I just returned from a lengthy western road trip, including, amongst other things, 4000 photographs filling many gigs of space. I have hours of editing ahead of me. Today, enjoy some images from Monument Valley, one of the famous vistas of the American West. This lonely place is in northeast Arizona, near the Four Corners. It’s where Forrest Gump stopped running, and it’s appeared in many movies. And it’s only 6 hours from Albuquerque!
In The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson describes the migration of African Americans from the south to northern cities from World War I through 1970. She follows Ida Mae Gladney’s journey from Mississippi to Chicago in the 30’s, George Starling’s journey from Florida to New York in the 40s, and Dr. Robert Foster’s journey from Louisiana to Los Angeles in the 50s. With these three stories (and some shorter accounts of others), Wilkerson describes the larger movements of a massive and yet relatively-little discussed movement of people.
Five million African-Americans moved north during the Great Migration; the 1850s California Gold Rush drew 100,000 west and the 30s Dust Bowl migration brought 300,000 west. African Americans across the south moved north, drawn by jobs and hope, pushed by discrimination and fear. Detroit went from 1.4% black to 44%; the Great Migration reshaped the racial and cultural landscape of the country, north and south.
WHY THIS BOOK?
I haven’t read a lot of black history. Between the prominent racial stories of St. Louis (my hometown) and the nation in the last few years, it felt like time to do some catch-up. Most of my friends and family have read less black history than me. It’s strange that race relations, a topic that garners so much discussion, is understood with so little depth by so many.
The Great Migration is a massive amorphous movement of 5 million people from one large region of the country to another across two generations. Wilkerson captures much of the diversity of this movement in her three subjects. They have different education levels and travel to and from different places at different times. The Warmth of Other Suns is a story of people that made tough choice to leave what they knew hoping to improve their lives and their children’s lives. We follow Ida Mae, George, and Robert from childhood to death, and we get to see their successes and failures. Wilkerson augments these anecdotes with the statistics of the other millions.
The Warmth of Other Suns relates the depravity of the Jim Crow south in a way that many histories tend to avoid. Ida Mae describes how young men dangled her over a well when she was five; she knew that, if dropped, she would never have been found. George Starling fled Florida after a friend overheard plans of his murder when he organized the orange pickers. Arrington High was institutionalized in an insane asylum for exposing white politicians that patronized a colored brothel; after two years he was smuggled north in a coffin. Separate but equal was a blatant sham; a Louisiana superintendent said, “the money allocated to the colored children is spent on the education of the white children. We have twice as many colored children… as we have white… Colored children are mighty profitable to us.” Wilkerson compares blacks moving north to those that fled the Soviet Union. She notes how the migration ebbed after the Civil Rights movement dismantled the worst of Jim Crow.
Blacks continued to face hardships after moving north. In Chicago, blacks were restricted to tiny portions of the city, whose sub-standard housing grew crowded and expensive. Race riots erupted in many of the northern cities. This passage about Jesse Owens lays bare the hypocrisy quietly hiding in the north:
It made headlines throughout the United Staes that Adolf Hitler, who had watched the races, had refused to shake hands with Owens, as he had with white medalists. But Owens found that in Nazi Germany, he had been able to stay in the same quarters and eat with his white teammates, something he could not do in his home country. Upon his return, there was a ticker-tape parade in New York. Afterward, he was forced to ride the freight elevator to his own reception at the Waldorf-Astoria.
I grew up in one of the most segregated cities in the country. We still had bussing to enforce desegregation when I attended school. St. Louis went from 6.4% black in the 1910 census to 40.9% in the 1970 census. I never realized that the white flight that created my suburbs was driven by migration. After all, Missouri was a slave state, I assumed blacks had always been a part of the city. Reading about the Great Migration led me to look at my own community differently. Who hasn’t heard political discussion of the ghetto, of black poverty, of wealth inequality and racially disparate criminal justice outcomes? These discussions usually center on northern cities, and the Great Migration and the forces that drove it created those communities. It’s tempting to view black history as separate history, but it obviously isn’t.
When we understand what happened 50 years ago, we are better able to understand what happens today. A black boy was tortured to death in front of his father for sending a girl a Christmas card. The man who publicized this murder, Harry T. Moore, was murdered when his home was bombed in 1951. This is not ancient history. And yet, by the reaction to Black Lives Matters, there are many who bristle at the idea that blacks still face systematic obstacles.
The last hundred pages were weaker. The first part told me about a movement with a scope I didn’t know, driven by evil I hadn’t fully realized. The last hundred pages narrow to cover the last decades of the three subjects. Wilkerson makes fewer connections to the larger world here. Ida Mae, George, and Robert felt so grounded, the representatives of millions in the first 400 pages of the book. In the last 100 pages, they float unconnected from demographics and national forces. As people, well, they’re not that interesting. It felt like a missed opportunity to connect the past and the present.
The Warmth of Other Suns is an American story. It’s the fight for the American Dream; African Americans trekked north in their own country instead of crossing an ocean to a new country. Unlike my Czech ancestors, they couldn’t shed their otherness, either in the north or the south. They weren’t allowed to. This shapes our cities and communities.
The Warmth of Other Suns relates a huge demographic shift through individuals. The Great Migration stirred our national culture. Michelle Obama, Miles Davis, Toni Morrison, Spike Lee and Denzel Washington were all children of the Great Migration. It deserves its place in the American legend along with the Oregon Trail, Route 66, pioneers, and other tales of self-determinism and bravery. The Warmth of Other Suns does a good job toward that end.
March is “Trypod” Month, where podcasts are asking enthusiasts to recommend their favorites. I only started listening to podcasts last summer, but I already have several favorites. One of the reasons I took so long to try podcasts was that I hadn’t heard of many. I tried out my first podcast after reading an interesting episode, and now I’m hooked.
Podcasts are great companions to life’s chores that occupy the hands but not the brain. I listen to podcasts when I do the dishes, when I fold clothes, and when I work in the garden. I love to learn, and this way I can learn at times I couldn’t before.
I listen to quite a range of stuff, as my favorites list will show. I’m also eager for new oddball recommendations.
BackStory: American history from the experts
On BackStory, three University of Virginia professors of history discuss a topic as it has played out through American history. (In 2017, they switched to four professors.) Topics include the history of church and state in America, the history of scandal, and the history of infrastructure, among others. Backstory delights in illuminating the bizarre and exciting about history, while connecting these topics to the present day. And with professors of history, you know you’re listening to real, researched history. Hooray!
Myths and Legends Podcast: Delightful myths from around the world
Narrator Jason brings good cheer to myths, legends, and fairy tales from around the world. Whether it’s the Norse Volsung Saga, Native American stories about giant skunks that can fart you to death, or Russia’s Baba Yaga, who’s home stands on chicken legs, Myths and Legends is guaranteed fun once a week. And that doesn’t even get into the weekly creature segments, like the butter cat, who steals butter from the neighbors for his master.
Russian Rulers History Podcast: Russian rulers, history, and culture
I’m a long-time Russian history enthusiast; if you aren’t this might not be your cup of tea, but it’s one of my favorites. The host isn’t a historian, he just likes Russian history, and does a good job telling it. Nothing flashy, just the history of this massive and enigmatic country, from the time of the Kievan Rus through the present day. The first ~130 episodes cover the Russian rulers, but from there it branches out. There is a massive archive for this podcast, and it’s one of my favorites for doing chores.
Science Magazine Podcast: The week in Science from America’s premier science publication
It’s hard to find good science journalism. That’s why the Science Magazine podcast is so spectacular. Beyond being informative, Science Podcast is fun. I understand my corner of science well enough, but I didn’t have a good insight into advancements in biological studies, for example. Everyone’s read about hair-brained sounding science studies, like making shrimp walk on treadmills (yes, this is real!); the podcast reveals how these strange studies are often really clever ways to answer tough questions. Science Magazine is a product of AAAS (the American Association for the Advancement of Science), of which I am a member and highly recommend.
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Miscellaneous history from around the world
My gateway podcast. Missed in History focuses on the topics given short shrift, often focusing on women, people of color and history from Asia and Africa. Everything that isn’t commonly taught history is fair game, from the Montgolfier brothers who invented the first hot air balloon, to Maria Montessori, founder of the Montessori school, to a history of Rhodesia. This means the podcast leaps around from week to week, but it also means that if one topic doesn’t suit your fancy, another will. Missed in History also has years of archived episodes.
Nature Podcast: the week in science from the UK’s premier science publication
Science and Nature are the top publication venues in the physical sciences. And Nature has a podcast as well! Nature does a wider variety of podcasts within the main podcast–it features a monthly science fiction story and a monthly roundtable discussion, in addition to the weekly review. Nature also did a series called PastCast that discussed historical publications in the journal. The journal goes back to 1869, so there’s a lot to work with. Nature also focuses more on science in the international community.
Western springtime is different. In the east, March is “in like a lion, out like a lamb.” In New Mexico, it’s been warm and lovely since the start of the month, but soon, our spring winds will begin. Like many Americans, I think of spring as a damp, green, thawing time of year. Here, it is dry and abrasive. Here, it was 8% humidity yesterday.
The grass is growing, my herbs are returning, and I have been itching to garden, itching to have a few square feet of lush, green eastern spring. Over the years, I have chased the spring blossoms, from lenten roses and crocuses to irises and peonies. In Virginia, I wandered Thomas Jefferson’s garden each day, seeing the new blooms and progress. This year, I’m working on my own garden. That means that, at this point, I don’t have many new images to share. I don’t know how to make mulching and pulled weeds look very beautiful. But in the spirit of what I hope to grow, here are some of my favorite spring images from years past.
In The Snail Darter and the Dam, Zygmunt Plater describes his famous legal battle over Tennessee’s Tellico Dam, which he argued all the way to a 6-3 US Supreme Court victory in 1978. Plater and local activists argued that the dam would threaten the endangered snail darter fish, a violation of the recently-passed Endangered Species Act. The media covered it as a case of environmentalism run amok, but the ESA appeal was a backdoor to stopping an unsound project. Despite the court victory, a congressional finding that the dam project was financially unsound to finish even at 95% complete, and the fact that the dam would submerge some of the oldest human artifacts in the country, the dam was completed and stands today. The Snail Darter and the Dam details the grueling work of grassroots activism and the hazards of bureaucracy and entrenched interests.
WHY THIS BOOK?
This summer, I read Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, a tale of water administration. Before moving west, I had no idea what skullduggery surrounded the history of water rights. Reisner’s description of the Tellico Dam battle, though brief, was intriguing. Snail Darter was written so recently by a member of the legal team, a different perspective than that offered in Cadillac Desert.
Snail Darter is the story of a young law professor who follows sound and sober reason and is battered by our bureaucratic institutions. He loses his job, and works himself to exhaustion trying to achieve the impossible: getting members of the bureaucracy and government to see a deeply-flawed bureau project for what it is. He fails.
Snail Darter is the story of a region’s struggles against the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The Little Tennessee River was one of the last free-flowing rivers in the backyard of the energy bureaucracy behemoth. It was one of the last fly fishing rivers in the east. It was the site of Cherokee settlements dating back over 10,000 years, many with religious significance. It was fertile farmland. In spite of this, the TVA wanted to build a dam that wouldn’t even supply power. It was originally pitched as a way to grow an industrial city anchored by Boeing. After Boeing backed out, the TVA continued to fight for their pointless and destructive project. The locals fought the dam starting in the mid 60’s. Lawyer and author Zygmunt Plater joined the fight in 1974.
Conservatives like Sean Hannity, Antonin Scalia, and George Will still invoke the snail darter as a symbol of environmentalism run amok. How ironic—the darter was the last means for locals to halt an impractical dam foisted upon them by a federal bureaucracy. As Plater tells it, the darter was only successful in holding up the dam because of the deep unsoundness of the project. At last, there was a mechanism to force scrutiny upon the insane project, a back door by which to achieve oversight. Opposition to Tellico Dam should have been bipartisan—it was porkbarrel without economic upshot.
People don’t remember that part of the story because the media failed. Walter Cronkite called the lawsuit “frivolous.” Respected giants like the New York Times and ABC framed the lawsuit as an intractable conflict between economics and environment rather than covering the project’s flaws. They failed to cover the situation of farmers like Nell McCall; only 3 of her 90 acres would be submerged by the reservoir but the TVA would buy her out at suppressed prices to sell to the industrial city that no longer had tenants. If we think that media is flawed today, unable to give nuance and factual coverage, well, it’s nothing new.
Plater describes the support of grassroots organizations in Washington, DC. These are the counterparts to the lobbyists of K Street, devoted and passionate people who sleep on couches or at their desks waging an unfunded but righteous battle. Plater received extensive help from Anne Wickham of Friends of the Earth, Dave Conrad of America Rivers, and others.
Snail Darter describes the “Iron Triangle” that supports bureaucracies like the TVA. In the Iron Triangle, congress, bureaucracies, and interest groups support one another in the advancement of projects, each reinforcing one another’s weak points. For Tellico Dam, connected members of congress supported the TVA, which was supported by private construction companies. These three groups can mobilize money, media, and attack dogs that a grass roots organization can’t hope to oppose. In the case of Tellico Dam, the Iron Triangle triumphed over a Supreme Court ruling, economic inviability, and a hostile president, leading to the dam’s completion in 1979.
The subject matter is depressing. But as a meat eater has an obligation to understand that his steak once belonged to a cow, I’d argue an American has an obligation to learn about the making of law. It’s ugly. And in Snail Darter, a totally awful project is built for the vanity of a few removed bureaucrats, over the protest and struggle of hundreds. But they wouldn’t have succeeded if more people had cared when it mattered.
Snail Darter peeks inside government and bureaucracy. It shows what happens when media fails to be the fourth estate. 40 years later, the snail darter controversy remains misunderstood.
Today, we hope the media will be vigilant and informative; we hope it will stand up to government apparatus if it abuses people. Snail Darter suggests a certain pessimism to that hope, but it also provides an instruction manual for how accountability can work. In Plater’s tale, grassroots organizations interacted with congress and tried to inform the media. Donations to organizations like the ACLU and SPLC have skyrocketed recently. That’s encouraging.
I’m not a law buff, but Snail Darter was engrossing. If you are American and have ever liked a nonfiction book, I recommend this one.
Better late than never! I took a little hiatus from photography for the last few months. Now that I’m back in the saddle, it’s time to pick out my favorite ten images in the past year. (Here’s my 2015 list, which focuses a little more on technique.) This year I continued my western travels, learned about lighting (not shown here), and got really into HDRs (shown excessively here).
It’s raining in California. A lot. I’ve lived in the midwest, the mountains, the desert, and the northeast, but California weather is weird. Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert (which I reviewed here) details how California’s precipitation comes in 30 year cycles. Since we only have 150 years of modern weather records, that’s 5 cycles of rain. That’s not much data. So it causes havok. In 1916, San Diego hired a guy named Hatfield to literally make it rain. Just as he started work, it rained torrentially, and Hatfield had to flee a lynch mob. (Below is the Backstory Podcast segment on this story.)
I visited beautiful Balboa Park (home of the San Diego Zoo) in endless rain. I braved bus stops without awnings and big puddles. Because San Diegans live outdoors so much, only one restaurant had indoor seating, and was full of dripping puddle people like me. It was a harrowing adventure for one from the desert. I took a few rain-speckled pictures and fled back to the museums. I was lucky they weren’t outdoors too!