A Surprising Solution to a Deeply Disturbing Problem of Our Own Making

Let’s begin with Heather McGhee. She’s the right kind of troublemaker. I heard her interviewed on NPR, got her book, read it carefully, and determined, as she did, that we’ve been wrong-headed about a whole lot of important stuff. She’s the former president of a think tank that focuses on inequality called Demos, and now, she’s both an important spokesperson for clear thinking, and the chair of the world’s largest online racial justice organization, Color of Change.

She’s making trouble because she requires readers to see everyday life from a radically different perspective. Not radical in the political sense, though she does that, too, but radical in the sense of eradication of old perspectives.

On the cover of her new book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Proper Together, there is an abstract paining of a white boy jumping off a diving board into a swimming pool. Ah, but the swimming pool is a mirage. It was there, at one time, but it’s been filled with cement. Why was it filled with cement? Because, in 1971, Jackson, Mississippi’s city council decided to fill swimming pools with cement so they could not be used by both Black and White swimmers. It was a way to avoid integration. The decision deprived the Black kids from swimming during the ridiculously hot Mississippi summer, but it also deprived the White kids from the doing the same thing. Better that nobody benefit!

If this thinking–roughly, the opposite of public good, so perhaps it’s public bad–was unusual, there would be no book and no reason for Heather McGhee to focus here. Instead, public bad (my term) is the basis for a great deal of public policy in the United States–and not only on hot summer days, not only in Mississippi, and not only in swimming pools. We use this theory of good decision making to work through where people live, how much money they earn, how their kids are educated, how we tax, where we place our roads and highways, and how we make a surprising number of important decisions. Roughly, the theory plays out as follows:

If a policy is a good idea, we should go ahead, but if it benefits Black folks, or equalizes the situation, then we should not go ahead. (Same, roughly, for other minorities.) And if not going ahead harms White folks along the way, that’s just too bad because that’s the decision we’re going to make.

Sounds like something from the 1950s in the American South, or maybe the 1910s. Then, McGhee explains how much of this thinking provides a framework for everyday life for everyone–especially people in lower income areas. The term “shooting yourself in the foot” comes to mind quite often. This is a completely crazy way to govern, to set policy, to run a county or a country. And yet, that’s what we do everyday. And it doesn’t seem to change. That is: the news coverage on George Floyd is extensive, and Black Lives Matter, but the hardcore reality of daily life in the U.S. receives very little coverage. Hence, this book.

She sets the stage with considerable skill. Then, she surprises by telling one story after another, each illustrating the impact of racism in ways that aren’t often considered. For example, “Many of the nation’s biggest and most respected public colleges were tuition free, from the City University of New York to the University of California system. The massive public investment wasn’t considered charity; an individual state saw a return of three to four dollars back for every dollar it invested in public colleges. When the public means ‘white,’ public colleges thrived.”

And then… “That’s no longer the case. Students of color comprised just one in six college students in 1980, but now they make up over four in ten. Over this period of growth among students of color, ensuring college affordability fell out of favor with lawmakers. State legislatures began to dramatically cut what they spent per student on their public colleges, even as the taxable income base in the state grew….By 2017, the majority of state colleges were relying upon student tuition dollars for the majority of their expenses…”

Or, to put this another way, the reason why so many public college students now carry so much college debt is connected to racism. Yes, it’s a bit of a leap, but more examples from other sectors add credibility to this line of thinking. The ripple effect is powerful, and not just on minority populations:” In 2018, the Federal Reserve reported on what most of my generation knows: student debt payments are stopping us from buying our first home, the irreplaceable wealth-building asset.” A rather complicating story of sub-prime mortgages, mostly rooted in racist practices, is the next story she tells, and certainly that has affected, and continues to affect, much of the U.S. population. Weakening of labor unions? Another example of similar practices, similar thinking, similar destruction of the American dream for the majority, not the minorities.

The mythology of democracy is an easy target: from the Founding Fathers through the present, unequal representation, loopholes, workarounds, and other means have been used to elevate a relatively small upscale male white population and to keep everyone else in their place. We’re breaking through, but only a bit, because the status quo is immovable. It’s woven throughout our laws, our political boundaries, our voting districts, our school districts, our tax system, and so much more.

No surprise to find a chapter about redlining–the practice of geographic segregation. No surprise to find the ugly practices of destroying neighborhoods by making decisions about the location of public roads, either. “The economic imperative (of the first half of the 1800s)…set the terms of racial understanding: in the South, Blacks were seen as inferior and servile but needed to be close. In the North, Black people were job competition, therefore seen as dangerous, stricken with a poverty that could be infectious.” Beginning in the later 1880s, and “for the next eight years, segregation dispossessed Native Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Black Americans of land and often, life. No governments in modern history, save Apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany, have segregated as well as the United States, with precision and under the color of law. These truths are self-evident, but easily overlooked when viewed through the nonsense of “justice for all” and “the land of the free.” Time after time, McGhee hits hard, almost always with evidence and legal history that is difficult to dispute. She is a very convincing advocate of the big picture.

Is K-12 school inequitable. You bet. Here’s a theory on why that’s true, and what might be done about it. “Today, the majority of public school students in the United States are children of color. Why? Because of disproportionate number of white students are enrolled in private schools, comprising 69 percent of K-12 private school enrollment…The pricing up and privatization of public goods has a cost for us all–white families included. A house in a neighborhood unencumbered by systemic racism found in public schools will cost significantly more.” Summarizing a complicated idea, white households pay a 77 percent premium on housing in areas where public schools are “excellent.” (This was written before the housing boom of 2020-2021, so we’re probably looking at 110% today.) On the plus side, when the home is sold, there’s a premium, but there’s also an issue in choosing a home in one of these places. “In order to chase these so-called good schools, white families must be able and willing to stretch their budgets to live in increasingly expensive, and segregated, communities… To be clear, “These white parents are paying for their fear because they’re assuming that white-dominant schools are worth the cost to their white children.” And (yikes!) they are essentially reinforcing the worst possible decisions: that segregated schools are best.

It’s now 2021, so it’s nearly impossible to write a book about any subject without at least one chapter about climate change. And so, we learn about the impact of poor pollution management, how the minority neighborhoods suffer most, and how the pollution spreads to other neighborhoods, too. As with, “The United States is…the biggest carbon polluter in history, but we have one of the strongest and most politically powerful factions opposed to taking action to prevent catastrophic climate change…the key players waging war against environmental protection were reliable white men, from industry executives to the politicians to the media commentators.” She theorizes that our society has taught a lesson: there are winners and losers, and the losers will be the ones who most suffer from climate change. The winners believe they will be fine. Of course, this is faulty thinking, wholly unreasonable and illogical, as evidenced by the frequent droughts that threaten our agribusiness, or the floods that disabled New York City’s subways, or the scary rise on the coastlines that will somebody make beachfront property worthless (regardless of how much wealth is poured into temporary solutions). Basically, the climate change opposition works this way: “we won’t risk the economy for this dubious idea.” And so, we believe, or lead ourselves to believe, that climate change is somebody else’s problem, and that it can be managed in the same ways that we manage school or neighborhood segregation.

Then, McGhee tells the story of Lewiston, Maine. The whole story begins to change. There is hope, and it’s real. Lewiston lots its manufacturing jobs, then its economy, then spiraled into almost no economy at all. There were few jobs, little opportunity, and on Lisbon Street, once Maine’s second largest commercial district, half the stores were vacant. So what happened? Refugees from the Somali Civil War led immigrants first to Atlanta, then to the less expensive Portland, Maine, then to Lewiston where “quiet streets offered more peace and the low rents offered more security. Other African refugees followed”–from the Congo, Chad, Djibouti, and Sudan. They rented the vacant storefronts, and started new businesses. They built a new economy. In the whitest state in the country. They paid nearly $200 million in local state and local taxes in 2018–and I’m guessing the number continues to grow. This story is found in other places–Kennett Square, Pennsylvania (outside Philadelphia) “is now 50% Latinx, mostly from Mexico and it’s a community given new life by the families of migrant workers at the mushroom farms.” McGhee tells similar stories about Storm Lake, Iowa, and towns in the Texas Panhandle once considered hopeless, now beginning to thrive.

“Even in the face of anti-immigrant policies and the absence of vehicles for mobility such as unions and housing subsidies, today’s immigrants of color are revitalizing rural America.” In the first decade of the 21st century, nearly 83% of the growth of rural America is people of color. America is changing, but many us are missing the big story.

I’m grateful to Heather McGhee for opening my eyes. So far, The Sum of Us is the book I have most recommended to friends and colleagues in 2021. I’m feeling as though this might be essential reading for the early 21st century.

The Self-Important Year of 1974

A good friend told me about a new book called Rock Me on the Water: 1974, The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television and Politics. He was excited because we experienced some of the adventures that author Ronald Brownstein described, at least tangentially. It’s interesting to write about this particular book and this particular era because I happened to rewatch Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s film about his adventures on the road with The Allman Brothers Band (as a sixteen year old journalist for Rolling Stone, late 1973).

The book tells the story–a very good story at the start–about Linda Ronstadt and the way she built her career. This leads to background about David Geffen and the evolution of community of musicians in and around Laurel Canyon in the Los Angeles area. In short, they shared just about everything–life, love, shelter, food, drugs, music, songs, recording sessions, and a gigantic creative heart. In time, this culture evolves into a big-money enterprise, as evidenced by, for example, The Eagles, and the played-out sensibility so effectively described in their song, “Hotel California.” Indeed, this is music journalism at quite a high level, pleasant to read, deeply connected with outside events, evocative of time and place, and, viewed from the distance of time, something quite important. At the time, or shortly afterwards, I happened to be working (at a very junior level) at Warner Bros. Records in New York City. It was clear that everything had shifted west, but when the opportunity to move to Los Angeles came up, I turned it down. But I could sense that 1974 was right around the time when New York City lost a lot of ground as the center of the entertainment universe, and Los Angeles had gained what NYC had lost.

I come from a television background, but I had never thought much about how the development of Norman Lear’s sitcoms and Mary Tyler Moore’s small empire were related to this shift. I suppose I figured that sitcoms had always come from Los Angeles–for a long time, anyway–but I did not connect the creative energy in music to the creative energy in television. But there it is, and again, author Ronald Brownstein lays it all out in ways that suggest a much larger story.

And yes, there was a lot happening in the movie business at that time, too. All in Los Angeles. There was the old guard and the remains of the studio system, and Warren Beatty who seemed to be able to play both in the old ways and in the new. And there was Jack Nicholson, who was a somewhat awkward fit (mostly as a writer) but a far better fit for the independent orientation of the new. This, too, takes shape at around this time (1974 is a loose peg, but a good one). And much of what Brownstein describes is deeply connected to the larger shift in creative power.

But then, we meander into the “I wish I cared” world of Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, and the very specific strange politics of the Vietnam era. The national material is good, if well-known, but the California politics is slow-going, and although the author tries very hard to connect the dots, that felt like a struggle. The politics of this era were all about the Vietnam War, but Los Angeles was tangential to the story. Unfortunately, the long story of Jerry Brown extends the book’s dull middle section before we see the light at the end of the tunnel–which turns out to be yet another motion picture screen, this time featuring the work of young Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. The story of the younger directors–Brian de Palma and Martin Scorsese among them–lifts the story back to a higher level, but now, the connections between their efforts, Los Angeles and the year become more diffuse.

The first half of the book is great fun, and somewhat provocative reading (as provocative as pop culture goes, I suppose). The second half contains interesting stories, but I lose the point of the book. Yes, I enjoyed reading about the development and success of M*A*S*H*, and the struggles between Carrol O’Connor (Archie Bunker) and Norman Lear, but neither really illuminates how and why Los Angeles and 1974 changed the world. We begin to see female directors, but that happens, mostly, later on. Here and there, we see some non-white faces and some non-white directors, and we do see “two hundred movies centers on Black characters” from 1971 until 1975, but the shift in Hollywood takes shape, in a meaningful and sustainable way, much later. Similarly, there are non-white recording artists and the beginning of a new segment in the industry, but the action here is in Memphis, Philadelphia, and soon after, in disco capitals throughout the U.S. It’s not really an L.A. thing, not that L.A. isn’t part of the story, it’s just that the book promises a deeper and more long-lasting connection.

The book regains some strength when it returns to Linda Ronstadt, whose story about career development is also not an L.A. thing. Her work with Peter Asher is more about her own independence and versatility as an artist (one who made a lot of money, who started her career in Los Angeles but then became full-scale U.S. star). Again, worth reading if you’re curious about Ronstadt and because she happens to be a very smart, wise, and talented artist–and in part, because she comes up as several other smart, wise and talented women are blazing their own paths. This, too, is partly tied to Los Angeles (Sherry Lansing becomes the first head of a major studio), but it’s also happening throughout the world at that time–and quite slowly, everywhere.

By “December” (each chapter is titled with the name of a month, but the months have nothing to do with the order or organization of the storytelling), everything is falling apart. ABC has out-maneuvered CBS, so the Norman Lear shows are losing ground to the likes of the fluffy-but-fun Happy Days on a newly competitive network. JAWS introduces the blockbuster film, leaving the rich potential of independent film in an early 1970s bucket that would take a long time to find its footing, and shifting priority of studio executives to a much better money-making proposition. Stadium shows took the place of small rock club performances–shifting the creative power back to NYC as punk and other alternative forms suddenly seemed a whole lot more interesting than anything that was going on in L.A. Fleetwood Mac, once an interesting band with blues roots and a critically acclaimed take on progressive rock, added Stevie Nicks, and became wildly popular among the stadium concert goers, and simply irritating for those who reveled in the early 1970s creative culture that was once, for a brief period, the center of the universe.

We Were Not Alone

Seems like science fiction, but for a long time, Homo sapiens were not the only human beings on earth. And there were a lot of them. And they lived in a very large area that included most of Europe, much of Asia, and probably, in many other places, too (but we haven’t yet found the evidence). They were far more sophisticated than you might imagine, very similar to our own kind as we evolved, in parallel, from about 350,000 years ago until (fairly recently?) until about 40,000 years ago. If we extended our individual family trees back to that time, most or many of us would find parents, aunts, and uncles, and plenty of cousins who were Neanderthal or mixed with our own kind, and quite likely, mixed with other early humans, too (and, probably, other species). This is not some exotic scientific story. This is the story of our own lives. And no less messy.

This morning, I happened to see a cartoon drawing of two large bears inspecting a minivan. On the back window of the vehicle were stick figures of a human family. One bear remarks, “Look! A menu!” It’s not easy to study the Neanderthals, or other early hominids, because they were eaten, destroyed in battle and accidents, burned, and buried. In fact, buried is good–if you know where to look. So far, we’ve been lucky enough to find bones, tools, settlements, but not many of them. Still, it’s a start, and we’ll no doubt find a lot more throughout the 21st century as we improve our satellite imaging (for example). In the meantime, scientists and historians have figured out some parts of the puzzle. Bear in mind that humans have been pursuing archeology for just over 150 years–and for the first 50-100 years, there were a lot of questions about validity, integrity, and there was astonished disbelief because humans (and their religions) didn’t want to consider the possibility that we were not alone as a human race. Getting past the idea of a “missing link” between humans and apes was, and perhaps remains, a problem, too. And this is made more complicated because Neanderthals are “extremely similar creatures to us” but “many simultaneous pathways existed, some finishing in dead ends, others like Neanderthals developing their own unique bodies and minds that were a match from our own.”

I’m quoting Rebecca Wragg Sykes, a remarkably talented storytelling and scientific historian whose book, KINDRED: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art is an absolute delight. She keeps the story interesting (fascinating would be a better word), piling on the historical details, open questions, likely facts, and the vast vastness of things we don’t know. I love that.

So far, we’ve found about 250 Neanderthal bodies, or enough parts and pieces of bodies to develop some ideas about their lives. We will certainly find a lot more. Their brains and our brains–about the same size (“just as big and deliberating as your own”) Their brow–more expansive than ours. Their babies’ chins–less prominent, so our babies are, or were, probably cuter than their babies. Their eyes–bigger than ours, noting that “people from higher latitudes have eyeballs up to 20 percent bigger than those from near the equator.” Their ears–very similar to our own, inside and out. Their noses–certainly larger, so they could “snort in the air at almost twice the rate we do.” But why? Here’s the speculative layer that’s found throughout the book–questions about whether the larger nose provided greater airflow, more air filtering and conditioning, or a more powerful or refined sense of smell. “…in some ways, Neanderthals’ large internal structures resemble reindeer and saga antelope, which have extensive mucous membranes to reduce dehydration and heat loss…[but] the internal structures in Neanderthals appears to be worse at air conditioning than our own.”

There’s a strangeness about discovering Neanderthal life expressed in time and distance. They lived for several hundred years in an expanse from Spain to Siberia. When something is discovered about a particular body or settlement, one must consider not only where it was found but also when. That’s because cultures and communities are always in motion–so a place-based assumption may, in fact, be more of a time-based assumption. Think in terms of discovering a human body from the Middle Ages in France and another from two years ago in Vancouver, British Columbia, and making statements about their dental care, or their diet. Assumptions must be carefully considered. Now, expand the time scale from a thousand years to twenty thousand years–the assumptions become that much flakier.

Tools: “More artisans than klutzes, [Neanderthals] appreciated the right tools for the job. Selecting hammers…was crucial. Small cobbles have the necessary mass to hit hard for big flakes, but for more delicate work, pebbles are better. And using soft rather than hard hammers produces different effects. Elastic organic materials like antler and bone or even dense rock like limestone spread out the kinetic energy and produce thinner, longer flakes…Tools were often retouched, sometimes to give a particular edge, but often to resharpen them–flakes dull very fast even when cutting meat.” So: yes, Neanderthals made and used a variety of tools for a variety of purposes, just as we did, and do today. This suggests the range of activities they pursued–hardly anything as simple as hitting a bear with a wooden club, though they may have done that, too. They used wood to make spears: “far from pointed sticks…finely crafted from thin spruce and a single Scots pine, their tips are all at the stump end: the hardest part. The shafts were systematically carved off-center for increased strength…Experiments show that the shorter-throwing spears easily range to 30 meters (30 yards).”

Their diet was varied. “Beavers’ fatty tails would have been succulent treats…they certainly gorged on tortoises…dolphins, seal and large fish…ticks and lice might have been nibbled while grooming hair…Neanderthals hunted [bears] more than other predators…burning hints at cooking right there in the den.” They ate plants, too–pine, mushrooms, moss. They cooked stews. They soaked acorns, then boiled them, a far more sophisticated conception than eating only raw meat. They fermented food, one of many examples of planning and preparation.

I could go on through where they lived, how they raised their children and families, the art they made, their customs and care for the dead, and more. There is so much in KINDRED, and so much of it is captivating. And I am so looking forward to the next book from Ms. Sykes. I have found a new favorite author.

Happy 60th Anniversary, Arhoolie!

In this season of abundant music, I wanted to draw your attention toward something quite special and quite unique. Sixty years ago, Chris Strachwitz founded a record label to celebrate authentic folk music and blues. The label’s first release remains a personal favorite: Mance Lipscomb: Texas Sharecropper and Songster, recorded in rural Texas and released in 1961.

It’s wonderful that the story continues to this day. Even better that there is a free (please donate) documentary featuring the history and lots and lots of really terrific performances by and in memory of Arhoolie Records artists. Right now, I am thoroughly enjoying “Morning Train” by The Campbell Brothers band–so much fun to see this spectacular rendition recorded simply and so effectively. (It begins at 1:28:40 on the YouTube video.)

Man, this is great stuff! Taj Mahal opens with a Mance Lipscomb tune, and that’s followed by a rocking Ry Cooder version of a track from Big Joe Williams Tough Times, an album he remembers buying (his father hated it). The song is “Sloppy Drunk.”

Some of the best music here comes from the label’s dedication to Mexican music. Arhoolie released several albums by Lydia Mendoza, remembered here with a fresh and impassioned La Marisoul, backed up by Max Baca, whose own band, Los Texmaniacs updates a song recorded by Flaco Jimenez, who recorded for Arhoolie. (Jimenez “was introduced to the outside world by Ry Cooder–everything is connected!) “Un Mojado Sin Licencia (A Wetbaack Without a License)” is sung first by Jimenez, then by Los Texmaniacs, and both are terrific.

What am I missing? There’s Cajun music with BeauSoleil, several members of the Treme, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Z.Z. Top’s Billy Gibbons (singing a Lightnin’ Hopkins song), a story by the Hungarian Csôkolom, blues star Charlie Musselwhite (who used to earn money on the side by delivering records for Chris). You might know Sugar Pie DeSanto, Ruthie Foster, or Barbie Dane, but you’ll know them after you watch this documentary–and you’ll not soon forget them.

And then, and at last in the documentary, there’s Mississippi Fred MacDowell, celebrated by Bonnie Raitt. She offers a big hug and thank you to Chris, then sings and plays a lovely version of MacDowell’s “Write Me a Few Lines” and “Kokomo Blues.” Gorgeous. So great!

Hosted by American Routes radio host Nick Spitzer, the documentary was released on Thursday, December 10. It’s nearly two hours long. I loved every minute of it. UPDATE: Unfortunately, it’s no longer available online.

Akin to the Internet, circa 1920

One version of our story begins in 1874, midway between Cleveland and Buffalo, about 20 miles inland from Lake Erie, on the shore of Lake Chautauqua. Another version begins a half-century earlier, in 1826, in a town called Millbury, just south of Worcester, Massachusetts. The third takes shape in 1904 in Iowa and Nebraska, in part because small towns could now be reached by the railroads out of Chicago.

Here’s what happened.

“In an age when most Americans had acquired only a grade school education,” two educators who were involved with Sunday schools “recognized the power of education to elevate, enlarge and enrich lives.” They were Reverend John Heyl Vincent, a Methodist minister who had become Secretary of the Sunday School Union, and Lewis Miller, a former teacher who became a businessman (farm machinery) who served as the Superintendent of Sunday School and at his church and President of the Board of Education in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. Together, on the pretty shore of Lake Chautauqua, they put together a conference for 2,500 Sunday school teachers for two weeks during the summer of 1874, mostly to listen to lectures and seminars about religion. When they did it again the following year, they added music from the Tennesseans, who sang plantation songs from the American South, and non-religious lecturers, notably President Ulysses S. Grant (he had been a former parishioner at Miller’s church in Illinois). A year later, there were lectures about chemistry, geology, and astronomy.

When I visited Chautauqua in 2014, I wrote about the experience. If I had stayed the full nine-week season in 2019, I would have attended lectures by public radio’s Krista Tippett and Ira Glass; Middlebury College President Laurie L. Patton; comedians David Steinberg and Lewis Black; author and activist Bill McKibben; writer and author James Fallows; author of The Death and Life of the Great Lakes Dan Egan. I would have gone to concerts featuring Judy Collins, Madeleine Peyroux, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, Diana Ross, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis; and a lot of vocal and chamber groups whose names are unfamiliar. I would sit in on each morning’s lecture/sermon by a notable Chaplain, watched performances of several operas (The Barber of Seville, and Figaro), and just walked along the beautiful shore. If you’d like to imagine what you would have done, every season since 2007, follow this link and enjoy. They are now planning their 2021 summer season. And they’ve introduced an online version that I’ll write about in the future; it’s called Chautauqua Assembly.

Yes, it’s amazing that this bit of 1870s culture remains vibrant and remarkably successful 150 years after it began, but that’s only part of our story.

Now, let’s jump back to the late 1820s and 1830s–where the roots of today’s public radio reside (GBH began just ten years later). Somewhat similar to today’s TEDTalks, the Lyceum circuit provided lecturers to more than 3,000 theaters and public spaces all over the country. There were big stars on the circuit: Mark Twain, P.T. Barnum, Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and other U.S. Presidents, and lots of lesser-knowns. But there was a problem. No air conditioning. No climate control for hot indoor spaces during the summer–so the Lyceum circuit was, mostly, a wintertime activity. Until one day…

Keith Vauter, who managed western states and territories for a booking agency that supplied the Lyceum Circuit with talent, decided to try a new approach. The Chautauqua concept in upstate New York had inspired summer chautauquas in other places. He figured he could book his talent during the summer, and expand his business. His first attempt–in 1904–failed because the logistics of moving so many performers to so many locations was just too expensive. As Vauter improved the logistics and came up with a way for local communities to guarantee the cost of their own chautauqua, the concept took off. Borrowing ideas from traveling circuses, vaudeville, and theater troupes, they devised what became a very popular idea: the traveling chautauqua. At least until 1929, when a combination of talking motion pictures and the Depression more-or-less ended the fun. For about 25 years, traveling Chautauqua “served to provide small towns with a deeper sense of self, community, nation, the world, and God. They spanned the silent movie era, the Progressive Age, and the transportation shift from horse-and-buggy to automobile.”

There is great wisdom in the chautauqua movement, and in the Lyceum movement, and in their intermingled roots of what has since become radio, television, some of the Internet, some of the entertainment industry, and more. When I started to become curious, I found two extraordinary experts who knew the culture and the whole story. The first was Harry P. Harrison, who was among the first “platform superintendents” for the new Chautauqua circuit way back in 1903. He wrote, or dictated, a book to co-author Karl Detzer, a professional writer; it’s called Culture Under Canvas: The Story of Tent Chautauqua (published in 1958; I found an autographed copy for $3 in a used bookstore). The second is newer, written by a college professor who worked with music students in summer Chautauqua for many years. It’s called The Traveling Chautauqua, and the author is Roger E. Barrows. The material quoted in this article comes from that book.

So: what was it like, going to a tent chautauqua for a week in the 1920s?

From Missouri’s Joplin Globe: The most famous Chautauqua speaker was the founder of Temple University, Russell Conwell. Conwell is said to have given his “Acres of Diamonds” speech 6,150 times between 1882 and 1925. Much in the spirit of self-improvement found in chautauquas, Conwell emphasized that developing his talents and skills is what made a man successful — or diamonds could be found in one’s own backyard. He and perennial presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan were two of the most sought-after speakers.”

Harrison tells stories about the many performers who helped make his career. Barrows breaks it down by type of performer, provides many more pictures, and also includes excerpts from their scripts.

“Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink sweeps onto the stage. She is a large woman whose presence dominates the platform. Her rich voice, with its wide range…begins with the spring aria from the Saint-Saens opera, Samson and Delilah.” (“When the movement began in 1874, all music was live.”) “To the perpetual spinning sounds of the piano, Madame Schumann-Heink becomes Gretchen at the spinning wheel, expressing her mounting heartache as she comes to realize the emptiness of Faust’s promises…Schubert’s art song travels from the Austrian metropolis of Vienna to the small towns of Texas and Ohio…The artist would later recount how, in the midst of her signing, she could hear the mooing of cows…”

Bohumir Kyrl, who had played with Sousa, conducted his own popular band and became a star performing on cornet. College girls, on an adventure for the summer, would sing classical, art, and popular songs. The Jubilee Singers (the Fisk University group was one of several) would “harmonize a cappella;” “they had heard tales of slavery from their parents’ laps, and…had personal experiences with racism, (as they expressed) the “anguish and sorrow of the original singers.” There were authentic Indian princesses who performed on piano, sang songs, and shared legends of their people. The Raweis were Native New Zealanders on tour through the American hinterlands. At a time when actors were not welcome in God-fearing small towns, Lucille Adams was an “interpreter,” also called a “reader,” who read and spoke expressively, but didn’t quite “act.” In time, the circuit tried a Shakespearean acting troupe led by Ben Greet, a legitimate Shakespearean actor, and they became popular, famous, and well-traveled, introducing Shakespeare’s work to audiences who had never seen anything quite like it. Eugene Laurent was a popular magician on the circuit.

There were cooking lessons, many lecturers who specialized in a loving life at home, and plenty of preachers. Billy Sunday was a former professional baseball player who converted to evangelical Christianity and became one of its most famous spokespeople. Lots of souls were saved in the chautauqua tents, of lives transformed. Many religions were represented; Rabbi Emil Hirsch of Chicago’s Sinai Congregation helped non-Jews understand his religion.

One of the most famous speakers relied upon religion with a more old-time flavor, not only for his tremendous success on the circuit but also as the basis for three runs for U.S. President–William Jennings Bryan, at the time, one of the best-known American citizens. (You’ll recall his name and presence from the Scopes Trial and the play, Inherit the Wind). Reformer Jane Addams was on the circuit in 1909 and 1919. Women’s suffrage was a hot topic on the circuit, too. Jeanette Rankin often spoke about that–she being the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress.

From 1909 to 1912, Peter MacQueen talked about his adventures hunting for big game with Teddy Roosevelt in Africa. Around the same time, Frederick A. Cook spoke–more than 350 times–and claimed to be the first man to reach the North Pole (Peary was second). Booker T. Washington spoke about progress through education at chautauquas around 1914, and a few years earlier, Florence Mayrick talked about her life in an English prison. When the chautauaqua was in town, everyone was elevated, educated, and thrilled. Truly, this was something special in towns where not much special happened very often.

And then, it was over. This huge chunk of American education for adults, and for the entire family, just went away. Radio took its place with an even wider variety of education, religion, entertainment and more. And then, television, and then, the internet.

The best way to experience a chautauqua is to buy a ticket for several days, or longer, for the original that still runs in New York State. The second best, which may be pretty darned good, is to find yourself a local chautauqua like the one that the Wythe Arts Council runs in Wytheville, Virginia, or the weekend festival in Madison, Indiana, or the one that feels intentionally old-fashioned in Mountain Lake Park, Maryland, an old B&O Railroad town and former resort that was, in the day, home to an original Chautauqua traveling show. As soon as things open up again, they’re on my list–and if you know of any others, please add them to the comments below.

AND–for even more fun–check this out! It’s an industry trade magazine from June 1922–and it’s chock full of advertisements, news stories, photographs, listings of booking agents, and so much more. The magazine is called Lyceum Magazine: For the Lyceum and the Chautauqua.

Seeing 10 Years into the Future

Somehow, even in the shadow of the virus, we can see 2030 with surprising clarity. We know a lot, and we can make good guesses about much of what we don’t know. In fact, I’ve been doing this for several years, traveling the world, speaking to university audiences, explaining how and why Southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are the places that today’s students must study because of their enormous population increases and their associated growth as consumer markets. I’ve been focused on the lives and futures of young people growing up in the 21st century, much of it connection with Kids on Earth, a global interview project, and my work as a Senior Scholar at The University of Pennsylvania.

In fact, it was a browse through a UPenn newsletter that led me to Professor Mauro F. Guillén, a colleague at UPenn’s Wharton School. About two months ago, Guillén published a book entitled 2020: How Today’s Biggest Trends Will Collide and Reshape the Future of Everything. My interest in children, teenagers, parents, and schools; his is business, economics and government, but our circles overlap with plenty of shared space.

For both of us, the key to the secrets of the 21st century is the number of babies being born, where they are being born, the number of people who are living long lives, and where they are living those lives. He sets the stage with the rapid growth of the world’s population: 3 billion by 1960, 4 billion by 1975, 5 billion by 1987, 6 billion by 2000, and 7 billion by 2010.

And then: “The reality is that by 2030 we will be facing a baby drought.”

Take a closer look: “for every baby born in the United States, 4.4 are being born in China, 6.5 in India, and 10.2 in Africa” and “improvements in nutrition and disease prevention in the poorest parts of the world have made it possible for an increasing number of babies to reach adulthood and become parents themselves.” And so, by 2030: “South Asia (including India) will consolidate its position as the number-one region in terms of population size. Africa will become the second-largest region, while East Asia (including China) will be relegated to third place. Europe, which in 1950 was the second largest, will fall to sixth place, behind Southeast Asia…and Latin America.”

If 21st-century governments were more open to immigrants, the trends could equalize, but they’re going in the opposite direction–limiting incoming populations from countries whose people they need in order to maintain not only sufficiently large populations but also sufficiently young ones. That is, Europe and The United States will become increasingly old–which is terrible for the economy (the success of Social Security in the U.S., for example, relies upon income from the younger population, which disappears if there aren’t enough babies and aren’t enough immigrants). As we make these (okay, the correct word really is “stupid”) decisions, we are making an economic and social mess for ourselves.

It’s always instructive to study maps. One of my current favorites compares the size of the African continent with various countries. If you move the countries around like jigsaw puzzle pieces, you can fit all of China into the part of Africa that’s south of the equator, with all of India and all of the United States, and Eastern Europe, and France, Germany, and Spain, and still find enough space on the continent for The U.K., Japan, Italy, Switzerland, and a bunch of other countries. It’s not easy to think clearly about Africa, or any other place unless you understand its size, its history, and its potential for the future. Incredibly, people in the countries listed above know very little about Africa (challenge yourself: how many African countries can you name? how many cities?)

Perhaps women will think more clearly than men have done. This is the other huge trend: women graduating from higher education, with more advanced degrees than men, and gradually gaining power in both industry and government. They marry later–average age of first time mothers is now 28 years old. For example, “in the 1950s, about 7 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 29 had a college degree, half the rate of men. Nowadays, the proportion of women with a college degree is 40 percent, while the figure for men is only 32 percent.”

Now, let’s think about old age. People really are living longer–science, medicine, biotech, nutrition, hygiene, education, social programs–everything contributes to longevity. “By 2030, the average 70 year old will live like today’s average 50 year old.” We’ll be aided by robotics, and devices that make it easier to climb stairs, maintain balance, diagnose disease more quickly, and more–all of this takes shape during the current decade. In many ways, this is driven by necessity. For example, “by 2025, Japan will need 1 million nurses the country currently doesn’t have.” In the U.S., as in most countries, “about 90 percent of paid senior care is done by immigrants”–but our present-day policies are limiting the number of available workers. If Japan solves the problem with robots–a significant current effort–perhaps the U.S. will benefit.

Forget about “keeping up with the Joneses.” Now, we’re “keeping up with the Singhs and the Wangs.” Forget about your current notions of cities as a great place to live and work. (We’re seeing this in the real estate market as many people leave the crowded cities for locations with fewer people, less crowding, and increasingly excellent services.) Many cities exist near bodies of water, and with climate change, water levels are rising, and storms are causing chaos. Also on the subject of water, several cities in India are illustrating a nasty future in which water supply is insufficient for population needs. (“A majority will face formidable challenges related to pollution, congestion, and security. The cities most exposed to climate change will suffer from a shortage of freshwater and an excess of saltwater.”) Less so, perhaps, for food needs as vertical farming is becoming to take hold. And yet, some cities are flourishing–even during the pandemic, and hopefully, afterwards–because of creative class and knowledge workers–but these are precisely the folks who can work just about anywhere.

Present-day assumptions about ownership may be giving way to newer assumptions about sharing (a phenomenon slowed by the pandemic). Assumptions about the ways money and banking work are also taking shape in new ways–look at the progress made by PayPal, Venmo, and credit cards in a marketplace where so many people are now reluctant to handle paper currency and coins. We may be seeing the end of non-digital money by 2030.

I like the quote from William Faulkner that begins the end of the book: “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.” So here we are, stuck in the pandemic, questioning whether we all ever return to the old normal, strikingly unaware of so many of the realities already in the “high likelihood” category for 2030. We’ve already lost sight of the shore; we just haven’t accepted that reality.

The author’s suggestion that we “approach uncertainty with optimism” may be the only approach that makes sense in what is now a fairly crazy world of the future.

The RSA: Climate Change Requires Immediate Attention

I’m always impressed with The RSA’s animations. This one was just released. It tells an important and urgent story about climate change. Acknowledging the nastiness of dealing with two catastrophes at the same time, this video runs less than five minutes–and the visuals bring the topic to life.

Be safe, everyone.

Jeffrey Sachs Talks about the U.S. and the World

 

Sachs sees the world very clearly. After watching these 11 minutes, I know more about the world than I did before.

For a more comprehensive explanation of multilateralism, I refer to this Brookings article.

A City of Books

Although the idea of writing a book about books and bookstores for people who enjoy books seems to be both precious and redundant, I find browsing, then reading, these books to be irresistible. The newest in this genre is A Booklover’s Guide to New York, by which author Cleo Le-Tan and illustrator Pierre Le-Tan seem to mean not the state of New York, nor most of the city of New York, but instead, the island of Manhattan. And that’s just fine: few places on earth contain a richer assortment of delights for people who love books.

The book is set up as a combination of a tour and a series of conversations. The first stop is The Mysterious Bookshop, down in TriBeCa, relocated from further uptown, accurately described as “a homey destination” and “a haven for any crime, suspense and thriller reader.” Next page: an interview with Otto Penzler, who owns the shop, and founded Mysterious Press back in the mid-1970s. It’s fun to read his back story–so many people who live in NYC have a backstory–after he started the publishing house, and it succeeded, he decided to open a shop without knowing anything at all about starting or operating a retail enterprise. What was the key to success?: women started writing popular mystery fiction, and that attracted more female readers. He describes Manhattan as “ground zero” for mystery.

Within walking distance: Poet’s House at 10 River Terrace, which has been operating for three decades, “still prides itself on “bringing world-renowned poets to new audiences. And: Richardson, at 325 Broome St., owned by Andrew Richardson, who also publishes a magazine (same name as the shop), with a selection that is “either deeply intellectual, aesthetically pleasing, or highly sophisticated.” And sometimes, erotic. This is not just a book filled with pages about bookstores; the Seward Park Library is one of several public libraries. Opened in 1909, it’s located in Chinatown, which tends to be busy much of the day and night, but here, there is quiet. And a lot of books. And all of the modern conveniences. Museums get their due, too. The first is the Tenement Museum, located at 103 Orchard Street (all of the places in this paragraph are walkable from one another, but subways and buses can shorten the travel times). The museum offers guided tours of life more than a century ago in lower Manhattan, a time when poor European immigrants lived in close quarters. Of course, it includes a specialist bookstore.

Let’s head to midtown. It’s a healthy walk, about two miles north, but it’s quick and easy to hop on the subway. Mostly, this is a busy business district with lots of skyscrapers. My favorite bookstore–the Gotham Book Mart–is among the many shops that are no longer there. But there are plenty of places to visit, and perhaps, buy even more books. If you’re staying overnight, there’s the Library Hotel, 299 Madison Avenue at 41st Street, one of a growing number of hotels with their own collections of books for guests (these are popping up all over the world). The Morgan Library & Museum is a notable Manhattan landmark, and “originally the private library of one of America’s most notable financiers, Pierpont Morgan.” The Morgan also hosts special book-related events and other arts events. It is simply a stunning place. Even more fun: The Drama Book Shop, filled with scripts, scores, and all things theater. Under new ownership–Lin-Manuel Miranda and several of his Hamilton cronies–a new shop opens soon. A short walk leads to the main branch of The New York Public Library, at 42nd Steet and Fifth Avenue, with its awesome map room, classic reading room, and so many places you’ve seen in magazines and in movies. Next, it’s over to Algonquin Hotel, 59 West 44 Street, where “right after World I, a group of rather intelligent and witty twenty-something New York writers, critics, and actors, and nicknamed themselves ‘The Vicious Circle,” and included NY Times theater critic Alexander Woolcott, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Robert E. Sherwood.

As time and interest allow, there’s John Steinbeck’s apartment at 190 East 72 Street, walkable but again, a subway is faster. And if you want to further explore Manhattan’s Upper East Side, check the schedule for the 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue, because there are often authors and various performers on stage discussing their work: in March, the list includes novelist Zadie Smith, Maria Kalman on her new book about Alice B. Toklas, film director Barry Sonnenfeld talking about his new book with Jerry Seinfeld, E.J. Dionne, Hilary Mantel, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn on their new book, a lot of musical performances, and more. Right nearby: La Librairie des Enfants, a charming lending library, and an informal community center. Also in the neighborhood: Kitchen Arts & Letters at 1435 Lexington Avenue, offering not only cookbooks but tons of books about food history and related topics

What about the other boroughs? Sure, there are a few pages about the Bronx (2 pages, plus a good interview with local author Richard Price), Brooklyn (The Center for Fiction–moved after two centuries in Manhattan, The Central Library, which is not part of the New York Public Library but a magnificent enterprise of its own) and Queens (a lovely story about fulfilling the need for neighborhood bookstores–Kew & Willow Books).

There are some photographs, but they tend to be small and suggest snapshots. Better are the pen-and-ink illustrations that do not attempt to support the text in a literal way. Instead, the pictures provide a sense of place, offer little piles of books and the occasional bookworm. Think about the use of spot illustrations in the New Yorker magazine–but add spot color.

 

(Note: New Yorker illustrator Pierre Le-Tan died in October 2019.)

 

 

 

TIME’s Youngest Person of the Year–Before Greta Thunberg

I decided to do some counting. So far, Greta is the youngest individual TIME Magazine Person of the Year.

Before Greta, can you figure out who the holder of the “youngest individual” was? Here are several possible answers:

– Mark Zuckerberg
– Queen Elizabeth II
– Mahatma Gandhi
– Wallis Simpson
– Charles Lindbergh

I will publish the correct answer in the next blog post.

But while we’re all paying attention, I did notice that the vast majority of winners have been older white men: 73 in all. During that same period, there have been just 6 females–and including Greta, just one other female since 1987. (Yes. TIME should probably question its processes). She was:

– Margaret Thatcher
– Elizabeth Warren
– Hilary Clinton
– Angela Merkel
– J.K. Rowling

Again, look for the correct answer in the next blog post.

One final thought: during the past few years, and throughout its history, TIME has given the honor to, for example, The Computer, The Endangered Earth, and the Ebola Fighters. Who was Greta’s immediate individual predecessor as Person of the Year?

– Barack Obama
– Donald Trump
– Nancy Pelosi
– Beyoncé
– Tim Cook

Answers to come.

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