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Rosa Parks, 1968 Photo by Unseen Histories on Unsplash

Governor Ron DeSantis’s website includes a page devoted to his proposed Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (W.O.K.E.) Act. Florida’s tax dollars are paying for courses that make kids hate America, he says. Critical race theory has invaded our elementary schools, taking away our kids’ ability to think for themselves, indoctrinating them with racial hatred and even communism.

The page includes a series of examples of what the Governor calls critical race theory. These include a Philadelphia grade school where students were forced to celebrate “Black communism” and perform a mock rally to free Angela Davis, the activist jailed for a year (and then exonerated) in 1971-72, and the Buffalo schools, which forced kindergartners to watch videos of dead Black children. Each item on the list ends with a “More here” link. Those links take you to somewhat hysterical articles describing these outrages.

Notably, all the articles appear in the same publication, City Journal, published by the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, most of them written by Christopher Rufo, who conflates nearly all references to race in education with critical race theory and references to LGBTQ persons as “grooming.” Rufo’s Wikipedia page quotes Kimberle Crenshaw, a critical race theorist, as saying, “what Rufo and Republicans ‘are calling critical race theory is a whole range of things, most of which no one would sign on to, and many of the things in it are simply about racism.'”[5]

I scurried down this rabbit hole today after reading the poem below by Nikki Giovanni. I realized that readers and students would not understand Giovanni’s poem unless they understood the history she alludes to: Pullman porters, Black newspapers, Thurgood Marshall, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Rosa Parks. Most importantly, Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old African-American boy who was tortured and murdered by white men in Mississippi in 1955. If I were teaching high school now, I would think twice about sharing this poem, and I would take care in teaching my students about lynchings like Emmett Till’s. Certain authorities would be quick to label such a lesson “critical race theory,” because it’s about ugly aspects of American history. I never learned about Emmett Till in high school, but I should have.

Here’s what I want to ask Governor DiSantis, Christopher Rufo, and Marjorie Taylor Greene: Should public school teachers be allowed to teach high-school students what happened to Emmett Till? If not, our students will not understand this poem, they will not understand the Civil Rights Movement, and they will not understand much of the pent-up anger and grief that erupts every time a Black male like Tyre Nichols, George Floyd, or Tamar Rice is killed. As Giovanni eloquently shows, there are connections to be made.

Rosa Parks

This is for the Pullman Porters who organized when people said
they couldn’t. And carried the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago
Defender to the Black Americans in the South so they would
know they were not alone. This is for the Pullman Porters who
helped Thurgood Marshall go south and come back north to fight
the fight that resulted in Brown v. Board of Education because
even though Kansas is west and even though Topeka is the birth-
place of Gwendolyn Brooks, who wrote the powerful “The
Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock,” it was the
Pullman Porters who whispered to the traveling men both
the Blues Men and the “Race” Men so that they both would
know what was going on. This is for the Pullman Porters who
smiled as if they were happy and laughed like they were tickled
when some folks were around and who silently rejoiced in 1954
when the Supreme Court announced its 9—0 decision that “sepa-
rate is inherently unequal.” This is for the Pullman Porters who
smiled and welcomed a fourteen-year-old boy onto their train in
1955. They noticed his slight limp that he tried to disguise with a
doo-wop walk; they noticed his stutter and probably understood
why his mother wanted him out of Chicago during the summer
when school was out. Fourteen-year-old Black boys with limps
and stutters are apt to try to prove themselves in dangerous ways
when mothers aren’t around to look after them. So this is for the
Pullman Porters who looked over that fourteen-year-old while
the train rolled the reverse of the Blues Highway from Chicago to
St. Louis to Memphis to Mississippi. This is for the men who kept
him safe; and if Emmett Till had been able to stay on a train all
summer he would have maybe grown a bit of a paunch, certainly
lost his hair, probably have worn bifocals and bounced his grand-
children on his knee telling them about his summer riding the
rails. But he had to get off the train. And ended up in Money,
Mississippi. And was horribly, brutally, inexcusably, and unac-
ceptably murdered. This is for the Pullman Porters who, when the
sheriff was trying to get the body secretly buried, got Emmett’s
body on the northbound train, got his body home to Chicago,
where his mother said: I want the world to see what they did
to my boy. And this is for all the mothers who cried. And this is
for all the people who said Never Again. And this is about Rosa
Parks whose feet were not so tired, it had been, after all, an ordi-
nary day, until the bus driver gave her the opportunity to make
history. This is about Mrs. Rosa Parks from Tuskegee, Alabama,
who was also the field secretary of the NAACP. This is about the
moment Rosa Parks shouldered her cross, put her worldly goods
aside, was willing to sacrifice her life, so that that young man in
Money, Mississippi, who had been so well protected by the
Pullman Porters, would not have died in vain. When Mrs. Parks
said “NO” a passionate movement was begun. No longer would
there be a reliance on the law; there was a higher law. When Mrs.
Parks brought that light of hers to expose the evil of the system,
the sun came and rested on her shoulders bringing the heat and
the light of truth. Others would follow Mrs. Parks. Four young
men in Greensboro, North Carolina, would also say No. Great
voices would be raised singing the praises of God and exhorting
us “to forgive those who trespass against us.” But it was the
Pullman Porters who safely got Emmett to his granduncle and it
was Mrs. Rosa Parks who could not stand that death. And in not
being able to stand it. She sat back down.
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A Casual Post

Photo by Stijn Swinnen on Unsplash

Gum-chewing drives some people to distraction, while split infinitives irritate others. One idiosyncratic bee in my own bonnet is the meaning of casualties.

I’ve even taken a stand on the issue. Some years ago, I wrote a letter to National Public Radio correcting an exaggerated number of dead from some Civil War battle. The person had quoted a figure in the hundreds of thousands, assuming that casualties meant “deaths.” Casualties include the dead, wounded, and missing. It’s true that many in the latter two categories would eventually join the fatalities, but not all of them. I was invited to read my letter aloud on a feedback segment of All Things Considered.

A recent example. I loved Yiyun Li’s story Wednesday’s Child in the January 23 New Yorker. In an author interview on the New Yorker website, she says that over a million young people died in the World War I battle(s) around Ypres, France, a comment that set off my casualties alarm. Turns out it’s very difficult to ascertain online how many people died at Ypres, because four or five battles took place there. As far as I can tell, the appalling number of casualties is in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps even a million or more, but the number of actual deaths, while also appalling, would be far fewer.

Upwards of nine million military personnel died in World War I in total, while casualties may have numbered over twenty million.

As you might imagine, the Latin root of casualties helps clarify this distinction. The verb cadere means “to fall”; its participle casus would mean “having fallen.” Not to be flippant, but someone can fall without dying. Casuality differs from fatality.

Cadere also gave us cadence, cadaver, casual, incident, accident and many more.

I still like Yiyun Li and her story, so much that I am reading her recent novel The Book of Goose.

Share your own pet peeves below. The weirder the better.

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Art out of Trauma

A disadvantage of book groups is that sometimes you have to read books that you never would have picked up on your own and that you don’t enjoy. The upside is that sometimes you have to read books that you never would have picked up on your own and that you end up loving.

Tonight, my book group is discussing Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South by Winfred Rembert, with the help of a Tufts philosophy professor, Erin I. Kelly. This Pulitzer Prize winner falls into the latter category. I had never heard of Rembert, but after reading the book and watching the 2011 documentary film All Me, I know and appreciate Rembert’s work and his humanity, and I comprehend better than before the atrocities and horror of Jim Crow, lasting well beyond the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s.

Like many trauma survivors, Rembert (1945-2021) worries that other people are not going to believe his stories. (Think of Holocaust survivors like Primo Levi, and many sexual assault survivors.) The stories are almost unbelievable. He was nearly lynched at around the age of nineteen, taken to a remote woods and strung up by his feet. One of his white attackers almost castrated him, and he would have been killed if another man hadn’t intervened, saying, “Carry him on back to the jail. He gonna die anyway.”

Sent to prison, he worked on a chain gang. He spent days in a sweat box, unable to stand or sit. The miracles he experienced are just as incredible as his suffering. He learned construction and engineering skills while in prison. He was released early on parole, while others rotted in jails for a lifetime. He had a long, loving marriage with a stalwart woman named Patsy. And, luckily for us, he learned to emboss and dye leather, his medium of choice.

His stunning works of art chronicle the experiences described in his book. Some of the most beautiful reveal agonies, like sharecroppers bent double over stylized rows of cotton, a white overseer with a scale standing in their midst. Others depict a mosaic of black-and-white striped uniforms of men on the chain gang.

Everyone should read this book, every American, anyway, of say, high-school age and over. It disturbs the reader, yes. That’s our history, and too bad for us. As Memphis shows, it’s our present, too. Rembert’s story is filled with horrors, but also of resilience, hope, and love. Watch the film, too, All Me, available on Amazon Prime. You can also see Rembert in Ashes to Ashes, available on YouTube.

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Winter and Beginnings

On this last Wednesday of the month, we’re finally getting around to January, whose root is Janus, the Roman god of doorways, beginnings and endings, and transitions. His face appeared on either side of a door, so that he could look both in and out. He looks ahead to 2023 and backwards toward 2022, as we are also doing.

The Roman door, ianua (pronounced yah’-niu-ah), derived from Janus, which the Romans spelled Ianus. A janitor was originally a porter or doorkeeper, developing into the caretaker mode we recognize today.

My students sometimes wondered why boring doors needed a deity. Janus was certainly not as exciting as Apollo, god of the arts, or Mars, the god of war. No interesting or scandalous stories about him remain. But I’d propose thinking about doors opening onto opportunity or closing a phase of life behind. Thinking about movies focusing on a door. There’s the arrival home of the wandering hero, the bride being carried over the threshold, the slamming door, the creepy turning of the doorknob as the babysitter watches anxiously. Columbo was known for almost exiting the door before he turned and asked the key question that would nab the killer. Remember Dorothy and her friends banging on the great door of the Emerald City?

And who can forget Jack Nicholson breaking down the door in The Shining? You can bet Shelley Duvall was praying to some deity or other!

Doors are rich symbols. Doors have a metaphysical vibe. They’re holy, or at least woo-woo. The Romans weren’t crazy to ascribe a supernatural being to them. While you’re thinking of more movie examples, I’ll share this Ursula K. Le Guin poem, which my friend Mara recently posted on Facebook.

January Night Prayer

Bellchimes jangle, freakish wind
Whistles icy out of desert lands
over the mountains. Janus, Lord 
of winter and beginnings, riven
and shaken, with two faces,
watcher at the gates of winds and cities,
god of the wakeful:
keep me from coldhanded envy,
and petty anger. Open
my soul to the vast 
dark places. Say to me, say again
nothing is taken, only given.
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That Is Poetry

Photo by Hannah Reding on Unsplash

My husband is reading one of my favorite books, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831). He’s been tackling classics in recent years. I thought that was the reason for this choice, but just discovered he’s showing the 1939 Charles Laughton film version at the Cleveland Cinematheque in a few weeks. Movies often motivate his book selection, as in his last choice, White Noise by Don DeLillo, recently adapted by director Noah Baumbach.

Hunchback provided me with one of the most memorable reading experiences of my life, and it always brings to mind this Emily Dickinson quote: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it.”

I was sitting in a study carrel in the Kent State library in the mid-70s, reading the novel for a Comparative Literature class. I won’t describe the passage to you, because I have a mortal fear of spoilers, but let’s just say there are a few epically suspenseful pages in the middle of the book.

As I sat alone, huddled in the carrel by a window, I clutched the book, swept up in the dramatic action. My feet began to move, eventually stamping the floor, pumping away to dispel the anxious energy building inside me. When the passage ended, I laughed with relief, closed the book, and put my head down on the desk. I believe I was breathing hard.

In case your mind goes in this direction, there is no sexual innuendo going on here.

I didn’t feel cold, and I didn’t feel as though the top of my head was taken off, but I felt caught up in Victor Hugo’s imagination, present with his characters in Paris in 1482. It actually took me a few minutes to recover my equilibrium.

I can think of a few other examples, but probably none so dramatic. It’s awesome, isn’t it, how words on a page can make us laugh or cry or worry? That they can affect us physically, making our hearts pound or our stomachs clench?

Share your experiences in the comments. I want to know when you felt so cold no fire could warm you, or, at least, when a book overtook you.

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Sub Rosa

What’s under there?
Photo by Bence Balla-Schottner on Unsplash

On Monday, I shared the secret ingredient in my coffee cake with you all. Don’t tell my housemates, because they shun yogurt and sour cream. Mention using bacteria in order to “culture” milk? You should see the looks on their faces. The recipe’s one cup of yogurt is hidden under the rose, sub rosa.

What the heck does that mean? What do roses have to do with secrecy?

In Greek mythology, Aphrodite gave her son Eros a rose, who passed it to the god of secrets and silence, Harpocrates, as a bribe intended to keep Aphrodite’s many indiscretions secret.

And who was Harpocrates? The Greeks based this deity on Horus, Egyptian child god of the new day. Artists depicted Horus with his finger to his mouth, mimicking the hieroglyph for child. The Greeks misinterpreted the image as “Sshhh, don’t tell” and made him the god of discretion and silence.

If Harpo Marx, the silent brother, comes to mind, as he did for me, alas, there’s no connection. Harpo borrowed his name from the harp that he frequently played. (Harp, the instrument, is Germanic in origin.) Apparently Groucho did once joke that Harpo’s name came from Harpocrates. What a guy, that Groucho. Not only funny but smart.

Anyway, ever since the rose was bequeathed to Harpocrates, the Greeks, Romans, and moderns have all associated the flower with secrets and secret societies. Romans painted roses on banquet hall ceilings as a reminder that what happens in the banquet hall stays in the banquet hall. Councils and secret societies did the same, or carved roses on their doorways. Roses similarly appeared on the doors of confessionals to represent the sacred confidentiality of the sacrament.

Maybe I should paint a rose on my kitchen ceiling.

What secrets does your kitchen hold?

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Cold Day, Warm Cake

Before. . .

A chilly day like today, without too much going on, gives me the urge to bake. King Arthur Baking Company’s website features appealing recipes and videos. I decided to try their favorite coffee cake. I chose a cake that takes about thirty minutes to bake, rather than fifty, the sooner to dig in to a warm cake.

The recipe suggests a cup of sour cream or yogurt. I don’t always keep these items on hand, especially this volume, but as it happens our refrigerator holds a large container of plain yogurt right now. That ingredient needs to remain sub rosa, if possible, because the males with whom I live are suspicious of yogurt. “Live cultures” are not their favorite words. What they don’t know won’t repel them, so sshhh.

I substituted brown sugar for the white sugar in the topping, and added a tablespoon or two of cold butter, broken up in the mixture. I’d never added vanilla to such a topping before, but it was a nice touch.

Baking lasted about forty minutes, longer than I expected, but it took a while for the middle to bake thoroughly. The cake slid out of the pan (greased and floured) readily, giving my new square plate, a Christmas gift from my daughter, something to hold.

My son nicely suggested that I had prepared a birthday cake for Dr. King. I admitted I hadn’t thought of that, but since we’ve been reminded, we’ll take the opportunity to say, “Happy birthday, MLK.”

. . . and after
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Question of the Day

No spoilers below, but if you want to read this novel without knowing a single thing about it, stop right here.

Actually, two questions.

Do you feel you have to finish a book once you start it, or are you okay with sometimes quitting on a book?

If the latter, what are your criteria? How much of a chance do you give it?

I’m at this very crossroads with Richard Powers’s The Overstory, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and “sylvan tour de force” (Booklist).  

Here are some of the factors I’m weighing.

  • The Overstory is 512 pages long. To take in the plot and all the characters’ relationships, I would have to (at some point) reread the book. That prospect is discouraging when you’ve been stalled for at least a week.
  • I’m not reading anything else right now, because I think I should be reading The Overstory.
  • I put the book aside for days at a time, and when I pick it up I’ve forgotten who Ray is.
  • The Overstory is about environmental degradation, and that can be very depressing. And I already know about environmental degradation.
  • Much of the novel is beautifully written.
  • The Overstory overlaps with and relies on Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard and other similar works. I already know and appreciate these ideas.
  • The narrative is clever in the most positive sense. You don’t know how it ties together at first. Weaving it all together creates a tour de force, as Booklist says.
  • Once you see how it’s all tying together, however, some of the pleasure wanes.
  • I’m 271 pages in and maybe shouldn’t give up now? Or is persevering an example of the sunk cost fallacy?

I’m sorry if some of you loved The Overstory and are disappointed in me. I’m certainly not saying it’s a bad book. Ann Patchett, whom I love, loved The Overstory. Maybe it’s just not the book for me at this point in time.

Answer my initial questions, please. And give examples. Feel free to advise me.

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Seeking an End

Like the books I read, Wednesday Words are somewhat randomly chosen, today’s especially so.

Over the weekend, I ran across a video of the 60s Australian folk group The Seekers singing “I Know I’ll Never Find Another You.” The concert was part of their 2013 farewell tour. I have no clue how this clip entered my phone, from which it entered my consciousness, but for some reason it did. I remember the song fondly enough, but this performance struck me as not terrible, but lackluster, as sometimes happens when elderly stars sing their old hits.

If you compare the 21st century version to their original 1964 recording you’ll see what I mean. The group’s lead singer, Judith Durham, died just five months ago, and online tributes to her included clips of old performances, and you can perceive the difference. I can’t blame The Seekers for losing a little pizzazz over fifty years.

It’s just that since hearing the 2013 rendition, I’ve had the song stuck in my head. My playing it over again as I’m writing now is going to firmly implant it in my consciousness. Reflecting on why this particular ear worm is so annoying, the word insipid came to mind.

For a few minutes, the old folk song departed my brain, replaced by a question: Where does that word come from? I could tell it’s Latinate but couldn’t break it down.

Here’s the history. The Latin verb saepere, means “to taste.” Its related adjective, sapidus, means “having a taste or flavor.” You can see where this is going. The adjective metamorphosed into insipidus, that is, “without flavor,” and traveled through French—insipide–into English. Our insipid can refer to literally tasteless food but more often describes things “lacking vigor or interest,” such as, at least to me, a 2013 concert version of “I Know I’ll Never Find Another You,” playing in an endless loop in my head.

Share your ear worm antidotes in the comments.

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The Best Pancakes You Will Ever Make

I made the Best Pancakes this morning. That’s according to an Epicurious YouTube video hosted by the affable chef Frank Proto, which I watched yesterday.

I realize I’ve written about pancakes before. Now I’ve added a fifth recipe card to my collection, which doesn’t even count the tried-and-true Betty Crocker cookbook version I’ve recently been using.

Chef Proto is very convincing. Watch the video and see. He’s stern but also encouraging. His recipe differs from my others in that he adds vinegar (instead of lemon juice, as I have been doing), more sugar, and vanilla. These last ingredients make for a delicious fragrance as you stand over the griddle.

The major learning outcome for me, though, was the importance of not over-mixing. I knew this already, of course, but Chef Proto is very, very emphatic. After mixing the batter, he looks at the camera and repeats, “No more mixing,” and shakes his rubber spatula at you. He leaves many lumps, many large lumps, in his batter. I have always been careful to do this myself, I thought, but I was not careful enough. This morning I made myself stop mixing and leave very many lumps.

The result was airy, fluffy pancakes—the goal I have been striving for. My pancakes looked exactly the same as Chef Proto’s. Because of the vanilla, sugar, and probably the vinegar, they are also quite tasty. I lacked only whipped salted butter, which Chef Proto slathered on his stack in memory of his grandmother.

My own taste testers’ response was, shall we say, underwhelming. My son and husband dug in to their pancakes without comment. After a little chewing, I asked, “What do you think?” They mumbled that they were good.

Then, “Thick,” my husband said.

I let a few minutes go by. “Are you saying they’re too thick?” I asked.

My husband looked like he wished he were somewhere else. “They’re fine,” he said, using the all-purpose adjective that is no help whatsoever.

He added, “You know, I like thin pancakes, too.”

I cannot rely on other people’s approval to evaluate my achievements. I needn’t look to others for validation. I have striven to produce thick fluffy pancakes, and I have at last done so. I have made the grade and cut the mustard. I have prevailed.

The Best Pancakes You Will Ever Make
3 cups flour
¼ cup sugar
1 ½ teaspoon salt          Mix first 5 dry ingredients in large bowl.
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 ½ teaspoon baking soda
2 ¼ cups milk
¼ cup oil
1 tablespoon vanilla
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
3 eggs
Whisk liquid ingredients thoroughly. Fold them into the dry ingredients. Mix gently, and leave lumps. When you stop mixing, stop mixing. No more mixing. Melt(whipped, salted) butter on griddle. Drop large tablespoons of batter on the griddle. Turn when bubbles have mostly popped. Your pancakes are done when you press gently and the pancake springs back.

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