Saturday, June 4, 2016

Eternal Ali

When Ali was 12 he had his bicycle stolen from him.  His initial reaction was to come home and cry to his mother.  However, one of the police officers who Ali complained to about his stolen bike also taught some of the young boys in Louisville, KY how to box.  Ali decided that he would learn, so that if he ever found out who had stolen his bike he could beat him up.

He learned - like many others who have ever taken up a sport where they have talent - that developing skill can be the best tonic for a world where none of us have control.  We can't control how others see us or what they do to us - but we can become really good at something.  That's where art and sports overlap for me.  Both require countless hours of preparation - they cause us to gain control over our bodies and our minds - the only things that we really have any control over in this world. 

Ali was a genius because he wasn't just a participant - he set the narrative.  He told the world what each fight meant.  As a black man in the second half of the 20th century he didn't allow others to define him - he defined himself.  He said, "I am America.  I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me."

The other way that people react to the lack of control that we have in the world is to be rule makers and/or protectors.  They find that small little part of the world that they can control.  They protect the status quo even if it doesn't benefit them or anybody else.  To me, the greatest conflict is between these two different ways of reacting to the chaos of the world.  We choose to create or we choose to stifle others. Ali chose to create.  He chose to fight.

His fight with George Foreman in Zaire, documented in "When We Were Kings" is powerful because it parallels how the oppressed can beat a superior opponent.  Foreman was younger and stronger - he should have won that fight.  Sportswriters, even Ali's own people were afraid for Ali - afraid that his pride would push him to the edge of death in the ring.  He came upon a solution.  In the first round he baited Foreman - he led with his right hand - which you never are supposed to do as a right hander.  It's actually a sign of disrespect - because he is saying that Foreman wasn't fast enough to take advantage of it.

For rounds 2-5 Ali played rope-a-dope.  As the writer George Plimpton wrote "he looked like a man leaning out of his window to look at something on his roof."  The above picture shows Foreman hitting the heavy bag.  As you can see - he hit so hard that the bag became concave.  Ali allowed Foreman to rain down body shots for three rounds until he saw his chance.  He waited for Foreman to get tired punching and then he attacked.  He won the only way he could win - by taking an incredible amount of punishment and striking at exactly the right time.  What incredible strategy and determination it must have took to get through those three rounds. 

Ali became a symbol - like any man who becomes a symbol - it's easy to tear him down.  He had his faults.  But he was like a primal scream from black America and every oppressed people around the world.  He refused to play the role that others wanted for him.  He found his own way - and in the process became eternal.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Civil Rights Museum and Ferguson

I had a few more postings planned about my trip south - but school interrupted my writing.  I decided to come back to writing about it this weekend.

The pictures may be in black and white, but these photos were taken on April 4, 1968 – only nine years before I was born.  The Civil Rights Museum in Memphis is haunting – for many reasons – but mostly because it makes you realize how recently MLK was killed.  The Lorraine Motel has been left the way it was that day.  It’s not some old brick building from the 19th century – it is a motel of the mid-20th century – the sign looking like something out of The Jetsons.  The hotel room had air conditioning and a television.  As a country we seem to want to put paint ourselves as “post-racial” – as if swamp of racism has been drained and all the snakes and alligators that once populated that swamp, have been killed off forever.

The reality, of course, is quite different.  We may have a biracial man in the Oval office, but in the last few years we’ve had some of the most violent uprisings since the summer after King was killed.  We seem to be split – once again – along the lines of race.  Many people mock the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement – saying that it is anti-police or anti-white or simply ineffective. 

The above photo is from inside the Civil Rights Museum.  These placards, stating “I AM A MAN” were used by the striking sanitation workers in Memphis – the strike was why Martin Luther King was in Memphis the day he was shot.  I think there is a strong parallel between the slogans “I am a man” and “Black lives matter.”  Both are stating facts that should be obvious, but that the people making them believe are radical statements given the way they are treated in society.
Of course, people who are against BLM for any number of reasons, or White people who don’t want to come to terms with the different way we still treat Black people in our society – have pounced on the idea that this slogan means they think White lives don’t matter.  If we lived in a society where everybody was already treated equally – then they might have a point.  In such a society the “I am a man” placards would be nonsensical – but we don’t live in such a society.
Here are some facts:
·        A 2013 study found that Black men have sentences 20% longer than White men charge for the same crime and with similar criminal histories.
·        While Blacks make up 13% of the US population they make up 65% of prisoners serving life sentences without possibility of parole for nonviolent offenses.
·        Blacks and Whites use drugs at the same rates – and yet Black people are put in jail for drug related crimes at 10 times the rate of White people.
This doesn’t even get into disparities of health and education.  In the minds of many Whites these disparities are due to Black people being more violent or lazier – not taking responsibility for their own lives.  As if the Civil Rights Act of 1965 cleaned the slate – and that now we can expect Whites and Blacks to have the same advantages and opportunities, even though we have 400 years of institutionalized racism.
A few more reminders of racist policies that lasted well into the mid-20th century.  The GI bill after WWII was the main way that many lower to middle class whites improved their situation.  The GI bill however was discriminatory – States had power over how money was distributed – and Blacks were usually left out.  Of the 67,000 housing mortgages that were approved through the GI bill only fewer than 100 were granted to non-whites.  100,000 Blacks applied for educational benefits given by the GI bill – and yet only 20,000 were granted – mostly because many Universities in the South did not allow Blacks entry in the 1940’s.
Another policy which stymied Black affluence was discriminatory housing.  Even Blacks who were qualified for loans were not shown homes in White neighborhoods.  In Omaha, where I live now, there were covenants – where the deeds of houses stated that the owners could not sell to a non-white person.  These covenants are still in the “historical” part of deeds – although non-actionable – I can’t imagine what it is like to be a Black person owning a home – where the deed states that you are not wanted here.  The practical effect of these policies was that Blacks were not able to capitalize on their successes as easily as Whites – even 100 years after slavery had been outlawed.
My wife is biracial – she was born in 1975.  Loving vs. the State of Virginia – the Supreme Court case that finally protected Whites and Blacks to intermarry was argued in 1967.  Which means that only 8 years before she was born – my wife’s parents wouldn’t have been able to be legally married in 16 states!  That is incredible to me.

This is the inside of the Church of God in Christ World Headquarters in Memphis.  It is where MLK gave his “Mountaintop” speech the night before he was killed. 

It’s as if someone were speaking through him.  He wasn’t even going to speak that night because he was tired from travel – but when he heard that a large crowd had gathered during a storm – and they had come to hear him – he came anyways.  He spoke for over 40 minutes.  At the end he basically collapsed into the arms of Ralph Abernathy.
BLM is possibly the most important movement for Civil Rights since MLK.  The issues are real.  If we are to “be true to what you said on paper” then we have to make sure that all citizens are given equal opportunities to succeed in our country.  That doesn’t mean handouts – even though handouts wouldn’t be unfair given how much value Blacks have created for this country without being given anything in return – it means giving people a fair shake.  It means acting against our prejudices.  It means those with the power of the police or even neighborhood watch (I won’t even get into the whole George Zimmerman selling the gun he used to kill an unarmed Black boy issue) need to honest with themselves about what they think about Blacks.  In our society the burden of proof seems to be on Black men to prove that they aren’t dangerous – rather than on society to prove that a specific Black man (or even boy) is dangerous.  Technology has allowed us to see videos which show inappropriate force used by police.  This has always happened – civilians just didn’t have the ease in which to capture it.
Yes, we should respect police.  But we should hold them to a high standard of conduct.  On my way back to Omaha I stopped in Ferguson.  There is a plaque in the cement near where Michael Brown was shot.  His father wrote it – his father is not looking for vengeance.  He wasn’t looking for riots.  He wanted justice.  He wanted the life of his son to be valued and respected.  He wanted the police to show contrition.  I was struck by the normality of the street – the balloons on the sign for the apartment complex where he lived.  It was hopeful and optimistic.  The fight for freedom must always have some optimism, because – in order to fight and sacrifice – one must be optimistic enough to think that the world will eventually recognize the justice of your movement.  So while Ferguson and Baltimore did have violence – I think that these were positive developments on the whole.  We still have a long way to go before we reach Dr. King’s “promised land” – but I, for one, believe enough in this country to think that we will eventually get there.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Lesson of Laith

When someone you have known your entire life suddenly sky rockets to fame at the age of 38 - it causes you to reflect.  It's easy to see what's happening to him as proof of some rather cliché phrases - like "never give up!" - "believe in your dreams!" etc . As a culture we have a tendency to take the stories of the "rich and famous" and learn from them - as if by tracing back their path we can somehow also learn how to be as successful as they are.  But I think the lesson of Laith is much deeper - and more importantly, relevant to those of us who will never achieve his level of success and even those of us who wouldn't want the fame and notoriety (even though as Americans it's our duty to all want to be rich and famous ; ).

"Each man had only one genuine vocation - to find the way to himself....His task was to discover his own destiny - not an arbitrary one - and to live it out wholly and resolutely within himself. Everything else was only a would-be existence, an attempt at evasion, a flight back to the ideals of the masses, conformity and fear of one's own inwardness." - Herman Hesse

I'm going to sprinkle in a few Herman Hesse quotes in this post - because I think Hesse is awesome - and I think that Laith's life has been more true to the philosophy of Hesse than anybody I know.  Last night I listened to a recording Laith and his band "Blue Vinyl" made in 1994, when he was 16 years old.  Yes, his voice sounded somewhat different, but he had a lot of things in place that is making him successful today.  The growl was even there already - the virtuosic guitar - the songwriting - the arranging etc.  I was there for the transformation from choir boy to rock/blues musician.  It happened quickly - like within 12-18 months.  It's as if something or someone was speaking through Laith.  He worked hard, but it came so naturally to him.  He somehow found his Hesseian self at a young age and has never looked back.

I have had some experiences in the last few years where I had to make some tough choices.  I'm still in the middle of it actually.  At times I've been the only person out of my friends and family who has agreed with my chosen way forward.  My chosen path may or may not lead to success.  However, I have found incredible strength in following my own vision - regardless of what anybody - even the people who care about me think. 

Laith has been like that since he was a teenager.  He has always chosen his own way - regardless of what his family or friends might think.  It wasn't that we didn't have faith in him or his talent - it was that we wanted him to have more stability - a more "comfortable" life.  However, the older I get the more I believe that as humans we are not meant to live in a place of comfort.  We are supposed to be uncomfortable - continuing to push forward for what feels right for ourselves - regardless of what anybody else thinks.  Even now I find myself trying to find some kind of sustainable path for Laith - but the truth is that Laith and only Laith can find his own path.  His choices might lead to the kind of success that we all want for him - or it might lead to an outcome that appears less desirable.  But it's not my place to plan that path for him - it's simply my job to love him - just the way he is - and to be thankful that I have a friend who has always had the courage to live his own way. 

That is the lesson of Laith - the lesson that I hope to take for my own life - to hear "the teachings of my blood pulsing within me" - as Hesse would put it.  The seeker of truth does not look for comfort he realizes that by listening to the voice inside him that is life will not be "sweet and harmonious like the invented stories; it tastes of folly and bewilderment, of madness and dream, like the life of all people who no longer want to lie to themselves."  Laith lives the way he does - not because he necessarily would lead him to huge success (although he seems to be on the precipice of just that) - but because to do otherwise would be to betray his essential nature. 

"a real living human being . . . represents a unique and valuable experiment on the part of nature . . . every man is more than just himself; he also represents the unique, the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world's phenomena intersect, only once in this way and never again. That is why every man's story is important, eternal, sacred; that is why every man, as long as he lives and fulfills the will of nature, is wondrous, and worthy of every consideration."

We all have an essential nature - made from our biology and our experiences.  As much as we may want to escape it at times - we cannot.  We usually find that the long path simply comes back around to where we wanted to escape.  We must embrace who we are - live in the way that is most true to our nature without apologizing.  It seems like it is the harder path, but it is much less of a burden than carrying around the artifice required to live the life that would "make others happy."

One last quote from Hesse that seems relevant to Laith - "I like listening to music, but only the kind you play, completely unreserved music, the kind that makes you feel that a man is shaking heaven and hell."  I think he would approve of Laith's music.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Oracle?

Raphael's "School of Athens" - Socrates and Plato are the two men in the center of the painting.

Although I will agree it is satisfyingly alliterative, I would like to take exception with the accuracy of Omaha's most famous citizen's nickname.  After doing some reading on the historical oracles - I don't think the name fits.  First of all, oracles were always women.  Ancient Greece was a very paternalistic society, however the oracle - the only human voice of the gods were always female.

The Oracle of Delphi was the most famous of these women.  Socrates happened to be a contemporary of The Oracle of Delphi.  At his trial he recounted how his friend, Chaerepho, visited the Oracle and asked her whether there was anyone more wise than Socrates.  The Oracle answered no, that Socrates was the wisest man alive.  When Chaerepho communicated the news to Socrates he was dumbfounded.  He believed that the Oracle spoke for the Apollo - and he knew that she was infallible - but he did not think he possessed any special knowledge unavailable to other men.

So, he decided to ask all the great men of Athens about their knowledge.  He found that their main weakness was not their ignorance (or all humans are ignorant) it was their inability to come to terms with their own ignorance.  Therefore the reason that he was most wise is that he is the only one who knows he knows nothing.

The same can be said for Warren Buffett (age 85) and his side kick Charlie Munger (age 92).  Although they answered technical questions with incredible knowledge and detail - both of them quick witted and eloquent - what I came away with from watching them answer questions from financial journalists and shareholders - was that they know that they know nothing.  Ok "nothing" is probably an exaggeration - but they know that their knowledge is limited.

Buffett said that "investing takes no real knowledge or special skill" it is more about temperament.  One of the stockholders asked him about why they don't have teams doing due diligence.  The answer was that he didn't think all that extra work meant anything.  He talked about buying See's Candies in the 1970's.  He said that of course they enjoy analyzing the stores - looking at growth in year 1, year 2 etc - but what is most important to him is how the CEO is "going to behave" after he buys the company.  The human factor is much more important to him than the numbers.  The numbers can lead you astray - because you think you know more than you actually know.

There are a few things that stand out about Buffett after hearing him speak for several hours.  First of all, he is funny - sometimes it felt like it was a comedy show.  At the beginning he said - "My youngest great-grandchild is here today.  If you hear him crying it's only because his mother is explaining my philosophy of inherited wealth to him."  They talked about how they have had to change philosophies as the company grew.  Now that they are larger they have to invest in companies that require more capital.  Munger said that they actually have come to prefer that strategy - Buffett added with a wry smile "when something is forced on you it is helpful to prefer it."

The other is how humble he is - how much credit he gives to the managers of his companies.  There is very little ego.  He understands that he is only one person.  He feels that his job is to free the leaders of the companies he buys to do what they do best and not have to worry about spending all their time in front of investors.  He appears to be a very hands off leader.

Going to the annual stockholders meeting for Berkshire Hathaway feels like going into the belly of the beast of capitalism.  He is undeniably the most successful capitalist in the history of capitalism.  And yet he almost as liberal as I am on many issues.  I have to say that listening to him for several hours was inspirational - because it showed that you don't have to be a jerk to get ahead in this world.  Don't get me wrong - I'm sure that many of his competitors would say that he can be ruthless at times - but it is impossible to come away from hearing him speak without being struck by his humanity.

This shouldn't be surprising - business is all about humans - we may attempt to use statistics and numbers to make our decisions for us - but the most successful people understand that the most important skill that they have is their ability to read people.  Buffett often talks about how he is incredibly lucky to have been born at the time and place where he was.  He says that if he were born at a time when athletic prowess were required to stay alive he probably would be bear food.  But I disagree.  Listening to him speak it's apparent that he has a way with words and is an incredible leader.  He is very rational and yet not so devoid from emotion that he pretends it doesn't exist.  He doesn't take himself too seriously - he allows others to make jokes about him.  The meeting itself is a microcosm of his philosophy.  At 85 years old he doesn't need to be up there answering questions from journalists and shareholders.  He could have retired long ago to an island and told the world to leave him alone.  But instead he keeps doing what he loves.  He keeps engaging - even with those who disagree with him.  So to me - we should change his nickname from Oracle of Omaha to Socrates of the Savanna.  What do you think?

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Angel of Omaha

You've all heard of the Oracle of Omaha - now I want to introduce you to the Angel of Omaha.  Omaha is a weird place.  Yes, it is odd that the second richest man in the United States is not only from here, but still lives here in a very modest house he purchased in the 50's.  There are five Fortune 500 companies here.  There are three billionaires on the board of Omaha Performing Arts (OPA) - where my wife is employed.

The only thing about Omaha that seems to stand out is that it doesn't stand out.  Omaha doesn't really have it's own culture - like the weather - it's more of an amalgam of Minnesota, Iowa, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Missouri.  People here act a lot like folks from Minnesota.  They are usually very nice and hardworking - they may have pride, but they don't brag.  But we have good BBQ here - like our neighbors to the south, Kansas City.

Within the first six months of us moving to Omaha I got a good example of how unexpected this place can be.  We were invited to the Knights of Aksarben Ball (which deserves its own post) to honor Kendra's boss, Joan Squires.  I sat next to Harriet Otis - all I knew about her was that she gave money to OPA and that she was good friends with Joan.  In fact they lived next door to each other in an apartment building downtown.

Harriet had just come back from Italy - she had spent time at a 1,000 year old farm - taking art classes, eating wonderful food etc.  The painting above was made by her.  We talked a lot about travel, which I love as much as she did.  Even though she was almost 50 years older than me - we seemed to be kindred spirits.  I'll have to be honest that my curiosity got the better of me.  I asked some questions, that I thought were subtle, trying to figure out where her money came from - because she didn't act like many people do who have money.  I could tell that she was deliberating about whether she should tell me something - she finally said "my husband and I used to play a lot of bridge.  One of the couples who we played with regularly you might have heard of - the Buffett's."  I didn't ask any other questions, but I assumed that meant that they got in on the ground floor of Berkshire.  I would later learn there were a lot of people like that in Omaha.  Warren Buffett did not start out with tons of money - he is one of those rare people who was not only adept at getting people to trust him - he actually made really good decisions once he got their money.  So, there are a lot of very rich people in Omaha - who in any other place or time would have been upper middle class - they just happened to be lucky enough to play bridge with Warren Buffett.

And Harriett knew she was lucky - as she put it "I never thought that I would have the money to be a 'philanthropist'."   Her focus, when it came to philanthropy, was education.  She made many of the masters classes given by internationally touring artists possible.  But she didn't just write checks.  She came to pretty much every class.  She asked questions.  Even though many of these classes were designed for children she fit right in - because she never stopped being curious about the world.

It's been a rough six months at OPA.  The organization was central to a controversy regarding whether three historic buildings should be torn down in order to make way for a multi-use building that would have including parking.  It's a long story and I won't bore you with the details, but suffice to say that OPA somehow became a pariah in the minds of some people in Omaha.  Disturbing to me, was the fact that many people who should know better - who have experienced first hand the dedication that OPA has to this community stayed silent and didn't come to the defense of the organization.  In January there was a city council meeting where a decision was going to be made regarding funding for tearing down the historic buildings.  Finding people in the community who would speak on behalf of OPA at this time was difficult.  Harriet was one of the few willing to speak up.

The above picture is from the Omaha World Herald at the city council meeting in January.

Harriet's death was unexpected.  She had health problems, but who doesn't at 87?  A week before she died I saw her at a concert at the Orpheum.  We talked during intermission and she started talking about her life.  She told me about her childhood on the Southside of Chicago and her time in college at the progressive Grinnell in Iowa.  She told me about how she had moved back to Chicago after college and came out to Omaha one weekend to visit some friends.  One of them set her up with another Grinnell grad.  After three days he asked her to marry him.  "What did you say?" I asked - looking rather shocked.  "I said yes!" she beamed.  Seeing how I was a little scandalized - she added with a smile - "Now don't go around spreading rumors about me!"

Joan wasn't feeling well that night and left at intermission.  Harriet wanted to stay - "Well I can walk you home if you want", I offered.  So, after the performance I met her and we walked home.  I even got a few other stories out of her.  As she entered the building she turned to me and blew me a kiss.  It was the last time I saw her.

I wanted to write this because I haven't seen anything written about Harriet in the local press.  She did a lot for this community - but as a true Omaha citizen - she didn't brag about it.  She did things quietly.  There were numerous people at her memorial yesterday who had been touched by her - whose lives were enriched because they knew Harriet.  Some, like me, didn't know her for very long - others had been close friends with her for over 50 years.  Some people you meet in this life appear to be angels sent from heaven.  Harriet Otis was one of those people.  Omaha has lost a very incredible person - but more than that - there are many of us who have lost a friend.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Jazz, Blues, Rock & Roll, and Laith

I tried to write this post over the weekend.  The result was a rushed serial biography of all the important innovators in Jazz and Blues music.  It was boring.  I realized the most interesting topic that I wanted to talk about was the appropriation of music from cultures other than one’s own.  After watching my buddy Laith Al-Saadi on The Voice tonight I realized that should the main thing I talk about.

Jazz, Blues, and Rock and Roll are significant because they are musical forms that could only come from America.  Although it was for an awful reason (slavery) – there was nowhere else on the planet where Europeans and Africans mixed culturally in the way they did in the South.

Jazz is the best example of this.  It really is as simple as European melody and African rhythm.  These elements were put together by African-Americans, but quickly became mainstream – as popular with Whites as it was with Blacks.

Early Jazz came from more than just New Orleans – Scott Joplin was from Texarkana, Texas – W.C. Handy was from Alabama - but it was codified in New Orleans.  What we think of now as Jazz developed mostly in New Orleans from 1900-1920 by people like Buddy Bolden, Joe “King” Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, and of course Louis Armstrong.

The Blues had an even hazier history – Leadbelly, Robert Johnson – these were men who were “discovered” by researchers – but you wonder how many others were out there who had just of an important impact on the music, but remained anonymous.  Blues was a rural music, while Jazz came from the cities.  Blues players still picked cotton by day and played juke joints at night in the Mississippi delta.

Yep, we’re going to skip ahead all the way to this guy – Elvis Presley.  For most Americans of a certain age Elvis is a god.  But for many Black folks he “stole their music.”  I can see their point.  Rock and Roll came out of the Blues.  And the first Rock and Roll innovators were all Black – most notably Chuck Berry.  Elvis got his start at Sun Records in Memphis.  Until I made this trip I didn’t realize how close Memphis is to the Mississippi Delta where Blues music got its start.  Beale Street was hopping even in the early 1900’s – all kinds of music were being played there. 

Elvis got his break with Sun Records and Sam Phillips.  Phillips signed both Black and White musicians – he went with whoever he thought had talent.  Elvis just got more traction.  So, while I can understand the whole – “he stole our music” thing – I think in the end it’s a good thing that Elvis was so popular.  He showed how incredible this music actually was.  It wasn’t just music for Black people picking cotton – it wasn’t some musical dead end – it was a music that connected with everybody.

This music then took over the entire world.  First in Britain – people like Lennon and McCartney took notice of Elvis – Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones etc . . .  Jazz became the defining music of Paris and Tokyo.  Anyone in the 20th century who was “cool” anywhere on the planet consumed music first created by Black Americans. 

I think the main reason that it took over in such a huge way was that it simply was good music – but more than that – it allowed people to express themselves in ways that their cultures didn’t always allow.  When we think of Britain we think of the stiff upper lip – Mick Jagger turned that into a curled lip.  Brits found a music that had recognizable melodies – but an emotion and beat that was completely new.  Eric Clapton has said that when he was 19 he wouldn’t talk to you if you didn’t know who Robert Johnson was.  Think of that – Robert Johnson recorded barely an album worth of material – he died when he was 27 – and yet someone half a world away from a culture that shared only the English language – a young man felt that this voice and guitar spoke to him in a way that nothing had ever spoke to him before.

So, now we get to Laith.  Laith is half-Norwegian and half-Iraqi.  Growing up Laith had a pretty basic white bread American upbringing.  I knew him because he went to the same Lutheran church as me.  He had two sisters who were much older than him and who listened to a lot of Beatles.  His mom listened to a lot of classical and his dad listened to a lot of Arabic music.  Before he started playing guitar at the age of 14 I doubt he had ever listened to the Blues – he might not have even listened to Jazz.  But as he learned how to play guitar he also learned about the history of guitar.  There was of course the stuff popular on classic rock stations coming out of Detroit that we could hear in Ann Arbor.  But he always was digging deeper.  Eventually he found the Blues. and he taught me a lot about Jazz and Blues music.  By the age of 16 he had formed a band called Blue Vinyl.  They played a lot of Rock and Roll – but Blues was always the main jumping off point for their music.

So, tonight Blake Sheldon said about Laith’s performance - “I don’t know much about the Blues – but I can’t imagine it getting much better than that.”  I’m sure some Blues nerds will disagree with him, but I think it’s true.  With his virtuosic guitar and his voice that vacillates between growl (as all the coaches seem to like to call it) and what I would call an almost honey drenched twang – he does it as well as anybody I’ve heard.  And I’ve heard most of the greats live.  Yes, of course I’m biased – but come on – tell me what he could improve!! : )

The question is, does a half Norwegian half Iraqi dude who was born in 1977 into a relatively well to do family in the U.S. have any business singing about how he was “Born Under a Bad Sign”?  I would say actually “yes.”  The human condition has always included pain.  It doesn’t matter how much money you have – bad things happen.  As the Buddhists would say – suffering is part of the human condition.  We all know what it means to suffer.  The magic of the Blues is that it is, at least in part, a cure to the very thing it sings about.  It was invented by people who lived lives more depressing and painful than any of us could imagine.  They invented it to help them to survive – to process what had happened to them – to rise above their suffering in an incredibly beautiful way.  But that message – that working through of a problem to get beyond the problem – is universal.  The fact that somebody with Laith’s background can play the Blues as well as anybody is a testament to its power – and it’s a testament to his spirit and his soul.
So, you know what to do – vote for him.  Listen to Pharrell! Here are the ways you can do it.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The South Will Rise Again

As we get closer and closer to the present these events are more difficult to write about.  It’s one thing to discuss the craziness of Burr and Jackson – it’s another thing to talk about Ferguson, Missouri – which I eventually will.  Since I mentioned it – I’ll give you a little preview of what I’m planning to write about.  Today is about the post-civil war era in the south.  It includes some really awful stuff.  Mobs of white people doing things that nobody can defend.  After that happy subject I’d like to talk about the music that came out of the South.  America was seen as a cultural wasteland by Europe for the first 150 years of our existence.  Jazz changed that completely.  Today the U.S. is the main producer of all forms of entertainment – it might seem obvious now – but it wasn’t always that way.  The Civil Rights museum deserves its own post.  Then Katrina and whether New Orleans was worth saving – then Ferguson and what “Black Lives Matter” really means – and then, because I want to end on a positive note, a post about the beauty of the South and some interesting interactions that I had with Southerners.

But before we get to the sweet tea – we have to drink the bitter tea of Jim Crow.  Warning – there is a very disturbing picture that includes the charred remains of a lynching victim at the end of this post – so, you might not want to read past the part about Kendra’s grandma if that would be disturbing to you.  There is also use of the “N” word when quoting a political leader.

Camp Ford was in Tyler, Texas.  First it was to train confederate soldiers – as battles started moving west they brought prisoners of war.  By July 1864 it peaked at 5,000 prisoners – more than any other camp west of the Mississippi.  The townsfolk were nervous about such a large group of Union men from the beginning.  After the first large group of 800 prisoners was brought to Camp Ford – there was a panic that they might break free because of the lack of defenses.  After that a large stockade was built to keep them contained.
What happened next was just a preview of how cruelly White folks in the south could be when they no longer felt like they had firm control of the Black population.  After a few fires had started in town – some Northerners who were new to town were blamed.  As would happen many times in the south over the next 100 years – this relatively small provocation would bring great violence down on anyone who was suspected of being aligned against the status quo.  Hundreds of Blacks were tortured – supposedly to find out information about a Northern plot that everyone was sure that these fires proved was occurring.  When they had no information to give – on the non-existent plot – they were killed.  Many of them were burned at the stake.  Apparently these executions were attended by many of the townsfolk – as if it were reason for celebration.  These are the kinds of stories that scare me about the South.
As I said – this was only the beginning.  In May, 1866 in Memphis there was a much larger riot.  It started as a confrontation between white police officers and Black soldiers.  The soldiers were awaiting being released from their duty and having a good time in town.  The police officers – mostly Irish who were competing with Blacks for jobs in town – didn’t like any Blacks, especially those in official looking uniforms.  There had been several confrontations between these two groups.  The police had tried to embarrass the Black soldiers – even attempting to arrest some of their wives at one event as prostitutes.  The elite of the city apparently took advantage of this naturally occurring animosity.  Several rumors were planted in the Irish population that the Blacks were arming themselves and planned to take revenge.  So, the Irish – along with many other Whites decided to take action themselves.
After yet another confrontation a mob formed after a speech by a local official who said – “everyone of the citizens should get arms, organize and go through the Negro districts,” and that he “was in favor of killing every God damned nigger”…”We are not prepared now, but let us prepare and clean out every damned son of a bitch of a nigger out of town…”Boys, I want you to go ahead and kill every damned one of the nigger race and burn up the cradle.” It was no longer about confronting the Black soldiers – it was about an attempted genocide.  The word “holocaust” comes from Greek – holo meaning whole and caust meaning burnt.  Over the next 24 hours “46 blacks and 2 whites were killed (one wounded himself and the other was apparently killed by other whites), 75 persons injured (mostly black), over 100 persons robbed, 5 black women raped, and 91 homes (89 held by blacks, one held by a white and one by an inter-racial couple), 4 black churches and 12 black schools burned.” (Ryan, The Memphis Riots of 1866). 

In New Orleans a few months later – there was a similar incident.  There wasn’t as much damage to Black neighborhoods, but 44 Blacks were killed.  Both the New Orleans and Memphis riots gave rise to the “radical reconstructionists” in Congress.  They said that these events showed that there needed to be more federal control over the South.  That congress needed to guarantee certain rights to the newly freed slaves – including the right to vote.  Northerners came South – looking to either help make these changes for the good of the freedmen or simply to make money – they were called “carpetbaggers.”  It was kind of a mess.  But what was the federal government supposed to do?  Let white southerners murder Blacks indiscriminately?  
The reaction from the South was brutal.  Since their ability to suppress Blacks was limited in many ways – they turned to a new organizations like the Klu Klux Klan and The White League.  The main goals of these organizations were to get Republicans (usually “carpetbaggers”) out of office and intimidate Blacks from voting.  Violence was the main way that these goals were carried out. 
143 years ago yesterday in Colfax, Louisiana (April 13, 1973) a group of White militia, who would eventually become The White League attacked the state militia, which was made up of mostly Black men.  The militia was overpowered and eventually surrendered.  The group of Whites killed over 100 of these men after they surrendered.
Eventually the Republicans in the North gave in to the Democrats in the South.  Much of the reconstruction era had relied on Federal troops and the Freedsmen’s bureau to protect the rights of Blacks.  In 1877, the new President Rutherford Hayes, having made a deal with the Southern Democrats, removed all Federal troops from Southern capitals.
Of course, even though the members of these groups claimed they just fighting to keep the North out of their affairs – they immediately turned to making laws which eventually became known as Jim Crow.  Laws which made it much more difficult for Blacks to vote.  By 1910 in Louisiana only 700 Black men were registered to vote – Black people were a majority in Louisiana.  Of course Jim Crow was much more than just about voting – it was about education, access to bathrooms, drinking fountains, hotels, restaurants, transportation, etc . . .
My wife’s grandmother is 96 years old – she was born in Mississippi in 1919.  Once we were visiting her in Chicago.  Kendra and her aunt went out to get something, which left me alone with her grandmother for about 20 minutes.  Of course I took the opportunity to find out what it was like to grow up as a Black person in Mississippi in the 1920’s.  She told me how they lived on a farm owned by a White man.  Her father was responsible for farming a certain number of acres as a sharecropper – in return he had a small plot of land where he could grow vegetables and keep animals. 
Kendra’s grandma said that they canned 365 jars of vegetables per year – so that they knew that whatever happened they wouldn’t ever go hungry.  Her father was supposed to receive compensation for what he farmed, but most years the White man gave him nothing.  Somehow her father had saved up enough money to buy a plow.  After several years he decided that he needed to move his family – he attempted to bring along his plow.  The white owner told him that he understood that he had bought it, but that he couldn’t let him take it because the owner needed it.  He had no recourse to keep his property.  If he had complained to the local sheriff he probably would have been threatened somehow just for asking that his property rights be respected.
My reaction was “so, basically it was still slavery.”  Just after that Kendra and her aunt walked in the door.  Kendra asked, “so what have you guys been talking about?”   Kendra’s grandma said “Ben’s been talking about slavery.”  Kendra gave me a stare that said “that’s the last time I leave you alone with my grandma.”
I could write more about the race riots that occurred across the country from the end of the Civil War up to the present day.  To be honest though – I’d rather move on to a happier topic.  I would encourage you to read about the “Red Summer” of 1919.
I leave you with one last picture, from the city where I live – Omaha, Nebraska.  It’s from 1919 during that “Red Summer” where there was an incredible amount of violence across the country.  Much of the violence seemed to come from the fact that returning Black soldiers from WWI felt that given their service to the country that they would now be accepted as equal citizens.  As before, Whites looked for any reason to show Blacks that they would always occupy the bottom of society.  A Black man was accused of raping a White woman.  Rather than allowing the courts to decide his guilt – a mob of 10,000 men gathered – took the man, Will Brown, from his cell and lynched him.  And then they burned his body.  Below is a picture of the white mob gathered around the charred remains of Will Brown.  What is most disturbing is how many of them are smiling.  As if they have just done a deed that they should be proud of.  This picture could have been taken in Memphis in 1866 or from any of the over 4,000 lynchings of Black people estimated to have occurred between the end of the Civil War and 1950.  Many times there were pictures like this made – with smiling White men – some of them were even made into postcards. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Quick Post on Laith

Wow - that was awesome.  I jumped up from my couch - I clapped and I even got a little teary.  To see your friend nail something so perfectly in front of 10 million people on live TV.  There are no words.

The content of the song was perfect too.  This is Laith - this really is who he is as a person.
Laith has very strong views on many things - which sometimes gets him into conflict (even with his friends ; ) - but at his core he is all about love.  When we were teenagers it was impossible to go anywhere with him without him knowing someone.  He is a true extrovert.  He gets his energy from being around others - and he in turn energizes the people around him.  The lyrics - "getting high with a little help from his friends" - it's almost as if it was written for him.

When Laith talked about how music is important because it brings people together I knew it was going to be good.  Although Laith is a great technical musician and has spent plenty of alone time perfecting his craft - Laith is a musician because he loves people.  He understands how to connect with people - that is what makes him a successful musician.

So, how do you vote?  Laith's sister Mina wrote some instructions.  Here they are:

Team Laith, here are the details for VOTING ON THE APP. On the app, you may vote beginning at showtime: 8:00 p.m. (4/12) - noon (4/13) ET. Since you know he will be awesome, you could knock out some voting early. Your call. THANK YOU!!!
1. To begin, open the App and click the red VOTE button.
2. Select Laith's image
3. Slide the dial on the right up to 10.
5. Confirm that you see "THANK YOU FOR VOTING. LAITH AL-SAADI" AND "YOU SAVED 10 VOTES". If you made a mistake, click KEEP VOTING and repeat the process to assign 10 votes to Laith.
6. That is it! Now go to to vote for Laith beginning at 10:00 p.m.
7. Finally, if you like it, download Laith's new iTunes song. Do this between 9:55 p.m. (4/12) - noon (4/13) ET and you will give him at least 1 extra vote. Please be aware that there is a fee associated with downloading the song.

Ok - I think that is all the info you will need.  Again - awesome job my friend - so happy for you!

Monday, April 11, 2016

Civil War

Most of the Civil War was fought, of course, on the east coast.  There were however, some important battles and events that occurred along the Mississippi River and even west of the river.  The first significant event to occur where I was traveling was the capture of New Orleans.  You might remember me mentioning General Benjamin Butler on my post about Andrew Jackson and the words Butler ordered to be inscribed on Jackson’s statue in New Orleans.  Butler had captured New Orleans on May 1, 1862 with a force of only 5,000 men.  He eventually had 15,000 men under his command – but at times he only had 2,500 men to control the entire city.  He decided that in order to maintain order and control that he needed to be brutal.  An example of this was his infamous Order No. 28.  It was made on May 15, 1862 – only two weeks after he had taken the city.  It was in response to the fact that his troops were not exactly welcomed into the city.  Women especially would hit and spit on his troops – even emptying chamber pots on them – the women felt somewhat safe doing this because by the rules of chivalrous society of the day his troops didn’t feel like they could attack “a lady.”  His order was kind of a permission slip for his men to defend themselves or even to retaliate against abuse coming from anyone. 

“As the officers and soldiers of the United States have been subject to repeated insults from the women (calling themselves ladies) of New Orleans in return for the most scrupulous non-interference and courtesy on our part, it is ordered that hereafter when any female shall by word, gesture, or movement insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation.”

If you didn’t quite get that last part - it meant that these women would be treated as if they were prostitutes.  He was rather vague as to what that meant.  Many in the south (and even the north and Europe) were enraged and thought it might mean that his men could interpret this as a license to rape.   His nickname in the south became “The Beast.” 


Vicksburg occurred at approximately the same time as Gettysburg.  Both battles came to an end – as Union victories – on the same day, July 4th, 1863.  While the destruction of Robert E. Lee’s army in Pennsylvania was important (never again would the Confederate army invade the north) Vicksburg was arguably more important to ending the war.  Lincoln certainly appeared to feel that way.  For it was the General who won Vicksburg who would eventually become the leader of the entire Union Army (Ulysses S. Grant) – not the victorious General at Gettysburg (George Meade).

For one thing – the siege of Vicksburg was in many ways the more complicated of the two.  Vicksburg was such a difficult prize for the Union because it is positioned high on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi.  It earned the nickname “Gibraltar of the South” because of this advantageous position.  President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, called Vicksburg the “nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.” 

Grant and his 2nd in command – William Tecumseh Sherman (best known for his “march to the sea” later in the war) planned a two prong approach.  Coming from the North Sherman took 32,000 troops along the railroad that ran basically parallel to the river.  Grant took his 40,000 troops to Oxford, Mississippi – hoping to lure the Confederates from Vicksburg, which would make it easier for Sherman’s force to take the city.  This plan had limited success.  From late December, 1862 – May, 1863 there were many expeditions – coming at Vicksburg at different angles.  Most of them were abject failures.  But by May they had cut off most of the supply lines of the Confederates.

Grant realized that the most prudent way to take Vicksburg with the least loss of life was to “out camp” them.  The fortifications built by both sides are still evident at the National Park site today.  In some ways it is the most beautiful Civil War battlefield that I’ve seen (and I’ve seen pretty much all of them).  The entrenchments are still visible.  And the monuments are the most impressive I’ve seen – even more impressive than Gettysburg.  Here are some pictures – the most impressive monument – a Greek inspired temple – is from the state of Illinois.

Vicksburg had both symbolic and strategic value.  In the words of Abraham Lincoln after the Union victory, "The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea." It was demoralizing to the South because many people thought it would never be taken.  Even the people of Vicksburg were confident of their success.  When their homes came under threat of Union cannon – many of them dug out caves on the bluff over the Mississippi.  The steep hills meant that the Union guns were most likely not going to hit these caves. 

The deep trenches presaged World War I, which wouldn’t happen for another 50 years.  Many historians have said that the American Civil War was a bridge between the strategy of Napoleon and the strategy of the bunker in WWI.  The use of new guns and cannon using old strategy meant that that Civil War was incredibly bloody.  At least 620,000 soldiers died in the Civil War.  The population of the entire US at that time was only 31 million.  Today we have 10 times the population – meaning that if we had the same per capita losses today 6.2 million people would die.  That doesn’t take into consideration the wounded – which was almost twice that amount.

The question I always ask myself is “did it have to happen this way?”  John Brown thought so – just before he was hanged over a year before the start of the Civil War he wrote a note that stated “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood.”   

My hesitancy at just saying – “this is how it had to happen” is mostly because I think that does not fully appreciate how uncertain the future was at that time.  This might seem like something that is so obvious that it isn’t worth saying – but the past has already happened.  The bias of being in the future is that it seems to us as if we live in the only possible future.  The past appears settled and therefore we don’t appreciate how uncertain it was for our ancestors.  The fact that we know the outcome makes the past less dramatic than it actually was.  And by pretending that everything had to happen in exactly the way it happened – or the saying that really bugs me, “everything happens for a reason” – we minimize how difficult the road was for our ancestors.  We also minimize how much of a difference we can make today.  We seem to think that it was obvious to our ancestors how the future was going to play out – it wasn’t obvious.  They were grasping at the right path just as clumsily as we do now.

The biggest question about the Civil War is – could we have gotten rid of slavery in a less violent way?  Tomorrow my question will be – what did the Civil War actually settle?  What position were Black people in our society after the Emancipation Proclamation? or even after the 13th and 14th amendments?  

Saturday, April 9, 2016

John Brown in Kansas

Before I start talking about John Brown – there is another place I visited that was related to the abolitionist movement and occurred before John Brown came to Kansas.  It was the initial trial regarding whether Dred Scott should be free.  Dred Scott was the slave of a surgeon – John Emerson – who worked for the Army.  During the time that he was a slave Emerson was located in Illinois and Minnesota – both free states.  In 1843 Emerson died – leaving Scott to his wife.  Dred Scott had saved money to purchase his own and his wife’s freedom – however Emerson’s widow refused to allow him to purchase his freedom.  So he sued.  He sued based on a Missouri law which stated that if a slave had been in a free state for a period of time then he was actually free.  The jury in St. Louis found in his favor in 1847.  The supreme court of Missouri however decided against him.  The statue below of Scott and his wife is at the old courthouse in St. Louis – just across from the arch.

He then filed a federal law suit.  The case made it to the Supreme Court.  The majority decided against Scott – stating that anyone with African ancestors, regardless of whether they were free or slave – were not actually citizens of the United States and therefore they did not have any rights under the constitution.  As chief justice Roger Taney would state – “blacks have no rights that the white man is bound to respect.”  Let that sink in for a bit.  The decision reversed the Missouri Compromise.  It basically put Blacks on the same level as any property.  Taney was from Maryland.  There is actually a monument of him about a block away from where we lived in Baltimore – in Washington Monument Square.  In 2008 I went there to celebrate Obama’s victory along with hundreds of others.  I thought how ironic it was that we were celebrating a biracial man’s victory beneath a statue of a man who denied the rights in America of all descendants of Africa.  

The very first place I visited on my sojourn south was Osawatomie, Kansas.  Don’t worry – I hadn’t heard of it either until I was researching where I should go for my trip.  In 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska act was passed.  It opened up the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to settlement.  As a compromise between North and South it was going to be up to the settlers to decide whether the new territories and soon to be states would be slave or free.  The unintended consequence was that radicals on both sides flooded Kansas.  Proslavery folks came from as far away as Georgia – although much of the violence was from Missourians who wanted their border state to be slave.  Many abolitionists from the Midwest and Northeast came to Kansas to attempt to make it free.  As a white person, I think it’s fair for me to say that us white people have done a lot of awful stuff in this country – but I’m pretty proud of that fact that white people actually uprooted themselves and moved close to 1,000 miles in some cases in the 1850’s to fight for the rights of Black people.

So now we get to John Brown.  The basic question is – was he crazy and just happened to be on the right side of history?  Or was he a great man – who is misunderstood?  I’ve done a lot of thinking on this.  He certainly had his heart in the right place.  He talked about his awakening of the evil of slavery as occurring when he was a young boy.  He was friends with a black boy – who was a slave.  He saw the owner of that boy beat him viciously for no real apparent reason. 

On the other side was the fact that he was a complete failure in life.  He never was able to be successful in business.  In 1843 four of his children died from dysentery.  The man has the feel of someone who was desperate to do something great because most of his life had been a failure.

In 1855 he moved to Kansas to help protect abolitionists – who he believed were not capable of protecting themselves.  The sacking of Lawrence appeared to support his beliefs.  Even more so was the beating of abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner by South Carolinian representative Preston Brooks.  He felt as though the abolitionists needed someone who was capable of violence against the pro-slavery supporters – and he was that man.

J.L. Magee’s political cartoon about the attack on Sumner.
John Brown and his men – who included many of his sons – did perpetrate some rather questionable acts.  The most questionable action was a nighttime attack against five pro-slavery men in Pottawattamie Creek – who were killed with broad swords.  This attack led to a greater organization of Missouri pro-slavery men who were bent on attacking abolitionist settlers in Kansas.  The focused their attacks on Brown.  They were determined to capture him.  On August 30, 1856 250 proslavery men from Missouri came to Osawatomie to hunt down Brown.  Brown only had 31 men to defend himself.  He used guerilla tactics to attempt to lure the proslavery men away from the town of Osawatomie. 

John Brown and his men took up such a favorable position, that the proslavery men did not attempt to go after them.  However, the proslavery men did come back and burn down the town of Osawatomie.  Soon after, John Brown went back east.  He was able to get funding from abolitionist for his idea of starting a slave insurrection. On October 17th, 1859 he and 18 men attempted to raid the armory of Harpers Ferry.  They were defeated by men led by Robert E. Lee – eventual General of the Confederate Army.  John Brown was put to death – but his insurrection terrified the South.  They saw it as proof that the North would not allow slavery to stand.  The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 only furthered their fear.  18 months after Harpers Ferry – the Civil War started – with the bombardment of Fort Sumter.  During the war the Union soldiers favorite song to sing on the march was “John Browns Body” – which was set to the same tune as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Tomorrow a few of the Civil War sites that I visited on my trip.