Sunday, 24 August 2014

Harriet Tubman: One of the Greatest Women Who Ever Lived

Born enslaved, Harriet Tubman once said: "there is either liberty or death, and if I can’t have one, I will have the other.”

Harriet Tubman was an extraordinary woman. After escaping slavery, she travelled back to the South at least 13 times under great personal risk to rescue over fifty members of her family. She remarked to Frederick Douglass, that she “never lost a single passenger” on the so-called Underground Railroad. Born in Maryland in 1820, Harriet 'Minty' Ross worked as a house servant during her early years. Before she reached her teens she stood in the path of a brutal overseer who was about to strike a fellow slave, and the overseer hit her instead. The injury nearly killed her, and throughout her life she suffered from blackouts where she fell asleep at unexpected moments, with no memory of her lapse on waking. This was to prove dangerous in her future rescue missions. In 1844, she married John Tubman, who refused to accompany her when she decided to flee slavery, afraid the venture was too dangerous. Harriet decided to leave him, and reached Philadelphia and worked there for a short time, until she travelled back to Maryland to free her sister and her sister’s two children. She returned to the South again to help her brother, and tried to convince her husband to come to the North, but unfortunately, he had remarried. This began her career as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, a network of houses and people who were friendly to the abolitionist cause, who would hide runaway slaves and aid them in their escape to the North or Canada. Tubman would rescue slaves from a plantation and head to these houses in turn. She would always leave on a Saturday night, as wanted posters for runaway slaves wouldn’t be printed until Monday, and carried sleeping drugs to sooth crying babies. She was exceptionally smart – once, when bounty hunters were on her trail, she and her rescued slaves hitched a ride on a train, riding back to the place they had escaped from as no hunter would expect them to turn back. If her charges became doubtful, she threatened them to “go forward or die.” By 1856, there was a large reward for her capture, and she was nicknamed “Moses” by fellow African Americans. Frederick Douglass remarked “excepting John Brown…I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than Harriet Tubman.” (Brown himself called Harriet “General Tubman.”) During the Civil War, she worked as a nurse and a spy for the Union. She died in 1913.

One of the Greatest Speeches in History: What to the Slave is the 4th of July?

"What to the Slave is the 4th of July?" On the 5th July, 1852, Frederick Douglass took to the stage in Rochester, New York. He was asked to speak at a ceremony commemorating Independence Day, but Douglass destroyed the illusion of a "freedom-loving" America by describing the terrifying reality of slavery. This is probably the most famous speech by Douglass and rightly so: its power and shattering realism stir the soul. For me, it represents why American history is so interesting to study. Douglass uses heart-rending language to epitomise that fatal contradiction in American society, which on many levels, still exists today. A nation that defines itself by freedom is polluted with the stain of slavery.

"...Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?... I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? ...Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them... I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery-the great sin and shame of America! "I will not equivocate; I will not excuse;" I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just...What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour. Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival…"

The Skyscraper Race: A New Frontier

“The Great Skyscraper Race”: Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote that “architecture is the alphabet of giants; it is the largest set of symbols ever made to meet the eyes of men. A tower stands up like a sort of simplified statue, of much more than heroic size.” From 1903, seven skyscrapers in New York fought and won the title of the world’s tallest building, a battle that boasted the fast pace of industrialisation, modernity and the enormous wealth of the United States. Louis Sullivan, often nicknamed the “father of skyscrapers”, remarked that a building must be “every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exaltation…” surely, elements which these skyscrapers incorporate. By 1929, there were 188 skyscrapers in the Big Apple, many of them in the Art Deco style that was popular in the late 1920’s and beyond. Skyscrapers had to combat a number of problems, height and shape being two of them. The invention of the elevator was critical for skyscrapers to reach even higher, and by 1924, it had become semi-automatic, removing the need for an operator.

The Chrysler Building

The Chrysler is one of the most recognisable buildings in the world, and is a perfect example of the Art Deco style. Originally, the building was conceived by Senator William Reynolds who worked with architect William Van Alen, but soon backed out after Alen’s plans were too costly. This paved the way for Walter P. Chrysler to take up the task. It had not escaped Chrysler’s attention that the area on 42nd Street was cheap, and he wanted a skyscraper that would bring financial rejuvenation to the area as well as being visually impressive. Chrysler also wanted to claim he owned the tallest building in the world. Van Alen, who was born in Brooklyn and spent several years in Paris studying architecture, devised new plans that were dismissed by Chrysler – he wanted a bigger and more striking building. He wanted his office to look out across the New York skyline; he also asked Alen to place a toilet on the top floor so he could “shit on Henry Ford and the rest of the world.” Begun in 1928, it took two years for the building to be constructed, at roughly four stories a week. And, amazingly, no construction workers died during its completion. Before the building was finished, Van Alen had a trick up his sleeve to ensure the Chrysler was the tallest building in New York, fighting off competition in Wall Street from his former partner Craig Severance. Van Alen designed a 186ft spire in secret that could be assembled in just 90 minutes. After the spire had been placed, embarrassingly, Wall Street announced they had the tallest building, but Alen’s genius had won out. Unfortunately for Alen, the Empire State Building robbed the Chrysler of the title a few months later. Ironically, the Chrysler was to be Van Alen’s downfall. After its construction, Chrysler argued that Alen had stolen ideas from other architects and did not pay him – it is still a mystery whether Alen ever received a dollar for this stunning design. This, together with the onset of the Depression meant that Alen never worked on a similar grand design ever again. The Chrysler is now the second tallest in New York, after the attacks on 9/11 destroyed the World Trade Center. In 1976, it was named a national landmark.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

The Washington 'Redskins'

When I was in South Carolina last year, I watched a debate on CNN about Native Americans protesting against the Washington 'Redskins' football team. There was a panel of four men (three white guys and an African American) discussing whether it was right for the football team to change their name, the term ‘Redskin’ being offensive to the Native American community. All were from a sporting background but to me, there was an obvious error: shouldn't a debate involving Native Americans invite a representative from that community? I recognise that the term 'Native American' or 'American Indian' is very broad and can encompass many different tribes, but the absence of someone who could be (and frankly, is) involved in the debate was glaring.

According to the team's management, the name is a badge of honour. It respects and admires the Native American community and is no way offensive. Some commentators have argued that all of this debate is just 'political correctness gone crazy.' The problem with this defence is that the people the team are meant to be honouring ARE offended by it. But of course, they're choosing to ignore that awkward situation. 

In February, the National Museum of the American Indian held a daylong symposium on the use of Indian mascots by sports teams. Museum Director Kevin Gover, of the Pawnee Nation, said the word "redskin" was "the equivalent of the n-word” and the Oneida Indian nation in New York has launched a campaign against the name. Even if some people aren’t bothered about the debate, the majority of Native Americans believe that the term itself is offensive:

The Washington Post conducted a poll to ask fans what they thought of the name. 8 out of 10 did not want the name to be changed, despite the fact that most believed the term is disrespectful towards Native Americans. Confused? Yes. Especially since most of the fans would continue to support the team if the name was changed: 

The basic fact is, the term 'redskins' is racist. It was used in a racial context to discriminate against American Indians, and there is no way around the fact it is an offensive term. It would be like calling a team the Washington Niggers. Racism is horrible and a stain on global humanity in general, but why is discrimination against Native Americans treated in a different way to African American racism? The scandal over Donald Sterling caused international outrage - which was a good and necessary thing - but why can a football team parade around an offensive term? The team is using a racial slur to sell merchandise - from T-Shirts to mugs - and it is completely unacceptable to discriminate against and marginalise an ethnic group. It reveals a lot about the nature of American society and how discrimination and the past has been swept under the carpet.