The time would probably be better spent watching Gaffigan on netflix or youtube instead.

Catholics: Just Like Everybody Else!

I remember a few years ago at the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, a national meeting of socially justice minded Professional Catholics, the then-head of the US Catholic Conference of Bishops’ Social Justice and World Peace office, John Carr, talk to us about how important the Catholic vote was.  As he put it, in 6 of the last 6 presidential elections, the candidate that the majority of Catholics voted for had won.  In his explanation, this was because we were such an important and large voting bloc.  We’d swayed the presidential elections!  As go the Catholics, as go the nation, I suppose.  I thought that there might be a less flattering explanation.  Maybe Catholics are just basically Americans, and we vote the way the country does, instead of voting as Catholics.

I mention that because the Washington Post has a poll done by Univision about Catholic attitudes worldwide on same-sex marriage. The headline?  “Catholics Still lead the Way on Gay Marriage.”  Wow, we lead the way!  54% of Catholics in the United States support same-sex marriage.  I guess that much be significantly greater than the rest of the country, huh, if Catholics are leaders?  Well, according to a poll from last March, 53% of Americans support same-sex marriage.  So maybe not so much “leading” as “right in line with public sentiment.”  

Look, I understand.  Catholics are the largest single denomination in the United States (although generic Evangelical has us beat).  And the Bishops’ have a strong media arm, and a concerted effort in making us seem like we all vote together and how the Bishops’ want.  But I don’t even think they’re all voting together in the privacy of a voting booth.  In reality, if you want to know what a Catholic thinks of an issue, you should probably just guess based on what Americans think.  Because actually, we’re not that special.

Now, why so many Catholics go to church but don’t seem to care what the church leadership says on issues left or right–that’s another post.  Probably several.

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco is one of my favorite authors, one who has encyclopedic knowledge, and someone who is far more clever than I.  His books are so packed wtih so many references, puzzles and stories within stories that they not only can be read more than once, they pretty much have to be read more than once.  And I love them each time.

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is not my favorite Eco book, but it is a very interesting and unique book.  It describes itself as an illustrated novel, which it is, and it explores different storytelling techniques.  The conceit of the book is that the narrator, Giambatista Bodoni, known as Yambo, is an antiquarian books dealer who suffers a heart attack and ends up with an unusual form of amnesia–he forgets everything he personally experienced, but remembers everything that he’s read.  He can only interact with the world through his memories of books and quotes.  His wife sends him back to his childhood home, packed with old books, records, newspapers, and comic books, to look through them and try to regain his memory.   The first half of the book is him exploring his life through these memories, the last section of the book is when he suffers a relapse and collapses, his life, told through these books, flashing before his eyes.

[Spoilers Below]
One the one hand, I was irritated by the main memory Yambo is struggling to recreate, the girl he loved from afar in high school.  This is largely because I get quite irritated by the notion of someone being in love with a beautiful girl who they have never, ever spoken to.  I find myself screaming at the book.  It’s not love, you’re just obsessed with the ideal of a girl!  You probably wouldn’t like her if you spent anytime with her and found out she acts like a person, with likes and dislikes and flaws!  It’s a pretty common trope, I know, but it drives me nuts.  And when this becomes a lifelong obsession, even while the man lives a full life with a wife whom he supposedly loves and a string of other real life women, it’s even more infuriating.
[/Spoilers]

However, despite that, I did enjoy the book.  At first, I found it a bit difficult to get into, and was reading it off and on for a few months.  (Anyone who knows me knows that’s fairly unusual)  Once I started to really get into it, though, it was very enjoyable and very creative.  The book is told through a variety of mediums, with song lyrics, comics, and magazine ads, from the times Yambo is exploring sprinkled throughout.  The book no doubt is quite autobiographical, as it explores in detail what it’s like growing up in Benito Mussolini’s Italy, and the narrator muses to himself about how he, as a child, really felt in such a schizophrenic environment, whether he really wanted to be a Balilla Boy and what his feelings on the war were, hearing Italian broadcasts officially and British broadcasts on a contraband radio at home.

I loved this part of the story for two reasons.  One was that I do enjoy learning more about pop culture in past decades, not just the literature or anything academic, but what life was really like and what people were really exposed to.  The other reason is related.  This book touches on something that always fascinates me—the real life, of people who are not necessarily greatly or horribly affected, of people in awful situations.  That is going to sound odd and more voyeuristic than what I mean, so let me explain.  Accounts of great tragedy or great heroism during times of war or disaster are quite common.  I’m sure I could read many tales of people who were persecuted by Mussolini, or Italians whose lives were destroyed in Italy in WWII.  I can certainly find many tales of soldiers or concentration camps, or people fighting against them valiantly.  But a story of what life was like for the average person is much rarer and harder to come by, but what is amazing to consider is that even under the most extreme situations, there are often still people who are just going about their lives as best as they can.  And I love hearing and reading those stories and learning about what is a slice of life for someone living with fascism, or under a dictatorship, or through a civil war.  It fascinates me.

Umberto Eco almost always writes with a great irreverence and sense of the absurd.  This book is no exception, and, in fact, goes a long way towards explaining why.  I would almost posit that growing up with in the bizarre and schizophrenic situation that he did, surrounded by war propaganda that everyone knew was false and had to pretend was real, or  having to be fascistic in school and coming from a home and town sympathetic to the rebel groups, led to that sense of the absurd.  How could it be otherwise?  How can living every day in a sort of winking agreement with everyone you see that everything is a lie but we’ll pretend it’s real lead to anything else?  (see also: every post Soviet Slavic author).  It also leads to a certain amount of detachment, however, even in a somewhat autobiographical book.

This was a good read, but I would say it’s only a good read if you already are familiar with and like Eco.  It’s unique format, and unreliable narrator, might make it challenging for some, but probably an even more engaging read for others.  Both of those can be acquired tastes. And it’s not necessarily the most representative book of Eco’s, or what I’d pick as an introduction.  If having a postmodern read about growing up in Mussolini’s Italy, told through comics, songs, school essays and advertisements, sounds like your cup of tea, though, you should definitely give it a read.