Tag Archives: Steve Kantrowitz

Romney’s Videotape, Obama on Letterman and Steve Kantrowitz’s new book

In later years, or minutes, we may look back with the advantage of hindsight at the 2012 presidential election and decide that the release of secret video tapes at a Florida fundraiser for Mitt Romney may have been, in the world of Camus’ Merseault, a series of loud raps at the door of his undoing.

Filmed from a cell phone and released in serial fashion and shot from side and back angles, the tapes are accompanied by Romney’s words to his self-described “intimate” group of well-heeled supporters, each of whom allegedly paid $50,000 for the privilege of listening to their presumptive nominee.

The contents are stunning.

While Romney’s victims comments have elicited the sharpest reaction—he describes them as entitled, shiftless-the entire picture that emerges throughout the conversation is of a plutocrat who effortlessly writes off nearly half of the country he is aspiring to represent.

Some like veteran and former Clinton strategist Dick Morris said that Romney is being held unfairly to account for being honest in his political assessment.

In a strict strategic sense, Romney’s larger point about our polarized electorate with a small but critical slice of voters in play is true.  But that assessment is encased in an elitist casing that effortlessly writes off nearly half of the country he aspires to represent.

President Barack Obama wasted little time in responding and appeared on the David Letterman Show to do so.

As Letterman’s band played a breezy version of Hail to the Chief, the studio audience gave a rousing standing ovation to a still lean but greyer Obama than the one who had appeared nearly three years earlier on the same show.

The moment was a prelude to Letterman’s conversation with Obama-after exchanging pleasantries about how well they each looked, Obama asserted that his job was to represent all of the people, not just some of them, and went on to say that he did not see many people who considered themselves victims in the country-and was also significant in its own right as the audience appeared from my view to be predominantly white.

The unabashed embrace of a black man is now comparatively ordinary, as Obama shattered so many of those barriers during his historic run for the presidency four years ago.

And yet it gave me a moment to pause in light of just having finished dear friend Steve Kantrowitz’s scintillating new book, More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889.

The book is noteworthy in a number of dimensions that go beyond me bursting buttons at the very fact of the publication of a major historical work by a mainstream press.

To begin, Steve turns his gaze from the South, traditionally the site of slavery-era scholarship and the site of Steve’s first book, an award-winning biography of “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, to the North.

It looks at both the pre- and post-Civil War periods, insisting that one cannot be understood fully without the other.

It pushes against the historical characterization of black abolitionists.

It excavates and brings to life not only seminal and well-known characters like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, but other, more obscure people like Lewis Hayden and William Nell.  Steve grounds his detailing of these people’s lives and works in engaging prose and in an analysis that is at once consummately local yet simultaneously national in scope.

The last part is no mean achievement.

It took me years of studying history to understand not only that things were happening at the same time in different parts of the country and/or the world, but, beyond that, that they might actually have some impact on each other.

This of course may same something about the heavily numbers-oriented approach I brought to my burgeoning historical understanding-part of the reason why the field appealed to me was its similarity to the sports pages I fought for with my brothers and whose contents I loved to absorb-and, I would also suggest, with the teaching of history.

Steve repeatedly takes major national events from throughout the six decades he covers-the Fugitive Slave Act and John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry are just two examples-and weaves the connections between them and what was happening in Boston at that same moment.

As we would say at a Passover seder, if this were all that Steve had done, it would have been enough (Let me clear here.  I’m duly impressed with Steve’s work, but am not elevating him to deity status.).

In some ways for me the most revelatory part of his work was his writing about how the self-described “colored citizens,” living in the same city where Romney governed during the early part of last decade, sought a “citizenship of the heart.”

This is not to say that black activists did not seek total legal equality, but rather that they also aspired to a kind of open and fully given acceptance based in a mutual desire for a reciprocal and intimate connectedness and solidarity.

Unsurprisingly, both ambitions have proven difficult to realize.

Steve breaks down in often painful detail the very real limits to both types of equality black Bostonians experienced in the pre- and post-Civil War eras.

Which brings us back to the talk show host and the president.

Steve addresses Obama’s extraordinary rise and presence in his book’s final chapter, and Ta-Nehisi Coates has taken on the subject of the president’s actions and statements about race before and after his election in his provocative Atlantic Monthly essay, “Fear of a Black President.”

Without going into too much detail, it is safe to say that one should not read too much into a largely white studio audience’s standing to applaud their black commander-in-chief, both for the reasons Steve and Coates identify as well as for the additional point that the citizenship of the heart Nell, Hayden and others envisioned was a more personal and less adulatory interaction.

And yet.

It seems hard to believe that those in the audience were not just cheering for Obama, but that the awareness of Romney’s elitist remarks lent an extra zest and urgency to their cheers and clapping.  In that sense, then, there was not just an acceptance of the man’s office, but also the ideals on which he has oriented his political rhetoric, and, to some degree, his actions.

The audience’s cheers certainly do not signal the complete realization of what Nell, Hayden and other sought so fervently to bring into the world.

But they do mark the continuation of a shift and some level of progress on one on the nation’s most enduring, entrenched and persistent problems.

Those who want to hear Steve talk about his book can go to the African Meeting House in Boston tomorrow evening at 6:00 p.m.


Madison Protests Now and in 1967

David Maraniss’ work covers another time in which Madison was in the world’s spotlight.

With the nation locked in a seemingly interminable conflict in a far away land, the eyes of the world were on Madison, Wisconsin this week, where thousands of people descended on Wisconsin’s capital on Saturday.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were in the background to the protestors, who were contesting what they saw as an effort by Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled legislature to impose draconian budget cuts and strip public sector employees of their collective bargaining rights.

Dear friend and Madison History professor Steve Kantrowitz told me yesterday that the sidewalks and streets around the capital building were packed with people expressing their opposition in nonviolent and peaceful fashion.  Steve’s exhilaration crackled across the line as he described the power of being among such a committed, disciplined and joyful crowd.

His children Elliot and Sophie were with him.

While it is unclear how much Sophie will remember of her initial protest, the odds are quite favorable that Elliot, who is approaching double digits, will have clear memories of Saturday’s sights, sounds and smells.

Of course, this is not the first time that the world spotlight has focused on Madison.

The university where Steve has taught since graduating from Princeton in 1995 was home to some of the most dramatic, early and disturbing confrontations between students registering their outrage at the Vietnam War and area police.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Madison native David Maraniss was an 18-year-old freshman at the time, and the indelible impression of observing the protests and feeling the sting of tear gas in October 1967 never left him.

Thirty four years later, he returned with his wife to their hometown to learn more about those events and that time. Maraniss didn’t only focus on the domestic upheaval, though.  Rather he also investigated a bloody battle in Ong Nguyen, in which 58 American soldiers were killed.

The simultaneous occurrence of protest at home and war abroad form the dominant narrative threads of They Marched Into Sunlight, Maraniss’ impressive and often gripping evocation of a deeply troubled era in the nation’s history whose echoes still rebound today.

Thanks to friend and Vietnam veteran Chuck Meyers for lending me the work.

The book draw its title from an inversion of a line from a poem by Bruce Weigl, who wrote about a line of infantrymen marching into a deadly battle, and indeed does primarily apply to the soldiers, so many of whom die far before their time.

Maraniss creates vivid portraits of All-American football player and Major Donald “Holly” Holleder as well as of Terry Allen Jr., the son of a World War II general and the First Lieutenant who led his men to their death while his marriage was crumbling back home.  Maraniss also writes about Danny Sikorski, the scion of a Polish family who he argues was an archetypal soldier, and blond-haired Jack Schroder, who was studying to be a dental technician and wrote about his concern before the mission.

All served.

All marched.

All were killed.

Yet on another level, the youth in Madison were also walking into a different type of sunlight. Beyond the physical injuries they sustained from the police’s brutal conduct and head smashing, many of the students and others in the university community saw their faith in the social compact that prized vigorous debate as the cornerstone of academic life and discourse shattered.

Maraniss focuses his considerable descriptive and reporting powers in these sections of the book on people like Paul Soglin, who eventually becomes mayor of the city, and Jonathan Stielstra, whose cutting of the flag from the Bascom Hall roof set off a manhunt.

The war’s architects in the Johnson Administration, the source of soldiers and protestors’ discontents, constitute the third thread of the story that Maraniss weaves.  Johnson and his familiar cast of characters do not appear as often or in as much depth as either side of the war and peace divide, but Maraniss does write enough to convey their gradually sharpening awareness that the war was unwinnable, even as they continued to prosecute it.

The failure and dishonesty of leaders is a consistent theme in the work.  Readers of Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam will remember the rage engendered in Achilles when Agamemnon violates his trust and betrays him by claiming the top prize Achilles had earned. Shay argues in his groundbreaking work that American soldiers in Vietnam had the same experience when their leaders betrayed them.

This is shown most clearly through the behavior of Gen. William Westmoreland, who briskly informs one of the battle’s survivors that there was no ambush when that in fact was the case.   On a broader level, though, the whole story is an indictment of the series of decisions by political and military leaders that led to seemingly endless carnage on both sides.

They Marched Into Sunlight is not a polemic, however.

Maraniss writes with some sympathy and complexity about Chancellor William Sewell, a liberal sociologist who had recently been tapped to fill the position and who found himself impossibly torn between the law and order and First Amendment positions advocated by both sides of the protest. A young Dick Cheney, who had gotten kicked out of Yale twice and did not serve in the war, makes a number of appearances in the work and does not emerge unscathed, either.

The book ends with the funerals for the soldiers killed in the battle, which took place almost exactly at the same time as the march on the Pentagon that led to Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night.

In the epilogue, Maraniss updates the story by talking about what happened to the characters in the book in the 34 years after the events covered in the work.

This includes a trip to Vietnam, where Clark Welch, one of the American soliders, meets with a former Viet Cong adversary.  A protestor and soldier are bonded through their children, as the son of one of the Madison students marries the daughter of one of the surviving soldiers.  Within the same family, people on both sides of the issue find some peace, too.

Familial peace does mean a lot, but obviously does not signify broader social harmony or resolution of the issues that divided the people.

The events in Madison Saturday, in which Tea Party members also participated, show that the nation, while deeply divided, perhaps has gotten to a place where those in law enforcement or the military are no longer called “pigs” or “baby killers.”

On some level, that is progress, even as the budget cut opponents and public sectors may ultimately lose this battle.

Maraniss’ work reminds of that bitterly painful period by focusing on a Midwestern capital that once again may be serving as a bellweather for our country’s questions of the day.

I also look forward to reading in 2045 or so the account that a now-Wisconsin freshman, or people like Steve’s son Elliot, will write about last weekend’s events.

Old friends, Marjorie Agosin and Emma Sepulveda’s book

Marjorie Agosin and Emma Sepulveda's letters remind us of old friends' value and meaning.

Scottish folk singer Eric Bogle was right when he sang, “Old friends are the best friends/they love you without questions/old friends.”

I’m back home with Dunreith and Aidan after a rich and growth provoking week at Write by the Lake, where Kathy Steffen and my classmates in the Pacing class helped me think differently about storytelling and its constituent elements.  Thinking about plot, structure, character, scene goals, and themes challenged me, and I’m grateful for the new approach, even if it will take a little while to incorporate these elements into my journalism and book about Paul Tamburello.

Another key feature of the week: staying with childhood friend Steve Kantrowitz, his wife Pernille Ipsen, and their two children.

Steve and I first met in sixth grade-for those who are not keeping track, that was 33 years ago=when we both contributed to a science fiction anthology for students in Brookline schools.  We’ve maintained and deepened that friendship since, helping each other through my parents’ near-fatal car accident, his brother Jeff’s death from cancer, familial struggles, career developments-in short, the stuff of life.

He and Pernille were fantastic hosts.  I stayed in their refinished basement, which had privacy, my own bathroom, a computer for printing and a big-screen television on which I watched the final three Celtics-Lakers games (Painful, to be sure, but what a setting!).

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Write by the Lake, Stephen King on Writing

Stephen King's book On Writing has a lot of helpful pointers.

I’m here in Madison, Wisconsin this week, staying with childhood buddy Steve Kantrowitz, his wife Pernille Ipsen, and their two kids, Elliot and Sophie.

In addition to reconnecting, having a fabulous time watching Game 5 of the NBA Finals in their basement and generally wondering where all the years went since Steve and I first met in sixth grade, I’m also attending Write by the Lake writers’ conference.

It’s the 12th annual rendition of the conference, and the first one for me.  I am here courtesy of The Chicago Reporter, and thrilled to have a week of professional development paid for by the publication.

I’ve chosen to stretch myself and take a class on writing page-turning scenes taught by Kathy Steffen.  To her credit, Kathy contacted me before the class to make sure that I, as a journalist and non-fiction writer, knew what I was signing up for as she gears the class toward novelists and fiction writers in general.

I did, and am glad that I’m here.

We’ve just had the first day, so any lasting judgments are bound to be premature, and I do feel good about what I will learn from Kathy and the other participants.

To begin, she has already emphasized the importance of thinking through a story in advance and given us a useful checklist to consider when thinking about our works’ protagonists and antagonists.

Kathy has spoken glowingly of The Art of War for Writers, which I have not yet read.  Although I have some skepticism about the value of books about writing, there are several I have found useful over the years.

Stephen King’s On Writing is one of them.

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Reading Wrap Up Before Heading to Kuumba Lynx Fundraiser

I'm heading to Kuumba Lynx after giving snippets about my recent reading.

Today got away from me a little bit, and I’m heading shortly to the annual fundraise for Kuumba Lynx, the hip-hop youth organization on whose board I serve.

I have been doing a decent amount of reading this week.  I will go into more depth on some of these in the future, and here are the thumbnail sketches for the three most recent.

Manhood for Amateurs and Gentlemen of the Road, by Michael Chabon.

These are the first two books I’ve read by Chabon, who is dear friend Steve Kantrowitz’s favorite novelist.  The former is an uneven collection of essays comprised of Chabon’s takes on being a husband, father and son.  It does have some moments and is notable both for his efforts, sometimes succesful, to write lyrical endings and his (very) high self-regard.   The latter is a pulpy adventure story that I enjoyed much more.

What Obama Means by Jabari Asim.  This is the second book I’ve read by Asim, editor of The Crisis and a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.   In this book, which is one of many about the meteoric rise and cultural meaning of our president, Asim blends together references to Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, Jay-Z and Barbara Jordan in assessing what Obama has meant to our society and social landscape.

Black History Month: Elliot Jaspin on America’s History of Racial Cleansing.

Elliot Jaspin tackles America's history of racial explusions in this book.

Elliot Jaspin tackles America's history of racial expulsions in this book.

In 1998, journalist Elliot Jaspin was visiting a local history museum in northwest Arkansas when he came across a document that changed his life.

The document was the will of a local farmer whose picture hung on the wall.  Below the image was the farmer’s will that listed his possessions.

Five slaves were on the list.

After the shock of his encounter with “the corpse at the funeral” passed, Jaspin reflected that, though he had been in the town for several days, he had yet to see a black person, even though the will provided clear evidence that they once had been there. 

Jaspin kept looking without success during the next few days in the town.  Finally, before he left, he asked the woman he was interviewing about his search.

“Oh, no,” she said.  “The Klan keeps them out.”

A specialist in computer assisted reporting, Jaspin investigated old census data and found that this combination of historic ‘racial cleansing’ that had been maintained and accepted by white residents until the present was not limited to Berryville, Arkansas. 

In fact, towns from Indiana to Georgia to Missouri to Kentucky to North Carolina to Tennesse engaged in the practice. 

A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for Cox Newspapers, Jaspin expanded his investigation into a series for the paper.  But his struggles with editors to publish an unvarnished account-an experience he recounts in the book’s epilogue-in part spurred Jaspin to write a full-length book, Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America.   

The history is a brutal one.

The book is divided into a dozen chapters, each of which have similar elements: a map of the area and the name of the county where the expulsion of black people occurred; either a current reflection of that history or a description of the event that triggered the expulsion; and some concluding thought about how little areas’ racial climates have changed.

Although the towns are diverse geographically, the expulsions all take place during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and all have precipitating events that trigger the white residents’ forceful actions (In a number of cases, the accusation that a black man has raped a white woman triggers the mayhem.). 

The result is a chilling look at a little-considered part of America’s past. 

In Rosewood, acclaimed director John Singleton took on an indvidual expulsion in Rosewood, Florida, but Jaspin’s work is distinctive in that it shows the depth, breadth, maintenance of, and white silence about, this disturubing practice.

Buried in the Bitter Waters has many poignant details. 

Jaspin recounts Tom McNeel’s frenzied hiding in woods before being brutally lynched in Comanche County, Texas,  the targeting of black strikebreakers as a prelude to expelling the entire black population in Polk County, Tennesse, and, in the case of Forsyth County, Atlanta, a 1912 public murder of two black man for the alleged rape of a white woman. 

Within weeks all black residents of Forsyth County were driven from the town.

Although not quite as vicious in their detail, the anecdotes about the present are unnerving in their own right because they speak to the denial and silence so critical in not confronting this disturbing legacy. Jaspin ends the book on an optimistic note, telling a story of reconciliation and restoration. 

“If we have the courage, we can shape our own destiny,”  writes Jaspin, who dedicated the book to his grandchildren, presumably in a similar hope. 

Buried in the Bitter Waters has much to commend it.  Jaspin deserves much credit for his census research, the results of which he includes in an appendix.   A long-time reporter, he is effective at writing punchy sentences that generally grab the reader and advance the action.   His device of including the past and the present is often effective.  

His version of events about the difficulty in getting the  series published-a story in which Hank Klibanoff, author of The Race Beat, a book I posted about earlier in the month, comes off quite poorly-gives insight into the additional challenges one can face in bringing a story to light even after accumulating the necessary evidence.  

And his insistence, through his work, that the past can and needs to be confronted, is ultimately a morally-based and optimistic one.   One can read in Jaspin’s work a call for reparations, especially after reading about his arguments with editors about the forced ‘sales’ of property by black residents being expelled to white residents of the same areas (He includes details of this practice in Forsyth County in a separate appendix).

Buried in the Bitter Waters is not without challenges.  Understandably, the book is stronger on journalistic anecdotes than historical analysis.  Still, more exploration of the historical period in which this occurred would have been helpful. 

My dear friend Steve Kantrowitz wrote about the reconstruction of white supremacy in post-Civil War South Carolina through an examination of the life of Ben Tillman, for example, and there are numerous other texts such as C. Vann Woodward’s classic The Strange Career of Jim Crow that Jaspin could have consulted to deepen his account.

Although varied to some degree, the chapters’ consistent elementsand writing style give the work a somewhat predictable feel.  And, while Jaspin does include the possibility of change and hope, the final chapter feels more like an afterthought than a meaningful possibility.  

As Jacob Levenson did in his bookabout HIV and AIDS in black America, Jaspin operates from a black-white axis, although, to be fair, this choice is more warranted in Jaspin’s case as he is writing about a period where black and white people comprised the communities’ residents.

Overall, though, Buried in the Bitter Waters is a book that deserves wider amplification-something that has happened through director Marco Williams’ film, Banished: How Whites Drove Blacks Out of Town in America, which drew heavily on Jaspin’s research.

While America has elected a black president, it has yet to fully confront its past.  Buried in the Bitter Waters provides a powerful tool for those people willing to engage in that painful but necessary work.