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I AM BILL RICHMOND

Mother Elizabeth Seton was America’s first saint, known for her tireless help to the poor women of America in the early 19th century. James Smithson was likely the bastard son of a British Duke who had never been to America yet bequeathed an enormous sum to fund an institution of knowledge there. Bill Richmond was born a slave and went on to live the life of a leading sports figure in 19th century England. What could they possibly have in common?

Bill Richmond was born a slave on Staten Island and was likely owned by the Reverend Richard Charlton, who happened to be the grandfather of Elizabeth Seton. He was taken to England by the Second Duke of Northumberland, who was a British General in the early part of the Revolutionary War. In England he likely met a young man his exact age, who was likely the bastard son of the First Duke of Northumberland, that young man being James Smithson. The ties between these three great world citizens has never been recorded.. I fictionalized them in my novel I AM BILL RICHMOND.

Me, a Racist?

“I’m not on any team…not after what I’ve seen. All that backslapping makes me want to scream.” Graham Parker

Anyone who knows me knows that I am obsessed by race in America and specifically the racial injustice built into our founding and founding documents. My website idiscoveredamerica.com is a compendium of articles about basically my two obsessions…race and Graham Parker (which surprisingly or at least on the surface have little to do with each other). And of course there is my novel which is basically about race in America even though most of it takes place in England. Now I know that anyone who spends any time honestly discussing race invariably gets into hot water, including the risk of being considered racist. So it is interesting that I was in a political discussion on Facebook where I declined to talk about race and felt that I was accused of being racist because of it.
Now I know there are usually two sides to every story and I will only tell mine. I also admit up front that I am not gentle on Facebook, leaning more towards honesty than civility.
The history is relevant. I wake up every day in a panic due to the person who holds the office of POTUS. Although I have not worked on a campaign for anybody in over 40 years, I decided that I would find a candidate for Congress who reflects my centrist democratic views and I would volunteer. While most of my heated political discussions are with the Trumpists and the Bernieites, that was irrelevant, since in my highly Republican district there were three democratic candidates who were centrist democrats. I picked the one who I thought was truly a superstar and had the best chance to win, as she had the backing of many centrist democrats; so I supported her.
Perhaps in response to the support my candidate received by “the party bosses”, one of the other candidates decided to go negative, pointing out in a mailing that my candidate either did not live in the district or had just moved there; and that she had taken money from some of the attorneys representing Toys ‘R Us in the bankruptcy to the detriment of many loyal workers. I defended these negative attacks as part of the game, but others on a relevant political site did not take so kindly to the negativity and expressed their concerns. Since the candidate who went negative is black, some posters thought that the criticism went over the top and had a racial tinge. It was pointed out that the barrage of criticism was really a form of microaggression, a form of racism. I didn’t see it, but so be it, since by definition a microaggression is often something felt by a person in the same group and blind to the person doing it or others not in that group. The consensus of the group was to use it as a teaching moment.
Then came the next mailing. It continued with the negativity but also did something I found so strange that I could not leave it alone. Under the section of who was supporting my candidate were the words…”Goldman Sachs Bankers”. Clearly this was meant to be negative and I could not help but try to figure out why that term was used. As a Jewish person, I am sensitive to a broad array of anti Semitism which includes the time honored suggestion that Jewish Bankers are most responsible for ruining the world. I went to the cited source sheet to see where this might have come from and although employees of Goldman Sachs were listed as donors to my candidate, so were many others(note that the word “bankers” was not referenced). Weirdly, similar entities donated to the candidate who raised the “Goldman Sachs Bankers” issue. So when the discussion continued about this mailer, I suggested that such a reference was
perhaps anti Semitic or at least a microagression against me. It was suggested by one poster that I “tread lightly”. (To that poster and others I suggest you google “David Duke Goldman Sachs). I long for an explanation of why that term was in a mailer, an explanation I have yet to receive.
So flash forward a few days. In the initial discussion about microagression it was unclear to some on the board what they or anyone had done wrong. In their mind they were just castigating a candidate for going negative, not walking into a racial minefield. So someone in the group provided some websites describing microaggression, which I found interesting. Although the post seemed to be about the term “microaggression” all the posts were about race. It was well received. A day later, I wanted to interject that microaggression was not just about race, it could be about any group that one is a member of (my understanding is that the term first was used by women in college, but on this I may be wrong). Here I will admit to an inartful post that was meant to remind folks that in the last discussion on the subject I interjected the concept of anti Semitism as a microaggression, being that it was the candidate’s OWN LITERATURE that offended me, not the posting of a member of the group.
Well I got accused of a lot of things. It was “problematic” that I changed the subject. (Did I?). I was told that I should not have interjected my gripe about anti Semitism in a discussion that was about race. I always want to talk about race but I thought it was a discussion about microaggression. Evidently I was wrong. I will say that the original post said something about trying to understand the feelings of someone who felt slighted. I did understand their feelings but I doubt they gave mine a second thought. The problem of course is that it is a microagression to not talk about race when others want to talk about race, even if your point is relevant to the subject. My suggestion would be to not have any discussion on Facebook unless you are willing to be interrupted by my irrelevant dribble.
I didn’t stay around long enough to see how it worked out. I left the discussion and blocked the site since the moderator had already been called in and I cant imagine how I would have been seen in any but a negative light. I will again note that I think my candidate is a superstar who has a great chance to flip the seat in November. But there is a serious racial issue out there when the DCCC only backs one of 43 black women candidates running for congress. They cant all be running against superstars. I suggest that it is a lot easier for the powers that be to placate the microaggrieved on Facebook, than to actually give them a seat at the table. So yes I think I do understand the anger and the hostility even though nobody likes it when it is directed towards them.
Unlike some on the site, had I been provided with an explanation, even a bad one, I would have voted for that candidate in the general election had she won the primary(she didn’t, my candidate did). I just think that when someone suggests that others are racist they should expect push back just as when someone hints at anti Semitism, perhaps naively, they should be called out. Politics is not an amateur hour….it is blood sport. Even on Facebook…perhaps especially on Facebook.

Prologue- I AM BILL RICHMOND

Day after Day, Year after Year, Century after Century,

Bondage without rest, Toil without reward.

These are the Children of Misery, the Afflicted, the Hopeless, the Oppressed.

 

Exodus, the Movie

 

 

 

 

Knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.

 

Attributed to Frederick Douglass

 

 

 

 

There’s a lot of versions of the honest truth….

 

Graham Parker

 

 

 

 

Prologue

Fire at the Smithsonian, January 25, 1865

 

“Papa, nooooo.” Anna cried out to her father, Joseph Henry, America’s greatest scientist. She had followed him to the upstairs room afraid for what he was about to do.

“Oh, Anna. I’m glad you’re here.” Joseph Henry replied calmly. “Someone should be here to witness.”

“There must be a better way to make your point. You told me that Jeff Davis himself wishes it all were different and that we could just live in peace.”

“I have done little to help my country and now it is late. Soon the war will be over and all will be lost. This is the only useful thing left for me to do.”

Joseph Henry was the caretaker of the Castle in Washington, which housed the entire Smithsonian Institution. He lived with his family in the downstairs apartment. He toured the entire structure daily obsessed with his fear that flaws in the construction of the building could lead to massive fire. He was convinced that the apartment would be safe from the conflagration that was soon to begin, soon to begin at his own hand.

A few months before, Confederate troops gathered in Alexandria for what was thought to be an assault on Washington. Joseph Henry climbed the extra staircase up to the top of the tallest tower of the Castle in an ill-fated attempt to establish a way to signal to his friend, Jefferson Davis, to help the Confederate cause. Joseph Henry was caught but spared due to the intervention of President Lincoln. Today he had a different mission. Joseph Henry hated living in the Castle. Against his strong objection, this room on the upper floor was recently opened to the public as an art museum, soon to be showing the brilliant portraits of Indian chiefs painted by John Mix Stanley. “They shall traipse through my house no more,” Joseph Henry said to Anna. Henry hated the art museum, hated John Mix Stanley, hated people, and hated much of what was passing for knowledge in America. “This will be a place for science as God intended.”

Joseph Henry found the book of poems written by Phillis Wheatley, which she brought to England in her unsuccessful attempt to sell her work. It was the only known copy still existing, and had been given to the Smithsonian by a Duchess of Northumberland. He went to the crates that contained many of the unpublished works of James Smithson, works that only he, as their caretaker, knew existed. He pulled out the only known copies of Smithson’s The Equality of the Races, and The Evils of Slavery, and a book that Smithson wrote with a former slave called The Worthy Life and Times of Bill Richmond. He threw them in the pile of books and papers that he was building in the center of the room.  “They told me this was to be a place of knowledge, not nonsense,” Joseph Henry muttered. “Teach slaves how to read and this is what happens. Look what America has come to. No one will know of this nonsense,” he said to Anna.

He removed the paintings of Indian chiefs that had already been hung on the walls and threw them in the pile. “They should burn just fine,” he said. “A fitting end for the savages.”

“Please, papa, not the paintings,” Anna implored. Joseph Henry was not listening.

James Smithson had been a scientist of little note until he bequeathed his fortune to America to establish a place “for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.” A debate as to what that meant raged in Washington from the day the money arrived in America in 1838. In 1846, a young architect from New York, James Renwick, Jr., whose brilliant father was a friend of Joseph Henry, was brought to Washington to build a Norman castle in honor of the Northumberlands of England, of whom Smithson was thought to be a bastard son. Renwick’s vision was that the building would have many uses; laboratories for scientists, galleries for the arts, and lecture rooms for the curious. Those opposed to slavery also had another idea, that the Institution would serve their purposes by educating the nation on the evils of slavery. By the time Joseph Henry was appointed as the first Secretary of the Institution, the building was near completion. Joseph Henry immediately requested that it be torn down, to be replaced by a practical building of laboratories. He almost had his way but was thwarted by the Renwicks, who Henry grew to hate as well. Over the objection of Joseph Henry, Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists spoke at the Smithsonian Institution and helped turn much of the nation against slavery, even as that brought the nation to certain war.

“Anna, see here how poorly this building was constructed. The other day the workman brought this stove to fight the chill and instead of venting it out the flue, they vented it into the attic. It would have started a fire then if I had not intervened. How I should have just let that happen. That is what you must tell your sister to put in her silly diary. The workers started the fire. A sad day for Washington indeed.”

“Oh, father, you mustn’t!” Anna pleaded to a stoic Joseph Henry.

“Savages,” he said, as he gathered embers from the stove and lit the waiting pile.

 

 

Coffee Filters

Coffee Filters

By Jerry Leibowitz

OK where did she put those coffee filters? I know I just bought a bag of 200 Mellita coffee filters last week. That should last us for months but they seem to be gone. She must’ve known that I would wake up and she would have gone to work and I would want to make a pot of coffee so I could start my writing. I can’t write without first having a cup of Joe. So why would she move the coffee filters?

I doubt it could be revenge for my being gone for a few days. She doesn’t have a vengeful bone in her body. Well at least not when it comes to small things and this is pretty small. But what was she thinking? I should just call her but she is probably in a meeting and imagine being called out of a meeting to take your husband’s call and he wants to know where you put the coffee filters. Maybe it would look bad for her to leave such an important meeting. “Is everything OK”, she would be asked and what would she say in response? Yea everyone at work would have a big laugh at my expense.

No they must be here somewhere. Knowing Jen she was probably just cleaning up and did not like where we kept them. But we did keep them there for years behind the glass dishes. Why change all of the sudden? Shouldn’t I have gotten some notice? Isn’t this a joint decision?  They must be here. Maybe I should just pull out every drawer until I find them and just leave it that way until she gets home and then say “you shouldn’t have moved the coffee filters without telling me.” Then she would apologize. Well maybe not. Maybe she would say that I just should have called her and she would tell me where she moved them. No they must be here somewhere. But where?

I have always considered the kitchen to be her domain so if she didn’t like where they were she could have just told me, “I’m moving the coffee filters.” I would have told her that I like them where they are so close to the coffee maker but if that’s what she wanted that was OK with me. I’m a pretty accommodating guy in that way. I have also learned to be careful about what I say to her about how she cleans up the kitchen. Nothing good could come from me saying…”I don’t like where you put the coffee filters.” I imagine the response would be something like “OK you can clean the kitchen from now on. It’s gotta be twice a day and spotless just like I do it. Then you can put the filters wherever you want.” No that would not serve me well at all.

Maybe she threw them away by accident. It is true that accidents can happen and maybe she had leftovers in her left hand and the coffee filters in her right hand and tossed the wrong thing out. Such a scatter brain sometimes. “Oh shit,” she would have said even though she very rarely curses. She doesn’t like to waste money, who does? So maybe she cursed under her breath. She would have meant to tell me that I had to go to the store and get new coffee filters which would not have made me happy but you know accidents happen. I would have been OK with that. But last night she didn’t say anything, although she did seem glad to see me, what with her not having seen me for a few days. She didn’t seem to be hiding anything on purpose. Looking back to last night I think I would have been able to tell if she had that “just wait till he tries making coffee tomorrow morning,” look. But why would she be angry with me? I was only gone for a few days and it was to go to a writing workshop, which was pretty important. She would have had to be pretty angry to move the coffee filters over that and that is very unlike her. No they must be here somewhere. I’m going to call her.

OK she’s not answering. I mean its one thing to move the coffee filters and its another to be all secretive about it. I really don’t know what game she is playing but we’ll get to the bottom of this when she gets home. I mean if she’s angry about something we should talk about it. If she threw them away, well I can forgive that but at least she should have left me a note or something. That’s it! Maybe there’s a note. But where would she put it. It’s not on the dining room table where she sometimes leaves her notes or her shopping list. There’s not even a shopping list because if there was one I would look to see if coffee filters was on it and then I would know that something happened to the coffee filters and that I had to buy more. But no note…anywhere. What cruel game is she playing? No they must be here somewhere.

Oh here they are. Yea I forgot I was looking for that lemon squeezer on Friday and it was behind the filters. I guess I left them out. Here they are right in front of my nose. She must have left them there all weekend against her better judgment just so I could find them. She is so sweet that way. My bad. It goes to show that I shouldn’t try to do anything important like make coffee until I’ve had that first cup of coffee.

Railroad Spikes

 

Railroad Spikes

A New Song By Graham Parker and the Rumour

As the greatest artist of our times turns 65 and heads into his later wonder years he offers us a new take on his story, offering himself and his fellow rockers as American heroes. All by examining the lowly railroad spike, just one unnoticed brick in the wall of modern civilization.

The artist songwriter/performer Graham Parker, who is but a little wisp of a thing, remembers himself as a powerful young man hammering out railroad spikes in an imaginary foundry. When GP was young and Squeezing Out his Sparks as a first tier rock star, GP was that man, the Village Blacksmith of Longfellow fame:

And the children coming home from school

They love to see the flaming forge,

And hear the bellows roar,

And watch the burning sparks that fly

Like chaff from a threshing-floor

Every rock band was building something, creating a little part of a giant whole. As Parker here explains about his Railroad Spikes or his favorite bands, “They weren’t perfect, nice or sleek, but just like snowflakes all unique.” We, the children, would come and listen and be mesmerized by the achievement of our favorite bands. Those railroad spikes kept the trains rolling just as the rockers, in typical Parker double meaning, “laid those tracks all over the land, North and South to the Rio Grande”, a great American line in  opposition to that of Dylan’s Idiot Wind which found only nonsense from “The Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol”. Rock and Roll was the spiritual railroad, a connection in an age where there seemed to be no connections. It was the road where the strong young GP once found that “some kind of truth emerges.” The sound of the railroad is the sound of Rock and Roll and Parker and his mates helped lay the tracks that took us where we needed to go.

As with all with all things pure, the forces of greed got hold and took it and turned it into something else. The Railroad Spikes got melted down “for boats and planes and artillery rounds”, toys of the rich and powerful. But to Parker, the ideas didn’t die when they were transformed, they emerged perhaps victorious, “Some of that metal made bullets for sure, Railroad Spikes might have won the war.” Now what war is he talking about? The Railroads were a 19th century creation but he is not talking about any 19th century war. The only war he could be referring to is our war; the one which we fight every day led by artists like Chairman Parker. It is the war for truth justice and a new American way. Great art was and remains our best weapon in that fight.

In the end all things change. The automobile replaces the railroad as certain as Rock and Roll itself dies, or is transformed (“or does it just smell bad”?). But the song itself defies that reality. It is a great little ditty that rolls along the tracks. As long as Bob Andrews and his like can play piano like that and there are still children to listen to it in awe, there is still hope. It is hope that just might win this war. And as Homer Simpson might say as in the fitting coda of the song, can I get a …”Woo Hoo”?

This is my Creed

This is my Creed

 Do You ever wonder just what God requires? You think he’s just an errand boy to satisy your wandering desires?

Bob Dylan

 

Yes I am critical of the lives of those Founders of America who owned slaves or let the institution of slavery survive for so long in the new country. Yes I think it a travesty that we downplay this critical thread of our history and ignore our national participation in a holocaust. You might think this puts me in the group of historians who take that information and draw political solutions to today’s problems from that position, but that would not be true. I do feel a kinship to those who feel that they are still suffering from those lies and want to address them, but not with those who feel that all solutions to today’s problems stem from hypocrisies of the past. As much as America’s past is filled with horrible truths, many of which have been ignored or downplayed, it has remained a nation of great opportunity thanks in part to these same Founders. I cannot help but give some credence to the idea that the rights of individuals which was clumsily and hypocritically established in the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution and the Constitution is continually leading us towards a more perfect union. I have faith in that process. In fact, it is my faith in that process that requires me to examine and expose the brutal truth of our founding and its persistence in our institutions. I consider this my contribution to the American Experience.

I am an American naïve. I begin with the unprovable notion that God has put me in this place and given me certain gifts for a reason which is beyond my understanding. Deep in my soul I feel an obligation to fulfil my gifts not as a benefit to the State or to myself, neither of which gave the gifts to me, but to the maker who did. The saddest thing then is my knowledge then that there are perhaps billions of people on earth who cannot fulfill their lives due to poverty, sickness, lack of education, oppression or self-delusion. These then are the enemies of human existence. Anything done to relieve these barriers is God’s work.

As I see it, we are each compelled to live a double life. We must use our gifts as best we can to succeed in the world as it exists. Born artists must paint, born scientists must explore and explain our physical world, born historians and journalists must explore and explain the past and present, and born entrepreneurs must improve the means of distribution. Each person doing what they have been called upon to do best  maximizes the most valuable resource on earth, human energy. Yet, in a world where so many cannot succeed in fulfilling their lives, we are each equally called upon to a second life; to undertake some actions to help remove the barriers which prevent others from doing the same. Whether we are fulfilling our own destiny or the destiny of others is of no moment to the world; in either case human energy is maximized. The thought that society is best off when we all only satisfy our own desires is both delusional and dangerous. Extreme conservatives and religious zealots share a philosophy that invariably leads to more oppression, less education and impenetrable barriers. Seriously…do you really believe that is what God wants, to stifle all that human energy? As I am known to say about many things…it just makes no sense.

Which brings me back to politics. I tend to be left of center not because I think that the government can or should solve America’s problems. Quite the opposite. I think that providing food and health care to everyone, especially children, helps fulfil their ability to achieve their human potential and solve their own life’s problems. I believe that the removal of oppressive barriers in the workplace or the voting booth also is vital in helping individuals to  increase their human potential. And yes, I believe that accurately telling the stories of history reduces self-delusion and is part of the process that will also increase society’s human potential. I do not deny a point of many who disagree; that whenever government gives someone something, it may be stifling the very inspiration which leads to individual success and to the maximizing of human energy. Nor do I disagree that when the government seeks to fix a problem, it often does so in a meddlesome way that serves to oppress rather than inspire. I am also in basic agreement with the conservative notion that in the ultimate best society everyone will work hard and the poor will pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  The problem is that the barriers are everywhere and are often impenetrable without some kind of help. It will always require some balance to help those who need help getting through without stifling them or the rest of us. That is what politics is for and again, I have great faith in the process. That is the process set up by our Founders who did a pretty good job giving us tools to figure out the way out of whatever current mess we find ourselves in. Despite their unforgiveable frailties, our Founders have given us a great gift and we owe it to our maker and to ourselves to use our other gifts to help them and us fulfil the noblest ideas of creation.