Friday, October 19, 2018

The Autobiography of the Last Free-Born African Slave

Zora Neale Hurston (ed. Deborah G. Plant), Barracoon: the Story of the Last “Black Cargo”

Back in December 1927, Zora Neale Hurston, a Columbia University-trained anthropologist and Harlem Renaissance darling, traveled from New York to Mobile, Alabama. There, in an outlying region, she met Kossula, the last known survivor of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The man she found was often taciturn, more interested in tending his garden than recounting his story. But when she finally coaxed him to talk, she found him eager to share nearly a century’s accumulated experience.

Kossula (alternately spelled Kossola or Kazoola) was captured by Dahomey warriors, aged about 19, and sold to American smugglers, who got him and over 100 other Africans into Alabama in 1859. This despite America having banned the importation of Africans in 1808. Had the smugglers been caught, they could’ve been hanged, though few ever were. Kossula’s ship became the last ever slave vessel before the Civil War; his “owners” held him less than three years.

Hurston, born relatively poor in segregated Florida, proved an apt student, eventually studying under “The Father of American Anthropology,” Franz Boas. In 1927, she hadn’t published any books yet, only some scholarly articles. However, according to editor Deborah Plant, an independent scholar specializing in Hurston’s works, she already chafed at scholarship’s restrictions. Interviewing Kossula offered her an opportunity to immerse herself in the stories she considered most important, a hallmark of her later classic work.

When Hurston bribed Kossula with fresh fruit and country ham, he opened up. (Early pages also stress that he appreciated being called by his African name, rather than his Americanized name, Cudjoe Lewis.) He begins telling his story, mostly in order, though Hurston probably edited that for print. His voice is distinctly reminiscent of the rhythms of folktales and traditional songs, and often has neatly packaged morals; he admits being a well-regarded teller of “parables.”

The product is essentially Kossula’s autobiography, merely prompted along, Boswell-like, by Hurston’s probing questions. He recounts an interesting childhood in Bantè, a little-known region of Benin ultimately subsumed by Dahomey, and later France. He describes a childhood of relative privilege, raised by a minor nobleman’s family, and training for initiation into manhood and soldiery. Sadly, he cannot tell the entire story; Dahomey forces sacked his village for lucrative slaves before he reached the final initiation.

Kossula (Cudjoe Lewis) as photographed by Zora Neale Hurston,
left, and Hurston herself (click to enlarge)

Kossula tells extensively about the forced march from his village to the barracoons (slave barracks) of the Benin coast. Those among his people who weren’t enslaved, were murdered outright in the war. He also talks at length about the shipment in a shallow-keeled blockade runner across the Atlantic Ocean, where villagers who’s known each other for years found themselves divided among plantation owners who didn’t respect that history. Surprisingly, he talks little about slavery itself.

Liberated as suddenly, and as violently, as they were enslaved, Kossula’s people first wanted to return to Africa. However, the whites who liberated them cared little afterward, and they couldn’t afford the return passage. So they created “Africatown,” a village neighboring Mobile, Alabama, where they recreated their African lifestyle wherever possible. Kossula recounts building his people’s first church and school, having legal troubles with the railroad, and eventually outliving his wife and all five children.

Unfortunately, this volume never found a publisher during Hurston’s lifetime. Scholars speculate why: perhaps because Hurston spells Kossula’s dialect phonetically, already considered borderline racist in the 1930s, or because it implicated fellow Africans in slave trading. Though scholars have known multiple typescripts of this book exist, and have studied it extensively, opaque areas of copyright law kept it from being published until 2018, even as Hurston has become posthumously recognized as a major American writer.

Deborah G. Plant provides valuable front and back matter to place Kossula’s story in its historical context. Hurston’s draft runs barely 100 pages, very short even for oral history, and though she provides some explanatory endnotes, they’re sparse, sometimes contradictory, and based on outdated scholarship. As an anthropologist, Hurston was a remarkable storyteller and literary stylist; but, compared to her landmark researches into African American folk religion, this volume is very much a journeyman effort.

Despite very minor shortcomings, this book provides welcome insights into America’s past. As Hurston writes, slavery’s history usually comes from a White perspective: “All these words from the seller, but not one word from the sold.” Kossula, the last storyteller capable of closing that gap, does so with poetic grace and dignity. This volume also helps cement Hurston’s role as an eminent Black scholar and stylist, and hopefully a new generation will read her works.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

In Praise(-ish) of Conformity

David Sloan Wilson
In the school where I attended second grade, our classroom was two doors down from a kindergarten class. The kindergartners had to walk past our door to reach theirs. Several of my classmates had a favorite taunt they employed whenever the kindergartners wandered too close:
Kindergarten babies!
Stick your head in gravy!
Wash it off with bubblegum
and send it to the Navy!
I resisted singing along as long as possible. First, because it seemed just mean, running little kids down for being little. Hell, I'd been a kindergarten baby just two years earlier. Then, because I'd just moved into that area myself, and had as little in common with my classmates as with the kindergartners.

Yet before long, the dirty looks from my classmates became overwhelming. My silence marked me as an outsider. And be real, I had to interact with my classmates daily, while the kindergartners remained virtually strangers. What else could a kid with few friends do? To my later shame, I started singing along with the bullies’ taunt.

We're accustomed to thinking of “conformity” as something weak-minded people do, a zombie-like behavior. We often couple conformity with the word “mindless.” Yet evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, in his book Darwin's Cathedral, lists conformity as a necessary precondition to build human society. We can't get along unless we accord with others’ behavior and expectations.

Several benign actions serve to advance productive (rather than mindless) conformity. Small talk is one, though I cringe to admit it. Clichés in speech and writing are another, since they let speakers share a background of reference. As any football fan, science fiction convention-goer, or political party devotee knows, engaging in chants and songs is a powerful group-building act.

We see this in religious songs. When Lutherans sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” or Methodists sing “O For a Thousand Tongues To Sing,” they confirm their group identity. These songs contain the germinal forms of their group theology, but for religious purposes, the lyrics are secondary. The point is, we sing them together.

Colin Kaepernick
Nobody would mistake “Kindergarten Babies” for secular hymnody, but it serves the same point. By singing it together, we confirmed we'd passed beyond the ignorance of infancy (“those who dwelt in darkness have seen a great light”). We also confirmed our identity as mature, diverse minds prepared for life's strange and dangerous exigencies. Duh, we were seven!

One of today's most inflammatory issues deals with the correct way to handle a national identity song. Must we all, as one side contends, stand to attention in absolute unison? Or may we, as the other side contends, kneel and pray as our conscience dictates?

This isn't a thought experiment. The two sides feud for control of how we express our group identity. One side says we're a martial people defined by our loyalty to the hierarchy (remember, the national anthem is a military song). The other says we're a people of morals and principle, and sometimes we're most American when we defy the American state.

Arlie Russell Hochschild, in her book Strangers In Their Own Land, interviews several people living in strongly conservative areas. She discovers that many have what, to her, sound like progressive values. Some are committed to environmental protection, others to economic fairness, others to their own causes. Yet in the voting booth, time and again, they vote for the party that opposes their pet issues.

Arlie Russell Hochschild
Hochschild, a scholar, avoids attributing intent to this disconnect. I have no such restraint. Like me, swallowing my principles to sing “Kindergarten Babies,” they'd rather get along with the people they have to live with every day, than be morally pure and lonely. This uniformity makes these individuals into a people.

But does it make them a people they'd like to live with?

The difference between productive conformity, and mindless conformity, is often visible only at a distance. I don't mean physical distance, outsiders standing around passing judgement. I mean time distance: I now regret singing “Kindergarten Babies” because I'm an adult who knows the difference between building community, and buying fifteen minutes’ peace. Once-popular actions like Operation Iraqi Freedom, mean something similar to the nation.

In short, we need conformity to survive. But we're lousy judges, in the moment, of the difference between productive and mindless conformity. We need constant guidance and reminders, and even that isn't foolproof. I have no answers yet. But I think I have better questions, and that's maybe more important than facile answers at this point.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Is a Senate Hearing Really a Job Interview?

The Brett Kavanaugh hearings have generated two metaphors: the job interview and the trial. Those supporting Kavanaugh’s SCOTUS nomination repeatedly trumpet the “what happened to innocent until proven guilty” argument, insisting that the relative paucity of evidence shouldn’t disqualify him from a lifetime appointment to America’s highest court. Opponents counter by saying “this isn’t a trial, it’s a job interview, and the standards are much lower.”

I’d like to consider the latter metaphor. If a Senate confirmation hearing really does resemble a job interview, what forces go into similar interviews? Anybody who’s looked for work recently knows, tension exists between what hiring directors claim a job interview consists of, and what actually happens. Hiring professionals want us to believe they impartially consider an applicant’s qualifications, credentials, experience, and temperament, and choose the most qualified person.

That’s the theory anyway.

In practice, job interviews turn on invisible qualities. These qualities are both subjective, and completely anecdotal. After being denied the same promotion three times at my last job, I asked HR what had happened. They said, because I didn’t take my breaks in the company breakroom (which was crowded, noisy, and by Friday often smelled like a locker room), they didn’t believe I was a “team player” and wouldn’t participate in group decision making.

Many researchers have dubbed the most important factor “affinity.” This basically means that hiring professionals select applicants who most resemble themselves: shared values, common experiences, even physical resemblances. If you attended the same kind of college as the decision maker, or have a similar economic background, your chances improve markedly. This is also why men hire men, white people hire white people, and Harvard grads hire Harvard grads.

Yeah, it's safe to say Justice Kavanaugh resembles Senator Graham

Scholars have written extensively about the affinity effect. Two sources should be sufficient: here and here. The continued similarity of ethnic, racial, sexual identity, and gender outcomes in American business reflects that hiring still gets done by white, cishet, middle-class men with college educations. And these HR directors mostly pick people who resemble themselves. Fairness makes an admirable goal, but remains mostly unattainable.

We all do it. It’s hard not to. Chances are, your co-workers, best friends, and spouse all resemble you in age, race, economic background, and (within limits) gender. As researcher Alison Wolf writes, outside the single top economic quintile, most job fields are starkly segregated by gender. Most towns with multiple racial populations know weekends are heavily segregated: there tend to be White, Black, and Hispanic bars, restaurants, and churches.

This applies to Congress, too. Though the current 115th Congress is “is the most racially diverse in history” according to USNews.com, that isn’t saying much. The current Senate is less than one-quarter female, and more than ninety percent white. Neither number reflects America’s actual racial or gender breakdown. Though an exact mirror of America’s demography is likely impossible, the gap nevertheless is remarkable.

Brett Kavanaugh resembles the Senate that narrowly confirmed him: White, male, heterosexual, Christian, college-educated, and relatively well-off. Based on the affinity principle, we shouldn’t be surprised. Of the nine current Justices, six are men; seven are White. Six are Christian (five Catholic), three are Jewish. The court has never had a professing atheist, Mormon, or Muslim; it’s had exactly one self-described agnostic, Benjamin Cardozo, from 1932-1938.

So yeah, the Court resembles the Senate. Kavanaugh is recipient of such continuing affinity.

In fairness, the Senate isn’t dominated by accused sex criminals. Al Franken, the only sitting Senator in the 115th Congress accused of sexual misconduct, resigned under massive bipartisan pressure. But a willingness to overlook sexual allegations has become an American political standard since 2016. President Donald Trump has seventeen pending allegations of unwanted sexual contact or peeping Tom-ism.

If a Senate hearing really resembles a job interview, therefore, that doesn’t instill much hope in me. Real-life job interviews since the collapse of 2007-2008 have seen me rejected as both underqualified and overqualified from jobs with no listed mandatory qualifications. They’ve seen me rejected as insufficiently extroverted from jobs that had nothing to do with being gregarious. They’ve seen me… well, the list continues. Basically, I don’t resemble the interviewers enough.

Future appointments like Kavanaugh’s need a better metaphor. He wasn’t on trial, so that tight standard doesn’t apply, but job interviews have loose, sloppy standards that also don’t apply to something so important as a Supreme Court seat. I don’t readily know what metaphor would make better sense. But we’d better decide that soon, because Justices Thomas and Ginsberg aren’t getting any younger.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Does “Nature” Really Exist?

Papa Pigeon hunts for scraps amid a refurbishment job

A family of pigeons has made its nest in a disused air duct at work. Mama Pigeon stays up high with her nestlings, while Papa Pigeon, a handsome specimen with beautifully marbled black-and-white plumage, wanders the premises, hunting scraps to bring back for the young. We’ll eventually have to turn the ventilation back on. But for now, there's an unspoken agreement to leave the birds alone until the young are ready to fly.

Nobody would mistake our jobsite for a natural environment. An air duct isn't a verdant branch; the dumpsters and trash cans make a poor analog to the forests pigeons once scavenged for food. Yet our environment provides shelter, warmth, protection from weather, and abundant cheap nutrients. Animals that adapt to live among humans, from rats and pigeons to dogs and cats, flourish and get fat, while their wild cousins struggle.

How much can wild animals adapt to human-made conditions and still remain natural? To get really pointy-headed about it, we haven’t yet created a meaningful definition of the word “natural.” When does this piece of wood stop being a natural tree and become an artificial object? When the tree is felled? When the lumber is milled? When the carpenter turns it into a table? You see the problem. The word “natural” means something, but we can't agree what.

We know that “artificial” describes what happens when humans get involved in our world. Houses, streets, and cities are clearly artificial. But wild influences inevitably make their way into our artificial environment, from crabgrass and ants to feral cats and, yes, pigeons. Some living beings flourish in environments moderated by human artifice, without being necessarily domesticated. Are these influences natural?

Mama Pigeon guards her nest from the intrusive photographer

I’m inclined to say yes, crabgrass and feral kittens are natural forces in an artificial environment, because they’re neither planned for nor controlled. We make salutary efforts to control both, spraying lawns with harsh chemicals to ensure only desirable plants grow, and trapping feral animals for rehabilitation or removal from the environment. But these efforts are minor and don’t stem the flood. Nature persistently clings to the artificial space.

So. If humans and their built environment are artificial, but nature adapts itself to the artificial environment, then humanity is no longer strictly artificial. We’ve become a moderating force on nature. Scientists acknowledge this influence when they speak of the Anthropocene, the proposed geological moment since around 1750, during which human activity has exceeded wind and water as the greatest force shaping Earth’s surface.

Nature, then, is an artificial thing. We cannot separate what exists before human involvement from what exists after. Even in places where humans have little or no involvement, our influence alters the environment, from pollutants in the air and water, to the sounds generated by our machines. Any hunter or outdoorsman knows the frustration of going into nature to escape humanity, only to find litter and noise scattered everywhere.

Our human illusion of separateness gets spoiled whenever we try to escape. Even just studying nature fixes it in a form, creating “laws” which reality must supposedly obey. Yet reality isn’t an algorithm; we cannot list nature’s laws and expect coherence. Whether we tromp out into nature to study it, or watch nature infiltrate our built spaces and adapt itself to us, we witness a supposedly non-human world adapting itself to human forces.

Papa Pigeon takes flight

So nature does not exist. If nature is whatever humans haven’t influenced, then we’ve never seen such a thing. The human influence on non-human space is pervasive, and we carry it with us wherever we go. Pigeons living inside a half-refurbished public building are one easy example of this, since a nesting family is adorable. The extinctions of passenger pigeons and western black rhinoceroses are more grim examples.

If nature adapts to humanity, it is no longer free of human influence; it is artificial. Humans have created the natural world around us. So far, we’ve done so mostly heedlessly, assuming wild species will simply accept our intrusion of cities, long-distance roads, and carbon-burning technology with peace and equanimity. Which, of course, they haven’t. We’ve fallen ass-backward into a changed world without planning anything.

Therefore, if humans create nature, we need to start doing so consciously. We need to keep ourselves aware of the influences we force upon the world, the ripples our actions cause on everything. We need to study the non-built world so we can steward it accordingly. The next creature moving into our space might not be as cute as a pigeon.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Conservative Anger Litmus Test

Brett Kavanaugh
This numbskull at work plays right-wing talk radio way too loud. And by “way too loud,” I mean much louder than necessary for him to hear it at ordinary sound levels, but not loud enough to hear over power tools and equipment. Clearly, unless he’s suffering severe hearing loss, he doesn’t need the radio at this volume. I wondered for weeks why he played his radio so loud. Then I realized: he does it for me.

He hopes I, or someone like me, will complain about him playing Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and other shouting nabobs of partisan hackery. Personally, I don’t mind this guy has politics that disagree with mine. I don’t even mind that he seeks sources that encourage a more extreme and divisive iteration of what he already believes. Everyone is entitled to their sources. I mind that the sources he chooses are always shouting.

During last week’s Senate testimony, a literal “she said, he said” where Dr. Christine Blasey Ford stated her case, then Judge Brett Kavanaugh called her a liar, we heard lots of shouting. Blue Facebook and Blue Twitter held virtual postmortems where they reminded fellow thinkers that, in a two-sided debate, whoever starts shouting first is usually wrong. Defensiveness, belligerence, and wrath are refuges for liars and cads.

Except conservative Americans didn’t perceive things that way. Point out that Judge Kavanaugh started screaming and crying even during his prepared opening statement, they’ll respond: “But she accused him on national TV.” Note that he responded to ordinary routine questions with petulance and spleen, they’ll answer: “Wouldn’t you get angry if somebody said things about you?” Rage, I’ve observed anecdotally, is their only reasonable response.

Lindsey Graham
Nor was Judge Kavanaugh alone in his fury. Professional hand-wringers in the punditocracy have made bank parsing the outraged displays from Republican Senators like Lindsey Graham and Orrin Hatch. The nominee to be one of America’s top judges gets angry at accusations, rather than trusting that facts will exonerate him, and legislators echo his choler. The people we expect to be rational debaters think shouting proves them right.

I’m reminded of linguist and political commentator George Lakoff. In his book Don't Think of an Elephant, Lakoff describes the mental framework separating conservative and progressive Americans in terms of family dynamics. Progressives favor the “nurturing parent” model, where parents encourage children to do more and better with their lives and choices. This dynamic, not gender specific, believes in rewarding fledglings for leaving the nest.

Conservatives, however, favor what Lakoff calls the “strict father” model. A stern, singular lawgiver, usually but not necessarily male, provides the source of moral authority, and brings the hammer down on anyone who strays from righteousness. This strict father might reward good and honorable behavior, but exists mainly to punish wrongdoers. The orderly, obedient home, is the source of justice. This is the dynamic of “wait till your father gets home” parenting.

To a certain form of highly public conservatism, indignation and rage aren’t deflections or shelters from responsibility. They’re expressions of paternal righteousness. If you aren’t angry, you aren’t honest, and more importantly, you aren’t serious. To this mental framework, fathers default to anger because anger teaches children the ways of righteousness. Being the first to become angry doesn’t make you weak or wrong, it makes you fatherly.

Alex Jones
Consider those talk-radio pundits shouting down the airwaves. Limbaugh and Hannity aren’t shouting at someone who disagrees with them; their core audience shares their opinions. Alex Jones is famous for becoming so outraged, while reaching an audience who already agrees with him, that he’s reduced to incoherent, wordless brays, screaming “Aaahhhhh!” into the microphone. (Some women, like Jeanine Pirro and Tomi Lahren, also share this quick-to-anger dynamic. But they’re outliers.)

The voting base that favors high-profile, demonstrative conservatism didn’t see Judge Kavanaugh’s outrage as deflection or retreat from facts. They saw a display of honesty and moral confidence. Psychology might say this interpretation doesn’t jibe with research and observation, but Kavanaugh’s intended audience doesn’t care. Anger, to their mindset, stands for truth and courage. Only the truly angry have moral courage to lead.

While progressives mock Judge Kavanaugh’s display as unbecoming of a judge, polls indicate that voters already inclined to believe this “strict father” model see Kavanaugh as more trustworthy. Pollsters are reluctant to attribute reason for this outcome, probably because more than one reason applies. I, however, feel confident in saying that, at least partly, conservatives love Kavanaugh because they endorse his willingness to get angry.