Here’s how to deal with the fact that a great orange buffoon is getting sworn into our highest office: go see Hidden Figures. Just go. Go see black women fighting misogyny and racism and Jim Crow while doing badass math. You need to see that right now.
*This review is mostly spoiler-free*
Take your children to go see it. Yes, even the young ones. Yes, even the teens. Look: I was in a theater full of little kids and teenagers, and they were sitting there beside unrelated adults up to the age of probably-watched-John-Glenn-orbit-live-on-teevee-with-their-own-kids, and apparently they were all riveted. I have never been to a movie that full of young folk who were so extraordinarily quiet. I’ve never been in an auditorium packed with nearly 400 people of all ages and had such an uninterrupted experience. The kids will do fine, and they need to see this.
Hollywood put out a movie about black women doing math, and it was spellbinding. I never thought they’d try. And since they tried, I never thought they’d do it with so much math and so few explosions. They had exploding rockets, but seemed almost embarrassed to mention them. There was a love story, but only because one of the real women this movie is based on actually got married in the middle of our race to space. It wasn’t shoved in just to hook our emotions, and you get the feeling they’d rather be doing more math. The movie stayed remarkably true to actual, historical events.
You’ll get to meet three of the most extraordinary women in our country’s scientific history: Katherine Goble (later Johnson), Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. You will get to see them be math nerds. You will get to see them have interests other than marriage and children. Hell, you’ll even get to see one of them fix a car. In a dress. Did you know women could fix cars while wearing dresses? Well, now you do.
You’ll get to see three black women star in their own story, as heroes, not as sidekicks and inspirations to white people. This wasn’t a story about white people learning how not to be racist gits (although several white people learned this, the movie isn’t about them). This wasn’t a story about three career women trying to also balance their roles as wives and mothers (although they were). This wasn’t a story about men learning how to deal with career women, women smarter than them, and figuring out how not to be sexist gits (although this all happens).
EX PRAETERITO PRAESENS PRVDENTER AGIT NI FUTUR- ACTIONE DETVRPET
History is a living thing.
I first saw it come alive in Roz Ashby’s and Ken Meier’s hands. On the first day of Western Civilization I, they handed out a quote and asked us to date it. It was a typical “kids these days” rant, full of complaints about their manners, their dress, and their stunning lack of respect toward their elders. Most of the class guessed it had been written in the 1950s or 60s. Professor Meier revealed, with a delightfully sardonic smile, that we were all wrong. The rant had been delivered by Socrates more than two thousand years ago.
I still have the handout they gave us that day: “The Value of History” by Robin Winks. I’d signed on as a history major because I love the past. I hadn’t, until then, thought of it as something of urgent importance. But the professors’ prank, followed by their impassioned lecture on the vitality and relevance of history and Winks’ case for its value, changed my perception entirely.
History wasn’t just curiosity. It wasn’t simply tradition and heritage, important to preserve for its own sake. It was also essential in order to understand the present, and to navigate the future.
“From the past the man of the present acts prudently so as not to imperil the future,” Titian inscribed on his famous painting. We should chisel that saying into every monument. Those who don’t take the past seriously, who treat history as a trivial handful of facts, interesting stories, and events that have no bearing on today, won’t have the wisdom to create a better future.
“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” George Santayana wrote in The Life of Reason. Too many of us refuse to listen to that warning. How many times have we weathered a crisis only to discover that we’re repeating prior mistakes? Individuals, organizations, entire nations have rushed themselves over cliffs that others fell from before, when a safe way down had already been discovered.
It’s true that things change, and no situation is exactly the same as another. Some people seem to believe those cosmetic differences mean there’s nothing to learn. And so, mistakes get repeated. Safeguards get torn down because no one seems to remember why they were put in place to begin with. Blinded by the present, looking toward the future, we don’t see what history is trying to show us. We strip away the protections that people made wise by the events of their own day put in place in order to protect the generations to come. We’re seeing the effects of that now, in a myriad of ways: our failed imperial experiment in Iraq, the erosion of our Constitutional rights, the crisis in our banking industry brought on by the repeal of regulations enacted to prevent another Great Depression, the rise of a despot and the fall of a democracy. That was another age, those who disregard history say. Things are different now. We are different. And they plunge in, believing they’re blazing new trails when they’re traveling down well-worn roads.
The past is never truly past. “Great events have incalculable consequences,” Victor Hugo said in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Some of those consequences echo down through ages. You can’t understand what’s happening now if you don’t understand what happened then. The effects are still being felt. What we do now will impact generations to come. What our ancestors did centuries ago set the conditions for our time.
“This black page in history is not colourfast / will stain the next,” Epica warns in their song “Feint.” We can’t prevent that stain, but history can give us advice on how we might limit its spread.
Some things, perhaps, we’d rather forget. But as Chaim Weizman knew, “you cannot deny your history and begin afresh.” History comes with us, whether we will it or not. Denying it gets us nowhere. Embracing history, knowing it, allows us to accommodate its effects.
History is of great practical value, then. But that’s not the whole of its worth. It offers perspective and proportion. Knowing what others survived gives us hope for a future in dark times. It can put current events in context, just like your old dad giving you the yarn about having to walk to school barefoot in the snow uphill both ways as a kid. I often take comfort from that when the world seems like it’s coming apart at the seams. It has frayed, often torn, before. Not all of us make it. Things get worse before they get better. But we always manage to patch it back up somehow. Civilization has been through hell a thousand thousand times. As long as we avoid following the same paths that led other societies to grimmer outcomes, we’ll probably do just fine. I tell myself that a lot these days, and I have plenty of history to prove it. From history comes hope. Sometimes.
And sometimes, there’s delight in seeing ancient people behaving the same way we do. We tend to get only the broad brushstrokes of history in school. We don’t get the enchanting, everyday bits, the ones that tell us people are people everywhere. Read Socrates griping about the durned kids in ancient Athens, or Abu Nawais looking for his next drink, and you realize that they were people like us. There were fart jokes in the cradle of civilization and risque graffitti in Pompeii. The more you learn of history, the more you realize that the things we consider larger than life arose not from some golden age of supermen, but from mostly ordinary people doing their best to deal with times that were no more or less challenging than now. The best days are indeed behind us – but they are also now, and they are ahead. How much easier it is when we can pick the brains of our ancestors, pluck up their best ideas, and avoid their worst mistakes. It’s practically cheating!
“He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth,” Goethe once said. When we neglect our history, we risk ourselves. History gives us a chance to live securely. When we can draw on thousands of years of knowledge and experience, we’re no longer condemned.
Our teachers said the Indians (my school hadn’t caught up to terms like Native American or indigenous people yet) saved the Pilgrims that winter by feeding them. Well, if you consider theft to be a form of giving, then yes, I suppose the Wampanoag indirectly fed the Pilgrims. Truth is, they were hanging back through the winter, watching the white folks who’d moved into one of their abandoned villages. They’d already been hard hit by Europeans, who just a few years before had been busily enslaving them and giving them diseases that wiped out alarming numbers of them. They knew that white folks could be dangerous. But this batch had women and children with them, which made the Wampanoag think they were peaceful. Continue reading “The Real Story of Thanksgiving”→
A friend of mine made a very good point. Thanks, Calvin Hipps!
Dan White murdered San Francisco mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk on November 27, 1978. Charged with two counts of first degree murder, he was eventually convicted on two counts of “voluntary manslaughter,” the lightest possible sentence given the evidence. It was later shown that the jury gave him that sentence because A) White had been a SF police officer, and thus jurors presumed that he was acting against evil-doers, and B) because Supervisor Milk was an openly gay man.
When the verdict was handed down on the afternoon of May 21, 1979, the gay community went ballistic. San Francisco’s gay community had long been a target of SFPD’s bigotry, and many saw this verdict as police literally getting away with murdering community members. What originally started as an angry but peaceful protest quickly changed when the police tried to stop the demonstration. Police were attacked, and damage was done to SF government buildings. After several hours, the rioting subsided.
Then the police staged a massive round of retaliatory raids in the Castro District. Cops in riot gear swarmed into gay bars and assaulted patrons, without even a pretext of claiming the mantle of law.
Welcome back to another installment of black history you may have never learned! Today, we’re going to meet some enterprising entrepreneurs, discover that some of our most important STEM breakthroughs have been due to people of color, and admire black artistry.
Black History Month is still filling my Facebook feed with extraordinary people and events. Today, we’ll focus on some social justice aspects, including many people who fought and are fighting for justice.
If you went by my history books in school, there was a mere handful of interesting black people in history. I can count the women we learned about on the fingers of one hand – and that’s even if I’ve had a mishap with a rock hammer and had to bandage a couple. Lessee… there was of course Harriet Tubman*, and definitely Rosa Parks, and Sojourner Truth got mentioned, and… yep, we’re done.