American history, Culture, marriage and relationships, nonfiction, philosophy, politics

Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community

sex economy freedom community book

Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community: Eight Essays by Wendell Berry. Published in 1993. 208 pages.

I have always loved the commentary and writings of the insightful, prolific Wendell Berry. Reading his book, “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community”, it became clearer why I find his perspective so refreshing. How often have we heard the connection made between our culture’s predilection to specialization and compartmentalization with the destruction of the economy, sexuality, marriage, family, community, and the nation?

Very rarely I submit, although it’s a connection which is hard to deny upon serious observation and even harder to address as our culture succumbs more and more to the seduction of the “me first” mentality. A mentality which is largely driven by our increasing focus on individual rights at the expense of everything and every one, up to and including our own parents, our own children, and their children.

In the book’s title essay, Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community Berry attempts to piece together how our movement away from interdependence and local community standards and toward a tendency to think globally has impacted our most intimate relationships, and how sexual love in general and marriage in particular have been irreparably damaged as a result:

There are two kinds of sexuality that correspond to the two kinds of economy. The sexuality of community life, whatever its vagaries, is centered on marriage, which joins two living souls as closely as, in this world, they can be joined. This joining of two who know, love, and trust one another brings them in the same breath into the freedom of sexual consent and into the fullest earthly realization of the image of God. From their joining, other living souls come into being, and with them great responsibilities that are unending, fearful, and joyful. The marriage of two lovers joins them to one another, to forebears, to descendants, to the community, to Heaven, and earth. It is the fundamental connection without which nothing holds, and trust is its necessity.

Our present sexual conduct, on the other hand, having “liberated” itself from the several trusts of community life, is public, like our present economy. It has forsaken trust, for it rests on the easy giving and breaking of promises. And having forsaken trust, it has predictably become political. “Losing kindness” as Lao-tzu said, they turn to justness.” (p. 134-135)

This is sadly correct. Sexual politics is a dominant and lucrative industry in America today. Divorce law, child support enforcement, abortion rights, contraceptive availability, health departments to deal with communicable diseases, sexual harassment, and on it goes. All of these institutions have grown in our misguided attempt to interject perfect justice and the semblance of safety into the necessarily murky business of male/female interpersonal relations. As a result, most women view every man as a potential aggressor and many men have grown to view every woman as a potential accuser of anything form date rape to dead beat fatherhood. This is supposed to liberating? Berry continues:

The difficulty is that marriage, family life, friendship, neighborhood, and other personal connections do not depend exclusively or even primarily on justice-though, of course, they all must try for it. They depend also on trust, patience, respect, mutual help, forgiveness-in other words, the practice of love, as opposed to the mere feeling of love.

As soon as the parties to a marriage or a friendship begin to require strict justice, then that marriage or friendship begins to be destroyed…(p.135)

And this of course, is exactly what has happened on a grand scale. As sexuality has become a commodity to be consumed (think of the quest for hotness at all costs), coupled with the right to do whatever feels good to us without regard for anyone else, and we have all but destroyed the beauty of sexual love and marriage. Sex sells. There is even a new term for the atmosphere in which people pair off: the sexual marketplace. No longer are the terms “husband” or “wife” adequate to describe the person we share our most intimate relations with. The term is now sexual “partners” and we gauge others’ sexual morality not by their fidelity in marriage but by their “partner count.” The language of intimacy is now the language of the marketplace.

People enter into marriage under the spell of sexual infatuation, failing to recognize that the practice of love, rather than the mere feeling of love, is what keeps a marriage alive, growing and fulfilling. The values of the marketplace, of quid pro quo, has usurped the place of love and forgiveness, reducing marriage to nothing more than an arrangement that lasts as long as our arbitrary and fickle senses of satisfaction are appeased.

Sadly, Berry notes, we have moved into a culture that can only be described as nihilist, one where most people are not interested in or able to be contented with this diffusion of love. They want to continue to have love focused myopically on them and them alone, as this is what society has groomed us to believe that marriage is all about.

A society whose members are concerned only with themselves, their individual needs, and are slaves to their passions with no regard for the greater good can be described no other way than nihilist. Churchgoing, “civic minded” nihilists, but nihilists nonetheless because a life spent pursuing personal pleasure-no matter what euphemisms we use to make it seem otherwise- is a useless, hopeless life. Our selfish greed can never be truly satisfied. Fulfillment is found through service and love executed in practice, not as the pursuit of sensations. And it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference if we call ourselves liberal or conservative, as Mr. Berry so eloquently states:

“The conventional public opposition of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ is, here as elsewhere, perfectly useless. The ‘conservatives’ promote the family as a sort of public icon, but they will not promote the economic integrity of the household or the community, which are the mainstays of family life. Under the sponsorship of ‘conservative’ presidencies, the economy of the modern household, which once required the father to work away from home – a development that was bad enough – now requires the mother to work away from home, as well. And this development has the wholehearted endorsement of ‘liberals,’ who see the mother thus forced to spend her days away from her home and children as ‘liberated’ – though nobody has yet seen the fathers thus forced away as ‘liberated.’ Some feminists are thus in the curious position of opposing the mistreatment of women and yet advocating their participation in an economy in which everything is mistreated.”

Most contemporary rhetoric about service and duty is nothing more than the demagoguery of hypocrites, playing on our emotions for the sake of their own ambitions:

There is no denying, of course, that “community” ranks with “family,” “our land,” and “our beloved country” as an icon of the public vocabulary; everybody is for it, and this means nothing. p. 132

Now that we have stated the problem, the next step is to work toward a solution. The question then, is how do those of us who yearn for community, family, respect for the land and love for country achieve even a semblance of either while surrounded by a culture for whom these things are nothing more than feel good rhetoric at best and obstacles to personal desire and ambitions at worst?

Berry offers solutions, but they are hard solutions for a culture of people comfortably entrenched in an easy, resistance-free way of life. Here, he gets credit for trying.

5 out of 5 stars.

I originally wrote this read and reviewed this book in 2012, but it seems more relevant today than it did even when I first read it, so I’m featuring it here. Reviews for more recently read books are in draft and forth coming.

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American history, children's books, Culture, intriguing authors, the business of books

Little House Books victim of woke hysteria.

There have been, throughout history, many great books written; books which have rightfully earned their spot on shelves as timeless classics. If we took a microscope to each and every one of those books with the express intent of removing any and all books with language in them which offends any particular group of people, we would have to remove the vast majority of books from the shelves.

If there was ever a set of books which finds me incredulous at the idea that they are harmful, it’s Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House book series. Our children love those books, and we have no intention of removing them from our shelves, despite being well aware of the “offensiveness” found within their pages. The Association of Library Services to Children cannot abide Wilder’s handling of Native Americans in her stories:

Laura Ingalls Wilder was on the brink of having an award named in her honor, from the Association for Library Service to Children, when in 1952 a reader complained to the publisher of “Little House on the Prairie” about what the reader found to be a deeply offensive statement about Native Americans.

The reader pointed specifically to the book’s opening chapter, “Going West.” The 1935 tale of a pioneering family seeking unvarnished, unoccupied land opens with a character named Pa, modeled after Wilder’s own father, who tells of his desire to go “where the wild animals lived without being afraid.” Where “the land was level, and there were no trees.”

And where “there were no people. Only Indians lived there.”

Although the complaint didn’t spark action at the time, the American Library Association has decided to make things right:

Now, after years of complaints, the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, says it voted Saturday to strip Wilder’s name from the award.

The decision makes Wilder the latest target of efforts to purge from the cultural landscape symbols that honor historical figures who owned slaves, espoused racist views or engaged in racist practices.

Books, as well as their authors, are products of the time and place in which they are set and in which the author lives. All of these elements are an important part of what makes books rich and interesting, providing depth and context of history. If we strip away all evidence of cultural and linguistic markers which are out of step with our modern sensibilities, we lose far more than we gain.

In exchange for the temporary and shallow pride of being able to signal our postmodern virtue, we miss out on the opportunity to discuss the why, hows, and wherefores of the cultural past. We miss out on the opportunity to explain to our children cultural and linguistic evolution, including the things which we find objectionable today.

In our home, we do not shield our children from books which contain derogatory racial terms, including or even especially terms which may be personally offensive to us as a black family. Why should we forgo an opportunity for them to learn, grow, and acknowledge the amount of progress our country has made in its treatment of black Americans, something we believe is generally true against the recent backdrop of inflammatory headlines?

When reading the Little House books, or Peter Pan, or any number of books which refer to Native Americans in ways that our current cultural iteration finds offensive, our children inevitably ask questions. These questions open the door to dialogue and understanding.

Further, I find it offensive to hold authors or anyone else who lived 100 years ago to a standard of behavior which didn’t exist when they were alive so as to retroactively smear their work and exact punitive redress. Laura Ingalls Wilder was a product of her time, and her books reflected that.

To publicly flog her for a series of books which have an imperfect presentation of current ideology, while ignoring the virtues and morals within their pages is just another example of how “wokeness” is killing our humanity, our ability to enjoy life and our ability to enjoy truly great literature.

More than that, to emphasize a cultural negative at the expense of all the hard work, family togetherness, faith, charity and community the Little House books offer does more than shield us from the bad. It shields us from the good as well.

 

American history, nonfiction

Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo.

Image result for barracoon cover image

Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo, by Zora Neale Hurston. Published May 8, 2018. Hardcover, 208 pages

A long buried work, Barracoon is a newly published book which was originally penned in 1931 by Zora Neale Hurston. It documents the story of Cudjo Lewis, the last known survivor of the last known slave ship to bring African slaves to America, mostly in his own words. A barrcoon is what they called the barracks that captured Africans lived in as they waited to be chosen by buyers and loaded onto ships headed for America.

Lewis’ existence was not Hurston’s discovery. He was known to many of the cultural anthropologists of that era who studied the lives of the African slaves and their descendants, but Hurston was the rare anthropological researcher who spent extensive amounts of time with him. She had in-depth conversations with him in Plateau, Alabama. Plateau was originally known as Africatown as it was founded by newly freed slaves who worked together and saved to buy a plot of land on which they could live as free people.

When Hurston initially approached Lewis (whose African name was Kassoula), he was reserved and rebuffed her attempts to connect with him. Nevertheless she persisted and on one of her visits, she did two things which, undoubtedly intersected with catching Lewis in a jovial mood, opened the door to their friendship and his sharing his story with her. She came bearing the gifts of peaches and watermelon, and she called him by his African name.

Beginning with the life of his family and tribe, Lewis recounted all that he could remember about his way of life in Africa, the tribal war which resulted in his capture and enslavement, touched on his life as a slave, and on his life and losses once he was set free in 1865, after 5 years and 6 months of enslavement.

One of the first things to note about Lewis, and the other 129 captives who arrived on American shores with him in 1859, was that his capture from his African homeland took place 50 years after the United States how outlawed the capture and transport of new slaves from the African continent. However much like whiskey in during prohibition and the war on drugs which persists to this day, there were then as now, smugglers who continued to run “contraband” from Africa to the U.S.

As the U.S. and Britain tightened Atlantic patrols, it became harder and harder for transatlantic slave ship captains to do business, but where there is a will to make money, there’s a way. And the will was strong on the part of some African tribal chiefs to continue to fill their coffers by selling Africans captured from rival tribes into slavery. According to Lewis, the situation had degenerated to the point that the richest, strongest tribal king had begun to invent reasons to make war against other tribes based on nonsense specifically for the purpose of capturing the tribe’s young, strongest men and women to be sold to Americans as slaves.

This was exactly what happened to his tribe two years before the start of the Civil War which officially ended chattel slavery in the U.S. As far as the historians of that time were able to surmise, Cudjo (Kassoula) Lewis’ ship, the Clotilda, was the last known ship to transport Africans from Africa to the U.S. mainland in the autumn of 1859.

This book is a touching, engaging, and informative read. As is often the case with books written in dialect, it took me a couple of chapters to latch on to the language and develop, internal rhythm and follow along fully with Cudjo as he told the story of his life and trials he endured both on Africa and in America. The lack of freedom and humanity he suffered at the hands of those who bought and enslaved him seem to just barely rival his pain at being sold by his own people and the disdain he and the other late African arrivals experienced from the slaves who had been in America for generations or who had been born here. His tales of love, loss, faith and forgiveness are equal parts touching and heartrending.

Barracoon is a quick read. It is 208 pages, but the last 90 of those pages are appendices and historical notes. I read the entire thing –including the historical notes because there is much in them that interests me- but Cudjo Lewis’ story was, even making concessions for the dialect, a fast-paced recounting of everything he was able to remember about his trying life.

I highly recommend Barracoon, regardless of your race or creed, as Mr. Lewis’ history is as much American history as Washington crossing the Delaware.

Grade: A

Edited to add Content advisory: Mr. Lewis’ story of the tribal war and his resulting captivity is particularly violent and brutal. Other than that, I can’t think of content that might be unusually jarring and certainly nothing offensive.

American history, Culture, educational, Els' Rabbit Trails, intriguing authors, nonfiction, tales from the local library

Change of plans…

It is invariable that the moment I solidify my list and order of reading, something else catches my fancy and off I go, tiptoeing through the bibliophile tulips. Two books have recently knocked my previously arranged list out of order.

Florida, A Short History keeps its place as my current read because I need it to build my fall curriculum.  It’s also going to take a while to dig for the gems I don’t know and figure out what to put where, what is worth assigning extra work, and so and so on. After that, the queue gets shuffled as two other books have earned top spots.

I chose not to purchase Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules to Live By because the reviews -including the relatively positive ones- left me thinking I might regret the investment if I did. As a result, I ordered it from my library, where I was supposedly number 44 on the list of patrons waiting for it. I figured it would take at least two months for me to get it. It didn’t, and I got it yesterday. Since there is a waiting list for it, I won’t be allowed to renew it so I have to get it read over the next 21 days. Easy peasy.

The second book which has moved to the top of my heap is called Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” , which Zora Neale Hurston reportedly penned before her death. History.com reports that Hurston conducted an interview with the last known survivor of a transatlantic slave ship back in the early 1930s but struggled to get the manuscript published. It is finally being released on May 8. I have to read that, and right away.

The best laid plans and all that good stuff. I’ll log this as a reminder of why I shouldn’t publish reading queues and schedules. No one who really knows me would ever call me spontaneous or an improviser (especially if they know my man), but when it comes to my reading habits, both words definitely apply.

h/t: Bike Bubba for the history.com link.

RELATED:

Intriguing Author Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Hurston Confirms Solomon’s Declaration.

Big Ideas Offered in Short Stories

Dust Tracks on a Road

Have a great weekend!

 

 

American history, Culture, Food, tales from the local library

The Cooking Gene

cooking gene

The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, by Michael Twitty. Published in August 2017. 464 pages.

I picked up this book having never heard of it before seeing it on the shelf of my local lbrary. It is not my custom to look to the NYT lists or book review pages to decide what I am going to read. Apparently this book was on it, but I didn’t know that. If I see something and it looks interesting, I pick it up.This one looked interesting.

I am the black daughter born of a Cajun father who married a Georigia peach. Does it get any more Southern than that? As a woman of deep Southern roots who loves to cook and has raised young women who also -uncharacteristically for Millenials- love to cook, this book called out to me.

Because I also love Southern cooking and cooking Southern food, it did not disappoint. The wealth of culinary history about Southern food, the people, and the regions was amazing. Even when there were snippets and sections of the book that I found a little too politial for my conservative leaning apolitical tastes, they were far outshined and overshadowed by the beauty that encompassed the overall treasure that I found this book to be.

The American South is a complex place with a fascinating and convoluted history that reveals itself in its food as much as anything else. Twitty does a masterful job of articulating that in this quote from his book:

“The Old South is a place where people use food to tell themselves who they are, to tell others who they are, and to tell stories about where they’ve been. The Old South is a place of groaning tables across the tracks from want. It’s a place where arguments over how barbecue is prepared or chicken is served or whether sugar is used to sweeten cornbread can function as culinary shibboleths. It is a place in the mind where we dare not talk about which came first, the African cook or the European mistress, the Native American woman or the white woodsman. We just know that somehow the table aches from the weight of so much . . . that we prop it up with our knees and excuses to keep it from falling.”

He speaks truth, as I know I have been asked on numerous occasions by women of Southern heritage but different ethnic makeup, how I cook my grits, my fried chicken, etc. Southern food is a thing all its own while also being several different things as well, depending on whence you hail. I have always known this from childhood eating my dad’s gumbo, and crawfish etoufee, which almost no other Southern region has perfected. And neither have I.

The ways that first generation slaves -whether house servants or field slaves- learned to make familiar dishes out of new and often unfamiliar ingredients was a particularly interesting read, and  Twitty’s travels to the regions where the “cargo” for the Transatlantic slave trade was gathered offered wonderful insights into the ancestral diets of the people who came from those parts of Africa.

Some of the most fascinating excursions to take with the author were his journeys embarked on as a result of the genetic and documented research he compiled from his own family tree. His was a family, unlike so many black families in the South, that kept good written histories and passed them down. I married into a family that has a much better documented history than my family of origin, so I am well acquainted with the differences and how they express themselves in our knowledge of who we are and what we tell our children.

Overall, this was a very good book. My Christian sensibilities were not offended by the author’s occasional trips down memory lane where he discussed his coming out to his family or his other thoughts on being a black, gay, Jewish man. In a lesser book, more sloppily executed or overtly politically motivated, I would have been annoyed.

This author, however, has a clear and unmistakable love for food, its origins, its intersections with the way we view life and family, and how it shapes the places we have been and the places we go. In short, he was able to communicate his passion and vision in a way that was admirable and transcended all the rest of it. The American South was what it was, and it is impossible to study the roots of Southern culinary richness while avoiding the circumstances that brought together the people who shaped it.

Grade: A

 

American history, educational, homeschool

The Highest Education

I’m currently preparing to teach a relatively low-key, six-week course of short stories and readings to middle schoolers. To that end, I was perusing my collection of classic short stories.

As I searched my Kindle library, I noticed that I had highlighted large portions of a particular chapter in Booker T. Washington’s Character Building. The chapter is titled The Highest Education, and as I re-read the highlighted sections, I thought they were worth sharing here.

He starts by indicating how education is most commonly viewed:

We are very apt to get the idea that education means the memorizing of a number of dates, of being able to state when a certain battle took place, of being able to recall with accuracy this event or that event. We are likely to get the impression that education consists in being able to commit to memory a certain number of rules in grammar, a certain number of rules in arithmetic, and in being able to locate correctly on the earth’s surface this mountain or that river, and to name this lake and that gulf.

Now I do not mean to disparage the value of this kind of training, because among the things that education should do for us is to give us strong, orderly and well developed minds. I do not wish to have you get the idea that I undervalue or overlook the strengthening of the mind. If there is one person more than another who is to be pitied, it is the individual who is all heart and no head. You will see numbers of persons going through the world whose hearts are full of good things – running over with the wish to do something to make somebody better, or the desire to make somebody happier – but they have made the sad mistake of being absolutely without development of mind to go with this willingness of heart. We want development of mind and we want strengthening of the mind.

He continues by making clear why the above is important but incomplete:

But, after all, this kind of thing is not the end of education. What, then, do we mean by education? I would say that education is meant to give us an idea of truth. Whatever we get out of text books, whatever we get out of industry, whatever we get here and there from any sources, if we do not get the idea of truth at the end, we do not get education. I do not care how much you get out of history, or geography, or algebra, or literature, I do not care how much you have got out of all your text books:-unless you have got truth, you have failed in your purpose to be educated. Unless you get the idea of truth so pure that you cannot be false in anything, your education is a failure.

These were originally lectures which were later compiled into book form. Washinton ended this session by impressing upon his students that their aim should be finding the true and the beautiful -ultimately from God- in their educational pursuits:

Education is meant to make us appreciate the things that are beau-tiful in nature. A person is never educated until he is able to go into the swamps and woods and see something that is beautiful in the trees and shrubs there, is able to see something beautiful in the grass and flowers that surround him, is, in short, able to see something beautiful, elevat-ing and inspiring in everything that God has created. Not only should education enable us to see the beauty in these objects which God has put about us, but it is meant to influence us to bring beautiful objects about us. I hope that each one of you, after you graduate, will surround himself at home with what is beautiful, inspiring and elevating. I do not believe that any person is educated so long as he lives in a dirty, miserable shanty. I do not believe that any person is educated until he has learned to want to live in a clean room made attractive with pictures and books, and with such surroundings as are elevating.

In a word, I wish to say again, that education is meant to give us that culture, that refinement, that taste which will make us deal truthfully with our fellow men, and will make us see what is beautiful, elevating and inspiring in what God has created. I want you to bear in mind that your text books, with all their contents, are not an end, but a means to an end, a means to help us get the highest, the best, the purest and the most beautiful things out of life.

The entire chapter can be read here.

American history, children's books, nonfiction, tales from the local library

The Escape of Oney Judge

oney judge

The Escape of Oney Judge: Martha Washington’s slave finds freedom. Originally published in 2007. Hardcover, 32 pages.

The Escape of Oney Judge is a children’s book, which as the title indicates, recounts the story of the escape of the female slave of Martha Washington, wife of founding father and first president George Washington. Oney was the daughter of an enslaved seamstress named Betsy, and an English tailor indentured servant by the name of Andrew Judge.

There are more detailed and extensive literary accounts of Oney Judge’s story, but this is the book our 9-year-old picked up from the library on a recent trip. She has written two book reviews for this blog, but this is one she wasn’t quite sure how to review, so it falls to me.

It’s a good, balanced historical children’s book. Rather than engage in hyperbole and theatrics, it reveals the complicated relationships and emotional connections that developed between slaves -particularly house slaves- and their masters and mistresses.

In Oney’s case, the realization that when all was said and done, she was still property to be bought, sold, or gifted was the impetus for her dramatic escape and time of hiding. Despite the constant dread of being found and sent back into slavery, Oney Judge decided the rewards and hardships were well worth the risk.

This is a very good book for kids between 7-10. I chose that age range based not only on reading level, which is well in hand of a literate 10-year-old, but content.

This was the 2008 Bank Street Best Children’s book of the year.

Grade: A

Content advisory: Nothing to be alarmed about here, but it is a story about the intersection of slavery and our country’s most beloved founding father.