Found in the LOC: Telegraph Repair, 1862

On this date in 1844, Samuel Morse typed out the first telegraph, sending a message from DC to Baltimore: “What hath God wrought?” Quite: we all know the technological revolution would accelerate exponentially in decades ahead, ending with, at the moment, smart phones. Who knows what will be next… Something more inescapable, intrusive and indispensable, that’s for sure.

That said, today’s truncated Found in the LOC is an image of a telegraph repairman doing his thing circa 1862. He’s like a high-tech lumberjack!

(And for more Found in the LOC, click here.)

Fun with Words: Trump and Obstruction

This semi-regular feature, Fun with Words (aka Etymological Adventures), has previously explored the linguistic roots of collusion, a word with which we’re all familiar due to – well, you know: Donald Trump and his constellation of cronies’ shady dealings. Today we’ll briefly explore another once-rarish term that Trump’s thrust into our everyday usage, collusion’s cousin by association: obstruction.

Born from the Latin word, obstructionem, itself the offspring of Ob, Latin for “in front of,” and the verb strurer, for “to pile or build,” the term “obstruction” emerged in English around the 1530s, and translated literally into “building up” or “creating a barrier” – a barrier like a wall, which, as we all know, real estate mogul Trump wants to make literal at the Mexican border.

In the meantime, Trump’s busying himself building a rhetorical wall against justice, a barrier built through lies and coercion, through acts like intervening in the Michael Flynn case; firing James Comey over his refusal to intervene in said case; drafting a faux narrative for Donald Trump Jr. to regurgitate vis a vis his meeting with Russians; Trump’s recent politicized demands that the DOJ investigate the FBI; and let’s not forget the barriers created by Trump’s unsubtle attacks on people involved in these investigations, not least of all against Special Counsel Robert Mueller, whom Trump has tried to influence by warning him not to nose around his personal finances…. All of this and more builds up a wall of lies and obfuscation that is the very definition of obstruction.

Perhaps one day truth, justice and karma will tear down that wall, burying Trump in a mess of his own making.

(For more Fun with Words, click here!)

Meghan Markle Tops Donald Trump

An estimated 29 million Americans tuned in early Saturday morning to watch Meghan Markle marry Prince Harry. That’s about 5 million more than in England itself, and about six million more Americans than who watched Will and Kate Middleton marry seven years ago.

Why did so many more viewers tune in to this wedding versus the last? Are there more televisions now than there were then? Is it that we love Harry more than Will; because we’re all fans of Suits, the show on which Markle starred; or is it because Meghan’s biracial and her entry into the British royal family is a watershed historical moment?

Sure, all of that makes sense, but it seems to me that so many Americans are enthusiastic about Meghan Markle becoming the Duchess of Sussex because we like seeing a polished and seemingly empathetic American representing us on the international stage. With the buffoon president’s steady stream of racist, hateful rhetoric, general dishonesty and pungent nastiness sullying our national name, it’s nice to have an American standing with/for dignity and grace —and not just an American, but a biracial woman whose path — and the once-stodgy royal family’s embrace of — is the emotional and sociopolitical opposite of all President Trump represents.

Meghan Markle is the face of America’s future; Donald Trump and his reactionary racism are its past.

(PS: I was going to have a photo of Trump next to fresh-faced Markle for juxtaposition purposes, but it just didn’t feel right having his ugly mug next to such beauty.)

Zora Neale Hurston Helps Ex-Slave Tell His Tale

In 1860, while minding his own business in his native West Africa, 19-year old Cudjo Lewis was snatched, chained and stuffed in the crowded and putrid hull of a ship called Clotilda. When he reemerged he was in  Alabama, where the young man was forced to work on a plantation. This despite the fact that the importation of new slaves to America had been prohibited for nearly 50 years already.

Five years later, once emancipation had been declared and the Civil War over, Lewis and some of his friends from his plantation, many of whom were also on Clotilda*, created their own town, Plateau, where they lived freely for the rest of their days, living witnesses to one of the most horrific experiences in history: the slave passage overseas.

It was to this tale that young author  Zora Neale Hurson was drawn, and in 1927, she traveled to Plateau to interview Cudjo. Four years later she returned for a three-month stay, meticulously noting his every sentence, word and syllable and creating an unprecedented account of his kidnapping, enslavement and new life in freedom, providing an unparalleled and invaluable testimony to one of humanity’s lowest moments. Shockingly, no publisher would touch it, largely because publishers felt his vernacular proved too hard for average readers to grasp. And so, the story went unpublished and forgotten. Years passed.

Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, Lewis went on living in Alabama. He died in 1935, aged 94, and she followed in 1960, and their collaboration continued sitting on a shelf at Howard University for another six decades— that is, until today. Literally today, because the HarperCollins imprint Amistad today releases Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” which offers readers an unprecedented look at the cruelty experienced by millions whose own stories have been lost and obscured by centuries. Perhaps Lewis’s can be a proxy for all those whose lives were lost and otherwise obscured by the most devastating and indeed terrifying aspect of human history.

You can buy a copy here — and you really, really should.

*Side fact: QuestLove descended from another slave on that ship.

Today is a Good Day for Adventuring

May 14th sure is a great day for launching unprecedented expeditions: it’s on this date that both the Lewis and Clark adventure and SkyLab took off to new frontiers, albeit almost two centuries years apart.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left the St. Louis region on May 14, 1804, for their continental traverse to the west coast, an adventure that riveted the nation in relative real time: readers devoured every update sent back east and inspired no shortage of unofficial “official” maps based on the men’s dispatches. Never before had Americans seen just what lay between them and the pacific and these images, as well as the official reports, expanded the American imagination to its greatest heights, tilling the rhetorical soil for the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny and other political notions that propelled the nation’s sojourn from sea-to-shining sea.

Meanwhile, fast-forward 169 years, to 1973, and there’s NASA launching SkyLab, the nation’s first long-term space station into the stars, creating a floating laboratory in which astronauts could conduct experiments on how bacteria grew in space, dissect various light rays without the pesky atmosphere eroding them and examine long-term space exposure’s impact on the human body.

Unfortunately, the lab was damaged by a micrometeoroid storm in 1974 and deemed too dangerous to house astronauts, and so SkyLab remained unused in space for five years, until 1979, when it came crashing back to earth. But, as with Lewis and Clark, SkyLab’s record-setting mission encouraged the next generation of Americans to push themselves to even greater heights. Pun partially  intended….

 

Happy Bookmobile Day!

The first bookmobiles appeared in England in the 1850s, but made their way over to America by the 1890s. Today, National Bookmobile Day, part of National Library Week, is all about celebrating this four-wheeled reading machines and their ability to spread the written word to far-flung places.

Above, U.S. soldiers picking up some hardbacks from a bookmobile in Texas, 1917 or so.