5 James Baldwin Quotes on His Birthday

I would love to post 94 quotes to celebrate what would be seminal author James Baldwin’s 94th birthday, but instead I’m posting five. See the final quote for further explanation.

  1. “Everybody’s journey is individual. If  you fall in love with a boy, you fall in love with a boy. The fact that many Americans consider it a disease says more about them than it does about homosexuality.”
  2. “People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.”
  3. American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible that anything anyone has ever said about it.”
  4. “The writer’s greed is appalling. He wants, or seems to want, everything and practically everybody, [yet] at the same time, he needs no one at all.”
  5. “When one begins to live by habit and by quotation, one has begun to stop living.”

“Join, or Die:” America’s First Meme

Benjamin Franklin’s 1754 version of the iconic reptile.

The “Join, or Die” snake is one of America’s most recognizable, beloved and replicated icons. Emblazoned on flags and t-shirts, pillow cases and iPhone cases, and even on tv show title cards and in comic books, the image is upheld today as a both specifically as an emblem of American independence, and generally as bid for unity against a common oppression. But the world’s most adored reptile didn’t start this way.

Created by Benjamin Franklin in 1754, the “Join, or Die” snake originally signified loyalty to the English empire. It wasn’t a call to action, but an order to fall into line. It was only later that “Join, or Die” evolved into a revolutionary rallying cry — and when it did, it became America’s first meme, too.

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Speaking of Writing Books…

….Don’t forget WW Norton/Countryman Press recently published my first endeavor, The Log Cabin: An Illustrated History, in which I use humor and cultural analysis to show how this seemingly simple structure shaped the complex American identity, for better and for worse.

Two Stories, One Topic

Just passing along two stories I wrote recently, both related to my book, The Log Cabin: An Illustrated History.

The first, for The Daily Beast, is all about the iconic cabin’s dark side, i.e. its use in slave trade and to demolish Indian traditions. Cheery stuff.

The second piece, written for Salon, revolves around dead presidents and why we idolize their mythical cabins.

More TK!

‘Ultra Rich’ In America, 1883-Today

Hundreds of the planet’s richest and glitziest will gather today to kick off the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. That said, this week’s etymological adventure revolves around the term “ultra-rich.”

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About That Socialist Commune (It Was Racist)

A few weeks ago, at the website Timeline, the writer Meagan Day wrote an article about the Kaweah Colony, a short-lived, circa 1886-1892 socialist commune in what is now Sequoia National Forest, and which was crushed railroad conglomerates and other capitalist forces.

It was exciting to see some coverage of this little-known outpost and its dissolution. I myself only learned about Kaweah because the cabins they build showed up during research for my book, and was fascinated enough to drum up an 8,100+ word draft about the colony, its founding and its ultimate end, an end finalized by capitalist interests but brought about in part by colony infighting and paranoia. The piece went nowhere. I submitted it to one or two sites, but who wants to read 8,100 words, especially on something so esoteric?

In any event, while I appreciated the Timeline piece, I found it incomplete. In addition to overlooking the group’s internal conflicts, including a spin-off colony, the piece also didn’t mention the inglorious fact that Kaweah’s founders were xenophobic racists and misogynists. It’s an unfortunate truth that sullies the romantic image, and I admit I struggled with how to address it when I first pursued what seemed to be a fairly straight-forward and timeless tale, but Kaweah’s ugly underbelly is essential to remember nonetheless. It also makes one wonder, as I did in my scuttled piece, whether we’re better off Kaweah was crushed and scattered to the four corners. Does the world need another enclave of white supremacists, even on under the guise of cooperative living? That’s a hard no.*

All that said, here is an unedited excerpt from my unpublished piece. It picks up right after the colony’s Bay Area-based founders, Burnette G. Haskell, James J. Martin and John Redstone, decide to break away from San Francisco and start their own society in the woods.

(*It’s worth noting that California which so many of us envision as a sunshine-y liberal haven, is also a hotbed of white supremacists.)

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Found in the LOC: 27 Gordon Parks Photos

(This is the first in what will be an ongoing series, “Found in the L.O.C.,” the Library of Congress.)

Chance played an instrumental role in artist Gordon Parks’ genre-spanning career. That’s both chance, as in “happenstance,” and chance, as in “taking a risk.” The former came early, and in fact catalyzed his career: The man who developed Parks’ film was impressed by the young shutterbug’s eye and suggested that he start taking photos for an upscale women’s fashion shop. That was 1937; Parks was a 25-year old black man. Applying for such a gig was the first occupational chance he took.

Up until then Parks, born dirt poor in Ft. Scott, Kansas and now living in St. Paul, had been working in bars and brothels, playing piano, singing and collecting used glasses to make ends meet. Once rent was made and food consumed, Parks spent what was left on Life and other glossy photo magazines, magazines he absorbed voraciously and that inspired him to save up for a camera. Soon he was snapping shots of life around him, i.e.: the somewhat seam side of night life, and that’s how he met  the developer who encouraged him to go pro. And Parks didn’t stop taking chances for another 68 years.

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