Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The Magic of Morning Light


DUKES FANS:       

This winter has been a strange and unusual one for us here in the mid-Atlantic. We have seen an unusually small amount of snow in the Philadelphia area, and even when areas to the north of us-the Poconos and New York City-have been hit fairly hard, we have been spared. We have had a series of above normal high temps including several days in February that we in the 60’s. Yes, we have had a few freezing days, but for the most part we have been way above our normal February temperatures. I am trying not to focus on what this says about climate change (smile).I can try to do things that attend to that later in the day. But at 5:30 in the morning, I am trying to enjoy the fact that I have been outside much more than normal this February. And that has been a quiet and wonderful thing.  


   I am an early riser. I like to get up between 5:30 and 6 and head north up to Chestnut Hill. Once upon a time I would walk all the way up to the top of The Hill, but I have gotten lazy in my old age (smile). I walk until a bus comes and then I get on. I ride to the top of the hill, get off, and walk 3 blocks back to the coffee shop where I get my first cup of the day. And it is a quietly delightful trip. love the quiet of that time; the stillness and the grandeur. There are few people out at that time, and we nod and or say,” Hi” to each other as our paths cross. I am a lover of night skies in winter as they are so intense and dramatic. That combination of waking and walking early and the presence of the winter night sky brings me quiet joy and wonder. I love watching the slow change in the locations of the constellations over the course of a winter, and I love watching the moon cycle through its phases. Both of these celestial happenings seem so much starker and definite in winter. Watching the day come into being earlier and earlier as winter goes on is also fascinating. I notice the way shadows shift, the way light is reflected off rooftops and grass, and on some mornings I get to see this wonderful eerie rolling fog move over some of the larger expanses of lawns. And as I get my coffee and head back toward Mt Airy, I am soothed and comforted. 

 Around the last week in February that starts to really change, however, and I have to adjust. It is lighter when I arise, and the sky at 5:30 is not quite as dark and dramatic as it was a week or so ago. The constellations are not as bright, and the light of the new day is visible earlier. It is a different sky now; we are relentlessly transitioning from one season to the next. Part of me misses the old dramatic winter night sky; I almost go through a brief mourning period. Then I notice that at around 6:15, if I am looking southeast, I can see the sun as a bright reddish-orange disk above the housetops and the day seems to rush into being, And if I am out for a nice long walk like I was this morning,  I can watch that sun gradually become more and more visible and seemingly rise above us. This, too, is a glorious way to start the day. 

it is the light at this time of the year that most lets me know that we are entering that next phase of that glorious cycle of seasons. It is undeniable. And when I am out noticing the light, I also get to look at  lawns and bushes too. I notice the snowdrops and pansies as they make their first appearance of the year, and I also notice more bird activity. Species that have been around all winter-cardinals, chickadees, and finches- get more active, and some new ones are starting to be heard.  And watching the different colors and aspects of a sunrise with that as the soundtrack can be joyous.to behold.   

Yes, I still miss the winter night sky, and I probably will for a while. But I also welcome this new sky and the new arrival of light and color. Despite the weirdness of this February’s weather, this light tells me that this marvelous cycle is still in play and we are still passengers on its ride through the year. And if I pay attention to that ride, I can get some moments of real joy. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Story and Symbol: St. Valentine's Day


DUKES FANS:       

“In most cases, a good story connected to a strong symbol will last much longer and have more effect than any collection of mere facts.” 

   Mac George Bundy, advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson    


“We are humans. That means we are symbol making beings, and that means symbols can move us much more than facts.” 

        Anonymous history teacher     

This week we celebrated Valentine’s Day, a day dedicated to the ideas of true and romantic love. As in any culturally significant observance there are rites, behaviors, and symbols that mark the occasion. We are expected to tell people we care about that we love them, to give candy and cards called “valentines” to people we care for, and ideally to play special music, have special romantic meals, and spend “romantic times” with someone. Cartoon hearts are seen everywhere, and the day is supposed to be all about the expression of love and togetherness. People in commercials kiss, hold hands, and smile at each other, and look at each other with clear undying devotion. 

Of course, there are lots of people who think of this day as overly corny and unnecessary. Many of us who are without partners can tend to be saddened by it or, alternately, angry at it. But it is an important part of US culture, and we cannot deny or ignore it. Americans spend more money on Valentine’s Day than on any other single holiday except Christmas, so it is something major of which we are all aware. According to the website Business Pundit, we spent over $ 26 billion dollars on the holiday this year, more than on Father’s or Mother’s Day last year. The cards, the dinners, the chocolate, and the flowers all add up. It clearly means a lot ot a lot of people, and of course, businesses. But to have reached that economic point, Valentine’s Day had to first be accepted as an important cultural idea. It needed to be embraced by us. And like any other strong cultural occasion, that means this day has to be wrapped in a story and symbol. 

We have all probably heard the most accepted story about Valentine’s Day and the person for whom it is named. This story traces the day’s origins to a Roman priest by the name of Valentine. In the late third century ACE the Roman emperor Claudius was engaged in a series of unpopular and costly military campaigns, and he was having a hard time getting men to join the Roman armies. Claudius believed that Roman men were unwilling to join the army because of their strong attachment to their wives and families, so he summarily banned all marriages and engagements in Rome. Valentine defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When what Valentine was doing was discovered, Claudius had him beheaded on February 14, probably in the year 278 A.C.E. He was later made a saint, became a martyr for the Catholic Church, and became associated with romantic love and marriage. Supposedly he wrote notes to people while in prison, signing them, “From your Valentine.” Thus was a story and a tradition born. 

   Historians know that there really was a St. Valentine. But historians also know that there were at least three saints who were named Valentine. The Catholic Encyclopedia lists three martyrs with that name, and all are connected to a date in February. While that may seem strange to us, it is really not that surprising. Valentine, meaning, “having valor, righteousness, and strength,” was not that uncommon a name for Roman boys at the time. Just as happens now, parents then often gave children names that meant something: an ideal or hope. That is why we have so many people in our culture named after Christian apostles and saints, or political heroes. Every culture does this as a way of passing on ideals and legacies.  

Historians also know that at this time there was also a big February Roman pastoral festival dedicated to health, cleansing, renewal, and fertility. It was called the Feast of Lupercalia, and in one part of the festival the names of single Roman women were put into a box. Single men randomly picked a name out of the box and they were then allowed to romance the woman whose name they had drawn. When Christianity became the state religion of Rome, many of the ancient Roman festivals were outlawed and/or converted into Christian fetes. In 496 ACE Pope Gelasius decided to put an end to the Feast of Lupercalia; he declared that February 14 would thereafter be celebrated as St Valentine’s Day, giving the day of his martyrdom a new meaning. People were to exchange simple gifts with loved ones such as grain, messages and flowers. The story of Saint Valentine sacrificing his life for love became a widespread and popular one, and he and the date of February 14 became associated with gift giving in the name of love.  

Eventually the story of Valentine’s devotion to true love became joined to the one thing all great stories need: a symbol. The heart had been important as a symbol since the time of the ancient Egyptians. They saw it as the most important organ of the body. They believed this was the place in the body where wisdom, emotions, personality and more were all joined. They also believed that it was an important vehicle through which gods spoke to humans. Yes, they knew about the chambers of the heart and that blood circulated through the heart-they did some forms of heart surgery. But that circulation of blood was not the most important job of the heart to them; it's supposed link to all things emotional, spiritual, and intellectual was.  

    Greek and Roman cultures drew heavily from Egypt, so the heart was important to them as well, and by the 5th century BCE symbols on coins and in writings depicted the heart looking somewhat as it does on our Valentine’s Day cards: a fat rounded ”V” with two joined curves at the top. Some historians say that particular shape was chosen because it looked like the seed pod of a plant called “silphium’, a plant used as a medicine and as a contraceptive in the ancient world. Others say it came about as an attempt by early graphic designers to represent what the heart looked like in early medical texts. Regardless, by the time of the Renaissance that shape had become a symbol of love throughout Europe. And as Europeans went to other continents, they naturally took their symbols with them. That heart shape became associated with love in most parts of the world and now abounds on all those Valentine's cards, in the design of boxes of chocolate, in TV commercials, and all over just about anything connected with love. The story had found its symbol, and the two would be forever linked. 

   The use of that heart as a symbol for love shows us just how powerful and persistent a given symbol can be, even when it contradicts fact and truth. In the 1640’s William Harvey put forth the notion that the heart was a muscle, and that its primary role was to keep blood circulating in our bodies. By the middle of the 18th century that had become commonly accepted medical knowledge, and by the mid-20th century was being widely taught in junior high school biology classes. We all know this fact. We know that emotions are generated in the brain-we now even know that certain specific things can trigger a specific emotion in a particular region of the brain. But our cultural knowledge and common ways of talking regularly ignores our factual knowledge. We still associate the heart with love. We do not say, “My brain is lifted when I am happy,” or, “It is with a heavy brain that I bring you this sad news.”  And we definitely do not know “a place on Lonely Street called “Brainbreak Hotel.”  It is the “heart” we relentlessly talk about in such situations, and more knowledge or more education will not change that. We have our story and we have our symbol, damnit, and we’re sticking to them. 

It seems humans need to make these stories and these symbols. That is the way we humans behave and make our way through much of the world. Yes, we are also quite “rational.’ Our rationality allows us to do many incredible things, ranging from cooking to simple toolmaking and using up to nuclear physics and more. But in our day to day, most common lives, we function with  links between stories and symbols. We seem to need this to help us navigate the world. For better or worse, as Valentine’s Day shows, this is part of what makes us human.  

(For an article on what Ancient Egyptians knew about the heart: 

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

History and It Meanings and Power


DUKES FANS           

A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots. MARCUS GARVEY 

If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree. MICHAEL CRICHTON 

If history and science have taught us anything, it is that passion and desire are not the same as truth. E. O. WILSON 

A generation which ignores history has no past — and no future.   


“We should not emphasize “Negro History,” but “The Negro IN history.”  

CARTER WOODSON, historian 

 “The incredible thing about history is that there is always more to discover; it is never “finished.” ANONYMOUS                                                                                                                                                   

As readers of these missives have no doubt noticed, a lot of the newsletters I send start with quotes. A couple of people have asked me over the years why I do that, and the reasons haven’t really changed. Life, to me, is mostly about going through transitions, change, discovery and re-discovery, finding purpose, and making meaning out of it all. The quotes that I choose are ones that speak to my own journey through all of this over the years, and they convey things that have become important to me in my attempts to navigate the world. Reflecting on quotes reminds me that I am not the first person to go through this process and will not be the last. It also reminds me that I can learn from the experiences of others-I am not the font of all knowledge, and my experience is far from the only valid one.  As I have spent more than half my life as a history teache, and as tomorrow is the official start of something called Black History Month, I thought it might be good to reflect on what history has meant to me throughout my life-what it is, what it can be, and what it can do. These quotes guide me in doing that. 

  I have been a history freak since, well, forever. I can recall being a young child, looking through the World Book Encyclopedias that my mother sold, and being fascinated by people, times and events that had happened a long time ago. In elementary school and junior high school. I memorized a lot of names and dates, was captured and intrigued by timelines, and fell in love with the 300 and 900 stacks in the Philadelphia Free Library--the stacks that by Dewey’s system contained most of the historical material. I knew that if I was interested in subject “A” and the book I was looking for wasn’t in, I could look to the right or to the left of where that book should be and there would probably be something as interesting as what I had been looking for originally. I grew up during the 1950’s and 1960’s, and there was an explosion of new ways of looking at history happening then. New sources were being found and explored, new interpretations of time periods and events abounded, new theories about history were being put forth, and many different people’s stories were now being included. The library was an important gateway to all of that for me; I was able to find out things I had little knowledge about due to the wealth of information in those stacks. What I found in one book led me to still others, and the more I found, the more I wanted to find out.  For an insatiably curious kid, it was heaven. To me, libraries are sacred ground. 

 All this fed my curiosity, made me hungry for knowledge, and turned me into someone who looked for connections between ideas, times and people.  When my wife and I would travel somewhere new, I would have read or seen something about the history of the place by the time we got there. And wherever we traveled somewhere for more than a day or two, we would spend part of that time at an historical site, a walking tour and/or in a library. My wife would often say, “You have never met an historical marker you didn’t love!” And she was right. 

  That interest continues to this very day. The ideas about history that I encountered in my official education were initially cursory and spotty. We were taught the names of famous people, largely white, and we looked at events through the lens of great accomplishments; things that made the United States great. But from all the reading I was doing before I even started school, I knew I wanted more. We had the wonders of Negro History Week when I was growing up-a week during which special emphasis was given to studying the stories and history of Negro people, as we were then called. My church and my school provided some books, told us some stories, and put on some plays that got me exposed and interested in the lives of men and women who were generally not in the school's history books. Part of the beauty and power of that week for me was that it had been started by us-we were starting to tell our own stories publicly and officially. Negro History Week was started by a Black historian in the mid-1920’s. Carter G. Woodson, the son of slaves, had received a doctorate from Harvard in 1912, and he realized that in most history books Blacks were either depicted in stereotypical and inaccurate ways or not mentioned at all. To counter this, he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life in 1915, and he started publishing The Journal of Negro History. The Journal published research articles by and about Blacks and was distributed to schools and people who educated Blacks. Interest in the publication and topic soared, and it became an important repository for historical research about Blacks. In 1926 the Association established Negro History Week, a time for black churches, students, communities, colleges, and more to focus on the history of Blacks in this country and the world. The Civil Rights Movement and the rise of Black Power in the 1960’s and 1970’s gave it a new emphasis, and it became more of a part in many schools’ curricula. By then it had been renamed and had expanded to Black History Month, and it was much more visible. President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976 to coordinate with the bicentennial of the country, and it has been officially recognized by most schools and communities since then. Newspapers, TV networks, and radio stations do special programming. Cities and towns host special breakfasts, award ceremonies, essay contests, and more. It is pretty much in the mainstream now, and in many ways that is good. But there is still more to do 

   One of the things this month can do is allow us to pause, slow down and take a deeper look at a lot of our assumptions and collective knowledge about who we are as a country. As Carter Woodson said above, we need to focus not on a separate sense of the history of any one people in the United States, but on how each and every one of them are IN our history. How each one is a part of all of the things that have made us who we are as a nation and will continue to do so. If the month can be seen as an opportunity to expand our knowledge and better understand where we as an entire culture have been, the month can give us ways to deepen our understandings about this place and important ways the past influences the present. We know some things about slavery, for example, but for most of us slavery was something that happened on plantations and in the South-it was about picking things and working in the fields and the “Big House.” The reality, though, is far more complicated than that. There was slavery in each and every colony before the American Revolution, many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and The Constitution held slaves, and slavery was legal in each and every state for years after the Revolution. And slaves did all sorts of work besdies field work, from making pots, to unloading the ships in Philadelphia's harbor, to doing much of the iron and brick work in Charleston, South Carolina. And all the activities and structures needed and developed to support slavery were at the very heart of US economic growth throughout the 18th and 19th century-domestic and international shipping, our systems of banking, the stock market, trade, and more. The New York Historical Society had a monumental exhibit in 2005 and 2006 on Slavery in New York City, and the history it revealed totally changed many people’s ideas about what the 19th century was about and the role of the Big Apple during that time. People had not realized that New York had been a slave state and that its’ role in banking, shipping, and trade made it the center of the entire United States slave system. While the whole online exhibit is no longer there, it is still a worthwhile site to visit. (http://www.slaveryinnewyork. org/ ) Likewise, there was a website developed in 2003 by historian Douglas Harper called, “Slavery in the North” that examines how each colony and state north of the Mason-Dixon line carried out their involvement with the “peculiar institution.” (http://slavenorth.com/index. html  Looking at these sites and other books, films, etc deepened my knowledge and unearthed moving and amazing stories about which I had known little. It also helped me learn new things about many other things beyond slavery. That is one of the wonderful things about history-there is usually so much more beneath the surface of any one thing than we see at first glance. There is always much to be uncovered and brought forth, and I love that digging. As stated above, history is never truly “finished.” 

   I hope this Black History Month finds you looking in new places for new things and discovering and uncovering new facts and new people. Libraries, the web, streaming services-there is no reason to not be learning something new. There is a universe of largely unknown, people whose lives have amazing stories to tell and whose accomplishments are astonishing. If I may jump start that for you, let me toss out some names with whom you may not be familiar: Benjamin Banneker, Bass Reaves, Miriam Benjamin, Daniel Hale Williams, Garret Morgan, Lewis Latimer, Dr. Charles Drew, and Valerie Thomas. If you are curious, look them up and see who they were and what they did, and how they are connected to so many things we take for granted today. Dig, uncover, and enjoy! 

Some Websites to Spark Curiosity: 

The Philadelphia Tribune Newspaper: https://www.phillytrib.com  

Ebony Magazine https://www.ebony.com  

The Association for the Study of African American Life and History:  https://asalh.org/  

The African-American Firefighter Museum www.aaffmuseum.org  

List of African-American Centered Museums Nationwide:  

Black Inventors Musuem: https://blackinventorsmuseum.com