Zora Neale Hurston: Harlem Renaissance Writer

(Note: This essay was originally published in the Newport Daily News on November 16, 2020, and at the History News Network on November 22, 2020.)

Against the strong headwinds of racism and resistance against women’s rights, Zora Neale Hurston forged a life dedicated in her writing to exploring racism against blacks and also the lives of African American women. Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison described her as “one of the greatest writers of our time.”

Hurston was one of the foremost writers of what was called the Harlem Renaissance, a period, 1918-mid 1930s, which has always fascinated me. The “war to end all wars” was over, our country launched into the great redemptive experiment of Prohibition, the 1920s roared in with the Charleston and Jazz, and movies were no longer silent. On a personal level, this was the time when my father began tap-dancing and when Aunt Rose went rogue and cut her hair.

Harlem was the primarily African American community in northern Manhattan, New York City, where this “rebirth” was centered. Primed with a population which had re-located from the segregated South during the Great Migration, Harlem was the scene of a great flowering of art, literature, and music, giving artistic expression to the black yearning to breathe truly free and energizing African Americans to demand equality and respect as human beings and as artists.

Zora Neale Hurston (wikipedia.com)

Hurston was one of the writers that gained national prominence during this period along with others such as Jessie Fauset, Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, Omar Al Amiri, Eric D. Walroud, and Langston Hughes. Their successes led to opportunities finally to publish with mainstream publishing houses.

Zora Neale Hurston—novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist—was born in Notasulga, Alabama, in 1891, and grew up in Eatonville, Florida, near Orlando. She attended Howard University, and then switched to Barnard College, the only black student there, graduating in 1927.

During her writing career, she penned four novels, two folklore books, an autobiography, and over 50 short stories, essays, and plays. Her novels were under-appreciated for decades until Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize winning author (The Color Purple) wrote about her in an article entitled “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in “Ms.” magazine in 1975.

I have read two of her books: her most popular novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and also the non-fiction book, Barracoon. Published in 1937, the novel tells the story of the struggles of a fair-skinned, independent-minded African American woman named Janie Crawford: three marriages, hardship, poverty, and ending with the horrible hurricane of 1928 and its aftermath. I found the book distinctive for the precision she took in expressing the common black vernacular, her description of the hurricane and the terror it inspired, her portrayal of the strong, female protagonist, and finally the dramatic ending.

In Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo, a work of non-fiction, Hurston relates the story of Cudjo Lewis (originally Oluale Kossula), the last known surviving slave from the last known slave ship, the Clotilda, which made the transatlantic voyage from Africa some 50 years after such trade was outlawed.

Writing in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Hurston relates in her Introduction: “Of all the millions transported from Africa to the Americas, only one man is left. He is called Cudjo Lewis and is living at present at Plateau, Alabama, a suburb of Mobile. This is the story of this Cudjo.”

The result of many interviews with Lewis over three months, the book gives insights into his life: his childhood in Africa, the attack by female warriors on his hometown, the trail of misery after being taken prisoner and being marched overland to the barracoons (“barracks” or holding structures) of Ouidah on the coast, the ordeal of the Middle Passage on the Clotilda, the years of slavery during the Civil War, and finally his role in founding Africatown in Alabama.

In February of this year, I had just finished her novel and found myself in Fort Pierce, FL. How surprised I was when I picked up the “Fort Pierce Magazine” and found her featured in it. She spent the last years of her life there as a freelance writer for newspapers and magazines. She also taught at Lincoln Park Academy, a segregated secondary school. Majorie Harrell, president emeritus of the Zora Neale Hurston Florida Education Foundation, related: “She was my teacher for 10th grade and part of 11th.  …she would give out an assignment and then be buried in her writing.”

Marvin Hobson, current president of the foundation, said: “It’s been over 50 years since her death [1960] and her work is still being released. She is part of who we are as African American people.”

In 1973, Alice Walker placed a headstone at her grave site bearing the words: “A GENIUS OF THE SOUTH.”

Contributing editor, Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University.

Sources:

Cuccurullo, Rachel. “Reviving Zora’s Legacy.” Fort Pierce Magazine, Vol 13, 1, 2020.

Davidson, James West et al. Experience History: Interpreting America’s Past. NY: McGraw Hill, 2011.

“Harlem Renaissance.”  Wikipedia.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harlem_Renaissance. Accessed November 7, 2020.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo.’” NY: Amistad/Harper Collins, 2018.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. NY: Harper, 2013.

“Zora Neale Hurston.” Wikipedia,  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zora_Neale_Hurston , Accessed November 7, 2020.

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Battle of Salamis Opens Door for Ancient Greece’s Golden Age

(Note: This essay was originally published in the Newport Daily News on October 5, 2020, and at the History News Network on October 11, 2020.)

Twenty-five hundred years ago in the Battle of Salamis, the ancient Greeks defeated the invading Persians and paved the way for Greece’s Golden Age of the 5th century, BCE, a foundation period for Western Civilization.

By the late 6th century BCE, the Persians had come to dominate numerous peoples and reigned as the superpower of the era. At its height, the Persian Empire consisted of twenty provinces and stretched from the Indus River in the east to northern Greece and Egypt in the west.

At this time ancient Greece, or Hellas as the Greeks called it, consisted of some 1500 city-states spread across the Greek mainland, the Aegean Sea islands to the east, and Sicily and southern Italy to the west. The most important and powerful of these were Sparta, a highly regimented city-state (polis) with a mixed political system and an invincible army, and Athens, a democratic polis with the largest population and navy in all of Hellas.

As the Persian Empire expanded westward into Asia Minor (current day Turkey), it came to dominate a number of Greek city-states on its western coast and on the islands in eastern Aegean Sea. In 499 BCE, this domination became intolerable to some city-states and they rebelled, calling on other Greeks for assistance. Athens responded and provided support. Though the revolt was suppressed, King Darius of Persia never forgave the Athenians for their audacity in challenging him. Legend has it that at dinner he ordered a slave to say three times: “Master, remember the Athenians.”

Persia had launched two earlier expeditions which did not bring success. The first in 492 BCE proved disastrous. The second in 490 BCE ended in the stunning victory for the Greeks, led by Athens, at the Battle of Marathon. (Our current day marathon is 26.2 miles because this was the distance that the messenger, Pheidippides, ran from the battle site of Marathon to Athens to announce the victory.)

In 480 BCE, Persia, now led by Xerxes, renewed its campaign with overwhelming force. The ancient historian, Herodotus, indicated that 300,000 Persian allied forces crossed the Hellespont into northern Greece and faced Greek forces perhaps one-third that size. In his play, The Persians, the Greek playwright, Aeschylus, who fought in the battle, indicated that the Greeks had 310 ships facing a Persian allied fleet of 1207 ships.

After defeating the Greeks, led by Leonidas and 300 valiant Spartans, at the Battle of Thermopylae, the Persian force marched south to Athens, now essentially evacuated, and sacked it. Most of the Athenians and other unconquered Greeks had withdrawn to the island of Salamis or manned the Greek fighting ships, the triremes.

While the Spartans argued for withdrawal and the defense of the Peloponnesian Peninsula, the Athenian leader Themistocles won the debate on the strategy. His plan for defeating the Persian navy was simple: Lure the large Persian navy northward into the narrow strait feigning withdrawal, neutralizing its superior numbers, and then attack.

To set the hook, he arranged for a slave, Sicinnus, to give the Persians false information: The Greeks were squabbling and were in disarray. They planned to withdraw the next day. Eager for victory, Xerxes took the bait.

On September 29, 480 BCE, the Persian fleet—its rowers already in action for 12 hours—advanced into the trap. In his play Aeschylus relates the action at dawn:

 “…first there came from the Greeks the sound of cheerful singing, and the island rocks loudly echoed it. Fear struck all the Persians who had been disappointed in their hopes. For the Greeks were not singing their hymns like men running away, but like men confidently going into battle. The noise of the war-trumpet on their side inflamed them all.”

“It was possible too to hear shouting: ‘Sons of the Greeks, forward! Liberate your country, liberate your children, your wives and the temples of your gods, and the graves of your ancestors. The fight is for everything.’”

Battle of Salamis, Wilhelm von Kaulbach, 1868

He also paints the picture of the utter defeat of the Persians.

“The sea was full of wreckage and blood. The beaches and the low rocks were covered in corpses. Every ship rowed in a disorderly rout, every one of the Persian fleet. … Wailing and shrieking covered the sea until dark night put an end to it. I could not finish telling you of the terrible happenings even if I were to relate them for ten days. Of the one thing you can be sure, never in one day did such a multitude of men die.”

Xerxes observed the action from the heights above the strait. Aeschylus envisioned his reaction to the disaster.

“Deep were the groans of Xerxes when he saw this havoc; for his seat, a lofty mound commanding the wide sea, o’erlooked his hosts. With rueful cries he rent his royal robes, and through his troops embattled on the shore gave the signal for retreat.”

Salamis has come down to us as a key event in the early history of Western Civilization. If the Greeks had succumbed and came under the Persian “barbarian” yoke, ancient Greece probably would not have experienced its Golden Age in the 5th century BCE, with all its achievements: scientific inquiry of the natural world free from religion, philosophy, architecture, sculpture, mathematics, organized athletic competition, the realization of the world’s first democracy and the enrichment of the idea of freedom.

Charles Freeman in his book, The Greek Achievement: The Foundation of the Western World, gives due adulation to the Greeks for the victory, however; he argues that it was the land Battle of Plataea, the succeeding year, which was more decisive. “It had dislodged the Persian forces from Greece and sent them home in humiliation and so, possibly, had changed the course of European history.” This is true; however, without the decisive naval battle of Salamis there would have been no decisive land battle of Plataea.

The Greeks today have been celebrating the anniversary of this battle to include the staging this summer of the play The Persians, at the remarkable ancient amphitheater at Epidauros, which I was lucky enough to visit fifteen years ago.

Independent journalist John Psaropoulos witnessed the play and noted that the audience erupted in applause when the Persian queen Atossa asked of the Greeks, “Who is their master and commander of their armies?” The chorus leader answered: “They call themselves nobody’s slaves, nor do they obey any man.”

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) teaches Western Civilization and politics at Salve Regina University, RI.

Sources:

Amos, H.D. & A.D.P. Lang. These Were the Greeks. Chester Springs, PA: Dufour, 1982.

Dupuy, R. Ernest and Trevor N. Dupuy. The Encyclopedia of Military History: from 3500 B.C. to the Present. NY: Harper & Row, 1986.

Freeman, Charles. The Greek Achievement: The Foundation of the Western World. NY: Viking, 1999.

Gomez Espelosin, Francisco Javier. ”Salvation at Salamis.” National Geographic History, May/June 2016,

Ober, Josiah. The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.

Psaropoulos, John. “The Ancient Greek Battle that Never Ended.” The Wall Street Journal, September 9, 2020, C4.

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In Removing Confederate Symbols, US Military Follows German Military’s Example

(Note: This essay was originally published by the History News Network on August 23, 2020.)

By moving to eliminate all Confederate names on military installations and banning the display of the Confederate flag, the U.S. military is following the example of the Bundeswehr (German Armed Forces) during the unification of Germany in 1990, when it assumed control of the National People’s (East German) Army (NPA).

Thirty years ago, as the Federal Republic of Germany (West) and the German Democratic Republic (East) were preparing to unify, I had the privilege of serving as a “liaison officer” to the West German Army. In 1989, I was embedded in the German Army at a major installation in Cologne. For the next several years,  I witnessed first-hand and researched how the West German Army took over the remnant of the East German Army, reduced by October 3, 1990, to about 90,000 men.

One of the key decisions West German political and military leaders made related to the symbols—monuments, plaques, wall murals—and traditions of the East German Army. They decided that none of the NPA symbols and traditions would continue into the new German Army after unification. State Secretary Karl-Heinz Carl told me that he made the decision that the identity of the NPA should vanish. “On October 3, 1990, one Bundeswehr.” In my interviews with members of the West German Army, they stressed how the East German Army was rooted in a fundamentally different value system—a Communist value system where the Communist Party officials always had the final word. With unification, a fundamental break with these values was necessary. The former NPA soldiers would now belong to an army of a democracy, rooted in the concept of the “citizen in uniform” [Staatsbürger in Uniform], which placed a high value on individual human dignity, basic rights, and the rule of law.

The Bundeswehr implemented this policy beginning on the very first day of unification. No East German or NPA flags were hoisted or lowered. All NPA unit colors, streamers, orders of the day, and documents that conferred names of facilities and garrison signs were sent to the Military History Museum in Dresden. All East German, NPA, and Warsaw Pact medals and awards were banned.

In a recent conversation with me, Lieutenant General Werner von Scheven, Deputy Commanding General for the takeover of the former East German forces, summarized the policy: “For the most part, no physical symbols of the NPA were allowed to remain in public view, and none of the Communist ideas, principles, and traditions were allowed in the new German Army.”

As the German military in 1990 decided that a definitive break with the past was needed, so today the U.S. military has begun a definitive break with the ideas and their attendant symbols of the antebellum South and the Confederate States of America—specifically inherent white supremacy and its inverse, inherent black inferiority.

In mid-July, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced a new policy which effectively bans the Confederate flag from being displayed on military bases. General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told Congress: “These generals [of the Confederacy] fought for the institution of slavery. We have to take a hard look at the symbology.”  

In stark contrast to the partisanship of recent years, the Congress—with strong support from both parties—is also taking action. On July 21, the House passed an annual defense bill which requires the Department of Defense to change the names of all military bases named after leaders of the Confederacy. It also prohibits the display of the Confederate flag on military installations.

On July 23, the Senate followed suit, overwhelmingly passing a bill which calls for the formation of a commission to prepare a plan for renaming the bases. The Defense secretary would then: “implement the plan submitted by the commission …and remove all names, symbols, displays, monuments, and paraphernalia that honor or commemorate the Confederate States of America … or any person who served voluntarily with …[it] from all assets of the Department of Defense” within three years of the bill being enacted.

While President Trump has said he would veto a bill with such provisions, the votes in both houses of Congress indicate that it would be overridden.

By taking these actions, the U.S. military would put itself among the many activist groups, towns and states that have already taken such actions in recent years, but especially since the killing of George Floyd on May 25. In February, 2019, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that since the June 2015 white supremacist attack at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, SC, 114 Confederate symbols had been removed across the country with 1,747 still standing. Most significantly, such action has been taken in Richmond, VA, the former capital of the Confederacy. In early July, Mayor Levar Stoney, citing public safety and the need for healing, used his emergency powers to remove about a dozen Confederate statues. He stated: “It is time past.” “We have needed to turn this page for decades, and today we will.”

Painting of General Lee in West Point Library

Over fifty years ago the large portraits of General Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, facing each other on opposite walls in the large reference room of the West Point library, would mesmerize me as I did homework there. The portraits still remain mounted in the newer cadet library, the library staff recently told me. While I may regret the possible movement of General Lee’s portrait to the West Point Museum down the road from the library, it would be a small but necessary step towards an American reconciliation.

A retired Army officer, contributing editor Fred Zilian is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University. (www.zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) He is the author of From Confrontation to Cooperation: The Takeover of the National People’s (East German) Army by the Bundeswehr.

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A Conversation with Carl Sagan, Part III: Disarmament

(Note: Forty years ago I exchanged letters with Carl Sagan. In his letter, he asked me two questions. The first focused on how we might move people to think more in terms of the interests of the “human species as a whole,” rather than of individual nations. I answered this in Parts I & II.. His second question: “Since the threat of nuclear war is clearly the most likely cause of the imminent end of our civilization, what practical measures could be taken to achieve global disarmament without tempting any nuclear power to a preemptive strike?”)

Dear Professor Sagan, You seek disarmament which is a noble but very ambitious goal, probably too ambitious. Disarmament seeks to eliminate arms between rivals, a tough standard to reach given the absence of any over-arching world government or “watchman,” the primacy of national security in a state’s foreign policy, the lack of certainty in assessing a rival’s intentions, and finally the element of mistrust among states.

Arms control is a more reasonable and achievable goal. Instead of eliminating a class of arms completely, it seeks to limit arms races by setting limits on the number and types of weapons states may possess.

Before your passing in 1996, you may recall the many arms control agreements reached by the US and the Soviet Union after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. After this crisis, my family actually built a modest fallout shelter, but happily we never had to use it. Eventually, there were more than 25 conferences and agreements which lowered tensions, stabilized the military balance, helped to build trust, and reduced the risk of war.

These began with the Hot line Agreement of 1963 and included the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks of 1972 and 1979, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987, and the first two Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START) of 1991 and 1993.

After you left us, there were two more START agreements, 1997 and 2010, and also the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty of 2002.

All these agreements served to curtail the nuclear arms race and stabilize it. Nonetheless, when the Cold War—the state of tension which existed between the US and the Soviet Union since World War II—ended in 1991, the U.S. and the Soviet Union still had an excessive amount of nuclear weapons.

Since the peak in 1986 of about 70,300 nuclear weapons, the sizes of their nuclear arsenals have declined over 80% to about 13,890 in early 2019. (Other countries, possessing much smaller numbers, include France, China, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea.)

Despite this great progress made over decades by the US and Soviet Union/Russia, recent trends are not positive. During this past year, the INF Treaty, controlling nuclear weapons ranging from 300 to 3400 miles, has lapsed. The US accused Russia of violating the agreement with its new 9M729 missile system and also stated concerns about the large number of INF missiles that China, free from any treaty obligations, has built.

In response, Russian stated that it would withdraw from the treaty. President Vladimir Putin stated: “We will wait until our partners are ready to carry out an equal, substantial dialogue with us on this very important topic ….”

In February of this year, the Pentagon announced a new warhead—the first in decades for the US—to counter the alleged Russian threat. This warhead, the W76-2, will sit atop Trident long-range ballistic missiles in submarines.

Expressing the gravity of the situation, that same month former American Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov published an essay in the New York Times pleading for the renewal of the New START Treaty, set to expire in February 2021. “Time is critical. Doing nothing while waiting for a ‘better’ agreement is a recipe for disaster: We could lose New START and fail to replace it. The treaty’s agreed limits on nuclear arsenals are too important to be put at risk in a game of nuclear chicken.”

It is not only between the US and Russia regarding nuclear weapons, but also elsewhere, that the trends in arms control are negative: that states are acting more according to the principles of realism and nationalism rather than liberalism. They are turning more to confrontation and power to protect their interests rather than to cooperation, diplomacy and compromise.

 In February the New York Times reported that at least six nations are “fueling mayhem in Libya,” supplying weapons, mercenaries or military advisers to rival factions battling for control of the oil-rich country.”  These states include: the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Egypt, Jordan, France, and Turkey.

In July the Wall Street Journal reported that India and China, two nuclear powers, were locked in an arms race at high altitude. High in the Himalayas they “have been engaged in a competitive military construction spree, expanding bases and building airfields….” In June the tension had boiled over into violence with 20 Indian and an unknown number of Chinese troops dead. This month both sides accused the other of firing gun shots at the other.

In August the New York Times reported that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s party in Japan, celebrating its 75th anniversary of essentially renouncing offensive warfare, has begun to consider whether Japan should acquire weapons capable of striking the missile bases of potential enemies, China and North Korea. 

A few weeks ago, the New York Times also reported on Taiwan’s efforts to upgrade its military forces in response to the increased threat it perceives from mainland China, which has suppressed protests in Hong Kong and has long threatened to use force, if necessary, to prevent Taiwan’s formal independence. President Tsai Ing-wen’s government has responded by increasing Taiwan’s defense budget last year by 5% and has stated its intention to raise it 10% this year.

In the final chapter of your book, you make a strong pitch for science, knowledge, and reason to address the problems facing humankind. You state that “… more rather than less knowledge and intelligence seems so clearly the only way out of our present difficulties and the only aperture to a significant future for mankind….” You lament the ways of thinking and “doctrines” shared by others which put faith in other things, e.g., astrology, flying saucers, ancient astronauts, photography of ghosts, scientology, psychic surgery, and “the doctrine of the special creation, by God or gods, of mankind despite our deep relatedness …with the other animals.”

Here you and I differ. The future peace and prosperity of the human species will not be secured by facts, reason, and science alone. It will rest also on our capacity to feel and communicate deeply, to empathize with and trust in each other, and when necessary, to elevate the bonds of common humanity above national or tribal bonds. (This last item is exactly what you seek in your first question to me.) Religion and art enable these better than reason and science. Not just molecules and materials but also hearts and souls.

In your second question you ask for practical measures that might be taken to pursue disarmament. At the international level, we need more communication and more agreements limiting arms.

At the state level, we need more science to verify and enforce the agreements, but also more diplomacy. Perhaps diplomats should not only meet and negotiate with fellow diplomats, but they should also come to know their extended families, especially their children.

At the citizen level, we must choose leaders that have enough liberalism to believe in agreements and enough realism not to be deceived.

Also, we should not only become expert in discovering and counting each other’s weapons, but also become expert in learning each other’s culture and worldview: learn each other’s languages, live in each other’s countries, and know each other personally. This will help us communicate better, avoid miscommunication, and promote mutual respect and understanding.

Lastly, we must continue to believe in peace. Let’s not fall into the pit of fatalism and hopelessness, but continue to sing “Peace Train” with Cat Stevens. “I’ve been smiling lately/Dreaming about the world as one/And I believe it could be/Someday it’s going to come”

“Cause I’m on the edge of darkness/There ride the Peace Train/Oh Peace Train take this country/Come take me home again.”

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.

Sources:

Albright, Madeleine and Igor Ivanov. “A Plea to Save the Last Nuclear Arms Treaty.” The New York Times, February 10, 2020.

Blanton, Shannon L. and Charles W. Kegley. World Politics: Trend and Transformation, 17th ed. US: Cengage, 2021.

Gettleman, Jeffrey. “India and China Accuse Each Other of Firing Shots.” The New York Times, September 9, 2020.

Lubold, Gordon. “U.S. Adds Warhead to Nuclear Arsenal.” The Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2020.

Mearsheimer, John J. The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.

Miller, Nicholas L. and Vipin Narang. “Is a New Nuclear Age Upon Us?” Foreign Affairs, December 30, 2019.

Myers, Steven Lee and Javier C. Hernandez. “As China Flexes, Taiwan Revamps Its Military. The New York Times, August 31, 2020.

Rich, Motoko. “A Fraught Proposal for a Pacifist Japan: Should It Acquire Missiles?” The New York Times, August 17, 2020.

Sagan, Carl. The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence. NY: Ballantine, 1977.

Simmons, Ann M. and James Marson. “Russia’s Exit Unravels Arms Agreement.” The Wall Street Journal, February 4, 2019, A6.

Spindle, Bill and Ann Rajesh Roy. China and India Locked in High-Altitude Arms Race. The Wall Street Journal, July 18, 2020, A7.

Walsh, Declan. “United Nations Effort to Limit Arms in Libya Is Flouted on All Sides.” The New York Times, February 3, 2020.

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Alice Paul and the Silent Sentinels Spearheaded Suffrage Campaign

(This essay is the first in a series on Famous Women. It was originally published by the Newport Daily News on August 29, 2020. )

I am always stunned by the fact that, until one hundred years ago and only after a hard-fought campaign of over 70 years, women in the U.S. did not have the most basic political right in a democracy—the right to vote. Alice Paul played a central role in effecting this dramatic change.

In the election of November, 1916, Woodrow Wilson, not a supporter of women’s suffrage, had won a second term as president. Despite many meetings, speeches, rallies, parades, and other actions, women still did not have the right to vote in national elections. They had made some progress on the state level; by 1914, ten western states (+ Kansas) had given the vote to women in state elections. Illinois had given it in presidential elections. (In Rhode Island, women would win the right to vote in presidential elections in April 1917.)

Led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, women suffragists—people who supported women’s right to vote—of the Congressional Union for Women Suffrage, met in early January 1917, at their new headquarters located near the White House.

Harriot Stanton Blatch, daughter of suffragist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, told the group: “We have got to bring to the President, day by day, week in, week out, the idea that great numbers of women want to be free, will be free, and want to know what he is going to do about it. We need to have a silent vigil in front of the White House until his inauguration in March.”

On January 10, 1917, a dozen or so women did what no one had ever done before: They picketed the White House. They braved the winter cold, marched to the sidewalk in front of the White House, and stood silently holding signs: “MR. PRESIDENT, WHAT WILL YOU DO FOR WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE?” “HOW LONG MUST WOMEN WAIT FOR LIBERTY?” These were the “Silent Sentinels.”

Silent Sentinels (wikipedia.org)

Alice Paul informed the press that the pickets would be there from 10 am to 6 pm, every day except Sundays, until the presidential inauguration.

The impact was immediate and mostly negative, even among suffragists, but this only stiffened Paul’s resolve. The pickets continued day in and day out. In foul weather, the women rotated shifts ever two hours.

In April, the U.S. joined the world at war. This had a positive effect overall on the suffrage campaign. Young men willing to die overseas for liberty made the country more sympathetic to the cause of women’s political rights.

Nonetheless, with the warmer spring weather came occasional violence involving the pickets and also continued embarrassment for the White House. The White House and the police of the district became increasingly frustrated with the turmoil and tried to negotiate with the women. Alice Paul was unmoved. On June 21, 1917, District Superintendent of Police Raymond Pullman told Paul: “If anybody goes out again on the picket line, it will be our duty to arrest them.”

The next day, three suffragists held up a sign with the president’s own words in his war message to Congress: “WE SHALL FIGHT FOR THE THINGS WHICH WE HAVE ALWAYS CARRIED NEAREST OUR HEARTS—FOR DEMOCRACY, FOR THE RIGHT OF THOSE WHO SUBMIT TO AUTHORITY TO HAVE A VOICE IN THEIR GOVERNMENT.”

The police arrested the women and charged them with blocking traffic and unlawful assembly.

After a series of protests and arrests in July, Judge Alexander Mullowney offered those arrested fines or three days in jail. The suffragists chose jail.

With the protests and arrests continuing, the judge increased the punishment to 60 days in the Workhouse in Occoquan, VA, or a $25 fine. Again, the women chose jail. The Workhouse offered harsh living conditions, horrible food, and limited contact with the outside world.

On October 20, 1917, Alice Paul herself was arrested and sentenced to seven months in the district jail. As she left the courtroom, she said: “I am being imprisoned …because I pointed out to the President Wilson the fact that he was obstructing the cause of democracy and justice at home, while Americans fight for it abroad.”

Alice Paul
(womenshistory.org)

In November she began a hunger strike which led to force-feeding. She was taken to the psychiatric ward, strapped down, and a tube placed up her nose, through which the staff forced raw eggs and milk, three times daily.

More protests, arrests, hunger-strikes, and force-feedings of women followed.

On June 9, 1918, President Wilson finally relented, announcing his support for the 19th Amendment, the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment.” He noted that public sentiment for it had grown and cited America’s standing in the world as a beacon of democracy.

The amendment passed Congress on June 4, 1919, and took effect when the 36th state, Tennessee, ratified it in August 1920.  Overnight the voting population of the country doubled. Whether women of color had the ability to vote is another question—and another column.

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.

Sources:

Alice Paul. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Paul.

Accessed August 24, 2020.

Cassidy, Tina. “The Silent Sentinels: Unyielding Warriors in the Brutal Fight for the 19th Amendment.” National Geographic History, July/August 2020, 58-70.

Davidson, James West et al. Experience America: Interpreting America’s Past. NY: McGraw Hill, 2011.

Editorial Board, The New York Times. “The Milestone and the Myth Called the 19th Amendment.” The New York Times, August 8, 2020.

Stevens, Elizabeth C. “The Struggle for Woman Suffrage in Rhode Island.” http://library.providence.edu/encompass/the-struggle-for-woman-suffrage-in-rhode-island/the-struggle-for-woman-suffrage-in-rhode-island/#:~:text=The%20struggle%20to%20achieve%20women’s,skills%20to%20gain%20the%20vote.

Accessed August 24, 2020.

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World War Two Ends with Great Impacts on US

(This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on August 14, 2020.)

Seventy-five years ago today, Japan surrendered unconditionally to the Allies, ending World War II. In 1984, historian, actor, and broadcaster Studs Terkel published an oral history of the war and entitled it, “The Good War,” winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1985. It was indeed the last of America’s “good wars:” clear provocation, clear enemies, clear battle lines, clear objectives, a unified nation, and—most important—a clear and satisfying victory.

There was jubilation across America, especially in mid-town New York City, where police estimated that 2 million people celebrated. One of those people was Middletown native George Mendonsa, a sailor on leave. Amid all the celebration and revelry, George suddenly grabbed and kissed a woman unknown to him, dental assistant, Greta Zimmer Friedman, an iconic moment captured by photographer George Eisenstaedt.

In an interview in 2012, George said: “The excitement of the war bein’ over, plus I had a few drinks. So when I saw the nurse I grabbed her, and I kissed her.” For her part, Greta explained: “I did not see him approaching, and before I know it I was in this vice grip.”

In human terms, over 16.1 million men and women served in the U.S. armed forces. There were 406,000 deaths—292,000 battle deaths and 114,000 non-combat deaths—and 672,000 wounded.

Because of the opportunities and training available in the services, minorities enlisted in unusually high numbers, but prejudice and segregation remained high. In the Army, blacks were given generally non-combat roles; in the Navy, they served as cooks and servants. The American Red Cross kept plasma separated for blacks and whites, with a touch of irony as the process for storing plasma was invented by a black physician, Charles Drew.

Despite these handicaps, more than one million African American men and women served during the war. Included in these were the Tuskegee airmen, the first black military aviators in the Army Air Corps. Over two years, they flew over 15,000 sorties in Europe and North Africa, earning over 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses.

The war had tremendous impacts on our country on many levels. Economically, the Gross National Product shot up from $91 billion annually to $166 billion. The war put a definitive end to the Great Depression of the 1930s. New industries, such as synthetic rubber, were created, and others, such as electronics, were greatly boosted.

The federal government became larger and more complex, centralizing more power and extending its reach into American life, a process  begun in World War I.

Internationally, the United States now became the world’s greatest power, soon to be labeled a superpower, accentuated by our vast production capabilities, our untouched homeland, and our monopoly of atomic weapons. While France and the United Kingdom were on the winning side, they were devastated and exhausted from six years of war. The Soviet Union, our other major ally, had lost 26 million military and civilians.

Close to home, long before the U.S. entered the war, the Naval War College was preparing for it, specifically, how to wage war against Japan. During the inter-war period (1919-1941), naval officers war-gamed the many scenarios of such a war and refined the Navy’s war plan against it—War Plan Orange. When war came, the navy was well-prepared for all contingencies.

After the war concluded, Admiral Chester Nimitz said that every tactic used by Japan, except for the kamikaze attacks, had been anticipated and planned for.

Naval Station Newport, of course, was a very busy place during the war. About 150,000 sailors trained there. On Goat and Gould Islands, thousands of torpedoes were made by the Torpedo Station. At Melville in Portsmouth, sailors—including future president John F. Kennedy—underwent PT boat training.

In 1943, 15-year old Nora Sliva, sister of three brothers serving in the military, saw a notice on a school bulletin board in Durfee High School, Fall River. The Torpedo Station was seeking workers. In an interview for this paper in 2016, she related her story. “It was the war. They needed help.” Hired in June 1943, she had three different jobs before the war ended: nuts and bolts, explosives, and finally office work.

Every Friday night, she and her friends would stay in Newport and go dancing at the local USO club. Sailors were everywhere.

I am sure that one of the songs she danced to many times was “Moonlight Serenade,” a song released in 1939 which became the signature song of the Glenn Miller Band.

I stand at your gate and the song that I sing is of moonlight
I stand and I wait for the touch of your hand in the June night
The roses are sighing a moonlight serenade


The stars are a glow and tonight how their light sets me dreaming
My love, do you know that your eyes are like stars brightly beaming?
I bring you and sing you a moonlight serenade


Let us stray till break of day in love’s valley of dreams
Just you and I a summer sky, a heavenly breeze kissing the trees
So don’t let me wait come to me tenderly in the June night


I stand at your gate and I sing you a song in the moonlight
A love song, my darling, a moonlight serenade
We can stay, till break of day

[Source: Musixmatch. Songwriters: Glenn Miller / Mitchell Parish

Moonlight Serenade lyrics © Chappell & Co., Emi Robbins Catalog Inc., Emi Music Publishing France, Emi Robbins Catalog Inc]

In 1942, Glenn Miller, 38 years old, chose to leave his successful civilian career as bandleader and to volunteer for military service, eventually forming a 50-piece military band. On December 15, 1944, Miller was flying from England to Paris when his airplane disappeared over the English Channel.

He once said: “America means freedom and there’s no expression of freedom quite so sincere as music.”

A retired Army officer, Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.

Sources:

Baker, Joe. “Days of Old: Woman Recalls Time Spent Working on Goat Island at the Torpedo Factory during World War II.” The Newport Daily News, October 22, 2016, p. 1.

Calvocoressi, Peter and Guy Wint. Total War. NY: Penguin, 1972.

 “George Mendonsa, sailor kissing woman in iconic V-J Day photo, dies.” CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/george-mendonsa-died-wwii-sailor-kissing-nurse-in-times-square-from-iconic-photo-dead-age-95/  Accessed August 10, 2020.

“Glenn Miller.” Wikipedia.org. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glenn_Miller. Accessed August 10, 2020.

“The Good War.” Wikipedia.org. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Good_War, Accessed August 10, 2020.

“Moonlight Serenade.” Wikipedia.org. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moonlight_Serenade, Accessed August 10, 2020.

Stokesbury, James L. A Short History of World War II. NY: William Morrow and Company, 1980.

Sweeney, Phil. “Education, Training, and Research.” The Newport Daily News, December 31, 1999, p. 5

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A Conversation with Carl Sagan, Part II: Nationalism over Liberalism

(Note: Forty years ago this month, I finished reading Carl Sagan’s book, “The Dragons of Eden.” I wrote him a long letter. He wrote back and asked me two questions. The first: “What would be necessary to make the reader [of a possible book on international relations] consider not just what is best for one nation or power group in a single nation, but for the human species as a whole? I never answered him; this is Part II of my answer. Part I was published in the Newport Daily News on July 25. This was originally published in the Newport Daily News on July 27, 2020.)

To see how these theories of realism and liberalism stand up, let’s look at how the U.S. and China are acting during this COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the early 1990s, the U.S. has been the world’s only genuine superpower, though it has been buffeted by challenges such as the attacks on 9/11, the Great Recession of 2008, and now the Coronavirus Pandemic. China’s power and influence have been rising during this same period.

Amid the pandemic, liberalism theory would suggest that these two powers would think not just of their own people but, in your words, think “for the human species as a whole.” The theory would predict that they would combine their efforts to save lives across the globe, which has seen virtually every country struck by the virus. At this writing, there have been almost 14 million cases and 590,000 deaths. In the U.S., there have been 3.5 million cases with 138,000 deaths.

But while the U.S. and China have cooperated at times over the past six months, both countries now appear to be acting according to political realism and not political liberalism.

Rather than open and robust cooperation in addressing the pandemic, there is increasing tension over trade, technology, and China’s punitive measures against Hong Kong and its Xinjiang region. Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, stated recently that the US has worsened relations to their lowest level since the two countries re-established diplomatic relations in 1979. He stated: “The current China policy of the United States is based on ill-informed strategic miscalculation and is fraught with emotions and whims and McCarthyist bigotry.”

Liberalism theory would also suggest that the World Health Organization (WHO), the responsible United Nations agency, would provide some leadership and coordination in the pandemic and that states would cooperate with it for the common good. However, the U.S. has not done so. On May 18, President Donald Trump, in a letter to the director general of the WHO, accused it of an “alarming” dependence on China. It stated: “It is clear the repeated missteps by you and your organization in responding to the pandemic have been extremely costly for the world.”

Early this month the U.S. formally notified the WHO that it will withdraw from it, ending its 72-year membership, a move which critics believe will hamper international efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rather than open and aggressive medical cooperation and coordination between the U.S. and China to develop a vaccine, on May 14 the U.S. accused Chinese hackers of targeting American universities, pharmaceutical and other health-related firms to steal intellectual property related to coronavirus treatments, vaccines, and testing. The U.S. government alert stated: “The potential theft of this information jeopardizes the delivery of secure, effective, and efficient treatment options.”

All this does not portend well for your hope of international cooperation among states for the good of the human species rather than confrontation and competition. States remain the most important actors in the world political system, and they control the majority of the means of violence. They are led by humans who perceive and misperceive, trust and mistrust, and in situations where the intentions of other states are shadowy, they put the interests of their state first.

Since the global scourges of climate change, nuclear proliferation, and now the coronavirus have yet to lead to an over-riding concern for the human species, as you wished for, perhaps the only answer may come from outer space, in the field close to your heart—extraterrestrial life. If aliens invade, as in the films “Independence Day” and “War of the Worlds,” perhaps then states would finally unite to save the human species.

 (Note: Stay tuned for Part III.)

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.

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A Conversation with Carl Sagan, Part I: Wonder and Theory

(Note: This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on July 25, 2020.)

Forty years ago this month, I had just finished reading Carl Sagan’s book, “The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence,” a book for which he earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1978. The David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences at Cornell University from 1976 to his death in 1996, Sagan was a famous scientist of many fields relating to the universe: astronomy, planetary science, astrophysics, and astrobiology.

He became best known for his research on extraterrestrial life. He was the author, co-author, or editor of over 600 scientific papers and over 20 books. He narrated and co-wrote the award-winning television series: Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.  

As the sub-title suggests, Sagan takes the reader on a wonderful and stimulating journey around the brains of our ancestors—human and non-human—and our brains today. He then speculates on the growth of our intelligence by explaining the various parts of our brain, their functions, and why we think, speak, act, feel, and even dream the way we do.

The book is magisterial in its scope, its composition, and its readability. He casts a wide net in quoting from the ancients, like Plato and Aristotle, and important writers and thinkers of the past five centuries, like John Milton, William Shakespeare, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, and Sigmund Freud.

Among other things, the book gave me the gift of wonder. Many times throughout Sagan brings the reader to a certain point and then, he “wonders.” In his section dealing with human emotions, he wonders: “Do horses on occasion have glimmerings of patriotic fervor? Do dogs feel for humans something akin to religious ecstasy? What other strong or subtle emotions are felt by animals that do not communicate with us?”

He wonders: “Are our nighttime dreams of flying and daytime passions for flight … nostalgic reminiscences of those days gone by in the branches of the high forest?”

In his section on the competition among early smaller hominids and later humans, he wonders: “I sometimes wonder whether our myths about gnomes, trolls, giants, and dwarfs could possibly be a genetic or cultural memory of those times.”

Upon reading the book in 1980, I was so moved that I wrote him a long letter. Six months later, he wrote back and asked me two questions. The first: “What would be necessary to make the reader [of a possible book on international relations] consider not just what is best for one nation or power group in a single nation, but for the human species as a whole? I never answered him; this is my answer.

Dear Professor Sagan: This possible book would have to deal with how the world political system works and would therefore have to deal with the two major theories of the system. A theory or model of the system is necessary, as in your work, because the system is complicated with many moving parts and unknowns. It does not conform to a clear and definitive set of mathematical equations which exist, for example, in astrophysics or planetary science.

My own definition of “theory” is: a set of assumptions and descriptive statements about a field of study which explain and predict behavior. When I say “explain,” I mean that it must deal with the “Why?” the causality, of things. Leonardo Da Vinci said: “He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards a ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast.”

The two major theories in world politics are: realism and liberalism. In very simple terms, political realism views the world political system as anarchy with no fixed, agreed-upon rules and no over-arching government or “watchman.” States are the most important actors, not humans or international organizations. In this environment, states are compelled to look after their own interests. They do this by seeking power and influence. Virtues, such as kindness and generosity, may be laudable for individuals, but they should have no place in a state’s decision-making. They will get you into trouble.

Political liberalism, on the other hand, emphasizes the unity and goodness of humankind. States may be the most important actors, but individuals make decisions for states, and they can make a difference. While it accepts that the system is one of anarchy, it has faith in people and in diplomacy to create institutions and to establish rules to lessen inequality and the use of violence to settle disputes.

You can see, Professor Sagan, that you—and I—both hope that more states conform and adhere to the principles of liberalism.

(Note: Stay tuned for Part II and Part III.)

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.

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Slavery Today

(Note: This essay was originally published on June 27, 2020, by the Newport Daily News. It is the 10th and final essay in the series: Slavery in Rhode Island. For the complete series, go to www.zilianblog.com)

To many Americans the term “slavery” evokes an image of people of color in chains enduring the horrible middle passage or toiling in cotton fields in the antebellum South. However, not only in distant lands but also in our own country, slavery—in one form or another—thrives today.

Modern slavery is one of several terms used today to distinguish it from the earlier slavery that flourished for centuries. The State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) (June 2019) states: “The United States considers ‘trafficking in persons,’ ‘human trafficking,’ and ‘modern slavery’ to be interchangeable umbrella terms that refer to both sex and labor trafficking.” The United Nations includes in these terms forced labor, debt bondage, and forced marriage.

At the end of the 20th century, increasing attention was paid to this growing scourge of modern slavery. In June 2000, the New York Times reported: “Trafficking in people is now the fastest-growing business of organized crime, and it is being run by new, barely understood networks that have sidelined traditional criminal syndicates,” according to Pino Arlacchi, then director  general of the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention.

To combat the trafficking in persons, the United States passed into law the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, which has been renewed by successive administrations. That same year the international community enacted the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (the Palermo Protocol), the first international legislation to define “trafficking in persons” and offer insight into the criminal system. As of March, 2019, 173 parties had ratified the Palermo Protocol and 168 countries had passed domestic legislation criminalizing human trafficking.

From a global perspective, the magnitude of the problem is stunning. The International Labour Organization of the UN gives these figures: 40.3 million people are victims of modern slavery which includes 24.9 million in forced labor and 15.4 million in forced marriages. Of the millions in forced labor, 16 million are exploited in the private sector such as domestic work, construction, or agriculture, 4.8 million in sexual exploitation, and 4 million in labor controlled by state authorities. Women and girls account for 99% of the victims in the commercial sex industry. It also estimates that 150 million children are subject to child labor, almost one in ten children worldwide.

Child laborer in India (antislavery.org)

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, in his cover letter to the TIP Report, focuses on victims in forced labor: “Right now traffickers are robbing a staggering 24.9 million people of their freedom and basic human dignity….”

The TIP Report offers typical examples of modern slavery. In Brazil, after victims join certain religious groups or cults, traffickers exploit them in forced labor in farming, factories, and restaurants.  In Cambodia, women and girls who leave rural areas and come to tourist destination cities are exploited sexually by traffickers in massage parlors, karaoke bars, and beer gardens. In Ethiopia, traffickers may deceive parents living in rural areas into sending their children to major cities as domestic workers. In the United Kingdom, gangs force children to carry drugs. Here in the U.S., traffickers tend to exploit children in foster care by engaging them in sex trafficking.

In March the Wall Street Journal reported on sex trafficking networks in the United States and the many lawsuits being filed against major hotel chains, such as Hilton, Marriott, and Wyndham, for ignoring the sex trafficking at their hotels. The lawsuit by “S.Y.,” one of dozens filed across the country, states the hotels, including  Hilton and Wyndham, profited from sex trafficking and that they were aware of it or should have been aware of it. At that time there were 40 lawsuits filed in federal courts, others in state courts, with dozens more to follow in the next year.

The lawsuits describe the common patterns. Rooms were paid for in cash, sometimes for weeks at a time. Many alleged victims were minors. The lawsuits assert that hotel staff should have recognized the signs of trafficking: bottles of lubricants, boxes of condoms, excessive requests for sheets and towels. Men came to the same rooms, often more than a dozen times each night, without luggage.

One accuser, “H.H.,” stated that a hotel staffer found her chained in the bathroom in one hotel and tied to a bed in another.

S. Y. filed her suit about three years after local police discovered her in a hotel room in 2016. They arrested her two pimps who had given her unlimited drugs and kept all her earnings.

She indicated: “I wasn’t chained here, but I had invisible chains holding me to these guys.”

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.

Sources:

Crossette, Barbara. “Trafficking in People: World’s ‘Fastest-Growing Criminal Market.” International Herald Tribune, June 26, 2000.

Helplineri.com. Human Trafficking. https://www.helplineri.com/human-trafficking

Accessed June 24, 2020.

“International Day for the Abolition of Slavery 2 December.” https://www.un.org/en/events/slaveryabolitionday/index.shtml

Accessed June 24, 2020.

Ramey, Corinne. “Lawsuits Accuse Big Hotel Chains of Allowing Sex Trafficking.” The Wall Street Journal, March 4, 2020.

U.S. Department of State. Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. https://www.state.gov/bureaus-offices/under-secretary-for-civilian-security-democracy-and-human-rights/office-to-monitor-and-combat-trafficking-in-persons/#:~:text=The%20Office%20to%20Monitor%20and,efforts%20and%20identifying%20global%20trends%2C

Accessed June 24, 2020.

U.S. Department of State. “Trafficking In Persons Report.” Washington, DC, June 2019.

“Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victims_of_Trafficking_and_Violence_Protection_Act_of_2000. Accessed June 24, 2020.

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A Reflection on Marriage and the Family

(Note: An abridged version of this essay was published by the Newport Daily News on June 13, 2020.)

Fifty years ago this weekend, my wife, Geri, and I were married on a sun-drenched day at the Catholic church at West Point, overlooking the picturesque Hudson River Valley.

Reaching such a milestone is at once quite celebratory and sobering; it is also a good occasion for reflection.

Sadly, that time, as today, was a period of great strife and turmoil in our country. The late 1960s were fraught with political and social unrest, spurred on by several movements: civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, feminism, and the counter-culture. Six weeks before our wedding on June 14, 1970, Ohio national guardsmen shot and killed four college students and wounded nine others at Kent State University, during a protest against the recent U.S. military incursion into Cambodia. On May 15, state police shot into a dormitory at Jackson State College in Mississippi, killing two students and wounding 12 others.

Despite our progress in civil rights since that period, a resilient racism persists in America, and we have paid for it this past month. Writing recently in the Wall Street Journal, journalist William A. Galston stated: “I fear, as never before, for the future of my country.”

Living four blocks apart in the same hometown in New Jersey, Geri and I have known each other since the age of five. Marriage, unmarred by divorce, was the rule in both our extended families.

On my side, in addition to my own immediate family, I had the example of a total of 14 sets of aunts and uncles, with only two divorces. I learned that marriage was commitment.

With all these relatives, most living within a 30-minute drive, my immediate family of five shared Sundays, holidays, weddings, funerals, and other special events. They became important and reliable sources of happy times, dependability, and mutual support.

When the furnace died, Uncle Mike showed up. When godfather Uncle John could not make it, older Cousin George filled in as my sponsor at Confirmation. Uncle Frank showed up with his camera at special family events; he took my Confirmation picture. When the kitchen ceiling was in need of repair, Uncle Gus helped my father fix it. When my mother started to fail, her many sisters went to the local Shop-Rite for the groceries. I learned service to family and dependability. When in need, family shows up.

As early baby-boomers from middle class, suburban America, both raised in an American-Italian culture, Geri and I searched for mates in our college years. To me personally, it was another essential preparatory step—a rite of passage—to launch into true adulthood. We shared two presumptions: Our marriage would be a life-long commitment. Second, we would have several children early. Without children, we would not have a genuine “family.”

The young tend to define love as physical attraction and sexual passion, giddily wonderful and enthralling. It is this; however, whether in six months or in six years the passion eventually wanes. The honeymoon euphoria evolves into the unglamorous everyday—cutting the lawn, packing lunches, emptying the house gutters, completing the tax forms, changing the diapers, driving the kids to soccer practice. Over our 50 years, I have learned that love is also a decision—a decision which one makes often.

In its special report on marriage, “A Looser Knot,” the influential British magazine, The Economist, looked at marriage worldwide and made three major observations: Marriage decisions are increasingly made by the young people getting married, not their older relatives. Second, “marriage has changed from a rite of passage to a celebration of love and commitment—a sign that two people who already live together are ready to commit themselves further.” Third, there is a growing acceptance of divorce.

In his essay, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” (The Atlantic, March 2020) David Brooks explains that historically extended families were the rule—several generations living together. He argues that the nuclear family—two parents + children—flourished in America for only a short period of time, 1950-1965. The successful family of that period has been replaced “by the stressed family of every decade since.”

He states that the pressures on the family have been mostly cultural. The “self,” privacy, and autonomy have become more important than the family. The women’s movement has given women more freedoms and choices. Much more so today, marriage has come to be about individual fulfillment. In my case, my children and grandchildren came to be a part of my fulfillment rather than hindrances to it.

He ends his essay on a positive note, indicating that the stressed nuclear family is giving way to larger “chosen families” and “forged families,” composed of family and friends, these offering the same kinds of benefits the extended family once gave.

My immediate and extended families, coupled with my “forged family” of lifelong friends, have been sources of great happiness, comfort, security, and practical help, as they continue to be. During a downturn in my health years ago, my wife and family pulled me—at times dragged me—through it, sometimes making decisions for me when I could not make them myself. We all pulled each other through the passing of my son, Tom, last year. On a practical note, my twin grandsons, Anthony and Vincent just finished helping me with back-breaking yardwork.

On the level of American society, I believe the family—along with community—are the best “incubators” of good citizens, teaching important values needed not only for family but for citizenship: commitment to something larger than self, responsibility, rules and order, the limits of individual freedom, civility and manners, along with other important intangibles, such as faith and trust. They, rather than schools or government, are the best developers of character and the best inculcators of virtues, such as patience, civility, and empathy, sorely needed today.

Second, in his farewell address to the nation in 1989, President Ronald Reagan said: “All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” I wonder if our great challenge of anti-racism really begins at our family dinner tables.

Of course, I lament the negative trends for the American family I have witnessed in my lifetime: increased divorce rates and increased births to unwed mothers. Since the Great Recession of 2008, the U.S. fertility rate has dropped; last year it hit a record low of 1.7, well below the rate of 2.1 needed to sustain a population.

With all the restrictions and isolation forced upon us during the pandemic, I did observe some benefits. Instead of working out alone at the local fitness center, I frequently took walks with Geri. On our walks on Water Street here in Portsmouth, we encountered whole families walking and biking together, rather than the solitary walkers and bikers before the pandemic. On our walks we greeted more people unknown to us than ever before. My hard-working son-in-law, Marc, was able to spend quality time with his children, my grandchildren. Geri has finally begun to paint for pleasure with our granddaughter, Mary Jane. And after 20 years, without my wife begging me, I finally painted the cellar stairs.

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.

Bibliography:

Adamy, Janet. “U.S. Birthrates Fall to Record-Low Level.” The Wall Street Journal, May 20, 2020.

Brooks, David. “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” The Atlantic, March 2020, 55-69.

Galston, William A. “I’ve Never Been So Afraid for America.” The Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2020.

A Looser Knot. Special Report: Marriage. The Economist, November 25, 2017. 1-5.

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