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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.