When I first was asked to give a talk at MIT, I knew that I wanted my father to be there. My hosts graciously acceded to that request and both of us were excited for the joint visit. But Pops got sick last weekend and wasn't able to make it. That was depressing. Here are some thoughts on why.
Again, George L Ruffin on Frederick Douglass:
His range of reading has been wide and extensive. He has been a hard student. In every sense of the word, he is a self-made man. By dint of hard study he has educated himself, and to-day it may be said he has a well-trained intellect. He has surmounted the disadvantage of not having a university education, by application and well-directed effort.
He seems to have realized the fact, that to one who is anxious to become educated and is really in earnest, it is not positively necessary to go to college, and that information may be had outside of college walks; books may be obtained and read elsewhere. They are not chained to desks in college libraries, as they were in early times at Oxford.
Professors' lectures may be bought already printed, learned doctors may be listened to in the lyceum, and the printing-press has made it easy and cheap to get information on every subject and topic that is discussed and taught in the university. Douglass never made the mistake (a common one) of considering that his education was finished. He has continued to study, he studies now, and is a growing man, and at this present moment he is a stronger man intellectually than ever before.
It should be understood that Ruffin, at the time of this writing, was an exemplary product of the Academy. He was the first African-American to graduate from Harvard Law and the first African-American judge in the country. So he was not a foe of university education. But he didn't believe that those who found that education out of reach should then just throw up their hands.
Ruffin was writing at a time when very few Americans, much less African-Americans, would have the luxury of college attendance. More to the point he was writing at a time when the very notion of educating African-Americans was under attack. Consider his thoughts on the vindicating intellectual life of Douglass:
The life and work of Douglass has been a complete vindication of the colored people in this respect. It has refuted and overthrown the position taken by some writers, that colored people were deficient in mental qualifications and were incapable of attaining high intellectual position. We may reasonably expect to hear no more of this now, the argument is exploded. Douglass has settled the fact the right way, and it is something to settle a fact.
This is a man obviously possessed by that utterly irrational optimism that has historically afflicted black people beholding the wonder, if unfulfilled, of the American Dream. We shall not be unkind and hold the contagion against Ruffin. Many of us, nationalist inoculations be damned, have of late found ourselves brought low by that same peculiar malaise.
In Ruffin's time, the attacks on black intellect were not (as they are today) matters relegated to letters, journals and tomes. They were matters enforced by white terrorists--the Klan, the White Liners, the Red Shirts etc. Phrenologists asserted the limited potential of the African brain. The White Leagues made those claims into prophecy. So when white terrorists picked their targets, instruments of black intellectual improvement were always high on the list--black schools and black churches were torched, Teachers (many of them white) who'd traveled South to educate the newly emancipated were beaten, lynched and publicly whipped.
I don't say this simply as a matter of moral castigation. The terrorists are the 19th century could be no other way. Their parents had perpetrated the same war, as a matter of law by banning the education of enslaved black people. The essence of white supremacy meant lawfully keeping black people ignorant, and then justifying that ignorance as the work of God, and later the work of Darwin. Thus in the 19th century, the reaction to black education was twofold. In the academy it was laughed at by men employing all the tools of "science" to justify their mockery. Outside the academy it gave us by the greatest instance of home-grown terror in American history.
Against such the horde, people like Ruffin wielded education like an axe. If that education could not always be garnered in white universities, it would have to be garnered by black people themselves through "application and well-directed effort." We would have to be "hard students."
The black tradition is riddled with examples of such people--some of them prominent, some of them tragic. If you talk to old black Southerners it won't take long before someone reflects on black person murdered, or who barely escaped murder, for the crime of knowing too much. The accusation of being "uppity" was always rooted in the idea of black people possessing a knowledge that outstripped their God-assigned place. That outstripping was never too far removed from education--formal or otherwise. When right-wing pundits calls Princeton graduate Michelle Obama "uppity" they are participating in old and unfortunate tradition.
The response to that tradition was manifold, but in my life, it was the example of Malcolm X. By the time I was coming up Malcolm's calls for self-defense, while riveting, had less personal relevance for me. It wasn't like the Klan was going to come marching up North Avenue. But the example of being relatively bright, being derailed by a hostile system, and having to remake yourself in jail really stood out as a light in the dark.
I have no idea if Malcolm actually copied every word in the dictionary. But the example became a kind of myth to many of us. Knowledge (and especially history) was seen as a mystical force, stolen from us by white people and now wielded against us.
My Dad would joke about how brothers would come into his bookstore on Pennsylvania Avenue and ask if he was carrying a certain book. If he wasn't the reply was often, "The white man don't want you to see that book, brother!" That's funny, but it basically outlines our world view at the time. The white man wanted us stupid. There was a century worth of evidence to demonstrate as much.
The results of this approach are varying. The self-educated student can easily slip into a kind of paranoia, in which the only facts that exist are the ones you like. If white people would persecute you for reading a book, what else might they do? Would they give you HIV? Would they conceal the fact that Cleopatra was black? And was it even white people? Wasn't it really the Jews? And did homosexuality ever exist in Africa to begin with?
You see where this goes. The distrust breeds unevidenced claims, and then descends into the very bigotry it claimed to combat. You can become conspiratorial, racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, sexist etc. Or, less obviously, you can end up accepting the frame of the very people you're debating without realizing it. That was how I went down--searching through the text to try to refute Saul Bellow. But Ralph Wiley (Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus) set me free. Still, it took me years to get the basic humanistic power in that statement.
But here is what I know: This week, among many other wonderful thing, I stood in the office of Sam Bowring and held aloft the oldest rock in recorded history. I got there by being a hard student--with all the drawbacks, trap-doors, bad grammar, and B'More accent. And I was raised by hard students, starting with my father.
None of this is what we expected. We thought we were rebelling against the academy, indeed building one of our own. None of us ever expected any kind of recognition. I didn't leave college thinking it would be the ticket to lecturing at colleges. We didn't denigrate education (all my brothers and sisters are college graduates.) But we didn't feel like its highest offices were really open to us. And yet here we are.
Perhaps from that vantage point, you may begin to understand my sympathy for Ruffin's affliction and my peculiar perspective on all the events of the week.
The war is so very long.
*Pictured above: Afroborinqueno (hope I got that right) and legendary hard student, Arturo Schomburg.
Memorials to the Lost Cause have always meant something sinister for the descendants of enslaved people.
For most of my life I didn’t know Confederate statues could come down.
Throughout my childhood, those equestrian statues of victory, obelisks, and granite figures of soldiers were as immovable and immutable as the hills and the lakes. Other symbols of the South as it was before 1865 were also part of the fabric of reality. Old battle flags were inevitabilities, waving in the wind. Plantations might as well have been wonders of the world, and old battlefields holy places. Part of living in the South, just as much as eating and breathing were, was partaking in a perpetual reenactment.
In my hometown of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, we have our own little shrine to the Confederacy. The Nash County Confederate Monument is a column with one soldier standing atop its apex, surrounded by four shorter empty columns.The base is engraved with two rifles crossed.
“Medicare for all” is a popular idea, but for Americans, transitioning to such a system would be difficult, to say the least.
French women supposedly don’t get fat, and in the minds of many Americans, they also don’t get stuck with très gros medical bills. There’s long been a dream among some American progressives to truly live as the “Europeans1” do and have single-payer health care.
Republicans’ failure—so far—to repeal and replace Obamacare has breathed new life into the single-payer dream. In June, the majority of Americans told Pew that the government has the responsibility to ensure health coverage for everyone, and 33 percent say this should take the form of a single government program. The majority of Democrats, in that poll, supported single payer. A June poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation even found that a slim majority of all Americans favor single payer.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
Despite warnings, Trump gazed directly at the eclipse.
During the solar eclipse today, President Donald Trump stepped onto the White House balcony with his wife and his son Barron, and he looked up at the sun.
According to White House reporters, an aide shouted a warning that he should not look at the sun. Nevertheless, he persisted.
There were parts of the United States, along path of totality, that allowed people to look directly at the eclipse. But Washington, D.C., was not among them.
How much damage can a person do by staring at the sun for a few seconds?
As many children are warned, there is indeed no “safe” amount of time to stare directly at the sun. Note that no ophthalmologists recommend any amount of glancing or squinting at the eclipse. Against the energy of the sun, human eyelids are like a dam built of tissue paper.
“Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.”
Ever since it was first published in 1982, readers—including this one—have thrilled to “Total Eclipse,” Annie Dillard’s masterpiece of literary nonfiction, which describes her personal experience of a solar eclipse in Washington State. It first appeared in Dillard’s landmark collection, Teaching a Stone to Talk, and was recently republished in The Abundance, a new anthology of her work. The Atlantic is pleased to offer the essay in full, here, until the day after the ‘Great American Eclipse’ on August 21.
It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass. It had been like the death of someone, irrational, that sliding down the mountain pass and into the region of dread. It was like slipping into fever, or falling down that hole in sleep from which you wake yourself whimpering. We had crossed the mountains that day, and now we were in a strange place—a hotel in central Washington, in a town near Yakima. The eclipse we had traveled here to see would occur early in the next morning.
A tour of the solar eclipse’s path reveals a nation that fought to maintain a different sort of totality.
Totality is everything, say those who chase solar eclipses. When the moon fully obscures the sun and casts its shadow on Earth, the result is like nothing you’ve seen before—not even a partial eclipse. A merely partial eclipse does not flip day to night, because the sun is bright enough to light our fields of vision with only a tiny fraction of its power. But when the sun and moon align just so, a little piece of Earth goes dark in the middle of the day. In this path of totality, night comes suddenly and one can see the shape of the moon as a circle darker than black, marked by the faint backlight of the sun’s corona. Astronomers and eclipse chasers chart carefully to be sure that they can watch from exactly the right place at the right time. They know that you cannot compromise with the sun. For a dark sky, the sun must be banished altogether.
The past week brought violent conflict over symbols and values held sacred—and an act of sacrilege.
Taboo and sacredness are among the most important words needed to understand Charlottesville and its aftermath. Taboo refers to things that are forbidden for religious or supernatural reasons. All traditional societies have such prohibitions—things you must not do, touch, or eat, not because they are bad for you directly, but because doing so is an abomination, which may bring divine retribution. But every society also makes some things sacred, rallying around a few deeply revered values, people, or places, which bind all members together and make them willing to sacrifice for the common good. The past week brought violent conflict over symbols and values held sacred—and saw President Trump commit an act of sacrilege by violating one of our society’s strongest taboos.
The cartoonist defended the president in a podcast debate with Sam Harris. The portrait he painted of Trump supporters was not flattering.
Sam Harris, the atheist philosopher and neuroscientist, has recently been using his popular Waking Up podcast to discuss Donald Trump, whom he abhors, with an ideologically diverse series of guests, all of whom believe that the president is a vile huckster.
This began to wear on some of his listeners. Wasn’t Harris always warning against echo chambers? Didn’t he believe in rigorous debate with a position’s strongest proponents? At their urging, he extended an invitation to a person that many of those listeners regard as President Trump’s most formidable defender: Scott Adams, the creator of the cartoon Dilbert, who believes that Trump is “a master persuader.”
Their conversation was posted online late last month. It is one of the most peculiar debates about a president I have ever encountered. And it left me marveling that parts of Trump’s base think well of Adams when his views imply such negative things about them.
Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Beyond the Wall,” the sixth episode of the seventh season.
Every week for the seventh season of Game of Thrones, three Atlantic staffers will discuss new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners were made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments.