Thirty thousand feet over Peach Springs, Arizona

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Living in a densely populated state like Massachusetts, it’s sometimes a shock to be reminded that we have such immense areas of uninhabitable land in the United States. There’s nothing like a flyover of the Grand Canyon to bring that home.

And there’s nothing like following it up with a flyover of Lake Mead and a landing in Las Vegas to remind oneself of just how much we’ve changed the landscape of this country. And how much water matters.

Separating the artist from the art

I was in an interesting Facebook discussion last night. One of my friends was struggling to reconcile love for the works of Edgar Allan Poe with increased evidence that he was a virulent racist.

It occurred to me, as I thought about my response, that this is not unlike being a lifelong student of Thomas Jefferson while acknowledging that he not only owned slaves but fathered children with one of them.

What I’ve come to increasingly understand—not “appreciate,” but understand—is that this whole country is tainted with racism and slavery. It’s like Bob Dylan said: “Seen an arrow on the doorpost / Saying this land’s been condemned / All the way from New Orleans / To Jerusalem.” We are, all of us Americans, complicit in the original sin of America. That doesn’t mean, to me, that you throw out the whole thing; it means that you appreciate the moments of beauty that have managed to poke their heads above the horror all around them.

New engineering degree requirements

Boing Boing (Cory Doctorow): For the first time, a federal judge has thrown out police surveillance evidence from a ‘Stingray’ device.

In the future, perhaps we should add a course in constitutional law to the requirements for an engineering degree. Or, better, a business degree. Or even better, as a requirement for employment in law enforcement.

The greatest nation on earth?

I’ve been reading a little more conservative thought recently, to try to understand the mindset of those who would support Donald Trump. One of the things that seems to put the noses out of joint of those I’m reading is any admission that America is less than perfect.

An example of this thinking is this post on the Old Virginia Blog, whose author, Richard Williams, seems generally more balanced than other conservative I’ve read. Beginning with a quotation from Gordon S. Wood, he reads the focus of some modern historians on the dispossessed (women, Native Americans, African slaves) as the “incessant denouncing of America,” which he reads as leading people to thoughts like the Twitter hashtag #AmericaWasNeverGreat. (The Newsroom episode from which the hashtag derives must raise his blood pressure through the roof.)

I think, to realistically assess where we are with America in our 240th year, you need to look at history with clear eyes, which has to mean acknowledging the histories of those we’ve dispossessed, no matter how uncomfortable that makes us. This is after all the “Great American Experiment,” as De Tocqueville famously observed, and that means a willingness to observe undesirable outcomes and learn from them, not simply ignore them.

But I also think it’s a mistake to not acknowledge the great things the experiment has produced. I can be proud of my country while still acknowledging the many, many people for whom it hasn’t worked—because I think we can work to make it better.

“…and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them”

Pitchfork: Blood and Echoes: The Story of Come Out, Steve Reich’s Civil Rights Era Masterpiece. One of Reich’s early experiments in tape loop composition, the composition treats the spoken testimony of 18-year-old Daniel Hamm, who was beaten by police for trying to protect Harlem school children from being injured by an overexcited patrolman.

Later unjustly incarcerated as one of the Harlem Nine, Hamm’s story lives in Reich’s composition. Beaten by six to 12 officers over the course of the night, they tried to refuse him medical treatment on the grounds that he wasn’t visibly bleeding. Hamm recalls that he reached down to a knotted bruise on his leg and “I had to, like, open the bruise up, and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.” Reich loops this appalling statement via two tape players, one in each stereo channel, that drift slowly into and out of phase, into what has varyingly been described as a “raga,” a psychedelic experience, early minimalism, and media overload. To me, it speaks as a reminder that Black Lives Matter is responding to something that isn’t a new problem.

Out of the background: James Armistead Lafayette

Sarah Wells: Why We Need to Talk About James Armistead Lafayette. A thoughtful blog post from a high school student about a lesser known figure from the American Revolution.

James Armistead, born a slave in the possession of Virginian William Armistead, secured the permission of his master to join the American army under the command of General Lafayette. He became a spy, serving as a double agent to get information both from Benedict Arnold and from Lord Cornwallis. After the war, with support from both William Armistead and Lafayette, he petitioned the General Assembly for his freedom and was manumitted.

James Armistead Lafayette’s story gives me pause—not merely because of the general lack of knowledge about his life, but because of the small window of time during which his manumission was possible. Though William Armistead sounds enlightened, the odds that James would have been freed had he not rendered such extraordinary service to the new Republic—and had a war hero on his side—seems extremely unlikely. I would guess that if his story played out around 1830 or later (when he died), the sentiment of the average Virginia slaveowner would not have been toward freedom.

Integrating the Virginia Glee Club in 1961

1961-62 Glee Club in the 1962 Corks and Curls, page 159
1961-62 Glee Club in the 1962 Corks and Curls, page 159. Courtesy University of Virginia Library

On Saturday afternoon, we were wrapping up a tour of Virginia Glee Club archives in the Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia. I had just taken about 50 alums, friends, conductors and family through the items, which I knew quite well having reviewed all of them—and donated some of them myself. We had also just ceremonially donated former Glee Club director Donald Loach‘s collection of concert programs to the library, and I was feeling pretty good about myself as a historian.

Then an alum asked a question that stopped me in my tracks. “Do you know who the first African-American member of Club was?”

After a pause, I replied, “No, but we should.”

The Virginia Glee Club is part of the larger story of the University of Virginia, and that story includes discrimination against African-Americans. It wasn’t until 1950 that Gregory Swanson, a graduate of Howard Law School, applied to take graduate courses at the University of Virginia, was denied admission, sued and won, becoming the first black student at the University—only to drop out in the summer of 1951. The University’s president, Colgate Darden, said he “was not well prepared for the work.” In the early 1950s two other African Americans followed in Swanson’s footsteps, and Walter N. Ridley became the first black student not only to gain a degree at the University but also the first black student to receive a doctorate from any Southern university.

It took the undergraduate schools a few more years, but in September 1955, following on the heels of the 1954 Brown vs. Board decision, three black students matriculated in the engineering school. Theodore Thomas and George Harris dropped out by the following spring, but Robert Bland continued on and was the first African-American undergraduate to graduate from the University in 1959, nine full years after the struggle for integration started. Also at the end of the fifties, Edgar F. Shannon took over as University president, and that’s when things started to get rolling.

I knew that the first black Glee Club member had to have joined sometime after 1959. I knew the story of David L. Temple, Jr., class of 1969, who was a member of Club from 1967 to 1969 and desegregated the fraternity system at the University, but I believed the first African-American member of Glee Club came earlier.

My second thought was that he would have joined during Don Loach’s first season as conductor, 1964-65. There’s a story in our archives that the Glee Club went on tour that fall, only to have their bus refused service in a truck stop on Route 29. After the tour, Loach raised the issue with President Shannon, and subsequently the truck stops got integrated. It’s a great story, and I assumed that this young man (whose name I’m still working on identifying; I have a bunch more candidates to work through with yearbook pictures) was the first student. (Update: I was closer than I thought. See below.) But as I was flipping through the 1965 yearbook, I found a picture of one of the graduating students of the Class of 1965 and knew we had found our candidate.

In 1961-1962, the group picture of the Glee Club for the first time has a black face. (That’s the picture up above.) The young man standing on the second row to the left side of the stage of Old Cabell Hall is Edwin S. Williams, of Smithfield. He stayed in the Glee Club for two seasons—as did most members, since it could only be taken as a graded course for two years—and completed his BA in chemistry, graduating with the class of 1965. And I believe, based on the evidence I have so far, that he was the first African-American member of the Virginia Glee Club.

There’s certainly more of his story to be told, and I will continue to look for more information. But one of my first questions is: if the truck stops on Rt 29 were first integrated in 1964-65, what did Williams do when the Glee Club got on a bus in 1961-62? I think we have a lot more to learn, but I’m glad we’ve taken the first step.

Update April 28: Donald Loach filled in the missing pieces by confirming that Edwin S. Williams was still in Glee Club in 1964-1965—was the baritone section leader, in fact—and was the Club man not served at the truck stop. So the stories are connected! And we need to fix our roster information.

Bathroom equality: Virginia and North Carolina

Associated Press: Court overturns Virginia school’s transgender bathroom rule. The rule, implemented by the Gloucester County School Board, prohibited a transgender teen from using the boy’s bathroom. The 4th Circuit of the US Court of Appeals ruled that the school board not only violated Title IX, the federal law prohibiting discrimination in schools, but also ignored a US Department of Education rule requiring that transgender students must be allowed to use the restroom corresponding to their gender identity.

The case as decided by the appeals court seems cut and dried. The case argued by the school board, and behind North Carolina’s hysterical anti-LGBT law last month, seems more rooted in fear and bigotry than in the law. The concept that transgender students are more likely to commit sex crimes in public restrooms than GOP lawmakers is a fallacy, and in trying to protect against this strawman case, the rights of transgender people are being sacrificed.

Put more simply: you’re a transgender boy, born female. Under North Carolina law you are told you must use the women’s room. How long until there is a massive outcry from women afraid that you are there to cause them harm? The net effect is to deny you the use of any public facilities at all, which is clearly discriminatory.

It would have been cheaper, and more intellectually honest, for the North Carolina GOP (and the Gloucester County School Board) to simply erect signs in hospitals, public schools, and airports that state “No transgender people.” Or, given the way the rhetoric is coming from GOP presidential candidates these days, “No transgender or Mexicans.”

In the words of I.F. Stone, “is it necessary to repeat after 2,000 years all the things you people learned in Sunday school?! How — how absent-minded — how forgetful!”

Patriot’s Day 2016

Captain Parker on the Lexington Green, Patriot's Day 2016
Captain Parker on the Lexington Green, Patriot’s Day 2016

I rolled out of bed early this morning and had the dogs walking down Massachusetts Avenue by 5:30. A jogger ran past and I said good morning.

“Seen any Redcoats?” she asked.

“Not yet,” I replied.

She went on her way and I stopped to think about it. It’s a little odd living along the route of Paul Revere’s ride, and even odder when the town stops completely so that grown men, dressed in Revolutionary costumes, can point cap guns at each other and play dead.

But, I realized today for the first time, the reenactments are an amazing gift. The thought of British soldiers marching along in front of my house made me feel irrationally anxious, as though it were my family really in danger. That feeling of invasion, of disruption—I’m pretty sure that Captain Jonathan Parker felt some of that as he prepared to face the Redcoats.

And the feeling as the Redcoats turned and marched away when our family finally got within sight of the Green, the Minutemen already playing dead, slumped on the wet grass…

It’s one thing to read about and even be able to explain the events and causes of revolution. It’s another to experience them at an emotional level, affecting your neighborhood.

Last note: as we walked up Mass Ave toward the Green, hearing the drums of the British, the crack of muskets, it was as though we were just feet away from history. And then there was a giant boom: cannon. It was indeed the shot heard ’round the world. And next year we know that we have to wake up even earlier to go and see it.

At least the pancakes were good.

Where is James K. Polk when you need him?

CNBC: We choose the nominee, not the voters: Senior GOP official. Get out your popcorn; the GOP convention is shaping up to be a real doozy. And with Trump himself saying about the likelihood of a brokered convention, “I think there’d be riots,” it’s clear that the possibility of an out of the ordinary nominee selection process is not far from his mind.

Has there ever been an election this, with disagreement over so many issues in play? Well, I’d argue for 1844. With the Democrats split between the Van Buren wing of the party who opposed the annexation of Texas as a slave state, and the Andrew Jackson wing who strongly supported it, the deadlock between Van Buren and Henry Clay (both opposed to annexation) left the path open for a “dark horse” candidate to be nominated. That candidate was James K. Polk, who strongly supported the annexation of Texas specifically and the “manifest destiny” expansion of the United States generally.

So what’s the analogy? I’d argue the open racism and ignorant nativism of Trump and Cruz has left the door open for a more moderate Republican dark horse. But maybe that’s wishful thinking and Trump will show up at the convention with all 1,237 delegates he needs to take the nomination outright.

To offset that grim future, here’s a little They Might Be Giants to refresh you on the history lesson above!

“In the evening, by the moonlight”

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Cover to the April 1938 issue of the Virginia Spectator

I had a lucky eBay find last week: a copy of the April 1938 issue of the Virginia Spectator, the successor to the University of Virginia Magazine and the original University of Virginia literary mag. These magazines aren’t especially valuable, though they only turn up infrequently. What made this one stand out was an article by a Virginia Glee Club member, Daniel Jenkins, about the state of song at the University.

Jenkins is an alum I’ve known about for some time. When I was an undergrad, he sent us a letter about his experience as a Glee Club member in the 1930s. I subsequently discovered that he had been a member of the Tin Can Quartet (which I wrote about a while ago) He is, I believe, still with us and still supporting the Glee Club’s endeavors, though I don’t know much about his whereabouts.

This article provides one of the earliest existing descriptions of Glee Club alumni singing:

On Saturday nights of Finals, however, a minor miracle took place. Gathered in and around a certain room on East Lawn were a goodly number of dark conspirators; six members of the class of 1912 had slipped away from their comrades, bearing with them a huge Mason jar containing a mint julep, and were on their way to join the group lurking in the shadows of East Lawn. Three members of the Tin Can Quartet, a dozen members of the Glee Club, past and present, and an odd assortment of dates waited expectantly as the six alumni approached. And then, a short five minutes later—ah, shades of the mighty Caruso!—it had been a long year—the soft, harmonious tones of “Sweet Adeline” once again rolled up and down the Lawn. The same moon shimmered through the trees and the same purple shadows mingled with the ghostly figures that stood grouped beneath a stately oak. A prominent and dignified New York attorney gazed up at the stars and hit notes of which he had never before believed himself capable. A notorious “big business man” drowned the sorrows of a troubled world in his Mason jar and gazed down at the green sod beneath his feet, rumbling a potent bass that seemed to mingle with the very roots of the mighty oak which towered above him.

For three hours the singing continued. They sang every song that ever graced a barbershop of old. Juleps were plentiful and so were first tenors—happy coincidence. But finally, at four o’clock in the morning, and when voices were so hoarse that anything above a whisper was an effort, the small crowd began to break up. The six alumni, their eyes tired but shining, stumbled wearily across the Lawn, speaking in reverent tones of the song-fests that used to be so common and now are so rare. The others, lingering for a brief moment over the dregs, said good-night and went their separate ways. The Lawn was once again cloaked in silence.

I was unsurprised, but a little disappointed, to find that even this memory carried the taint of the South’s original sin, though, with the inclusion of the minstrel show song “In the Evening, By the Moonlight.” Again, a reminder that the Glee Club was like every Southern cultural institution and carried the seeds of slavery’s past with it into the twentieth century.

But the article gives me hope, too, that the power of song can still bridge generations and tap deeper reserves of humanity in the singer and the listener. It’s a timely reminder, given the Glee Club’s upcoming 145th Reunion celebration in April. I hope the juleps are plentiful then too.

The Shelton Laurel Massacre

Courtesy Asheville and Buncombe County on Flickr.
Courtesy Asheville and Buncombe County on Flickr.

The ongoing standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon reminds me of other breakdowns in law and order. With the fundamental question of private property vs. the federal government, it’s not quite as dramatic as the American Civil War, but it’s a dramatic standoff nonetheless.

But the Civil War seems to lurk everywhere I look. The photo above showed up on my Flickr home page today and sent me off to learn about the Shelton Laurel Massacre, in which a Confederate Colonel, Lawrence Allen, from my dad’s home town of Marshall, North Carolina and his lieutenant colonel James A. Keith went hunting for Unionist sympathizers in Shelton Laurel Valley. After torturing local women, including the 85 year old Mrs. Unus Riddle, and burning houses and slaughtering livestock, they rounded up fifteen suspected sympathizers, all related and most with the last name Shelton, and began to march them toward East Tennessee where the Confederate army lay. Along the way two escaped, so Keith ordered the remaining thirteen captives shot, including three boys aged 13, 14 and 17. Keith evaded the law after the war but eventually was tried for the massacre after the war in civilian court, and would have been vindicated by the state superior court had he not escaped two days before the verdict was returned; he was never recaptured.

Learning about the massacre hits home. My great-great-grandfather was a Confederate army deserter who only wanted to plow his fields; it’s likely, had he been in Shelton Laurel rather than in the caves in the hills above Marshall, that he would have been rounded up by Keith’s soldiers as well.

Some more resources on the massacres: a letter by Col. William R. Shelton giving an oral history perspective on the incident; a 2013 blog post in the New York Times providing some historical and legal perspective on the issue; an essay discussing some of the deep divisions in the mountains; an essay by a novelist and a descendant of a possible participant in the massacre; and a recent article discussing other accounts that cast doubt on Keith’s responsibility for the massacre and suggesting that he may have been framed by Augustus Merrimon, who wrote the report on the massacre for Governor Zebulon Vance.

The ironic battle over crypto

Bruce Schneier: Security vs. Surveillance. As the dust finally settles from the breach of the US Office of Personnel Management, in which personal information for 21.5 million Americans who were Federal employees or who had applied for security clearances with the government was stolen, I find it unbelievable that other parts of the federal government are calling for weakening cryptographic protections.

Because that’s what the call for law enforcement backdoors is. There’s a certain kind of magical thinking in law enforcement and politics that says we should be able to have things both ways—encrypt data to keep it safe from bad guys while letting us in. It doesn’t work that way. If the crypto algorithm has a secret key, it will be found. Or stolen, if OPM tells us anything about the state of security in the federal government.

I’d like a presidential candidate who calls for stronger, not weaker, encryption, and who starts by demanding it of federal software systems.

“Well, God is in his heaven, and we all want what’s his…”

Somehow in the past fifteen years I’ve been blogging (!), I missed writing about “Blind Willie McTell.” Ever. This despite the fact that the song made the playlist of one of the first mixtapes I ever made back in 1991. And I don’t know that I ever connected the dots on the song’s meaning, in all that time, beyond the vague sense of prophetic dread conveyed by the slowly more intense vocal and piano performance.

It’s twenty-five years since I put that mix tape together, and I’ve spent the last few years feeling as though “this land is condemned.” If the response to the Obama presidency has taught me anything, it’s that slavery was the original sin of this land, and that its repercussions still play out today. So on the heels of writing about the Underground Railroad in my town, about misattribution of black collegiate spirituals by white a cappella performers, about the bureaucracy of slavery, of carefree use of the symbols of the Confederacy a hundred (or 150) years after the end of the Civil War, and of minstrelsy, listening closely to the song again bears dividends.

And I am left feeling that amid revival tents, amid the attempts to dress up the past betrayed by cheap hooch, and despite the otherwise redemptive charge of the blues, we are left with this: an arrow in the doorpost, the ghosts of slavery ships, and the promise of our life in these United States undercut by power, greed, and the inevitable corruption and decay of our descendants.

Democracy inaction: review of the Lessig presidential race

Larry Lessig in the New Yorker: Why I Dropped Out. This was the second part of a two-part essay about Lessig’s presidential bid. The first part, Why I Ran for President, reads like the first page of a thesis of political science. Sadly, the second part is much shorter and details Lessig’s major misstep—his distracting promise to resign from the presidency once he passed a package of reform aimed at eliminating corruption in the federal government.

Lessig shows two types of unfortunate naïvety in this narrative, one of which he acknowledges. He calls the promise to resign “an albatross that would ultimately sink the campaign,” and notes the inability of the press to explain it in a soundbite, the confusion of the voting public, and other factors that contributed to sinking the campaign. But I think he misses an important point. Another reason that this promise sank the campaign was the insight it provided into Lessig’s more serious naïvety: his belief that the culture of American federal-level politics could be fixed in one term via legislative fiat.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned over eight years at Veracode trying to convince enterprises, software suppliers, and individual software developers to take security seriously is that you don’t change culture overnight. You don’t do it with a law. You don’t do it with economic incentives. You do it, at least in part, by changing norms – what people will and won’t accept – and by showing people what “good” looks like. You can’t do that by passing legislation and then leaving in the middle of the night.